Aug 28, 2012

The Amish Hair-Cutting Trial Begins

I've been reading through the coverage of the Amish hair-cutting trial that kicked off this week. Today's award for the stupidest lede goes to one James F. McCarty of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The law of God will collide with the law of man this week in a crowded federal courtroom in Cleveland, where 16 Amish defendants -- 10 men with full beards, six women in white bonnets -- will stand trial on charges related to a series of beard- and hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish men and women last year.

That would be true if the government were simply prosecuting Sam Mullet and his followers for  practicing their religion. But that implies that religious freedom gives people the right to assault and degrade other people. That is, more or less, what the defense is arguing -- that, somehow, Sam Mullet had the right to "punish" people who weren't even under his religious authority.

As with U.S. Catholic Bishops, we're now expected to accept a definition of religious freedom as the right to control other people.

Ironically, it was the Bergholz gang who attacked the religious identity and practices of their victims by cutting their hair and beards and photographing them, violating longstanding Amish customs and beliefs. They don't dispute that they did these things. They simply argue that they were entitled to do so. McCarty continues:

In Mullet's world, the word of God provided the imprimatur for him and his followers to punish enemies as he saw fit. That included cutting their beards and hair -- a humiliation more dreaded in the Amish religion than being "beaten black-and-blue," one of the victims said.

. . .

But what federal prosecutors call hate crimes, punishable by life in prison, Mullet calls an exercise of his religious freedom. God's will allowed him to mete out punishment as he saw fit, he said, giving him the power to shame and punish people who ostracized the Bergholz clan and who defied his laws.

So the argument is that the Bergholz clan's religious freedom gives them the right to assault members of other sects by violating their religious beliefs. That takes a rather remarkable level of audacity.

The problem starts with Sam Mullet's abuses of his own followers which are reputed to involve incarcerating men in a chicken coop for days, beatings, and sleeping with other men's wives to "cleanse" and "counsel" them. Mullet who split with other Amish over policy differences became increasingly authoritarian. But those who left his Bergholz community, or were excommunicated, were accepted by other Amish communities. Mullet felt he was being undermined by the refusal of other bishops to respect his excommunication orders and their willingness to take in those he felt were apostates. His followers, in turn, felt their own family members were betraying their faith and pursued them to their new homes, attacking them with horse trimming shears. Prosecutors explained as they opened their case:

[Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan] described how sons pulled their father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight, and how women surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off two feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.

In the final attack, a man and his wife lured his parents to their farm, Brennan said. Once there, the older man’s grandsons held him down while his son cut his hair, she said.

. . .

Prosecutors say those who were targeted in the attacks were people who left the settlement over disagreements with Mullet’s authoritarian methods. Others were bishops who had intervened in Mullet’s decision to excommunicate several members. The bishops agreed the excommunications weren’t consistent with Amish teachings and decided not to recognize the penalties, which angered Mullet and inspired the attacks, prosecutors said.

A good deal of physical evidence was also recovered from the defendants' homes, including hair and shears. A disposable camera with photos documenting the crime was found buried under a tree on Sam Mullet's property. There is a certain irony -- or one might say hypocrisy --  to an Amish clan attacking former members for "straying" from Amish "roots" and using a camera in the process.

Splits like the one that created Mullet's Bergholz group have become increasingly common precisely because of the challenges over where to draw lines between the Amish way of life and the encroachments of modernity.

Some within the community have trouble letting go following a dispute, [Matthew Schrock] said, because the Amish so closely identify themselves based on their beliefs. "When someone believes something slightly different, that's a threat to my existence," he explained.

When there are splits, a new set of bishops and ministers take over. Sometimes the new group will move away but not usually. Those that are pulled apart can join together at weddings and funerals but not for worship services. Even families can be divided.

. . .

"Each side says you go off and do your own thing and that's the end of it," said Johnson-Weiner. "There's an understanding that you can't judge them. It's up to God to judge the choices they make."

What is unusual in this case is the aggression and violence perpetrated by Sam Mullet and his followers. Even stranger is his lack of forgiveness -- a hallmark of Amish culture. (Although, as I have previously noted, there is a very dark side to their forgiveness and reconciliation practices.)

The tactics Mullet is accused of violates basic principles of the Amish who value nonviolence and forgiveness even when churches break apart. "Retribution, retaliation, the use of force; that's almost unheard of," said Thomas J. Meyers, a sociology professor at Goshen College in Indiana.

Stranger than Mullet's aggression was his open interference in the sex lives of his followers. His excommunicated former son-in-law is one of those who has testified to Mullet's unwholesome preoccupation.

Aden Troyer said he was once part of the Mullet family compound. He married Mullet's daughter, Wilma, and the couple had two daughters. Concerned about the way Mullet was "ruling" his followers, Troyer said he started making arrangements to move his wife and children out of the group.

Not long after, Troyer said, Mullet began interfering with their marriage. Troyer said Mullet would ask women, including his wife, "about their sexual relationships with their husbands."

"That's very atypical behavior for Amish to do that," Troyer said. "It's unheard of."

He said, "In the Amish community, no one has jurisdiction over what goes on between a husband and wife. He's the only guy and only leader that I know of that ever has gotten into an Amish couple's married life."

Yet, the jury will hear testimony about Mullet's sexual counseling of numerous married women. To my mind, this more than anything marks the Bergholz clan as a cult in the clutches of a dangerous, charismatic leader. It's just so typical.

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