‘Amish Mafia’ is a shame, unrealistic portrayal of plain people

If anyone thinks that the Discovery Channel is about actual discovery of, say, science, history, space, or tech, as their … Continued

If anyone thinks that the Discovery Channel is about actual discovery of, say, science, history, space, or tech, as their Web site claims, think again. Or if you think that its sister company, The Learning Channel (TLC), is about learning new insight or information, you are mistaken.After TLC’s first run of the reality television show “Breaking Amish,” with paid persons assuming the roles of rebellious ex-Amish, the Discovery Channel has produced a more scripted “Amish Mafia,” admitting on their site that scenes are reenacted.  The show, which airs in early December, brags a behind-the-scenes “first-ever look at the men who protect and maintain peace and order within the Amish.”

They are wrong. The only thing that makes this endeavor a “first-ever” is that it’s perhaps the most offensive production yet from Hollywood regarding Amish people, after a long litany of offenses, from “Kingpin,” “For Richer or Poorer,” “Amish in the City,” “Deadly Blessing” and “Witness” among many others.  Unfortunately, this trend of Amish and Mennonite mockery is nothing new.

Since their Christian faith doesn’t support “graven images” (see the Ten Commandments), and since the Amish prioritize humility and view pride as a threat to community harmony, you won’t see Amish spokespersons appearing before the press to defend their culture from a Discovery or Learning Channel attack. For Hollywood, then, they make for easy attack and a prime target.

So who am I to defend them, and why did my blood boil to see “Amish Mafia” on the Discovery docket? The very people that Hollywood continues to heckle — Amish and Mennonite people — helped raised me in an Ohio farming town that “For Richer or Poorer” got all its clothing for the movie.  I grew up Mennonite, knowing full well that the nudity scenes in “Witness” were an absolutely unacceptable portrayal. My father was a Mennonite preacher, as were both grandfathers, and the first Amish bishop to ever enter the United States was my sixth great grandfather – a far cry from anything Woody Harrelson cooked up in “Kingpin.”

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to shed light on in any closed religious community, especially those with patriarchal tendencies, like some, but certainly not all, Amish and Mennonite communities.  Physical and sexual abuse, mental disabilities, and obsessive-compulsive disorders are not uncommon, for example. Furthermore, I’ve long wondered why America’s touristic and tokenized fascination with Amish-Mennonites prevents scrutiny of the veiling of their women in a way that is not present when scrutinizing women of other faith, notably Muslim women.

There is a deep contradiction in America.  Women in Amish Mennonite communities that wear bonnets, coverings, etc., go unnoticed – by the liberal feminist eye – while Muslim women of equal cloth covering get castigated for being oppressed.  From Pennsylvania to Pakistan, from cape dresses and coverings to the shalwar kameez and the scarf, there is often little difference.

But this December, American audiences will not discover or learn anything about that.  No, they’re learning about a supposed Amish mafia — made up of boys, mind you, just look at the promotional pictures — that are supposedly, according to Discovery’s Web site, protecting vulnerable Lancaster, Pa., after a school shooting in 2006, by a non-Amish milk truck driver, killed five young Amish girls and seriously injured five more.

This is where the show becomes grotesquely offensive because here especially it veers completely off base.  After the shootings, which were deplorable and deeply saddening, the community came together in a remarkable show of reconciliation and forgiveness.  My mother, who is Mennonite and who lives and works in this community as a counselor to the plain people, can attest to how great the grief was but also to the bigness of heart.

The Amish did not want to respond, as Discovery intimates, by picking up arms against the oppressors, or in revenge. That philosophy is diametrically opposed to the strong and prevailing Amish Mennonite belief in nonviolence.  In fact, at the time of the school shooting the national media were confounded at how nonviolently the Amish victims’ families responded.  And while there are certainly renegades and outliers in every society, and young Amish and Mennonite boys who are hell-bent on misbehaving (and I count my younger self among these), to suggest that a community would somehow secretively or subversively rely on a “mafia” to keep the peace is a Hollywood producer’s basest pitch to a lowest ethical common denominator.

Discovery was definitely scraping the barrel with this one. Imagine for a moment if the Discovery or Learning channels did a similarly distasteful and disrespectful parody of America’s Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist communities and faith systems.

If Discovery were dedicated to documentaries that plied the painful parameters of these plain people, I might think differently, provided they were done with the intent of healing and not harming.  But that is not the Discovery Channel we have here today. And there is nothing in “Amish Mafia” that remotely ranks as redeemable. 

What a shame.  There’s much to tell about the Amish and Mennonite communities.  The stories are voluminous and varied and an American audience would enjoy the telling of them.  Too bad Hollywood won’t be there for the discovery of it, nor America for the learning of it.

