A Christian Community Makes Waves, Not War (1995)

By Andres Tapia and Rudy Carrasco

Men in plaid button-down shirts and overalls held up by suspenders and women in bonnets, and sixteenth-century-style skirts are industriously busy around the room. One logs on to the Internet to check the day's electronic mail messages and postings to the group's website. Another handles calls on its 800 number for orders for the movement's line of old-fashioned wooden kids' toys and state-of-the-art disability equipment, contributing to the community's $20 million in annual revenues.

At noon, the workforce thins out as parents leave to pick up their children from community daycare. A crew of parents takes turns watching and instructing the children of Woodcrest, one of eight Bruderhof rural communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and England, where 2,500 Bruderhofers live and work.

After spending an extended lunch with their children in the communal dining hall, the adults return to work. One day a week is designated for the Interhof conference call. All 250 adults of the Woodcrest community in the rolling hills of upstate New York gather in a large meeting hall and, via sophisticated conference-calling facilities, are connected to the other Bruderhof communities. Heavy German accents fill the room as the communities pray and work their way down an agenda of community business.

Lately, the agenda for this Anabaptist religious group has been brimming with controversial issues, including a passionate campaign for a stay of execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther journalist on death row who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. There also have been painful splits with other Hutterite groups and fending off ex-Bruderhofers' accusations that the Bruderhof is a cult.

MOVEMENT ROOTS: Founded in Germany in the 1920s, the Bruderhof—like the better-known Amish—are a spinoff of the nonviolent sixteenth-century German Anabaptist movement in which adherents pledged loyalty to God over the state (CT, Mar. 15, 1985, p. 22). Unlike the Amish, they have a long tradition of political involvement. Alarmed in the late 1920s by the rise of the Nazis, the Bruderhofers' resistance ultimately led to their expulsion at gunpoint by the new Nazi state. Their exodus included living in other parts of Europe before settling in Paraguay for 15 years. In 1954, Bruderhofers established their first community in the United States near Rifton, New York. Their communal lifestyle in an individualistic society invites curiosity and suspicion.

"The basis of our communal life is the New Testament," says Bruderhof elder Johann Christoph Arnold. "We simply try to follow as closely as we can Christ's teachings."

Members have no private property but share everything as outlined in Acts, chapters 2 and 4. This theology has led the Bruderhof to set up their own elementary schools, and in an outspoken way to oppose the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia.

Many who encounter the Bruderhofers' commitment to fundamental Christian principles respond with admiration. Catholic thinker Thomas Merton used Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold's book "Why We Live in Community" as the "completely Christian answer" to the question of genuine community living.

Living out Christian ideals, however, has not made for a tranquil journey. Throughout their history, the Bruderhofers' road less traveled has embroiled them in public and internal controversies.

FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: The Bruderhofers' radical pacifism leads them to butt heads naturally with the state over issues such as the death penalty and, in the process, end up as part of unusual and controversial coalitions. In the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, the Bruderhof are working alongside the NAACP and Move, the urban, secular, African American, politically radical group that made headlines a decade ago when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on one of their buildings.

Arnold says, "The gospel leaves us with no other choice but to fight against the death penalty with all of our strength." Bruderhofers believe Abu-Jamal was "framed" in the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and that he did not receive a fair trial. As they have taken part in letter-writing campaigns and protests, new friendships have been forged between the black activists and the German Anabaptists.

The Bruderhofers also have cosponsored the Philadelphia rallies on Abu-Jamal's behalf where Bruderhof children read excerpts from Abu-Jamal's "Live from Death Row." "Mumia has in a sense become one of us," says Arnold. "Even though he is not a believing Christian, his writings have brought the gospel of Christ alive to us in a new way."

Move leader Pam Africa sees similarities in the Bruderhof and Abu-Jamal. "They stand up for their beliefs," she says. "Once the Bruderhof heard about the case and found out about the truth, they didn't sit around and philosophize about it—they put their religion to practice."

HUTTERIAN SPLITS: Although the Bruderhof have found unity in opposing racism and social injustice, they had found themselves increasingly as splintered and isolated as when their movement was founded.

