Hutterites and the Pandemic

I was planing to get this piece published when I first wrote it back in April. When that fell through, I decided to make some changes and repost it here.

There is something analogous, though it might betray my Protestant irreverence to say so, between the value an older Hutterite sees in the common community meal, and how a faithful Catholic describes the Holy Host. Of course, Hutterites don’t believe that we are eating the flesh and blood of Christ when we raise the spoon of Geaschtle soup to our lips, but there is something of the same, sacramental quality to a shared meal. Just as the Catholic feels malnourished when he is deprived of the Eucharist, so too the Hutterite feels alienated, his Geaschtle Soup somehow made secular, when it is eaten alone in his home. So, in these recent months, Hutterites and Catholics find themselves dog paddling in the same bowl. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping in waves across Canada, the US, and the entire world, Christians of all denominations must find new ways to practice their faith in a world turned upside down. Catholics attend virtual masses. Pope Francis prays for healing to a dark and empty St. Peter’s square. Hutterites listen to sermons on Zoom. In my own region in Manitoba, with gatherings limited to under ten people, we must take our meals at home, deprived of communal worship and shared meals. Even the 10:00 coffee break, a time of banter and chess for the working men, has been reduced to a shadow of itself. For many, this is unsettling. 

The Hutterite life is a life of rhythm and routine. It is a participation in patterns of life older and deeper than yourself. To be a Christian in a Hutterian community, becomes, not so much an abstract belief, as much as finding ones place along the same, well-worn path. The daily pattern of communal meals, daily work and evening services is the liturgy of the Hutterite life. It is by this daily participation that the Christian virtues of faithfulness, selflessness, humility and patience are built into the very being of the Hutterite. 

There is something sacramental about this life. For just as it is this daily grind which forms you, it is also this mundane existence where transcendence shines through—for those with the eyes to see. Hutterites encounter Christ in the one seated before them at breakfast, in the chirping birds on the way to work, and in the communal hymn sung at the service. It is the simple which reveals God, and it is the daily grind, in all its conflict, ugliness and pain, that sometimes shimmers and fades, to reveal, for a brief moment, the kingdom of God.

To have these ancient rhythms disrupted then, is for many of my fellow Hutterites, strange and unsettling. These shared practices are a key part of what forms and constitutes our identity. What does it mean to be a Hutterite, with community schools closed, meals taken at home, hymns sung over the public address system, and coffee break abridged? Likewise, for many of my fellow Hutterites, the call by leaders to “self isolate” and “practice social distancing” seems anathema to the Hutterian values of cooperation, selflessness and hospitality. What is a Hutterite in self isolation? That is the question of quarantine. 

And yet, our God, a God made flesh, is a God of paradox. As people of the foolishness of the cross, for whom the cross is victory and death culminates in resurrection, we must always be on the lookout for an inversion: seemingly hopeless situations are precisely where resurrection springs from. What if the pandemic that seems so opposed to community life, could actually be the very vitalization of true community?

The rhythms of Hutterian life can become a lullaby; the well worn path, a rut; community life, a chore. That beautiful vision of life that caught hold of the first Hutterites can become distorted, smudged or ossified. The treasure buried and the lamp hidden under a basket. The pandemic makes us all ask: what is really important to us? When it comes down to life and death, the question becomes, what is essential? Put another way, the pandemic asks the question that haunts many of us: what is a Hutterite? Is a Hutterite someone who wears suspenders or a kerchief? Someone who goes dutifully to communal meals? Or does it go so much deeper? The pandemic forces us to strip back the layers of custom to get to the beating heart of what it means to be a Hutterite.  

I saw this happen, in a small way, in my own community when the Manitoba government reduced gathering sizes to fifty in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This meant that we could no longer come together with the community to have a shared meal. We decided to split up and make two dining rooms, one in the upstairs portion of our communal kitchen, and the other, in the basement. Half of us would eat downstairs—mostly the young people—and the other half upstairs—mostly the married couples. It doesn’t sound like all that big of a deal. The decision, after all, to follow the law and protect our vulnerable members, was an easy one. And yet, this simple decision moved us one step closer to discovering what it is to be a Hutterite. We realized that there is an essential core to our shared life that we want to preserve, regardless of what form it takes: the common meal and the fellowship that comes with it. In doing so, we transcended years of debate over external issues of community structure and reached that essence of communal life. Will COVID-19 have more to teach us about who we are? I hope so. 

