Book excerpt: The long struggle between patriotism and pacifism at Tabor College


Dear Rebecca:

When I brought up Tabor College’s spat over having athletes stand for the anthem, I neglected to mention that such struggles are nothing new in the college’s history. I entered Tabor in fall of 1991, just a few months after the First Gulf War had concluded.  The residual tensions between the pacifists and the pacifists lingered freshly at that point.

But I had no idea how much that struggle practically defines Tabor’s history — until we heard from historian James Juhnke. He graciously sent along an excerpt of his 2016 book,   A People of Two Kingdoms II, Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politicswhich describes an earlier incident. The two volumes of his work together tell “the story of Mennonite political acculturation in Kansas,” he writes. The excerpt here is reprinted with his permission.




Hillsboro and Tabor College.   The town of Hillsboro, population about three thousand, outdid all other towns of south central Kansas in bicentennial celebrations in 1976.  Governor John Carlin of Kansas designated Hillsboro an official “Bicentennial Town.”   Hillsboro’s civic leaders managed to attract two nationally-sponsored exhibitions—an “Official Bicentennial Wagon Train” in March and the “Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan” in October.  The Bicentennial Wagon Train was one of several in the country that traversed historic national trails and converged at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on July 4.   The Hillsboro Star-Journal estimated that five thousand people attended the Main-Street parade, and some four thousand stayed for the evening program in Memorial Park for a program that included a choral group from Pennsylvania University.[i]   The Wagon Train had national corporate sponsorship, but the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan was a public relations project for the U. S. Department of Defense.[ii]

In addition, the local Hillsboro Bicentennial Commission, co-chaired by Carol Wiebe and Ray Baker, organized its own Memorial Day “Bicentennial Birthday Celebration” on May 29.   The parade included a 13-man military color guard from Fort Riley, American Legion members and the Boy Scouts.  Garner Shriver, fourth-district congressman, spoke at the dedication of a new civic center.   Golfers participated in a bicentennial golf tournament, one of many community events.   The Hillsboro Star-Journal, published a special 24-page issue, including a “Special Bicentennial Section.”   On the first page were illustrations of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of Independence Hall, of a fife and drum corps, of a patriot lighting a cannon to shoot ships in the harbor, and of a Betsy Ross sewing thirteen stars onto an American flag. [iii]

The Mennonites of Hillsboro had mixed reactions to the bicentennial celebrations.  One enthusiastic supporter was Elmer W. Flaming, president of the First National Bank and leading member of the Parkview Mennonite Brethren church.   Annoyed by articles in the MB denominational periodical, The Christian Leader, that were critical of American civil religion, Flaming wrote an essay titled “Why Celebrate the Bicentennial.”   He said, “The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of their belief and faith in God.  It is a religious document from the first sentence to the last.  It affirms God’s existence as self-evident truth which requires no further discussion or debate.  The nation it creates is God’s country.”  For Flaming the bicentennial celebrations represented “our opportunity and challenge to revive America with an injection of the same religious faith and dedication that brought about the birth of a great nation.”[iv]

On the opposite side were some teachers and students at Tabor College, located a few blocks south and east of the center of town.   Tabor was wrestling with its identity as a Mennonite Christian liberal arts college.  One new faculty member who arrived at Tabor in January 1976 found Tabor to be a “hornet’s nest” of controversy.[v]  At the center of debate were a number of young idealistic faculty members who urged Tabor to become a distinctively Anabaptist Christian school with a strong peace emphasis.   On the other side were teachers and administrators who promoted a conservative evangelical identity that would attract more students of non-Mennonite background.   Students in a college forum presentation identified the parties as “the pacifists versus the patriots.  The alleged Mennonite ethnicists versus Protestantism.”[vi]  One label for the idealists was “radical neo-Anabaptists.”[vii]