From the beginning of 1920, the relationships between the Bruderhof and the other Hutterite groups have been complex. At that time, Eberhard Arnold, Johann Christoph Arnold's grandfather, founded the Bruderhof in Germany. According to Rich Preheim, assistant editor of the Mennonite Weekly Review, when Arnold established the Bruderhof, patterned after the sixteenth-century Hutterites, he did not know that the direct religious descendants of Anabaptist leader Jacob Hutter were living in North America, organized around three colonies. "Since then, the 'traditional' Brethren, the Western Hutterites, and Arnold's Bruderhof [Eastern Hutterites] have had an on-again, off-again relationship, which is now off," Preheim says.

The Bruderhof's involvement in political controversies, such as Abu-Jamal's case, is incongruent with how other Hutterites approach their much more private and insular faith. "Just because they claim the same foundation in terms of beliefs doesn't mean it gets expressed in the same way," Preheim says. The split between the Bruderhof and some groups within the Western Hutterites seems to be final, while others still hope for reconciliation.

FALSE ACCUSATIONS? In recent years, another struggle for the Bruderhofers has struck closer to home.

For more than a year, the Bruderhof has faced chronic friction from a group of people who have left, 200 of whom loosely identify themselves as Children of the Bruderhof (COB).

COB's accusations against the Bruderhof include punishing dissent with expulsion, preventing some former members from communicating with family still in the group, trying to harass ex-members into silence, and not adhering to all the tenets of the faith. Bruderhofers admit mistakes, but they accuse COB of misrepresenting circumstances.

A typical example of this verbal sparring is an accusation by COB member David Ostrum that Bruderhof elder Arnold compromises his pacifist position by owning a permit to carry a handgun. Arnold acknowledges that a few years ago, he acquired a gun to deal with rabid animals on Bruderhof property, but within two months, he realized that having the weapon was a bad idea and sold it.

Central to the disputes is what COB members believe is the needlessly harsh discipline of children and the overly restrictive control of adult members. In addition, COB members also have been prevented from seeing relatives still among the Bruderhof. Bruderhofers say family members want it that way and that children are expected to abide by strict morals.

When teenagers graduate from high school, they decide whether to join the Bruderhof as adult members. As for adult converts to the Bruderhof, the Hutterites say they let them know upfront they are expected to renounce private property, tobacco, television, and premarital sex. "The decision to join the Bruderhof community is the individual's," says Ian Winter, a Bruderhof leader. "No one is forced into any decisions."

Recent meetings between the Bruderhof and COB members attempting reconciliation have only accentuated tensions between the two groups.

A PROPHETIC WITNESS: As the Bruderhof face the challenges of societal injustices and unresolved internal issues, their community life continues to attract handfuls of refugees from American materialism.

In 1990, physicians Diane and Paul Fox and their four children lived an affluent, hectic lifestyle that left them weary and burdened.

"My first response when I visited [the Bruderhof] was excitement and joy," Diane Fox says. "My second response was, paradoxically, one of dismay. It became more and more clear to me that to attain the freedom that Christ was offering me in community, and I would have to give up all the false freedoms that I had worked so hard to acquire: all the money, all the status, all the apparent security."

Yet, the family has adjusted to the simple lifestyle. "My service is small: I practice medicine, I take my turn at preparing a meal or watching the children, I run an errand, answer the phone occasionally." Diane Fox says. "The miracle is that we receive a hundredfold for the small service that we do. The cars are maintained, the meals prepared, the laundry and cleaning done, the daycare provided, the gardens tended, the children taught, the elderly cared for—all for love, and all for free."

A vital part of the Bruderhof ministry has been to provide a Christian witness that there are viable alternatives to American consumer-driven living. Derek Perkins, executive director of Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, California, has been helped by Bruderhof interns for seven years.

"The Bruderhofers believe that the radical teachings of loving your enemies, serving the poor, being nonviolent, and holding all things in common of Jesus are for the here and now," Perkins says.

Preheim, however, expresses caution about such a lifestyle. "Living in community can be a dangerous thing," Preheim says. "Intentional communities don't have a successful record."

Although the Bruderhofers agree that their radical discipleship puts them on a collision course with American culture, they confidently intermingle Christian community living and social activism into a potent vision of faithfulness.

Back in July at the successful stay of execution hearings for Abu-Jamal, a letter was read from Bruderhof member Richard Thomson, in which he said that if the stay was not granted, "I want to offer my own life and accept the lethal injection … so that [Mumia] may live and your law be satisfied."


This article appeared originally in a November 1995 issue of Christianity Today. Here is a link to the article on CT’s website.