Michael Shank, who grew up in the Amish-Mennonite town of Kidron, Ohio, is an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and on the board of directors for the National Peace Academy

  • Boomonster

    These channels have been taken over by big corporations not interested in the TRUTH. Only entertainment. They have been systematically dumbing down the content of TV since the start of Fox in 1996. Just look the content. Duck Dynasty, Hoarders, Honey BooBoo and her bunch, Turtleman, Looking for Big Foot, Moonshiners, Storage Wars. Mindless crap that you get as much information, as you could get from 1 hour of airtime for each subject. Nothing anyone with more than 1 cell between their ears, would want to watch more than once, if at all.

  • Taedog

    These channels are contributing to the dumbing down of America.

  • leibowde84

    I am thrilled that the truth about the Amish and Menonites is finally coming out. They are not honorable people … but, instead, a religious cult that traditionally refuses their children the right to improve themselves. The should be looked down upon as the religious cult that they are.

    When I was growing up, consistently traveling thru Pennsylvania, I always thought of the Amish as being a somewhat strange, but altogether moral, generous, and good-hearted group of people. But, after learning more about their way of life as an adult, I am disgusted by their intollerant, shameful way of life. They force their children into a life of seclusion, and if they refuse to follow their severely out-of-date way of life, they literally “shun” them, taking away stability from their young lives. The hardest part of being a parent is realizing that your children will one day be smarter than you. In a constantly evolving world where the status quo changes every day, this truth is innevitable. In time I am confident that homosexual rights and marijuana legalization will seem as beneficial as desegregation and the civil rights movement. Although the “oldies” and traditionalists refuse to accept change to social norms, they are a necessary part of sociological progress. The Amish fail to recognize this, and as a result force their children into a world where success, improvement, and knowledge are thought of as negatives. This cultural refusal to grow will cause the end of their way of life … and I couldn’t be happier about that. Seclusion and refusal to contribute to society should never be thought of as honorable or Godlike. Forcing your children to either conform to ridiculous traditions and norms without the benefit of education or suffer abandonment should be looked down upon as traditional nonsense with no place in modern society. For these reasons, I applaud these networks for curing the misconception of the Amish and Menonites as being honorable, god-fearing p

  • leibowde84

    But they sure are successful and raise a hell of a lot of capital … so can you blame them?! It’s not their fault that Americans want to watch reality TV. They are merely the dealers of theis garbage. If you are going to blame anyone, it should be the American viewers.

  • guybrarian

    Yet, Professor Shank chose not to follow in his families Mennonite tradition (or he wouldn’t be publishing, would he) and he didn’t accept the Amish life either.

    Granted, a bad documentary is a bad documentary, no matter the subject. However, I’d be interested to know how many folks leave the un-plain (the fancy?) modern world and join an Amish or Mennonite community.

    That alone tells me there might be more honesty in this show than Mr. Shank cares to admit.

  • Forrest777

    Another salvo in Hollywoods war on Christianity

  • chuffman6

    I don’t think that we have any place judging what we don’t understand. People view everything ethnocentrically and seem to have no interest in really learning about a culture or a people, past sound bites and opining egomaniacs, before they cast their judgements. The really sad thing is that they miss out on the world and the amazing and rich diversity in it. No one is asking you to join, no one is asking you to believe, but you should at least respect their freedom in choosing it. And I don’t think spouting off about Christianity is really the example you want to use to highlight a pure and peaceful religion.

  • Brenda Dreyer

    Being raised by Amish and/or Mennonite would not by default make you privy to all Amish/Mennonite doctrines/rules/regulations. It is not common practice for the Elders to share all their decisions. It is also a well documented fact that Amish and/or Mennonites very rarely if ever commit serious crimes and it is well documented that they rarely spend time in jail and/or prison. I expect you could justify those facts by saying they are merely a peaceful and nonconfrontational people. That assumption would be laughable at best. Don’t discount how that peace and nonconfrontational society has existed in the U.S. in a peaceful state since the early 18th century, it was certainly not simply because they require peace, it is because they have many internal structures in place that demand and enforce peace.

    Oops, sorry I said they never spend time in jail, I was wrong. In 2011, in Mayfield, Ky, a group of Amish men were sentenced to a few days in jail for refusing to place reflective triangles on their horse-drawn buggies. One ‘inmate’ was an Elder so I’d say they just called off the ‘internal structure’ that would normally keep the ‘peace’ and keep them out of the news.

  • Forrest777

    What does the number of people who join the plain people have to do with religious persecution? It spits in the face of those who risked their lives , their wealth , and their sacred honor to give us this wonderful land of freedom?