In the fall of 1975 the Tabor College homecoming committee decided on a bicentennial theme, “Highlights of History,” for the homecoming parade.   The committee invited student groups to create floats portraying events from America’s past.   Some students and teachers of “neo-Anabaptist” persuasion protested.  The student Christian Fellowship Association (CFA), led by Curt Kuhns and Gordon Zerbe, decided to boycott the parade, asking “whether we as a Christian college could celebrate a government that was established by the overthrow of another, has a long history of war, and where so many things are not of God.” [viii]   Don Ratzlaff, editor of the student paper, critiqued the CFA’s decision:  “At a time when our country needs a moral shot in the arm, CFA proposes we give it a mortal shot in the head.  America is in dire need of a Christian influence, not a Christian cop-out.”[ix]

A year later, in October 1976, the neo-Anabaptist group at Tabor mobilized a public protest when the most militaristic of Hillsboro’s bicentennial events, the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan, came to town.  The caravan consisted of four large semi-truck trailers that contained museum displays for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, “recounting the contributions made to America by her armed forces.”   An Army spokesman for the display said it was not a recruiting program, but rather “a concerted effort by the Armed Forces to bring the American Revolution Bicentennial closer to the people of Hillsboro and the surrounding communities.”[x]   In the Air Force Van, said the promotion, “Fifteen projectors and more than 700 slides are used simultaneously in the 17-minute show to highlight the Air Force’s role in aviation in its early stages, during the two world wars, in space research and in today’s world.”   The Defense Department was spending a lot of money to refurbish its reputation tarnished by defeat in the Vietnam War.

The Tabor College protesters decided to set up a counter-military display, deliberately crude and low-tech to contrast with the sophisticated and expensive military caravan museums.  For a display table for peace literature they rolled in a large wooden utility-wire frame and tipped it on its side.  They parked their bicycles in front of the gas-guzzling military semi trailers, and put up a sign, “CHRISTIANS ARE CONCERNED, HAS WAR EVER MADE PEACE?”  Visitors to the peace display engaged the protestors in friendly as well as hostile conversation.  At his noon break, a young mechanic from the nearby Ford Company came to argue that the military forces celebrated in the Caravan museums were the reason the protesters had the right to free speech.  K. B. Bruce, editor of the Hillsboro Star-Journal, made the same point editorially: “The history portrayed in this fine caravan gave those few individuals Saturday their right to distribute material for peace in this country.”[xi]

Intense reaction to the Caravan confrontation put Roy Just, Tabor College president, in a difficult situation.  Elmer Flaming, conservative Main Street banker, called Just and asked him to rein in his protesting students and faculty.  On the other side, Ben Ollenburger, professor of religious studies and philosophy, distributed a statement for the “Tabor Forum.”   The statement scolded the college for failing to support the protesters.  They should rather be commended for “an act of courage and faithfulness in giving public testimony to the New Testament message of peace.”   And, said Ollenburger, the college should renew its commitment “to be faithful to the tradition and theology which is the reason for this school’s existence.”[xii]  President Just attempted to mediate between his radical faculty members and conservative major donors.[xiii]  According to Frank Brenneman, one of the faculty protesters, Just agreed with the ideals of the neo-Anabaptists.  But he wanted the radicals to know that Tabor College could not ignore someone like Flaming, a major financial contributor whose bank held the major share of Tabor College’s debt.[xiv]

The “Caravan confrontation” prompted G. George Ens, a medical doctor in Hillsboro, to write out his own version of the underlying issues, and to send them to President Just with copies to three of Tabor’s neo-Anabaptists (John E. Toews, Ben Ollenburger, and Al Dueck).  In Ens’s view, two philosophies were contending for the minds of Tabor students.  One was the “Christian capitalist” philosophy that had sustained the Mennonite Brethren Church.   It held to an atonement theology with salvation in Christ followed by evangelism and mission work; believed in the validity of capital and benevolence; valued a thrifty and frugal life-style; and respected government as instituted by God.   The alternative “socialistic” philosophy, which was threatening to undermine the church, criticized “cheap grace;” thought money was evil; advocated poverty and communalism; was anti-American and avoided involvement in government except for negative prophetic witness.

