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Friday, September 21, 2012

Hair, Sex, Shame and Hate

Samuel Mullet - Bergholz, Ohio
In the midst of "all things political all the time," I've found myself fascinated by the story of Samuel Mullet, the leader of a strict Amish sect in Bergholz, Ohio.

Just yesterday, he and fifteen other Amish men and women were convicted of hate crimes for a series of hair- and beard- cutting attacks on fellow sect members.

A federal jury found the 66-year-old Mullet guilty of orchestrating the cuttings last fall in an attempt to shame mainstream members of his community who he believed were straying from their beliefs. His followers were found guilty of carrying out the attacks, which terrorized the normally peaceful religious settlement that aims to live simply and piously.

Prosecutors and witnesses described how sons pulled their father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight and how women surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off two feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.

One woman testified that Mullet coerced women at his settlement into having sex with him, and others said he encouraged men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment.

The defendants face prison terms of 10 years or more. Prosecutors say they targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance in their faith.

I've searched the internet to understand more about that "spiritual significance" but came up empty. Granted, I did not make a very exhaustive search, but every source I found mentioned the fact that there is a "spiritual significance" for the Amish in their hair, but I didn't find a source that would either define or amplify the phrase and say exactly what that meant.

That seemed odd to me, given the fact that this "hate crime" centered around the cutting of hair and beards as an act of violence and hate.

What was reported is that the government said the cuttings were an attempt to shame members of Mullet's community who he believed were straying from their beliefs.

Amish family
In public, at least, Amish women cover their hair with bonnets and Amish men are noted for their beards - some of them very long. 

I think both you and I can both make a pretty good guess that it has something to do with sexuality and gender identity.

The Amish, after all, are a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships that form a subgroup of the Mennonite churches. The history of the Amish church began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish.

As Christians, they have undoubtedly read the story of Sampson and Delilah, who cut off his hair which was the source of his strength.

I'm sure they also know the story of Mary Magdalene and how she lavished Jesus with expensive oils, washed his feet and then wiped them with her hair.  That act was very disturbing to at least one of the disciples, not just because of the cost of the oil but, no doubt, because of the sexual symbolism of a woman's hair.

Even though Amish are "home schooled" only until the 8th grade, it's easy, then, to deduce that the "spiritual significance" of hair, for the Amish, has to do with strength and virility for men and sexuality for women.

That's not just an issue peculiar to the Amish or the ancient Hebrews.

Indeed, I remember the first time I saw one of my aunts, who was a Roman Catholic nun, without her veil. It was in the late 50s and I was just a child, but I remember staring at her "buzz cut" in horror. She tried to laugh it off, but I could see her discomfort. "I'm a Marine for Jesus," she said as she laughed, but I could see her face burning with shame and embarrassment.

I never saw her again without her veil.

I don't think it was meant to shame her. Rather, as she told me later - long after she had left the convent - cutting off her hair was a symbol of her vow of celibacy. She had sacrificed her sexuality in order to be faithful to the work of the church.

Oh, the things we do for Jesus!

Still, it brought her a sense of shame for me to see her with her head shaved.

Puritan Stocks
Shame is not an uncommon punishment in communities which espouse religious values and beliefs. Puritans were known for putting people in stocks while the public pelted them with rotten fruit or vegetables.

Women who were found guilty of spreading gossip were tied to a chair and dunked into a large vat of water in the public square.

Some offenders would be required to wear a sign around their neck or branded like an animal with a hot iron on their face or hands: "T" for Thief; the 'Scarlet Letter' "A" for Adultery.

Would these things be considered "hate crimes" today?
A hate crime is a category used to described bias-motivated violence: "assault, injury, and murder on the basis of certain personal characteristics: different appearance, different color, different nationality, different language, different religion."
Defense attorneys acknowledged that the hair cuttings took place and that crimes were committed but contend that prosecutors were overreaching by calling them hate crimes.

"You have your laws on the road and the town — if somebody doesn't obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?" Mullet told The Associated Press last October.

The courts answered that question in a resounding "no".

"The victims in this case are members of a peaceful and traditional religion who simply wanted to be left to practice their religion in peace," U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said. "Unfortunately, the defendants denied them this basic right and they did so in the most violent way."

Federal officials said the verdicts would send a message about religious intolerance.

What is allowed to happen in one religious community has an affect on what is allowed to happen in other religious communities.  In this country, we are guaranteed freedom OF religion but we're also guaranteed freedom FROM religion - as well as freedom from one religion's violent attempts to shame their members into submission to beliefs against their will.

The case sets an important precedent about religious intolerance, one that comes at a critical juncture in our culture when the term "religious freedom" is being bandied about by old, dry, celibate men in purple shirts who object to having to provide insurance that considers contraceptive medications and devices as part of good health care for women.