The irony that our relatively insular communities are being affected by a virus that originated across the world in China has not been lost on my fellow Hutterites. However, there is something worth pondering about the fact that the Chinese, Manitoba Hutterites and the rest of the world, suddenly share the same predicament. In this strange moment, all of humanity is united by a common concern—a Coronavirus communion if you will. We are reminded in a very tangible and painful way of an eternal truth: all of humanity shares the same origin in God the Father and languishes under the same bondage to the Powers that Christ came to defeat. It has always been true that humanity, along with all of creation, is in this together. One of the early Hutterites, Andreas Ehrenpreis, in his 1650 epistle, Brotherly Community: the Highest Command of Love, powerfully reminds us of the fact that we are all siblings, and children of God: “If we really believe that all men have one God and one Father, we cannot possibly seek to gain or maintain an advantage over one of our brothers.” He continues, asking how we can be so apathetic to the need and poverty “of His children.” “Surely,” Ehrenpreis writes, “if we still seek our own advantage, the love is extinguished and cold in us.” He admonishes the man who would ask, “should I give bread to people I do not know?” with the blunt observation: “This is how we become evil.” He concludes: “The cries of the poor surround us like dark shadows; they have nothing… while we have more than enough of the best.”

The early Hutterites, to paraphrase Cyprian, did not merely speak great things, they lived them. Ehrenpreis goes on to describe his community, and their particular calling to serve the poor. “God wants us to serve the poor” he writes, and “Christian community is the best way to put this love into practice.” Ehrenpreis describes how his community, though “we own nothing ourselves,” by their sharing of all possessions in common, are able to provide the “poor and homeless” with daily meals and “an adequate standard of living.” Their entire life, according to Ehrenpreis, revolved around the service of the less fortunate. “This is done,” he writes, out of love, “purely for the sake of Christ and the sake of the poor.”

What a challenging image Ehrenpreis presents us with! The purpose of communal living for Ehrenpreis, is not so that members can live comfortable middle class lives, but rather, so that they can better serve the vulnerable. This is a Church that is not concerned with itself or its own power: it is a Church of weakness that is pointed outwards, to serve others. In our privileged lives here in the West, it is easy to forget this original purpose. It is far too easy to see community life as first and foremost about ourselves and our own comfort. Instead of seeing community life as it was intended to be, for the service of the destitute. As a beachhead to launch the work of the Kingdom. 

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis describes his vision of the Church. In words that strike too close to home for our own comfort, he contrasts a Church that lives to serve others with a Church that is turned in on itself: 

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security… My hope is that we will be moved by fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within which rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: Give them something to eat.

The pandemic turns the Hutterite face away from the mirror and out the window to our suffering neighbour. It reminds us that, as Kenny Wollman put it, “we too are part of this world,” and that we must return to our original calling to serve the vulnerable. I have already seen the fruits of this in my own community. I can’t remember any other time in recent memory where we have been so motivated to reach out to help others. Early on in the pandemic, when the lockdown hadn’t yet forced us into self isolation in our homes, everyone was asking how we could do more to help. Our Colony offered to provide food for those stuck at home. The ladies were busy making masks, headbands and other items for care workers and the affected public. Our water plant has never been so busy filling orders for disinfectant. It is my hope that as the pandemic sweeps across the world, that Hutterites may be moved outside of our own comfort and stability, out of our internal conflicts, to become a church that lives to proclaim the joy of the gospel. 

