Amish Beard Cutters
Sitting on the back of a horse-drawn hay-cart on his dairy farm in the rolling rural heartland of Amish country, Andy Hershberger gripped his foot-long beard as he replayed the struggle with assailants wielding hair-clippers. “They were holding me down and had already got a chunk of the hair from my head,” he explained. “They had my beard in their hands like this and they were ready to shear it when the clippers broke.” But for his 77-year-old father Raymond, a bishop in the fundamentalist Protestant sect, there was no such good fortune. The attackers cut off his long white beard and much of the hair from his head before they fled into the night. Now what makes this attack so unusual is that this was not a case of “the English vs. the Amish” but “the Amish vs. the Amish.” It all began when one Amish group instituted a shunning against certain of its members. But some other Amish groups decided that this shunning was not justified and therefore refused to go along with it. So the shunners decided to teach a lesson to those who wouldn’t shun the shunned – by cutting off the hair of the women and the hair and beard of the men. (In Amish culture, hair and beards have great spiritual symbolism.) This in turn resulted in a criminal charge brought by the shorn against the cutters. As the sixteen accused (ten male, six female) entered the courtroom, they certainly did not look like a gang of hate-fueled criminals. The men sported the familiar long moustache-less beards, bowl-like haircuts, and the customary garb of home-made trousers held up (back) by braces over tie-less, buttoned-up shirts. The ladies dressed just as plainly, covering their hair with caps and wearing long frocks, also buttoned to the neck, and thick stockings. Other members of the defendents’ group watched the court proceedings from the gallery and chatted together in the German dialect that all Amish still use among themselves. During breaks in the proceedings, they sat in the court cafeteria and paid rapt attention to the daytime chat shows on the television – a device strictly forbidden at home. A segment about relationships in which the woman went out to work while the man stayed at home as a “house husband” – an arrangement that would be completely anathema in the highly patriarchal Amish society – prompted awkward giggles from the women and head-shaking from the men. The trial lasted three weeks with the sixteen hair-cutters using the defense that this was an internal religious matter and not one for the public courts. (“You have your laws on the road and town, if somebody doesn’t obey them, you punish them. But we’re not allowed to punish our own church people?”) The prosecution disagreed and went beyond trespassing and assault by adding the much more serious charge of it also being a hate crime. It took the jury five days to reach a verdict, but they came back with a guilty plea on all counts. The leader of the group faces life in prison. The other fifteen members (some of whom held their own parents down and shorn their hair and/or beards) could get up to twenty years each behind bars (all of these fifteen are under the age of forty and would need up to fifty of their children looked after when they are incarcerated.) The sentencing date is on Tuesday, January 24th in Ohio. The leader and six who are single are currently in jail and the nine who are parents are out on bond. But federal authorities have filed a bond revocation issue to have the nine also locked up and that hearing is this week. Needless to say, the public ordeal has been very wrenching for such a private people.