Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What do Ohio and Belize have in common?

     Knowledge imparted second-hand—through books, say, or photographs displayed in airports—is inferior to knowledge that is imparted directly, through experience in the living world.
      I encountered a noteworthy example of this during my visit to Central America last week.
     One of the first things I saw in Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, steps away from the tarmac, lining up to go through security, was a large photograph, suspended from the ceiling, of what looked like Amish children.
     Being as instinctively arrogant as any American, I automatically assumed it was some kind of general photo of a scenic local, a banner from Pennsylvania perhaps, somehow scavenged, mis-directed here, and repurposed to decorate this very Third World airport.
      But I passed under it, a caption said something about Mennonites in Belize. 

      I thought no more about it until a few days later, driving out to the Mayan ruins at Lamanai.
     Suddenly the road was busy with horse drawn carts. On either side, fields being tended by men in beards and suspenders, by women in long, homespun dresses and bonnets. 
     And I thought, with genuine surprise: "Oh, there are Mennonites in Belize."
    You'd think that the big honking photo at the airport would have been a subtle tip-off.
     But wasn't.
     The obvious first question is: how did they get there. 
     The short answer: circuitously.
     What started as an offshoot of the Anabaptists in Europe in the 16th century found their way to Russia, then Canada and the United States which, in the 1950s, tried to get the Amish, et al, to enroll in their Social Security program. 
     Which inspired communities of Mennonites to emigrate to Belize in 1958, where they farm and raise animals, as well as build vessels. There are some 12,000 living in Belize now, and I saw quite a bit of them, even at resorts, family groups hanging together, the father with his inevitable beard and suspenders, mom in her handmade dress and bonnet, and a few boys with big straw hats, staring in unashamed, slack-jawed curiosity, almost wonder, at us, as if they had never seen outsiders before.
     Leading to a second question that had never crossed my mind before. I knew of Amish from travel in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And I had heard of Mennonites. They obviously shared social traits—in dress, in speech. Both speak Pennsylvania Dutch or Low German. But what is the connection between the two? Are they rivals, like Shi'ites and Sunni? My uninformed guess was that "Amish" was the larger, general term, and Mennonites were a subset of that, the way that Hassids are part of general Jewry. 
      The truth, as usual, is complicated.
      There are dozens of sects of "Plan People" who avoid the modern world and embrace less complicated lifestyles. The Amish—followers of Jacob Amman, who felt that non-believers should be shunned—split with the Mennonites, who didn't, in 1693, and thus the Mennonites are more receptive toward modern conveniences such as telephones and electricity, and also have an evangelical aspect that tends to send them further afield. 
     I always thought that the Amish/Mennonite model is one that fundamental Islam might want to consider as it continues butting up against the West. Rather than trying to undermine what they consider a hopelessly sinful society, it might work better if they just formed their own enclaves, where they'd be free, more or less, to seek a life they consider ideal. 


  1. Unfortunately for Muslims, the stern fundamentalist brand of Islam exists because it's enforced by their governments. People have no choice in how they live no matter what their beliefs are. Governments that are more open to western thinking tend to be tolerant of a more relaxed form of Islam. Either way, Islam is as much a part of government as it is a part of culture. Where you happen live determines how you're allowed to live.

    1. Exactly. When you read works like Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" or Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," you realize how much theocratic states like Iran are mostly just a matter of punks with guns going around getting in people's faces.

    2. You got it. I read both of those books and others. I have a good friend who grew up in Shiraz so I have an uncommon interest in the culture. I find it all fascinating. Iran seems to be in the midst of a slow-motion revolution. If we keep our nose out of it, they'll eventually get to where they need to be.

  2. Not a comment: Plan/Plain. Welcome back, looked like lovely trip. Enjoyed the retro reruns.

  3. The irony in all this is that the Apostle Paul wrote that we were not supposed to isolate ourselves from those outside the church in his first letter to the Corinthians. You also have to consider how Jesus got brickbats from the religious right of His day for associating with people they considered to be sinners. It's a shame how other Christians think they are representing Jesus by issuing condemnations and making attacks against others claiming to hate the sin but love the sinner. I suspect that the "sinner" doesn't see much of a distinction between the two. :-)

  4. Vessels as in boats or as in household containers?

  5. The initial sentence of the blog can no longer be accepted as unquestionably true. Not now when secondary experience and direct experience are so difficult to distinguish and when second looks often overrule the result of primary observations, as in sports reviews of crucial plays.


  6. The Mennonites I know in the U.S. are very engaged in social justice issues--closer to the Quakers in that regard than to the Amish. A former Chicago legal services attorney, now professor emeritus at Washington and Lee, is one of the country's top experts on health care reform. He credits his Mennonite faith as a big motivator. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/pdf/10.1377/hlthaff.2012.0031


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