Last month, Discovery Channel launched a new TV series called Amish Mafia. It takes place in Lancaster County of Pennsylvania and purports to offer a behind the scenes look at a group of Amish thugs who tote semi-automatic weapons and offer violent vigilante protection to “vulnerable” Amish communities. The first episode explains that the need for this Amish mafia sprung up in response to the tragic shooting of 2006 in which a gunman targeted an Amish school, took the lives of five children, and injured five more.
When I first learned of this series, I could hardly stop steam from boiling out of my ears. Shocked, offended, angry, I watched a few episodes in disbelief. Who were these actors pretending to be Amish? As I watched them bet on barn fights, sling insults and shoot out windshields I thought of my mother’s fond stories of the Amish Mennonite church she grew up in. It was a warm and gentle community. I thought of my swarms of Mennonite friends and family members who live in Lancaster County alongside the Amish. I thought of the Amish who live near to me in northern Indiana. They sell me delicious milk and cheese and speak that beautiful language, Pennsylvania Dutch. As a kid I loved to listen to Pennsylvania Dutch and always wished I could learn to speak it. It follows a certain click and rhythm that coaxes me to feel calm.
I am Mennonite. I’m not the sort of Mennonite pictured in the show (most of us aren’t). You couldn’t pick me out of a crowed based on appearance, and I didn’t grow up on a farm. Even so, I’m as Mennonite as they come, and I have a fair bit of experience with the Amish. They are my friends and my family, and I can tell you that absolutely nothing about the characters or storyline in Amish Mafia is familiar to me.
Do the Amish have their problems? Absolutely. If you want to talk about gender equity or puppy mills, there is plenty of room to legitimately critique the Amish. But, I can almost guarantee you that there is no such thing as an Amish mafia. The Amish do not carry assault weapons.
There are lots of reasons to be offended by Amish Mafia and its unashamed exploitation of a group that will not argue its own defense. What is most painful to me is Amish Mafia’s claim that it was in response to the 2006 school shooting that these Amish deemed violent self-protection necessary.
I remember that shooting. I remember how deeply friends in Lancaster were shaken by the tragedy. I remember members of my own community who traveled out to Pennsylvania to be with those who were grieving. I remember how the world was taken aback when the Amish community that was attacked delivered a letter of forgiveness to the family of the perpetrator only days after the shooting. I remember how perplexed even I felt when the Amish not only went to the shooter’s funeral but made for over half of those in attendance. They even created a fund to offer financial support to his family.
If there is anything scandalous about the Amish of Lancaster County it is their insistence on practicing forgiveness when most of us can only think of retaliation. I have in my hands the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. In an effort to help the world understand the response of the Lancaster County Amish to the 2006 shooting, it explores the deep and rich Amish tradition of nonviolence and forgiveness toward enemies.
For Discovery Channel to claim that this Amish community responded to that very real tragedy by throwing together a mafia that would use violence and coercion to protect them is more than a slap in the face. It screams a level of disrespect that is scarcely possible to articulate.
Watching as the beautiful tradition of my kin is sorely misrepresented and exploited by American mass media, I find myself feeling flustered and helpless. I wish I could stand on a hill and yell loudly enough that the world would know not to believe the lies, but compared to Discovery Channel my voice is a whisper.
Even so, the misrepresentation of Amish and Mennonites is nothing compared to the way the U.S. media treats those of most other faiths – Muslims in particular. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked basic questions about the fundamental nature of Islam since 9/11. “Is it true that Islam justifies killing infidels?” “Doesn’t the Qur’an encourage violence?” Of course, not. But, you wouldn’t know it from watching the news. And now, as well-intentioned souls are asking me new questions… “Do the Amish really carry concealed weapons?” “Isn’t the practice of shunning cruel?” “Don’t you think the Amish are more of a cult than a religious community?” I feel compelled to extend a hand to my Muslim sisters and brothers:
I’m sorry for the way the media in this country has misrepresented your faith. I’m sorry that Islam is too often portrayed as a violent religion. Surely, nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m sorry for the ways you have been misjudged, and I’m sorry for all the energy it must take to work toward setting the record straight.
Whether it is Amish or Muslims or Sikhs or Buddhists or Jews or Baha’i that are misrepresented by media enterprises trying to make a buck, the lies are painful. They hurt those who are lied about, and they hurt those who mistake the lies for truth. I know that my single voice is no match for mega media outlets. But, if we all whisper together, surely we can make some noise.
Image courtesy of WikiMedia