Plain Life, Real and Imagined

I do get the occasional hostile comment here or on facebook about faux-Amish, Amish-wannabe, or how tiresome I am about Plain dress and life. Or that I am sanctimonious and attention-seeking in the way I dress and live.

That may be. Well, no, I mean, that isn’t it at all.

This is what people think Plain life is:

You Know

When I was a 30ish widow with young children, yes, I would have liked for Harrison Ford to show up to rescue me. But I wasn’t Plain-living then. My husband and I had planned on selling the Bethesda condo and building a little log or timberframe house out in the countryside of Virginia, or up North in Maine, but his sudden death following cancer surgery turned all of that upside down. I went on to finish university instead.

We dress the way we do and live the way we do for two reasons: It keeps us honest in our journey with God, and it is practical. I can sew our clothes (except his jeans – they are cheap enough from the thrift store). We can raise our own food and be less dependent on the market. We can live on less money (a necessity right now.)We have lots of time to be together, which is so important to us. Every day  is a gift from God when I can spend it with my husband. I almost lost him two years ago, and I treasure the time God gives us.

This is the reality of our Plain life.

spring view from the croft

Lots of rain this spring, but that’s a good view, isn’t it? Isolated, peaceful, and (could be) productive.

And what we look like (photo by Kendra)

 We aren’t Harrison and Kelly.

 

Witness: To Peace

Quaker, 1866

As we discussed Plain dress recently, I think a number of us offered all the usual reasons for it – conformity to Biblical precepts, practicality, denial of self. These are all good personal reasons for Plain dress; I say it is my Christian witness. When people look at me, they know they have seen a Christian. But couldn’t I do that with a cross necklace, a modest skirt and blouse, a kerchief instead of a prayer cap? I could wear a t-shirt even, with Bible verses and great fish graphics. Christian. I could wear my clerics – Christian.

But as I thought about it I was inspired: my Plain witness is a Witness to Peace. I am a Peacemaker.

The Quakers are, throughout their whole Plain history, notable Peacemakers. The Anabaptists who followed Menno Simons were pacifists. that white prayer kapp, apron and long blue dress say “Peace be with thee.”

My husband’s beard and long hair, as well as his Plain coat and hat, are symbols of Peace. The early priests in the apostolic church grew out their beards and hair as a way to disassociate themselves from the Roman Empire, whose male citizens were shaven and shorn, a symbol that they were eligible to join the army.

Most people know about the Amish mostly from popular fiction like the movie “Witness.” The witness is a young Amish boy, but the “Witness” is the Amish witness to Peace throughout the movie, over against the kill-or-be-killed ethic of the corrupt police force that the protagonist works within.

The white kapp and the black bonnet, the beard and the broad-brimmed hat, are symbols that we, Nicholas and I, are dedicated to that same Witness. We live that non-violence, and we let people know that. We are witnesses – and hostages – to Peace.

Quaker woman with bonnet, ca. 1890

Witness

as Plain as can be

The Witness of Plain life is not for everyone. It is a rocky road to walk, and it is a narrow way. The Holy Spirit has called a few of us out of our old lives into this New Life, and though it is a path trod by others, we are not a throng.

I think some people – women particularly – are in love with this expression of faith because they have encountered it in romantic situations. They read novels set among the Amish, they have visited Old Order communities, or they have admired a much younger Harrison Ford in the movie “Witness.” While this is an introduction to the Plain Life, it is not the whole of it.

Plain Life has its roots in Anabaptism, a separatist movement at the time of the Reformation. (You can look up the history on-line; I’m not going to go over old ground here.) The core doctrines of Anabaptism are believers’ baptism (hence adult baptism or rebaptism), pacifism and nonresistance to violence, and the two kingdoms (God’s Kingdom of the faithful and Satan’s kingdom of this world.) The physical sacraments of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) were retained from the old church.

