The testimony against civil suit

July 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

This article appeared in the Readings section of the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s about the Amish testimony against civil suit, which closely resembles our own, though their rigor, commitment, and institutional processes for adhering to this testimony far exceed our own.

Going Dutch

From an August 25, 2010, letter written by Amish creditors and included in a court document filed by Monroe Beachy, a member of an Amish community in Sugarcreek, Ohio, requesting that the Northern District of Ohio court dismiss his previous Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. The judge rejected Beachy’s motion. In June, Beachy was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for defrauding investors of an estimated $16.8 million.

A basic tenet that underlies the Plain Community’s way of life is our understanding that there exist two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. Like all other people, we naturally live in the kingdom of this world and are subject to rule by force and fear as imposed by temporal governments. Yet we simultaneously are members of the kingdom of heaven, wherein we live by selfless love and goodwill toward one another as taught by Jesus Christ. In this way, members of the Plain Community love and trust one another in all their relationships, without the fear and suspicion commonly exercised to protect oneself from being taken advantage of, financially or otherwise. Disagreements are never settled in courts of law, which is forbidden in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7 [see below]. Rather, disputes are settled among ourselves with mutual assistance from others in the Plain Community.

Monroe Beachy operated A&M Investments. For more than twenty years, his fellow Amish and Mennonites invested millions of dollars in A&M, Monroe’s personally owned company. As a member of the Plain Community, he was trusted to conduct himself with integrity in this role of Christian stewardship.

At some time it became apparent to Beachy that his company was insolvent, which he did not disclose, and that a pending SEC investigation in mid-2010 would reveal this fact to his fellow Plain Community members. Rather than seeking godly counsel from Amish church authorities, he sought legal counsel, who recommended that he file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and through the court be discharged from his financial obligation to restore th lost funds of his investors.

Monroe Beachy violated the scriptural commands that underlie the tenets of our faith and way of life, including seeking resolution in a court of law rather than seeking the counsel of spiritual brethren, not providing things honest in the sight of all men, not repaying what is owed, disregarding the poor, and seeking resolution without confession to, and forgiveness from, his fellow members of the Plain Community.

The bankruptcy filed by Beachy has tarnished our reputation of trustworthiness and violates the  beliefs we hold regarding honesty and integrity. Bankruptcy is morally abhorrent and permits the debtor to escape the obligations he has to people. We are unequally yoked if we use the bankruptcy system for problems that we should handle with the Church. Continuing with this bankruptcy (whether as creditor or as debtor) is creating ongoing moral turmoil.

Leaders within the Plain Community are developing an alternative that would be administered by the Plain Community. In contrast to a bankruptcy plan, this alternative offers more than just getting the most money for the creditors, although it does that. Its purpose includes restoring the relationships Monroe Beachy has harmed. We hold that a problem caused by one of our members should be resolved by the Community as a whole. To bear his burden, we must incur the cost to correct it. The Plain Community Alternative will require considerable resources both in time and money. The benevolent help from the Plain Community to those harmed and to those who have done the harm is our testimony to the world of love and forgiveness.

1 Corinthians 6:1-7 (NRSV)

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goest to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

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§ One Response to The testimony against civil suit

  • Emily says:

    I wonder here about the “institutional processes for adhering to this testimony.”
    In their letter, the Amish make no mention of having given Beachy any support, or having reached out to him to try and find out what was wrong, or in any way trying to prevent him from filing the civil suit. Indeed, the letter says that Monroe Beachy “rather than seeking Godly counsel from Amish church authorities, he sought legal counsel.” Where were they in this? It’s as much an obligation of the community as a body to go to the individual as for the individual to go to the body, at least in the Quaker tradition. Beachy would have known that the his Amish brethren would not have approved of his filing for bankruptcy, so he clearly felt some distance from the Amish community, most probably from shame, but for whatever reason, he clearly does not seem to have been trusting the Amish process to have provided him with his needs. Perhaps he filed the civil suit to protect them as well as himself. Perhaps if one of the Amish had reached out to him this whole thing might have been
    What I miss in the Amish letter is a sense of the Amish since of caring for Leachy; it seems more to be about concern for the Amish reputation. For the group to reach out to the individual is a crucial part of building community. All civil suits are not the same, either.

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