Most of us have become familiar with the Amish people of the United States as a result of the film Witness. There we learned that Amish people avoid modern technology. They have no TV sets in their homes, no telephones inside the home, and electricity is hooked into the barn but not the house. Such a lifestyle seems to us very harsh and rigorous, but an Amish bishop once explained why it is the Amish live this way. He suggested that most technology had in fact had a negative effect on people’s lives. Television was a good example. It brought violence and poor ethical values into our homes, so much so that many people would like to watch less TV but find they can’t.

Does this mean the Amish are against modern technology? No, explained the bishop. The Amish simply want to keep it in its proper place. The Amish weren’t against telephones. In fact he’d had one installed down the lane from his house. A telephone was handy to have in an emergency or to call distant family and friends. But why bring it into the house. “Telephones intrude into the most precious moments of life.” said the bishop. “You may be talking to your children or sharing something important with your wife; if the phone rings, you will allow it to interrupt what you’re saying. The family can be at prayer, and if the phone rings you will stop and answer it. You could be with your wife in bed, and you will allow the ringing telephone to interrupt what you are doing there!”

Similarly electricity could be a good thing, if kept in its proper place. The Amish in his community had electricty in their barns to refrigerate their milk, but they kept it out of their homes. Why? Because they felt it disrupted the natural rhythms of life. With electricity people stay up late instead of going to bed. With electricity people listen to radios and watch TV that involve them with the outside world rather than their Amish community.

What about tractors? If the Amish will use electricity in their barns, why not tractors in their fields. The Bishop explained that with a tractor a person can plow their field on their own. But using a horse drawn plow the whole family needed to be involved. So rejecting the tractor was a way to create family solidarity.

The Amish have perhaps given more thought to this issue than most of us have. While we may not agree with the Amish on everything we certainly could follow their lead in asking about how we can make modern technology work for us rather than allowing it to determine our lives.

Source: Bishop’s comments reported in Tony Campolo, Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God (Word, 1997)

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