We may not be talking about women's hair, but we are talking about women's sexuality and health. In many cases, the arguments used to coerce women into believing they should not be using contraceptive measures are, in fact, shame-based.

Sandra Fluke
If birth control measures  are not used and the woman becomes pregnant, she faces more shame whether she has "a child out of wedlock" or chooses to abort the fetus.

Meanwhile, the man who impregnated her is either seen as "just being a man" - you know, he just can't help himself against the feminine wiles of women (and, really, who could blame him, right?) - or, he's not seen at all. Invisible. Not responsible (as opposed to irresponsible, which is also true.

As far as I know, no woman has yet been tied to a chair and dunked into a vat of water in the public square, but at least one woman has recently been called a "slut" on public radio - over three consecutive days - for insisting that the cost of her contraception medication be covered under her health care insurance.

That doesn't fit the legal definition of a "hate crime" but it sure feels violent and hateful to me.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, members of Mullet's defense team said appeals were likely and would focus on whether the beard-cuttings amounted to religious-based hate crimes. Judge Dan Aaron Polster scheduled sentencing for Jan. 24.

The sixteen defendants, with about 50 children between them and including six couples, belong to a community of about 25 families. One of the attorneys said, "The community is going to be ripped apart. I don't know what's going to happen to all their children."

I suspect, as Christians, they will band together and care for each other during prison sentences and appeal processes. When there was a shooting in a one-room Amish Schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in 2006, injuring 10 children ages 6-13 and killing 5, there was a great deal of media attention on the centrality of forgiveness and reconciliation in the Amish tradition.

Defense attorneys said the defendants were bewildered by the verdicts. "They really don't understand the court system the way the rest of us have, being educated and reading newspapers," said Joseph Dubyak, whose client, Linda Schrock, has 10 children with her husband, who was also convicted.

Amish enter U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cleveland on 9/21/12
The defense had argued that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government had no place getting involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.

It was ever thus. Separation of church and state. It's more complicated than it might seem.

I have a feeling this one is far from over.

Stay tuned. I think there's a lot more ridding on this than just religious intolerance or freedom of religion.

It has everything to do with hair and sex, and the way they can become targets of -  as well as vehicles for - shame and hate.


Sister BJ said...

I stopped by to feed your fish and ended up reading about the Amish hate crime... It just gets more and more complicated, or maybe it just gets more and more simple. Each person or group of people define what their rules are and if anyone goes outside the boundaries of those rules he/she must be disciplined. If the discipline comes from those who live outside the group it can be cause for "war". Jesus went outside the rules of his group, but rather than being dealt with by the leaders of that group, he was turned over to the outsiders, whom the insiders hated just as much as they hated Jesus. Not a whole lot has changed in all these years, have they?

Marthe said...

Ah, the thorny issues! But our precious freedom of religion really isn't all that free: practices that involve human sacrific, cruelty to animals and polygamy are illegal. That freedom is "tempered" here by civil law particularly when the majority sees a practice as brutal or coercive, and it does seem coercive for one Amish person to assault a second Amish person, no matter what the religious reason or significance may be. I happen to think opposing polygyny and polyandry is narrow and judgemental - no, I don't think underage girls or boys should be forced into marriage of any kind - consenting adults can make up their own minds about what family arrangements they want to have, fully informed, free to choose ... except not in America where the idea of love is fixed on monogamous heterosexual couplings, as if humans are so limited that the very idea of being capable of loving multiple people in multiple ways, being complex itself, is icky and "unnatural" ... well, maybe for some it is, but love, the real stuff not just the hormone surge masquerading as "falling in love", isn't nearly as limited as our laws. But you're right, this hair and sex stuff isn't over yet ... may never be until we all evolve into hairless beings reproducing only by sterile cloning (note to self: must stop watching Syfy Channel).

Jackie said...

I am very glad that these individuals were brought to civil justice. Claiming an exemption for religious reasons--a notion that was thankfully discredited in the notorious New Jersey Appeals Court ruling regarding the rapist who attempted to hide behind Sharia law--is extremely dangerous. That said, it is a tragedy for the community, but perhaps it will be the catalyst for some communal consideration and examination.
As for the spiritual references, there is, of course, 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 that refers to women:
"Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering."
and Lev. 19:27 that refers to men
"You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard."
Ah, the dangers of proof-texting :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

BJ - Thanks so much for tending to my fish. They are GREAT cyberpets and so grateful for visitors who feed them.

I think the more things change, the more they stay the same. And, what is it the French say, "The more I know of men, the more I love my dog."

