We might be excused for thinking that “Amish economy” is a result of people who deliberately stay rooted in an agrarian way of life; that the Amish, and other Anabaptists, are thrifty and hard-working from necessity. Those in the Old Orders almost never have education beyond American grade eight. They learn trades and crafts rather than professions.
Amish economy is based on old Anabaptist principles that are about community rather than money. This may seem strange to Americans, whose goals are generally centred on obtaining a comfortable life, with a fair amount of ease and luxury, even if it is not ostentatiously rich. Most modern Westerners admire the rich, and are fascinated by the lifestyle of the wealthy. Vacation resorts make a good deal of money promoting this fantasy. If this attitude was not widespread, there would be no lotteries, no Las Vegas, no People magazine. There are no Amish equivalents to these cultural phenomena.
Yet the Amish and other Old Order groups do not live as asthetes and monks. They are focussed on living a Christian life rather than a comfortable life. Some people are surprised and even shocked when they see an Amish home that has a recliner, a gas stove, and wall decor; they were expecting something more austere and self-denying. But Amish life isn’t about austerity; the self-denial takes other forms, such as a rejection of popular culture and anything that will fragment the family and their own Amish community. Electricity is rejected as being the conduit for radios, television, DVD players and now, the mindless popular entertainment of the internet; but a gas stove and refrigerator (if allowed in that district) are good for the family. The home telephone is rejected as a means for idle chatter and hurtful gossip; yet Amish business people (and some teens during rumspringa) use cell phones to stay in touch. The automobile as a family-owned personal conveyance is rejected, but most Amish will accept or hire a ride when needed for doctors’ appointments, shopping, or long-distance visiting.
I can understand all of this. The telephone is an instrument that spreads petty talk and divides friends; the automobile takes families to distant places where they are apart from community, and encourages young people to stay away from home; and I don’t think I need to say anything more about the unChristian intrusion of commercially produced television and films. The economy of the Amish is “ekkonomia” – management of the household. Early Church bishops and priests were admonished to practice good “ekkonomia” in their communities. The Amish still take that seriously.
There are old Anabaptist principles on what is good work. It must benefit the community. It must allow for parents to be home with their children as much as possible. It is not possible to practice good work if the industry in which one works is destructive. Pacifist Anabaptists would not assemble rifles, or build tanks, or sew military uniforms. They will assemble woodstoves, build RVs and bicycles, and sew coats. They do not like their young people to travel far from home to work, although carpenter groups did travel together. While most young mothers stay home with their children, others will work in retail or food service as they need to, if it does not interfere with being home with the children at crucial times of the day. (Many Amish women have home-based businesses, as well. This probably comes out of the background of an agrarian culture.)
Some underlying principles of Amish/Anabaptist economy are that the business owner should not earn much more than his workers – one old rule was that the owner should realize no more than four times what he pays the least paid of his employees. The business itself should keep its workers close to home, so that they can return to their families every evening.
Gellasenheit is the Amish concept of self-surrender, of standing humbly before God, of not trying to rise above one’s neighbours and friends. It is the reason for the Ordnung, the way of life of that community. “Gellasenheit” is avoiding self-idolatry, or of being too pleased with oneself, of staying away from anything that smells of status seeking and privilege. It isn’t false humility; if one is good at doing something that benefits the community, then one should do it. Those who practice gellasenheit, though, will not draw attention to what they have done; they will not boast or risk the criticism of the group for putting oneself forward.
It is also an Anabaptist principle to be sufficiently independent financially, of being able to carry one’s own weight in the community. Those who cannot because of disability, age or circumstances can be assured that they will receive the care they need. Being financially solvent, free of debt, and able to earn a living wage and provide sufficiently for family and neighbours in need are the goals of the Amish householder. Amish and Mennonites are always quietly rasing funds for those who are suffering. Collections are taken door to door, auctions held, thrift stores run, to benefit “the least of these.” Because the churches are either held in houses, or at most are small, low maintenance structures among some of the Mennonites, and the clergy, for the msost part, serve without stipend, monies raised within the church can be used for the benefit of the needy. “Charity begins at home” is often misquoted to justify keeping church funds within the immediate community rather than disperse them in the wider church-world; the Amish more typically exemplify this saying in its truer sense, that one learns to love and care for others first within one’s home group. (The charitable work of the larger Mennonite/Amish community benefits many worldwide, not just in their own home states, and not just among the followers of their particular kind of faith.)
This outreach is also part of the Amish/Mennonite witness of non-violence, “to do good and not evil.” The Amish witness is of the “two kingdoms” – a Christian cannot serve both God and Mammon (money, worldliness). The Christian lives first in God’s kingdom, and is only of necessity in the world. In 1530, an early Anabaptist, John of Leyden, wrote, “A believer’s church should be a community of faith that practiced mutual aid.” That is, the faithful were to care for one another, and as Christ admonished his followers, to care for the stranger as oneself, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Church is truly not “every man for himself” but “every man for each other.”