American Colony: Meet the Hutterites
Episode 1: Harvest Party Scandal
Aired: May 29, 2012
Beginning this series of reflections sounded like such a wonderful idea—an opportunity to respond with thoughtfulness to something many people feel strongly about. I hoped it would be something of a Verbeigeah, that I would be able to do it in passing. Reality has settled in and cleared away all remnants of this delusion.
My goal is to be as kind as possible and non-judgmental in my writing while at the same time provoke thought and imagination. I don’t want to make the people of King Colony and those who love them feel even worse than they already may. Unfortunately, this noble intention almost evaporated when I saw some of the American Colony characters defend themselves with a very arrogant attitude and crude language on a Facebook group. Though I may use negative examples from the show, I will attempt to frame them in a general way that all of us can learn from.
I write for my fellow-Hutterites who may be curious as to what other Hutterites think about the show, and for non-Hutterites who had their curiosity piqued about my people. If there is something here for somebody else that’s great. Please note that I live on a Schmiedeleut community and I write from this perspective. We have many commonalities with the Dariusleut, but there are some cultural differences. We share a common spiritual heritage and this discussion is spiritual in nature.
Convention dictates that I summarize the events of the episode, but for the sake of expedience I will assume that readers are familiar with them. Even if this is not the case, you should still be able to follow my logic on the themes I have chosen to discuss. There are many possibilities, of course, so I’m saving some for later because they come up in other episodes as well.
The more I watched of the first episode with a critical eye, the more holes appeared in its fabric: this is certainly not high cinema. (Nor was that the intent, I suppose.) An acquaintance of mine, the Mennonite filmmaker Burton Buller, summarized it well: “I see that National Geographic has created a series of programs on a Darius colony in Montana. I’ve seen some of the clips they’ve placed on the web. They are using the now stale reality show formula to tell stories of conflict. Kind of disappointing.”
The episode strings the viewer along like Tarzan flying through the jungle. There are times when it feels fairly tenuous because the actors are obviously not comfortable with speaking in English, but overall the editing is tight and drives the plot forward. I will not deal with obvious overarching matters in the episode reflections; check back to the general American Colony post where I keep adding overall issues as they emerge for me. The premise of the first episode is the pending harvest party at King Colony that winds up the community harvest. As the event approaches several conflicts come into focus. I have chosen two that I want to explore.
Elders versus the people
My understanding of ‘church’ as the mystical ‘body of Christ’ has been deeply influenced by my study of Hutter, Riedemann and the newly-emerged ‘New Monasticism’ movement. This first episode is a veritable study of the heart-rending opposite. I see a frightful breakdown in community that has pitted the actors in an ‘us vs. them’ battle with ‘the elders in Canada.’ Even the National Geographic has picked up on this, and shamefully uses it to defend feeble and sensationalistic journalism.
At several junctures the episode makes clear reference to this tension and disconnect. It is somewhat obvious that the elders are viewed as authoritarian ‘defenders of the traditions.’ Here are some quotations for context:
“The elders are worried that if the young people in the colony get too educated they’re gonna wanna leave.” [Wesley]
“It’s hard because the elders don’t want our kids going to high school…. Sometimes I wonder what they mean by man-made rule or god-made rule. I think God would want them to have the best education they can have.” [Bertha]
“Facebook, texting, english boys, these are all forbidden by the elders.” [Bertha]
Rite: “I don’t know if them elders know what Facebook means, but you never know!”
Bertha: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
When community breaks down in such a way, everybody looses. Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and brilliant writer on communal living, observed that if there are situations where a few people have all the power and others nothing, both sides loose their soul. Leaders must see themselves as the servants of their people, and the people in return must see their leaders as powerful spiritual allies in navigating the struggles life on this side of eternity throws at us.
It is the role of elders, like the biblical prophets, to call people to a faithfulness to God, but what happens with their voice is no longer heard? What happens when they do not have the means to effectively speak to their people because of broken relationships or the lack of communication skills? For example, I have been profoundly disappointed by the fact that Hutterite elders are referring the media to former Hutterites to speak on our behalf. Who are we, if we can’t even explain our deepest and most beloved ideals?
On the matter of true authority and leadership, I appreciate the writings of Jean Vanier, a Canadian-born French communitarian:
True authority is exercised in the context of justice for all, with special attention to the weakest people, who cannot defend themselves and are part of the oppressed minority. A family or community authority, as well as having this sense of justice and truth, needs personal relationships, sensitivity in its action and the ability to listen, trust and forgive. None of this, of course, excludes moments of firmness.
To exercise authority is to feel truly responsible for others and their growth. The greatest danger for someone in authority is to manipulate people and control them for his or her own goals and need for power.
To lead is to judge situations and make wise decisions. And judgement is always in respect to certain criteria; these criteria are the goal or objectives of the community. That is why the leader must continually keep the goal in view; even more, they must live it and love it.
Leaders of communities need to organize the community so that each member is in the right place and things work smoothly. Members can sense very quickly if those with responsibility in the community love and trust them and want to help them to grow, or if they are there just to prove their authority, impose the rules and their own vision, or else are seeking to please.