Smart people, the French. Well, except their paparazzi and the Royals.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - I do find the whole argument about polygamy fascinating. I was a big fan of HBO's "Big Love". I guess I'm still repulsed by the misogyny that seems to be at the base of polygamy.

I'm also thinking about the Broadway Musical "Hair". Lots of very provocative stuff in that musical. Still.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jackie - I'm not so sure any New Testament stuff informed the "spiritual significance" of hair for the Amish. I'm thinking there's something in the Levitical codes.

I'd still like to know the "spiritual significance" of hair for the Amish. Off to the library tomorrow to check it out.

Bex said...

Mary of Bethany is named as the woman who annointed Jesus's feet with oil and dried them with her hair. In another version of this story, the woman is unnamed, and described as a "woman of the town." Neither story mentions Jesus's wife, Mary Magdalene. ;).

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Bex. I think the story that doesn't name the woman is the one some scholars have said might have been Mary of Magdalene. She was his "wife", after all ;~)

Terri said...

So, one day I will share some of my family stories that include polygamy....tragic, indeed. Sex and hair, no doubt.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Terri - I'm sure it's a fascinating story.

JCF said...

"I think the story that doesn't name the woman is the one some scholars have said might have been Mary of Magdalene."

That may have been your RC up-bringing, Elizabeth. The Vatican *officially declared* at one point that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the "drying feet w/ her hair" woman were one and the same. Seems crazy unlikely to me!

Bex said...

It might have been Mary Magdalene, but since she is named specifically in other places in Luke, why wouldn't she have been named in this story?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - If the Vatican said it about a woman, it's highly suspect.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - Because, in Luke's version, the unnamed woman is identified as "a woman who lived a sinful life". Magdalene was supposedly a prostitute. Mary of Bethany was a "good girl" who sat at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha did all the heavy lifting.

howdidIgethere said...

Don't orthodox Jewish women also cover (and not cut) their hair? And of course, many Muslim women wear the hajib, even if they otherwise dress "western". No scholar here, but the Corinthians passage Jackie cited could logically be the basis for the Amish, coupled with the idea that the husband is the head of the wife.

I was surprised that there were photos of Mr. Mullet. The Amish in PA are not allowed to have their photos taken. I believe it's considered a "graven image."

Marthe said...

Hey Elizabeth - Misogyny in any form is repulsive -yes, yes, and yes - and just about any form of organization will work for a group in its ideal form, but there always seem to be a few humans who mess up the plan, insist on being just a little more equal and priviledged than the rest, just a bit entitled to coerce or force or lie their way into "extra" rights or a justification for abusing anyone handy just because they can. That's why it's true, the line "only in Thee can we live in safety" ... a hope, a need, for those of us not inclined to force our way to the top of any heap.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi there, Howdi - Yes, Jewish and Muslim women cover their heads/hair. And yes, Jackie's passage could absolutely be applied in the case of the Amish. My gut tells me that a Levitical code is more at play here. Just a hunch.

Actually, if you google Mullet's name, you get lots of images of him. Interesting.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well said, Marthe. Again. Thank you.

Nan Bush said...

From what I can tell (having spent altogether too much time reading obscure and badly written tracts about this--the seduction of links is worse than that of long hair), it all seems to go back biblically to the Nazarenes and that Leviticus 19:27 quote. Two kind of interesting pieces:

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Notice, though, that none of the Amish look at the camera. They aren't allowed to own photos, but most of the communities have figured out if they want the $$$ the "English" have to offer, to put up with being photographed.

That said, my previous Amish neighbors loved for me to show them their pictures on my cell phone camera. What I can tell you, actually being a neighbor to several Amish families, is there's a lot of duplicity in the lifestyle. They are not the paragons of virtue folks think they are. There's a lot of dark stuff that exists in their communities, and a definite omerta that goes along with it. Yet the authorities will hardly go in b/c they're a religious community.

Still laughing that the chief perp in an Amish hair-cutting hate crime is named Mullet. You can't make this stuff up.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks so much, Nan, for those links. They confirmed and informed some of my suspicions.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I've heard the observation of duplicity and omerta from others who have Amish neighbors. There are "dark side" aspects to all closed religious communities. We are human after all.

Bill said...

If you wish to live in this country, you have to abide by our laws. Regardless of whether those individuals thought of it as “proper punishment” or not, does not matter under our legal system. At the very least, it would have been a case of simple assault. When you add the religious aspect to it, it becomes a hate crime as defined in the code. Obviously this is the way the judge and jury saw the incident.

They can shout and yell all they want, but when you put your hands on another person, the law takes a dim view.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Bill - Right you are. You have the absolute right to swing your arms as wildly as you want, but that right stops at the end of my nose.