Tag Archives: Anabaptist

The Economics of Amish Pacifism

buggy-crossing-sign-amishI recently ran across this disturbing story on Grist about how fracking companies exploit a theological loophole in the religious tradition of the Amish.

Energy companies in eastern Ohio — home to the world’s largest Amish population and billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves — have been convincing Amish farmers to sign away drilling rights to their land for far less than they’re worth, knowing that because their religious tradition frowns on lawsuits, the landowners will have little recourse for justice once they realize they’ve been duped.

This is one farmer’s response to being tricked into selling drilling rights at pennies on the dollar,

Of the Kenoil agent, Miller said: “He’s got to live with his conscience.”

This response probably jars our modern sensibilities. We want to fight for the Amish, take up their cause for them and finish this story the way it’s supposed to end… with the bad guys getting what they deserve. That’s the way it happens in the movies, right? Continue reading


Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!


The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”


So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

Two Kingdoms: Low German Mennonites in Charagua, Bolivia

This may not relate much to the general topic of this blog (though that’s never stopped me before), but it does have to do with my work in Bolivia. By the end of this post I might find a way to tie it back to food, theology and consumerism.

Under the new Bolivian Constitution there is a process by which communities can become autonomous zones. There are various versions of autonomy for different groups. In 2009 the Charagua Municipality voted to become one of 11 autonomous zones in the country. They are forming an “autonomous indigenous zone”, which in the actual language of the constitution also includes “campesinos”, or small farmers, in order to make it apply more generally to an area. Charagua municipality is primarily composed of Guaranis who live in rural villages scattered throughout the area. The second largest group is actually the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) living on four colonies located just east of Charagua Estación where we live. In the main city of Charagua and the Estación there are Quechuas, Aymaras and non-indigenous Spanish-speaking Bolivians. This means that there are five main languages spoken in the area: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Spanish and Low German.

Since 2009 the community has formed an Assembly for Autonomy that is in the process of creating a structure that will govern this area. There are conflicts between those living in the urban center that did not vote for autonomy and the majority Guarani population that live in rural areas and did. These have to be worked out over time. Instead of simply imposing the wishes of the majority Guarani, the Assembly is trying to include all of the parties affected by this change in constructing an Assembly that represents everyone in Charagua Municipality.

While LGMs desire to continue their tradition of living “Stille im Land (Quiet in the Land)” by not participating in the autonomy process, they are the second largest population in the area and probably the largest economic producers. At the end of July the Assembly working on the Autonomy process invited the LGMs to meet with them to inform them about the process, ask for their input and participation. Both the coordinator for the MCC Low German Program and the Country Representative for Bolivia came to the meeting to help with translation for the LGMs. Since the coordinator is still learning Spanish and the Country Rep doesn’t speak Low German they both had to help translate using English in the middle to translate between the two of them. It was a long morning with so many languages, but very interesting. Overall the meeting went very well and was respectful on all sides.

One of the convictions of faith in the LGM’s tradition is that they should not participate in government in any way. This has to do with their understanding of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Many Christians have some form of a two kingdom theology, at least in theory, but in practice they do not make the kinds of distinctions that the Anabaptist tradition has made. More progressive Mennonites (a branch of the Anabaptist tree) make a distinction between the two kingdoms, for example, by refusing military service, but would believe that Christians can and should vote and even participate in government by holding office (though there is much disagreement over the particulars). Clearly, the LGMs have chosen a much harder distinction by living in colonies and abstaining from any involvement in government or politics.

This, however, does not mean that they reject the authority of the government (as some anarchist mennonites might do). Instead they submit to the authority of the government, as ordained by God. The government is a necessary reality to rule over the kingdoms of the world and as people who live in the world the LGMs submit themselves to the authority of these governing bodies, even as they refuse to participate in them. At the meeting they expressed their thankfulness for the information and the work of the Assembly, but did not want to participate in the process. They said they would submit themselves to whatever the governing authorities decided. Whether or not you agree with their method for embodying the kingdom or even their theology, their practice of the kingdom certainly encompasses the whole of their lives. This was difficult for some people to understand, but they were respectful of their convictions.