If the response of Hutterite leadership is problematic, the choices and actions of the people of King Colony are even more so. For example, Bertha observes that, “Facebook, texting, ‘English’ boys, these are all forbidden by the elders.” My question is, why doesn’t Bertha have a problem with these things? Being concerned about these things sounds like a pretty good idea to me; it is not the role of our elders to act as policemen! Further to this, why is she choosing to subject herself to the soul-torture of staying in a church-community that has values and standards she does not share? In my experience, the Hutterite church is not a prison that has you locked in. Yes, there are some leaders who use bad theology to coerce people to stay, but Bertha strikes me as a fairly strong woman in her own way.
I confess this ‘us vs. them’ approach to communal living sounds pretty bleak indeed. What are we, if we are not a people gathered to serve each other and to make “the kingdom come?” What can be done to restore such brokenness and who’s responsibility is it?
The ‘Run away’ conundrum
The second issue I want to consider is the idea of leaving the Hutterite community. Like the episode, I will focus primarily on young people leaving for reasons such as finding the Hutterite lifestyle restrictive to their right to have fun.
To begin with, I find the word ‘run away’ both as a noun and verb terribly colloquial. I will use ‘former Hutterite’ as a noun and ‘leave the community’ as a verb. I realize that ‘run away’ has a interesting ring to it that captures the element of excitement of a foolish young man leaving, but other than that, like most direct translations, it leaves much to be desired.
As I see this issue there are two primary levels of tension that need to be wrestled with: first, the young person wanting to leave versus the parents not wanting them to, and secondly, the level of acceptable interaction between youth off the community and those still living there and having to observe the value system. I know there are more layers to this, but for now I am restricting myself to what I see in the show.
Let’s look at the latter first. Here are quotations for context. All of them are spoken by Claudia’s character:
“I’m not really interested in dating any Hutterite boys right now, so I don’t see the problem in dating off the colony. I just want to have a little fun; it’s not like I’m going to marry the guy. So, I’m just gonna do what I want.”
“I don’t care what people will think. He’s just a normal guy and I just want to have fun with him.”
There is so much that could, and perhaps should, be addressed here, but I’ll stick with the issue mentioned. Essentially it seems that Claudia wants the ‘right’ to stay in her community, but doesn’t want to claim the partner ‘responsibility’ of observing its principles. Case in point:
“It’s times like these that make me want to leave the colony.”
“I feel that there is too much judgement here and too many rules that don’t make any sense.”
This attitude is not unique to Claudia. Clearly, a lethal sense of entitlement has infected our communities. This is, of course, very similar the the historical Ehrenpreis era where the church had to deal, not so much with external persecution, but rather internal systemic decline. Will history repeat itself?
The second struggle relevant to this matter is Bertha’s difficulty in navigating communal Hutterite mores and her parenting responsibilities.
“I can’t bear to tell Carver not to do something he loves.”
“I’d love to see Claudia living in a Hutterite Colony all her life, but I want to see her happy too.”
My heart goes out to Bertha because as a single parent she bears a huge burden. This is, however, one of the more beautiful reasons why we live in community: that we can support each other in doing things that are right, even when they are difficult. Imagine a community where parents help and support each other raising their children. Imagine communities where parents can openly discuss their children’s development and growth with leadership where no misuse of this information will be used for slander or manipulation. That should be every Hutterite community!
To further complicate matters parents occasionally put communal values in second place as far as their offspring is concerned in order to keep them from leaving. When parents compromise the health and well-being of the community in the form of permissiveness and ignoring core values to cling to their children, the community becomes populated with people who are not genuinely committed to the Hutterite lifestyle and spirituality. And this doesn’t even begin to speak to the accompanying problems like favouritism and nepotism. Communal living is a challenging road–imagine traveling on it if you are not 100% convinced that this is the best path for you! Or having to travel with people who’s hearts aren’t in it?
Our life together is of a spiritual nature and as such our focus must be spiritual as well.
Thank you for reading my reflections and the questions that come up for me. As you can see, I don’t have too many answers. What are your thoughts? I hope for a fruitful discussion. Keep it civil, keep it clean; refer to Questions and Comments for my unabashedly stringent comments policy.
Editorial disclaimer: I reserve the right to continue editing my writing. What you see one time may not be here the next.
Assorted negative and positive snippets cited out of context because I found them interesting for various reasons.
Read at your own risk.
“Would you date a Hutterite girl, if she was hot?”
“I know I have God, and he will watch her too.”
“That’s how it’s always has been, and that’s how it always will be.”
“You live in the colony, you know what your place is, period!”
“The people around here don’t like change, especially the men.”
“The colony wants us to go to school, but the elders want us to drop out at 15…so we can help on the colony…. And besides, there’s nothing on the colony that interests me. I’d rather get an education.”
“Hutterites are the key strong point to the football team.”
Carver: “Hutterites are like chick magnets, you know.”
Wesley: “Yeah, maggots.”
Hutterite tradition says that we are never allowed to wear our hair down and that we’re always supposed to wear a shawl. But to be honest a head scarf does not define me as a Hutterite or as a woman. [She dramatically lets kerchief fall to floor.] I feel like if I wanna wear my hair down I should be able to without people judging me. It doesn’t make me any less of a Hutterite. I’m sick of listening to everybody and not sticking up for myself…. I’m a Hutterite with her hair down, and that’s all. [Claudia speaking about wearing a head covering.]
“Mom is always right.”
“When we get to tomorrow, we’ll worry about tomorrow.