So it’s not just a matter of costume. The early Quakers adopted much of Anabaptist practice, and moved away from the physical sacraments to a spiritual understanding of sacramentality. The simple form of dress was a bit of cross-pollination, it seems. While Quakers learned much from Menno Simons, the Amish and Mennonites who emigrated to North America adopted Quaker standards and styles of Plain dress.

What is common to Plain people from these traditions is pacifism and nonresistance. This goes beyond refusing to answer an assault with like kind, but spreads out into a life of peace, including exemption from military service or the punishment for refusing to serve. Quakers and Anabaptists have often suffered because of their pacifism. For the Anabaptists, martyrdom is always preferable to violence.

One cannot be Anabaptist or Quaker and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive. Traditional Quakers will not support an established military; Anabaptists believe that established government is of this world, not God’s kingdom, and the two are by necessity separate.  Their political philosophy is one of self-governance and mutal support within the community, a benign anarchy under Christ. (We are the body; He is the head and sole leader. Bishops, ministers and deacons serve in prayer and humility, not in power and control. That’s the ideal, at least.)

This is one of the reasons that Plain Life is difficult. It represents more than five hundred years of living a way that the world doesn’t understand and that Satan doesn’t want the world to understand. It is a heavy legacy to carry.

I find myself struggling with it daily. I have to ask myself often if I am following the Way of Christ, or if am I following my own notions. I am convicted that Plain Life is the Way to which we are called, my husband and myself, but I also have to ask if decisions I make are based on the Way or on legalism, on following Jesus our Saviour or on compromise with the world. Unceasing prayer is the only solution to the inner conflict, a constant sense of the leading of the Spirit.

We want to be separate from the ways of the world, but we also want to be a Witness, for as John Donne wrote several centuries ago, “No man is an island.” We are interdependent with Christians who are not Plain, as well as with nonbelievers. Keeping in the middle of the road isn’t easy when there are so many distractions around us, and they are so beguiling. But what good is our witness if we will compromise and abandon the principles of our faith on mere whims?

It’s always a balancing act between faithful living and moving through the world.

Non-aggression as it is lived

I was a teenager in the 70s – Vietnam, peace movement, tie-dye, levis and barefeet. I had just pushed myself out of the conservative Baptist Church before the big leap (baptism, that is). I considered myself artistic, publishing bits of poetry here and there, doing some very amateurish artwork. My goal (can you believe?) was to backpack through Europe and parts of Asia. (I did not do that.)

Vietnam was the back story of our lives then. It was not discussed in our household. At school, we debated and argued and got quite polemic. I was definitely a peace advocate, and it was all quite exciting to take the radical stance.

Then I moved out into the real world and things were different. Job, kids, studies, and the concerns of everyday life diluted my enthusiasm. The strong American view of military might subdued my arguments. I became blase about peace and forgot about non-aggression. If anything, I was proud of my personal strength and agility. Although I have never had to face a human opponent, I learned to shoot a gun, to box and to fight with the sword.

And I called myself a Christian.

Okay, I never had to hurt anyone, but I was prepared to do so. The martial arts are good exercise. I have a thousand excuses for leaving behind that gospel I had absorbed as a child. Jesus did not fight back, even though he could have called on all the forces of heaven in his defense.

This is more profound that we would like to admit. It is incredibly hard to be defenceless when you have the ability to defend yourself. There’s that scene in the movie “Witness” where Harrison Ford, in Amish clothing, punches a guy who is harassing the Amish neighbor. We all cheer, at least inside. But the Amish didn’t see it that way. They saw someone who looked like them doing something they would not do. Why won’t they fight back?

Because they are following Jesus, and he did not fight back.

Martyr means witness. We can witness to the gospel everyday in a non-aggressive way. We can be defenceless against the taunts and hostility of the world. We can change radically the way we live, by giving up selfishness and worldliness. This is a non-aggressive stance, too, that we live with only what we need, that we don’t participate in the world of television, shopping and consumerism, the world where getting ahead means a lot of other people are left behind or left out.