But if the pandemic has brought a Coronovirus communion of sorts, not everything we now share with each other is good and true. The same memes, conspiracy theories and fake cures that populate everyone’s facebook feeds, also find their way into Hutterite WhatsApp groups. It seems like that strange, conspiratorial, hyper politicized, believe-whatever-the-random-person-on-youtube-says, kind of worldview attracts more people than I would have thought. Perhaps whenever a crisis hits, a certain segment of the population will gravitate towards simple, us versus them, black and white, scapegoating theories: Something is wrong, it must be my culture war enemy’s fault. I remember a pretty poignant example of this from early on in the pandemic, back before the political lines were so firmly entrenched. Back then, there were only a few cases in the USA and no one was sure what to expect. I was scrolling through my podcast feed—I don’t have Instagram or Facebook so I find myself updating my podcast feed several times a day instead—and came across a new episode from a Catholic Rad Trad (short for “Radical Traditionalist”). In the podcast, the host and his most distinguished guest asked the serous question: “Did Pope Francis Help Cause the COVID-19 Pestilence?” I subjugated myself to the episode so that you, dear reader, don’t have to, and learned that the answer to the question is ‘Yes.’ My Catholic hosts informed me that God had sent this pestilence because the Vatican (and Pope Francis) had idolatrously worshiped Asherah, an obscure biblical goddess and the wife of Baal. They arrived at this conclusion through the purest objectivity and those who disagree just can’t face ‘the truth.’

Roughly around the same time, among the Hutterite version of Rad Trad Catholicism, similar sentiments were brewing. The Rad Trad Hutterites, in contrast to their Catholic counterparts, do not think that salvation is to be found in Latin Mass and priestly garb, but instead put their faith in suspenders, traditional Hutterite singing, and the German language. Despite their many differences, the Hutterite and the Catholic Trads agreed on one thing: through COVID-19, God was judging us… for something. In poorly written German letters circulated around our colonies, writers bemoaned the ‘lack of faith’ of the communities that were suspending communal meals and church services to help stop the spread of the virus. This abominable violation of the traditional way of doing things would only do more to kindle the wrath of God, who was already sharpening his spear and bringing it down on those who disobeyed his will. What heights of unbelieving foolishness! So argued the Hutterite Trads. Observing this cross denominational phenomenon, it’s interesting to see how those gods made in our own image come down in judgement against such diverse and contradictory enemies. When the god we worship is our own mind, his enemies, are our enemies. 

As the pandemic dragged on, the conspiracy theories evolved along with it. Early on, when COVID-19 was a mysterious and fearful force, many were quick to equate it with God’s judgement on their culture war enemies, as the fruit of globalism, or some other partisan whipping boy. Now, months into the pandemic, with many people’s patience with the restrictions running thin and worry giving way to exasperation, the conspiracy theories now tell a completely different story. Instead of the pandemic being a fearsome judgement from an angry god, it is now the invention of the Democrats or a shadowy global cabal hoping to usher in a “new world order.” In a fanatical letter written to Donald Trump, Carlo Maria Viganò, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, wrote about a great battle being waged between “the children of light and the children of darkness.” The “children of darkness” in Viganò’s mind were easily to be identified with “the deep state which you (Donald Trump) wisely oppose and which is fearfully waging war against you these days. Behind the COVID-19 response, Viganó claimed was a “colossal operation of social engineering.” The “riots in these days” were also “provoked” by this same mysterious cabal, who “hope to profit from the dissolution of the social order so as to build a world without freedom.” Even the Church is not free from this corruption, since they are “subservient to the deep state, to globalism, to aligned thought, to the New World Order.” Some observers have argued that the language and ideas expressed in the letter seem to indicate that Viganò is drawing on the infamous Q-Anon Conspiracy theory

Meanwhile, on Hutterite social media, similar kinds of memes and videos about one world governments, implanted brain chips, 5G gone rogue, miracle cures, or villainous vaccines, were circulated. I heard conversations about how COVID-19 was all a scam and how the response was, to put it in Viganò’s terms: a “colossal operation of social engineering.”

