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A City Upon A Hill Looks Down on Persian Gulf War

February 8, 1991

RIFTON, N.Y. (AP) _ In a secluded, wooded enclave nestled in the Catskills, members of a religious society founded more than 450 years ago as a testament that men and women can live together in peace are again anguishing over war.

Since the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, Hutterian Brethren who rarely leave their self-sufficient community have sent envoys to Saudi Arabia, their children to sing peace songs in Washington and letters to Congress.

In times of war, even a city built upon a hill becomes involved in political debates.

″Somehow, a challenge must be met to seek the truth in each one’s heart,″ said Ronald Landsel, a Vietnam veteran who was baptized as a Hutterite five years ago. ″That actually, we are co-responsible for what is happening in the Middle East, in Central America, in the Baltics.″

While many Americans and some religious leaders support the U.S. military effort on the grounds war against Iraq is the lesser of two evils, Hutterites in upstate New York have become more committed than ever to living a pacifistic way of life in which material goods are shared and conflicts resolved through discussions rather than across a battlefield.

″The bottom line: Our most important contribution is to say, look, here we are, we have our problems, but we are here living together in God’s grace as brothers and sisters as it is possible for every man and woman on this planet,″ said Bill Wiser, 33, who returned earlier this month from a week in Saudi Arabia.

Begun in 1528 in Moravia, the Hutterian Brethren are not only one of the oldest surviving Anabaptist groups, but also perhaps the only communal society of its size in North America that has grown over the years. About 35,000 Hutterites live in more than 350 communities, or bruderhofs. In their simple dress and communal lifestyle, Hutterian Brethren take seriously the admonition of the apostle Peter to ″save yourselves from this crooked generation.″

In the Woodcrest and Pleasant View bruderhofs in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, members support themselves largely through the sale of children’s toys and handicapped equipment built at factories within the communities. Children do not attend public schools until the ninth grade, and nearly all meals are eaten communally.

Families are limited to a few rooms and simple furniture in dull, modern apartment buildings. Members take a vow of poverty, sharing all but the smallest items of personal property. The heat is turned down even lower these days out of a belief energy conservation may have kept the United States out of a war in the oil-rich Middle East.

The world the Hutterites have created on the hillsides is modeled after those of the earliest Christian communities nearly 2,000 years ago. Even in an age that glorifies material possessions, its appeal is enduring, and is expected to grow as the war goes on and more people search for alternatives.

The sense of self-sacrifice for a common good was important to Derek Wardle when he decided in 1943 to be a conscientious objector, even as he was becoming aware of the atrocities committed in German concentration camps.

″I just couldn’t go on living comfortably. I had to give my life also for what I believed,″ said Wardle, 68.

While many members are second or third generation Hutterites - marriages are arranged within the communities - others like Wardle came to the community only after agonizing over the moral dilemmas of war.

Caroll King looked plaintively at a visitor as he himself posed the question that has haunted him since he flew Allied bombing missions in World War II.

″What does one do to a Hitler, a Hussein? ... What do you do with a tyrant, a madman, somebody that is going to destroy?″ King asked.

He said he joined the Hutterites after deciding the Christian injunction to love your enemies was meant to be taken literally, and that retribution even for someone like Hitler is best left in God’s hands.

″The major reason is not that they have the human answers, but they have a personal calling that has hope of an answer, more of an answer than was available anywhere else.″

Bill Wiser’s father, Arthur, was spurred to greater pacifism after learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, going to prison for seven months rather than continue in an alternative service program he had been placed in as a conscientious objector.

″The realization came to me simply obeying orders from the government because you’ve been ordered to do something can lead to terrible things,″ Arthur Wiser said.

In the Hutterite community today, prayers for peace make no distincition among the victims in Iraq or Israel or the United States.

Their methods of protest are gentle, such as letter-writing campaigns and busing the community’s children to Washington to sing songs of peace in front of the White House. They disassociate with members of the peace movement who are ″disrespectful″ toward the government.

″Burning the flag is a totally inappropriate response for a peace movement. That’s violence, in my opinion,″ said Bill Wiser, who personally contacted 120 congressional offices to express his opposition to the war.

After nearly a half-millenium of wars despite their peaceful witness, Hutterites have adopted a sense of humility.

″I don’t think we ever had expectations of making a difference,″ said Mary Wiser, Bill’s mother. ″But we had to be a start, a breakthrough so people will know there can be something different.″

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