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Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers.

Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers. By Donald B. Kraybill. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2014. Pp. 208. $24.95.

"Did you hear the one about the Amish boys, armed with beard-cutting shearers and not afraid to use them?" This could be an opening line of a joke or the beginning of a harrowing tale of terror and violence. Or maybe both.

The book's cover--three Amish hats and a pair of scissors hanging on a plain wall--as well as the protagonists' moniker ("the Bergholz Barbers") suggests we're in for a wacky comedy. But allegations of hate crimes and the author's somber dedication to traumatized women and children point to something quite different.

In the end, the gravity of what happened in eastern Ohio in 2011 remains open for debate, but you'll want to hear the tale nonetheless. Donald Kraybill utilizes a scholar's keen analysis and a storyteller's charm to tell the true story of an Amish splinter group and their most unorthodox behavior. It's a bewildering man-bites-dog story; or in this case, pacifists-force-unwanted-haircuts story that keeps one turning pages to learn what happens next.

Renegade Amish is in large part a story about Bishop Samuel Mullet, a leader and messianic figure to his followers. Mullet was a head-strong, ultraconservative Amish man with a mission to stem the modernizing drift he saw in the Amish community. Unsatisfied with the level of vigilance even in very traditional communities, he and his wife, Martha, founded a new settlement in the isolated hills near Bergholz, Ohio. "We wanted to step back in time a little and live more like our grandparents... no bathrooms, no modern or power tools,... no box-shaped or fancy caps [for women] which is way out of hand in most settlements," (26) explained Martha.

They attracted sympathetic families and appeared to be thriving in the early 2000s. But Mullet's autocratic bent led him to lash out fiercely at those who challenged his authority. He excommunicated rivals and dissenters, which for the strict conservatives attracted to the Bergholz settlement was a most distressing punishment. A ban of this sort kept them from joining another Amish congregation unless they returned to Mullet and confessed their sins. Fearful families started sneaking away at night, and a once flourishing community began to crumble. In "2006, at least nine families, more than a third of the Bergholz community, fled into exile, marked with a stigma of excommunication" (32).

The setbacks for Mullet only got worse. First, in an unprecedented move, 300 Amish elders representing settlements across several states, undercut his authority by ruling that those excommunicated by Mullet need not confess to him before joining another Amish congregation. Then an Ohio court ruled in favor of a former member who had fled and was suing for custody of his two young daughters still at Bergholz. Mullet's humiliating comeuppance came from both insiders--Amish leaders who stripped him of his power--and outsiders--the secular legal system. The devastated community shrank to about one hundred people, mostly members of the extended Mullet family. And that's when things started getting really weird.

Sam Mullet began to speak of himself as God's prophet who, like Noah, was being ridiculed for proclaiming God's truth in dire and sinful times. He was sure his hypocritical detractors were going to drown in hell unless they repented and returned to the old traditions. To get the Bergholz community right with God, a host of severe rituals of remorse and depravation were instituted. For example, to help pry the devil out of their lives, men and women spent days or weeks in "Amish jails" (chicken houses and dog kennels) to reflect on their sins. Also, a paddle with one-inch holes and affixed to an ax handle was fashioned for community members to spank the devil out of each other. This wasn't simply used on disobedient children, but included brothers paddling brothers, and daughters paddling mothers: "three of Martha's daughters spanked her so hard that she had difficulty walking" (71). And most disturbing, Mullet took it upon himself to provide "marriage counseling" to women, which included having them sit on his lap and kiss him as well as spend the night in his room when their husbands were in "jail."

Another unique ritual of remorse initiated in 2009 was members cutting their own beards and hair. This actually has some Old Testament precedence as an act of grief for one's sins and a rite of purification. But it did not remain a voluntary ritual within the Bergholz borders. In 2011, Bergholz members ambushed unsuspecting Amish outside their community, forcibly cutting the beards of men and, in one case, the hair of a woman. Kraybill helpfully explains the significance Amish put on men's beards and women's hair to convey how upsetting and shameful it is to suffer such a violation.

The "Bergholz Barbers" justified their violent attacks as acts of compassion; "warnings of the devastation to come from God's hand if the Amish hypocrites did not repent and turn around" (80). But the larger context makes clear that these were rage-filled acts of revenge as well.

It's the beard-cutting raids that got the attention of federal prosecutors. After an investigation, sixteen members of the Bergholz settlement were indicted for violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a charge that not only brought the possibility of lengthier prison sentences, but also deepened the story's intrigue. Never before had anyone been convicted of a religion-driven hate crime under the act, which became federal law in 2009. To win, prosecutors needed to prove the suspects willfully caused bodily injury to another because of the victim's religion.

In telling this part of the tale, Kraybill switches to a first-person narrative because he made an appearance as an expert witness for the prosecution. The storytelling gets a little self-serving at this point; for example, Kraybill writes: "[The defense lawyer] noted that the government's 'own expert, Dr. Kraybill, the most preeminent Amish scholar in the country...'" (116). Also, Kraybill's tendency to repeat facts mentioned a few pages earlier gets more pronounced. Yet the courtroom drama remains captivating.

The last chapter of the book is the least satisfying. It's here that Kraybill seeks to address larger questions, such as: Was the Bergholz settlement really Amish? Were they a cult? How does Amish forgiveness relate to events here? None of these questions are addressed with enough depth.

The book ends with an overly optimistic conclusion. After all sixteen defendants are found guilty and sentenced to prison, Kraybill proclaims: "The big beneficiaries in this story are the adherents of any religious faith. They can now be assured that... the government will prosecute those who violate anyone's right of free religious expression" (152). Yet the book was published before the U.S. Court of Appeals had ruled, and it overturned all the hate crime convictions due to the trial court's misinterpretation of the law. The appellate court's correction will make it harder for prosecutors to get convictions under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and therefore less likely to pursue this kind of indictment in the future.

Still, Renegade Amish captures a fascinating chapter of legal history and Amish history. Sixteen members of a rogue and arguably cultish Amish group become the first persons convicted of a religious hate crime under the 2009 federal law. That is a tale begging to be told, and Kraybill proves worthy of the task.

Goshen, Ind. KARL S. SHELLY
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Author:Shelley, Karl S.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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