The Bicentennial-related events and discussions of 1975-76 were one part of an ongoing social and theological process among the Mennonite Brethren and at Tabor College.  Roy Just, president of Tabor from 1963 to 1980, was widely perceived as having shifted sharply conservative in the latter years of his presidency.  According to Lynn Jost, co-author of the history of Tabor College, President Just after 1973 envisioned Tabor as “a school of evangelistic mission,” but the faculty resisted, “insisting on the historic liberal arts mission.”[xv]In 1976 Just hired Calvin Redekop to the position of Vice-President, knowing that Redekop would be a strong advocate of Anabaptist identity at Tabor.   However, the outspoken neo-Anabaptists, including Redekop, all left Tabor College in the late 1970s, convinced that Tabor had chosen definitively to move in a conservative evangelical, rather than an Anabaptist, direction.[xvi]  The American bicentennial dialogue in Hillsboro illustrated the acculturation process of Mennonite Brethren toward conservative evangelicalism.

[i] Hillsboro Star-Journal, 28 April 1976, 2-A, 5-A.

[ii] “Armed Forces Caravan in Hillsboro Saturday,”  Tabor View,1 October 1976, 2.

[iii] Star Journal, 26 May 1976,  A-1.  The Star Journal published a special 24-page issue, including a “Special Bicentennial Section.”

[iv] Elmer W. Flaming, “Why Celebrate the Bicentennial,” The Christian Leader, 20 July 1976, 16

[v] Scott Chesebro, telephone interview with the author, 14 December 2011.

[vi] Undated paper by students Daniel Born,Ted Braun, Will Friesen, Charlie Havens, and Gordon Zerbe.  From Calvin Redekop collection.   Key faculty member in the “neo-Anabaptist” group were John E. Toews and Ben Ollenburger of the Bible and Religion department, and  Al Dueck, psychology department.

[vii] Scott Chesebro, telephone interview with the author, 14 December 2011.   Chesebro, sociology teacher  not in the neo-Anabaptist group, had a reputation  as a Marxist.   Gordon Zerbe email message to the author, 9 December 2011.

[viii] The Tabor View, 24 October 1975,  1.

[ix] Don Ratzlaff,  “How Will We Respond?” The Tabor View, 24 October 1975, 2.  In other editorials Ratzlaff was critical of militarism and nationalism.  He suggested that the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” should be replaced with a less war-like song.

[x] Hillsboro Star-Journal, “Service van visits city,” 29 September 1976.

[x] K. B. Bruce, “Missed the Point.” Hillsboro Star-Journal, 6 October 1976, 2.


[xii] Untitled statement by Ben C. Ollenburger, 11 November 1976.  Calvin Redekop collection.

[xiii] Ben Ollenburger, email message to the author, 8 December 2011.

[xiv] Frank Brenneman, telephone interview with the author, 20 December 2011.

[xv] Tabor College, a Century of Transformation 1908-2008. Douglas B. Miller, editor (Hillsboro:  Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 2008), 135.   Section three, “A Time of Stability and Growth (1956-1980), by Lynn Jost,  95- 140.

[xvi] Calvin Redekop, email message to the author, 11 December 2011.

In politics: Purity, pragmatism, or something else?


Dear Rebecca:

In 1996, I became convinced by my understanding of Mennonite theology that participating in the presidential election was a fool’s game — with no 100 percent honorable selection for me to make, I skipped the contest.

In 2000, I slipped a bit, but tried to keep my purity: I voted for Ralph Nader. We know how that turned out.

And in 2004, I had given up on entirely on any question but beating George W. Bush. I voted for John Kerry.

Which is all a way of saying, once again, that you’re right: George W. Bush was an awful president, and having him speak out against Donald Trump doesn’t mean, suddenly, that he wasn’t an awful president. People are still dying in the Middle East thanks to some of his misguided choices.