Their colony system is their attempt to live as faithfully as possible to the convictions of their ancestors and their tradition in embodying the kingdom of God in their lives together. What has made this possible is the agreement, or Privilegium, that they have had with the Bolivian government since 1962 which gives them certain privileges such as exemption from military service, their own educational system in their own language, their own judicial system and land. Since the new Bolivian Constitution was approved all previous agreements now have to be revisited and either re-approved, changed or rejected. So, in many ways LGMs have been able to live in Bolivia under their own version of autonomy for almost fifty years. This is similar to what the Guaranis are creating in Charagua. Yet, this new autonomous zone will encompass another autonomous zone that has existed for over fifty years.

It seems clear to me that these two “kingdoms” will likely come into more conflict at some time in the future. Conflict is not a bad thing, but something that can hopefully be dealt with constructively. First, I have already mentioned that the LGMs are a huge economic factor in the national economy of Bolivia and particularly in Charagua. They currently do not pay taxes to the government and do not desire to do so, but several people mentioned that citizenship (78% of LGMs are citizens in Bolivia) comes with both rights and responsibilities. We will have to wait to see how this plays out in the future.

In many ways it seems likely that things will continue much as they have for fifty years, but there may be important issues, such as taxes or land, that will test the ability of these two groups with very different worldviews to find the common ground to coexist. The history of the LGMs is one in which time after time they have decided to move to different countries because of changes in their agreements with the governing authorities. There may only be so many more places for them to move before they will have to find a way to deal with the world as it changes around them while maintaining their most treasured traditions and community life.

The question of how to work out the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world we live in is certainly a difficult one. You can find faithful Christians advocating everything from one extreme of complete accommodation to culture to the LGM version of detachment and isolation from the world into closed communities. For those of us who believe that decentralization and the support of local and regional systems for food production and economic activity are essential for a sustainable future the kind of autonomy sought by both communities are helpful in figuring out how to make this dream a reality in the future. If we hope to move from a world obsessed by the bigness of globalization, consumerism and a growth economy to one that thrives on the diversity of small businesses, communities, decentralized authority we will need the mechanism of autonomous zones that make it possible for people to make their own decisions about things that affect them. Increased participation in local issues, economy, production, organization and governance is necessary to strengthen local and regional economies. Autonomous zones might be the thing that makes it not only possible, but necessary for people to take control of their own lives and communities.

There. I tied it back to the theme of this blog after all.

Low German Mennonites Go Global

Already from what little I’ve learned about Low German Mennonites (LGM) in Bolivia, they serve as a fascinating case study in many ways. They are an example in general of the convergence of theology and agriculture, but in particular they’re an interesting example of the globalization of agriculture and the influence of agribusiness. A great book to give you a framework for understanding Old Order Mennonites in general is The Amish Way. It’s based on studying the Amish, but many of the doctrines and practices apply across the board to Colony Mennonites in Canada, Mexico, Belize, Paraguay, Bolivia and elsewhere.

One of the elements of many colonies is that they value an agrarian lifestyle above all else. For the colony Mennonites in Bolivia the highest calling is to work the land. In the past they tended to have very large families which meant there was an ever increasing need for more land to live out these ideals. This has changed recently with family sizes shrinking somewhat. Historically (post-colonial anyway) Mennonites in Paraguay and Bolivia have been some of the most productive farmers. In Paraguay Mennonites continue to produce a huge percentage of the country’s beef.

The Amish and other Old Order Mennonites are known for their shunning of modern technologies. This is a deep theological conviction. It is based in their understanding of the church as a community. For example, the rationale for not using cars had to do with the way that it fragmented communities by making it possible to live greater distances apart from each other. Imagine how much smaller your circle of friends and family would be without a car.

