Sexual abuse among plain groups’ concerns

Anabaptist Identity Conference addresses topics from stewardship of the land to role of Israel

Mar 28, 2016 by and

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MILLERSBURG, Ohio — If plain communities don’t deal with sexual abuse among them, the state will step in to deal with the problem, and some freedoms may be lost.

That was Chester Weaver’s sober message to attendees of the 11th Anabaptist Identity Conference March 10-12.

Brothers Nathan, left, and Matthias Overholt and their families of Sarasota, Fla., lead singing at the 11th Anabaptist Identity Conference March 10-12 in Millersburg, Ohio.

Brothers Nathan, left, and Matthias Overholt and their families of Sarasota, Fla., lead singing at the 11th Anabaptist Identity Conference March 10-12 in Millersburg, Ohio. — Rachel Stella/MWR

Several hundred people from plain Anabaptist groups — many of them Old Order Amish — listened as Weaver highlighted public exposés of “the darker side” of Amish communities, including sexual abuse, illegal drug use and drunkenness.

He said this negative publicity is causing some to call for an overturning of the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, which granted the Amish an exemption from the state’s compulsory education requirement to attend public schools until age 16.

“We’d better get real with this, because if we’re not doing our job, the state will step in and help us, and when that happens, we will lose our freedom,” he said.

Parents must be clear about teaching their children appropriate sexual behavior, Weaver said, quoting a letter from “grandparents in New York state” published in the February issue of the Old Order Amish Family Life magazine: “Treat this matter as seriously as stealing or lying. . . . Don’t let them hear a deafening silence when it comes to moral teaching. Show them what to do if they ever come across filthy photos or pornography.”

Weaver, a Beachy Amish Mennonite from LaGrange County, Ind., who grew up in Lancaster Mennonite Conference, directed his message primarily toward the Old Order Amish because of their role in gaining the Wisconsin v. Yoder ruling but acknowledged sexual abuse was a problem in other plain communities as well.

“Too many plain churches are not open enough about this,” he said in an interview. He said churches should report sexual abuse to civil authorities.

“If I discovered a situation like that, I’d have to report it,” he said.

But his focus was on addressing the causes of abuse.

“The real remedy of this whole thing is that when a person’s heart is delighted with God . . . his heart isn’t going to desire pornography and sexual abuse,” he said. “The human heart is corrupt. This is what is so important about parents. Parents need to help their children through these issues.”

Weaver said some Amish listeners told him afterward how much his message was appreciated and needed.

Responsible stewardship

The traditional Anabaptist understanding of good works, or fruit, as evidence of salvation was emphasized throughout the conference, held at the Heritage Community Center.

“Fruit and salvation are tied together. They can’t be separated,” said speaker David Bercot, author of several books, including Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up and The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down. “[God] wants people who will obey him, who will bear fruit.”

A practical application of righteous living was an effort to provide healthy meals with minimal environmental impact. The food served at the conference was either organic or free of genetically modified organisms. Plates and cups were made of biodegradable materials. Food sources were announced before each meal.

“I am convinced that stewardship should play an important part in the Christian life,” said speaker and dairy farmer David Bontrager of LaGrange County, Ind.

He cited Native American agricultural practices as worthy of emulation and said Christians needed to repent of the “manifest destiny” mindset that made them complicit in the exploitation of indigenous people and land.

“We destroyed a culture,” Bontrager said. “They were not a Christian culture, but they had the potential to be one. The Amish were guilty. We were guilty.”

He encouraged mourning for the damage that had been done to indigenous cultures in North America.

“It is possible that such a mourning could save us from spiritual annihilation,” he said. “We can only repent of the sins of our fathers by not continuing to walk in the steps of their folly.”

Bontrager cautioned against farming practices that damage the earth, pointing to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s as a warning.

“We don’t want to be nature worshipers; that’s not the point,” he said. “But we do have the potential to destroy. . . . It is possible that we can destroy the earth.”

‘Israel frenzy’

Bercot took on what he acknowledged was a contentious topic when he spoke about the role of Israel in prophecy.

He critiqued “the Israel frenzy within the evangelical churches” associated with the theological system of dispensationalism, which he said is “totally incompatible with Anabaptism, with the doctrine of two kingdoms.”

Dispensationalism, a system of interpreting biblical history, emphasizes God’s separate plans for the church and for the nation of Israel.

Bercot had strong remarks on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Do we have the blood of Palestinian Christians and Muslims on our hands when we cheer Israel on and approve of what it does?” he asked, referencing the unconverted Paul, who approved of the killing of Stephen (Acts 8:1). “[Israel] has pushed Christians out of their villages and keeps slaughtering people and taking their lands — not just Christians but Muslims who have lived there for hundreds of years.”

He challenged his listeners with the question of why they would choose to support a secular state instead of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Rivka Pratt of Manchester, Mich., a woman in the audience with an Orthodox Jewish background, voiced her agreement with Bercot on dispensational theology.

“Dispensationalism keeps us from witnessing to my Jewish brothers and sisters,” she said during a question-and-answer period. “Jesus says, ‘None shall come to the Father except through me.’ If we fall into this deception that the Jewish state of Israel is something special and that God has a separate recipe for my Jewish brothers and sisters, then they’re going to be lost.”

Holiness and heritage

Conference organizer Nathan Overholt of Sarasota, Fla., estimated about 600 people attended, with an additional 140 listening over the phone. He and his brother, Matthias, first organized the conference in Sarasota, and it has since moved to various locations around the U.S.

“If we know where we come from, we have a better idea of who we are and, subsequently, where we are going,” Overholt said in an interview. “If we don’t know who we are, we’ll just be amalgamated into mainstream Anabaptism or mainstream worldliness. . . . We’d like to be able to say, ‘Here’s an alternative; we have something more than what the Protestants have to offer,’ and we need to rally around that. It needs to be more than our dress or nonresistance. It needs to be something to offer that’s multifaceted.”

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