  • pAAtty

    this is so true..i was married in a Mennonite church..and knew and loved many wonderful Mennonite people. I watched Breaking Amish hoping they would show the tender loving and non-violent side of the Mennonites. Instead, I think all the kids had been divorced and they said some pretty shameful things about the Mennonites. The show did not show any of the good of the Mennonites. I was very disappointed that they skewed the show so badly for ratings. Sad.

  • Ohioan

    I thought I was having a weird mini-dream while watching TV the other night and saw the commercial for this show. I actually asked family members if they saw the ad too. How absurd, and what a travesty our television viewing choices have become!

  • dandman901

    You realize that Mennonite’s are able to do everything ‘society’ can do, right? I’m mennonite, and I drive, use *gasp* the internet, drink beer, and go to a public university….there are ‘old order’ mennonites who are closer to Amish, but the rest of us? We’re just pacifists essentially.

  • Ben Bierly

    Did you know certain drug addicts can’t take water? They can’t physically go 24 hours without their particular addiction, or their bodies will start to suffer serious complications. In many ways, we ‘normal’ Americans are addicted to many poisons. To those who are used to poison, the pure is foreign and foul. Let’s not hate those who abstain from the many poisons in this world, regardless of how many addicts do or don’t shed their shackles to walk with them.

  • hochstetler51

    guybrarian might do well to understand the complexities of Mennonites a little more. Not all Mennonites are plain. In fact, among three Mennonite/ Brethren in Christ denominations, there are multiple academic journals, several church media companies, and at least 8 liberal arts colleges and universities (some over 120 years old), including my alma mater, Goshen College, which has a nationally known Communications dept, with Indiana’s best television and radio stations in 2011. Mr. Shank, who hails from my home area in Ohio, attended Eastern Mennonite University. I hope those wanted to learn more about Mennonite life would take more interest in those institutions whose faculty have dedicated their careers to exploring and interpreting it for the public. Some good places to start include the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College or the Young Center at Messiah College.

  • Dennis Carrier

    All my life in and near Amish communities, my Dad went to school in the one-room schoolhouse with them, friends worked with them, they worked for us. Rubbing elbows with them in my area was a daily event if you went anywhere. Had two Amish Nannies when I was a toddler because my Mother was sick. Sure, there are young hoods in the Amish community. Some of them get in trouble, usually for alcohol and drug offenses. They’d get drunk, wreck cars, get in fights, stuff like that. But the true definition of “Amish” is actually spiritual. It means being a member of the church. It’s not a birth right by genetics, it’s not a race, it’s not a specific ethnicity. It’s a conditional opportunity with its heritage wrapped completely around the church. The images of these men being presented would not be accepted in the church. So really, these young men are not Amish. Not yet, anyways. That’s what actual Amish would say, but probably won’t except among themselves.

  • Loving Conservative!

    You are so sad. It makes me sad reading your post. Why are you so negitive toward a peaceful, war hating society? They work so hard for everything they own. It is a sad opinion to have against a people who can truely apprecate what they own because they spent the man hours creating it, instead of buying it at Walmart where everything was made at a chinese sweatshop. They have ownership in everything in their lives because their hands helped create all that they use. And with all of this labor they still give all the praise to the Lord, not themselves. You have your outlook backword. And this is coming from an atheist. You look that stupid to a non-believer that I had to retort… so sad you are self hating…

  • Jason Louisville KY

    If the Ammish are so wonderful and good and honest, then why do they go to such keep their children from receiving an education? Why do they insist that their people remain just dumb enough not to question how they are living their lives? The Ammish were even considered weirdos back in the 1800′s. Wake up and enjoy yourselves for a few minutes a day.

  • Miss Maggie

    Jason you are the epitompy of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. I live among the Amish and you couldn’t be further from the truth with regard to their receiving an education and being extremely intelligent. In fact, I’m quite sure if you put one of their children the same age as a 5th grader in public school, their children’s knowledge will prove far superior. I engaged in conversations with these wonderful folks on a daily basis. They are not only very knowledge when engaging in conversations pertaining to current affairs, they are extremely articulate in expounding upon their viewpoint and presenting evidence to support it. If anyone is the fool, it is someone such as yourself and others like you who underestimate the intelligence of the Amish. Now, Jason, it’s time for you to go crawl back under the rock from whence you slithered up.

  • Miss Maggie

    excuse the typo I meant “epitome”

  • RoseCasey

    The previews for this show make me angry. Your article hit the nail on the head. They are scraping and at the expense of another wonderful group of people. I wonder when these stations will read the memo – no one is interested. In a time when people are jumping on the anti-bully bandwagon, this proves to be that antithesis. Portraying good people who ironically want nothing to do with this kind of America for good reason. And we prove their reasons exactly what is wrong with self-serving, egotistical, arrogant people. What an embarrassment.