If I held any sympathies for such theories, they were quickly dispelled when my community brought out a testing unit to do mass testing. If this was indeed all a grand conspiracy, I expected something large and impressive. I imagined a fleet of unmarked government trucks pulling in at the crack of dawn. The black clad secret agents would dismount and squint into the sun through their dark sunglasses; some slowly chewing their gum, others muttering into their ear pieces. I figured they would quickly construct a system of walled barricades and systematically lead us through, like sheep to the slaughter. They would ask invasive questions behind plexiglass screens, poke us with thick needles, prod us along us with cattle rods, and then end the whole ordeal by shoving microchips up our brain in leu of nose swabs.

I was sorely disappointed. Instead of black trucks, a fleet of minivans pulled in. The nurses wore shorts and T-shirts rather than hazmat suits. They were nice. Our Colony had to provide the plastic foldable tables and we gave them some old brown chairs from our school to sit on. There were no walls or barricades, only two, pathetic, pylons. I think we provided those as well. No microchips were shoved up my nose, but the nose swab did open my sinus. The whole two-bit operation looked like a Grandma’s bake sale except there were no cookies. They told us the health nurse would check up on us daily. Several weeks later the health nurse called for the first time and said they had forgotten about me. Not exactly the stuff of the Deep State. But then again, maybe thats what they want you to believe. 

I’ve noticed in talking to people about the COVID-19 response that I have a really hard time conceding even the most mundane points to the critics. Our conversations tend to devolve into each of us taking on more and more extreme versions of our original positions and becoming more firmly entrenched in our own side. Thinking about why this happens, I’ve realized there are two things going on. First, I’m bringing assumptions about what the person must be thinking about the COVID-19 response, to the conversation. I’m conflating their, personal perspective with the online craziness of the Conspiracy Theorists. I’ve also noticed that even if I don’t think she is buying into Deep State conspiracy theories, I’m afraid that her general skepticism will feed into those theories, and give support to the faction that does. This leads directly to the second point, which is the real reason these conversations (and all other ‘hot button’ debates) are so difficult. They are almost impossible to have, because at bottom, they are not about truth, but about power. The real reason I get nervous about conspiracy thinking and Coronavirus skepticism is because those views contain an implicit claim about how we should be or should have responded to the pandemic. Talking with the skeptic makes me anxious because we are really playing power games instead of having a debate about the truth. I could have the exact same conversation with someone who agrees with me about how to respond to COVID-19, and not feel the same latent anxiety. That’s simply because there are no power games underneath our debate about the facts.

Perhaps the only way to disarm conspiracy thinking and to bring different sides of the culture wars together is to strive to have powerless conversations. What if we were to encounter our opponent, not as the embodiment of evil, but as a person? What if we were to put our agendas—legitimate as they may be—to the side, and make ourselves vulnerable to the truth the Other speaks? What if we gave up our latent anxiety about ‘giving the other side too much’ and learned to “live out of control” instead? Perhaps then, the hostility between us could be disarmed by the foolishness of the cross, and a new understanding, one we never thought possible, could grow from the tomb.

Meanwhile, life continues in my Hutterite community. I walk along the sidewalk, past the willow trees and the four family houses. I’m on my way to my job, I am a welder and I enjoy it. I walk past the gleaming white kitchen where our meals are prepared. I smile at my neighbour as she passes me on the sidewalk and says “Good Morning.” It’s quite something how far those little words can go. I walk past the office where my community’s finances are dealt with, and out onto the gravel road. I look to the east, and see the sun coming up over the prairie, the yellow beams breaking a line through the fog. And then, as I walk into the rising sun, the fog hiding the future from my sight, I see the world briefly shimmer and fade, to reveal, for a brief moment, the kingdom of God. 

2 thoughts on “Hutterites and the Pandemic

  1. A friend bade me read this. I enjoyed some of your observations about winning by losing, inversion or subversion, Kingdom of God in the grind of daily life, what some traditions mean and don’t mean, and how conversations/debates are so difficult because they’re about power and maintaining it, rather than truth. That understanding of power dynamics will take you a long way towards understanding people.

    I am thinking of you at this time of immense loss in your life, in your family’s life. I have no words, only deep grief and heartbreak for you. Der Herr sei mit euch. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

    “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”―Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith.

    Liked by 1 person

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