So we see that the combination of rural isolation and fundamentalist religion is, shall we say, rough on women in more places than Pakistan and in religions other than Islam.

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders…Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him. This approach is rooted in the Amish notion of Gelassenheit, or submission. Church members abide by their clergymen; children obey their parents; sisters mind their brothers; and wives defer to their husbands (divorce is taboo). With each act of submission, the Amish follow the lesson of Jesus when he died on the cross rather than resist his adversaries.

One can spot a built-in problem with that right away. Much of the time, especially in a life based on agriculture, the chain of submission is going to stop with one person. There isn’t going to be anyone else around for that one person to submit to – so that one person can have things his own way. He’s supposed to ‘abide by’ the clergymen, apparently, but the clergymen aren’t around all the time, and he is. So for girl children and for women, even apart from the fact that they are the target of sexual predation not the perpetrators of it, there is simply a built-in disadvantage. They have to defer to brothers, fathers, husbands. Brothers have to submit to fathers, but fathers and husbands are where it stops. So if the father has a habit of raping his daughter or daughters – that’s that. And that’s even before you get to the part about permanent forgiveness.

It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness—so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. “That’s a big thing in the Amish community,” Mary said. “You have to forgive and forgive.”

You have to forgive and forgive, while male relatives rape and rape. Uh oh.

When their trust is betrayed, women like Kathryn and Sally see themselves as having little recourse…Sally didn’t call the police because she’d been taught to defer to the men in her household, even if they were her sons, and because she belongs to a community that believes the greater threat comes from without, not within.

So…not to belabour the obvious, but one implication is that teaching women always to defer to men has drawbacks that even some non- and anti-feminists might be able to perceive.

The relatively light sentences meted out to these men stand out at a time when sex offenders are punished with increasing harshness. The fear that many pedophiliacs can’t be stopped has led Congress to lengthen sentences for child sex offenders and has persuaded some states to use involuntary civil commitment laws to keep them behind bars indefinitely. Why did these Amish, by contrast, receive only mercy?

I’ll give you one guess.

Read the nice part about Anna, whose mother told the Amish dentist to pull all her teeth out for punishment. He complied. “After he had pulled the last tooth,” Anna remembered, “my mom looked at me and said, ‘I guess you won’t be talking anymore.'” Pretty. What price forgiveness and forgiveness now eh? Apparently it’s the victims who are supposed to do all the forgiving, and the bullies who get to go on bullying – as Jane Eyre pointed out to Stoical Helen Burns at Lowood. There was a lot of forgiving to be done there, too; a lot of children taught to be exceedingly deferential, a lot of bullies coasting along on all that deference and treating the deferential people like dirt.

“They don’t believe it’s any of our business,” said Roberts, Anna’s Ohio social worker, of the Amish attitude toward child abuse investigations. But it’s the job of social workers, police, and prosecutors to make child abuse their business. The state’s duty to push past the barriers thrown up by parents and the community can’t hinge on the religion they practice. Its role becomes more essential, not less, when adults wall off children from the outside world.

Exactly. That’s one place where the phrase ‘it’s their job’ makes sense. It is their job and the state’s duty. Deference to religion allows horrors to go unchecked.

5 Responses to “Deference”