  • Kram0429

    Jason it is not Ammish. You spell it like this, Amish. Take that as a free lesson.

  • country7274

    Thank you for your article. It allowed me to learn about the show without wasting my time and being disgusted by watching it. I saw an ad for it and went straight to the computer to find out what it was about.

  • MDreader!

    I grew up in Lancaster County, PA, and I can assure you all most whole-heartedly that there is indeed an Amish/Mennonite mafia. The Lancaster County Business Directory is limited to those who belong to either of these churches. In short, if you are not Amish/Mennonite, your business is boycotted by them, unless of course, they need your help in them making a profit. I think most folks outside of Amish/Mennonite geogrpahic areas simply have a quaint view of these people that they want to keep as reality. While the TV shows about them are junk, the reality is that there exists an economic mafia among the Amish/Mennonites, as they will only first deal with business people of their faith first, and only reach into the “English” community when they must…as they are interested in the dollar exactly like any other business.

  • jermanyx

    Jason given your obvious lack of grammar and spelling, but the fact that you seem to really believe that the Amish don’t choose or want to live their lifestyle, they are actually, as you said “kept just dumb enough not to question how they are living their lives.” They don’t have electricity or probably running water, or get their food from a grocery store. No cars or modern machines.
    All those modern convieninces make life and everything so nice and easy. Makes you feel reall smart Jason, but without them, face it, you are the one that’s been that’s been “kept just dumb enough not to question how they are living their live.” Your words not mine

  • sherryr

    so your telling me they dont like anyone

  • rhorst

    Dear Michael Shank, my name is Rebecca Horst. My grandfather, was Old Order Mennonite as a boy, but his father, a Mennonite Minister, liked his Dandelion wine too much. Your article is refreshing! THANK YOU for speaking out! There are few blood related non-plain people that are willing to speak. Most of us are raised under residual moral beliefs. I’m angry too, however, my anger is about trying to learn about my roots. The culture is closed mouthed. I wanted to learn PA Dutch and no one ever taught me. I have to sift through layers of spectacle to find the truth about where I come from. My child is going to have even more trouble. And when we’re asked about our ethnicity questions come up about this mucked up media attention. Why won’t Hollywood do a historical movie about how they Amish and Mennonite got to the US in the first place? They’d have a long lived series if they began with the exodus of the Anabaptists from Switzerland. But that might insight some respect.

  • amediamogul

    MDreader is dead wrong. I’m sorry but the Amish don’t “boycott” English business. Many of my friends are Amish, many of my coworkers are Amish, and many of my clients are Amish. There is no such thing as this “Amish Mafia.” It’s a fairy tale that Hollywood and the above poster desperately want to believe in. Maybe he had a bad encounter with some Amish…just like one can with any people.

    If this crap was coming from MTV, maybe I’d expect it. I can tell you this show is a bunch of bull. There is no “Amish Mafia” and Lebanon Levi is nothing more than a common criminal with an inflated ego. No self-respecting Amish would be involved with a project like this. Not to mention the dialogue is completely unrealistic. The Amish are a peace-loving and for the most part accepting people….and I was absolutely appalled that Discovery finds it appropriate to exploit them on national television. This isn’t Jersey Shore, folks.

  • amediamogul

    I find it funny that you accuse the Amish of being uneducated, yet your post was rife with spelling and grammar errors. Clearly your modern world education has done wonders.

    Actually Amish are a quite intelligent people. Just because they don’t choose to live the way you do doesn’t make them any lesser of a people.

  • amediamogul

    Actually, your post shows that you haven’t thoroughly researched the subject.

    Just like most religions, there are many different sects of Amish across the US. They tend to differ by state. This show targets the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County. So the folks you are referring to are irrelevant.

    Concerning your “internal structures” that you claim to know so much about, I’d like to know what your sources are. Otherwise you sound like people who rant about conspiracy without grounds.

    If you have truly known any REAL Amish, you wouldn’t have posted what you did. If you had known anyone affected by Nickel Mines, you wouldn’t have posted what you did. Please research before you make accusations.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Daniel Kuhns

    amish life sux I was born and raised that way , 1 word describes amish “SLAVERY” IF I EVER DO AND INTERVIEW ABOUT AMISHLIFE , be prepared cuz its gonna get ugly fast .

  • Daniel Kuhns

    IF ANY ONE BELIEVES AMISH ARE SO HUMBLE , YOUR WRONGE , TWO WORDS DESCRIBE AMISH , “SLAVERY’ AND “POLITICS”. I Know Cuz I was born and raised amish till 18 . and no I’m not just a rebellious little rumspringa kid either , .
    I’m pipeline inspector now , I didn’t go crazy like normal rumspringa kids do.

Read More Articles

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.