The enforcement of these rules, or Ordnung, is not just arbitrary either. You are chastised or possibly shunned for breaking the Ordnung, not because you broke an arbitrary rule, but because by not following what the community has decided over decades and centuries, you are exalting yourself above the community and being prideful which is the worst possible offense in these communities. I offer this, not as a justification for their practices, but a proper understanding in context of their beliefs and how they affect their lives.

Big Ag in Little Bolivia

The influence of industrial agriculture reaches deep into the far corners of the globe, including the colonies of Low German Mennonites in Bolivia. There over 60 colonies and over 50,000 LGM people in Bolivia. They are primarily agriculturally based communities. I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that they have not always grown commodity crops. In the past, perhaps in other places, they probably had more diversified farms that provided for their families and were able to sell the surplus. Over time, because of the same factors that shaped modern North American agriculture, these farmers were forced to move toward growing commodity crops. Now, the primary crops grown by LGM colonies in Bolivia are soybeans and wheat which are sold to agribusiness companies like ADM and Cargill.

The shift to growing commodity crops has changed their methods as well. They may shun tractors and other modern agricultural technology, but they will contract out the machinery to clear-cut huge swaths of land to expand their agriculture. Influenced by the agribusiness companies they also use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on their crops. Because their primary value is continuing their agrarian lifestyle they have accommodated their practices in order to continue living on the land. So, their value of closeness to and making a living from the land has been distorted by globalized industrial agriculture.

In many colonies, the women might grow a small kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs. This is considered appropriate for the women. The men who practice agriculture, on the other hand, see anything involving manual labor as women’s work that is beneath them. Why would they work with their hands when they can use machines to do the work? Yet another paradox of these colonies. They shun certain technologies while whole heartedly embracing others. Sometimes the criteria is clear and has a very sound reasoning behind it, such as the shunning of cars. Other times the decision seems arbitrary or based on specious reasons. One example, I was told about was the readouts used on certain tanks. Digital readouts are not allowed because when they start up they go from 0 to 1,000 therefore passing through the number 666. So, analog readouts are used to circumvent this superstition.

It’s also very important to recognize that these practices and their enforcement are different in every one of the 60+ colonies in Bolivia, not to mention the colonies in Mexico, Belize, Canada, United States, Paraguay and elsewhere.

God and the Chicago Board of Trade

LGM communities who shun rubber tires have up-to-date information from the Chicago Board of Trade at their fingertips, because their lives literally depend on the ups and downs of commodity traders in another hemisphere. So, communities that have often split over whether or not to use technologies, and who have attempted to maintain the traditions of their ancestors amidst the increasing pressures of modern civilization, are intimately connected to the very thing that makes modern civilization and globalization possible, global industrial agriculture.

These communities are almost necessarily filled with paradoxes as they try to maintain another way of life in the midst of a rapidly changing world. The colonies in Bolivia are among the most conservative of these colonies as this has been the last stop as colonies divided over different issues. Yet even as they have tried to find space to maintain their way of life with as little influence from the modern world as possible, their communities are bundles of contradiction. They highly value an agrarian lifestyle and making a living from the land, yet their agricultural practices can be very destructive to the environment. They shun certain technologies in order to maintain community life, yet continually find exceptions and loopholes (not owning cars, but using taxis and buses to travel) in order to continue their existence.

For me, the lesson here is that, as Niebuhr said (not my fave theologian by any stretch, but truth is truth), even our best intentions are always shadowed by sin and compromise. The idea that it’s possible to create communities isolated from the world that maintain some ideal of the past or even the future is not reality. Some colonies, notably the Amish, have actually done a better job of realizing this reality and finding ways to preserve traditions while facing up to the realities of the world around them. The question as always is where we decide to draw the lines, and what kind of life is left after we connect the dots.

On Sunday we leave for our colony stay here in Bolivia. I’m looking forward to learning Plautdietsch and getting to know the LGM family and colony where we’ll be staying for three weeks. Many of my ideas and expectations have been overturned and turned inside out. I continue to expect the God of surprises to surprise me.