But I’m not sure that’s sufficient.

As you know, I had a column at today suggesting Democratic-leaning anti-Trumpers need to do a better job of making outspoken anti-Trump Republicans feel welcome in the, um, “resistance.” Democrats don’t have the political power to contain Trump on their own, and besides, having Republicans join the bandwagon — even timidly and tentatively — lends some legitimacy to the effort.

We don’t have to forget that John McCain is overly hawkish, or that Bob Corker wanted to be Trump’s secretary of state, or that George W. Bush was a historically awful president. But right now, the priority for lefties should be to contain and eventually end Donald Trump’s presidency. They shouldn’t be so eager to turn away allies. Liberals must learn to take “yes” for an answer.

 But of course, liberals don’t have to learn to take yes for an answer, do they?

Mennonites have long struggled over the best way to approach the politics of this world. “Mennonites have taken one of three or more approaches to civil politics,” Caryl Guth wrote at The Mennonite in 2009. We jump in as the world does, in a partisan way. Or we become fundamentalist and participate like dogmatists. Or we remain ‘pure’ and don’t vote at all.”

That sounds right — hell, I think I’ve done all three. For lots of Mennonites, for lots of citizens, there’s a constant struggle between the desire for purity, to remain true to one’s principles, and the temptation to be pragmatic for the sake of effectiveness. For now, I’m choosing the latter, as you can probably tell from the column.

But I think there’s a place for purity, in witnessing to the “right” way to do things as opposed to the easy or easily available. I think, in the church, this is known as having a “prophetic” voice.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. But if you do choose the pragmatic path, it means having to make peace with the idea that we’ll need to build coalitions with people we considered compromised, who have taken actions we think are bad, whose motivations we do not share, whose ultimate aims might diverge wildly from ours, just because — for a second at least — we share a common goal.

I think Donald Trump is not merely an awful president, but uniquely dangerous to our norms, institutions, and rights in this country — indeed, possibly dangerous to our very survival. Which is why I’m choosing pragmatism. And why I’m even choosing to make a little peace with the idea of having George W. Bush as an ally. I can’t say it’s thrilling. I do think maybe the times demand it.

But it may not be for everybody.



My “antifa” conundrum

Dear Rebecca:


One thing about being Mennonite: It offers clarity. Violence is the wrong answer, always, no matter the question.

I’m a quasi-lapsed, quasi-worshipful Mennonite these days. It’s complicated. And it complicates how I’m viewing the events in Charlottesville and its aftermath.

See, I’m not a fan of the billy-club wielding “antifa” crews. And I strongly suspect that folks who rely on violence to advance their ideology are in pretty big danger of becoming “fa” sooner or later, no matter how they describe themselves.


I’m also having a hard time getting as angry about the antifa folks as I am about the Nazis who used lethal violence in the name of white supremacy.

Motives matter. We have a billion different ways of judging wrongful deaths based on the motivations of the killer. (Neglect will get you a few years in prison; heat of the moment anger a few years more; something judged a “hate” crime can get you sent away even longer.) But … they don’t for Mennonites.

Violence is violence is violence, and violence is wrong. But I’m having trouble condemning all of it with equal fervor.

This troubles me.

With anguish,

Anger, and the present moment

Dear Rebecca:

I don’t trust my anger. I don’t trust it to help me be wise or to act with love or even, really, to be just. I think it’s why Mennonite pacifism appeals to me so: Violence is the most natural response to anger, and eliminating it from your toolbox forces you to consider other ways of channeling it.

You know that scene in The Avengers? Let’s say I understand it better than I prefer to admit:

Here’s the thing: I think my distrust of my anger might also be a luxury. There’s lots to be righteously angry about. A president who can’t quite condemn racism, for example.

And let’s face it, Jesus — well, he never killed or injured anyone. It’s impossible for me to imagine doing so in his name.

But… he could get pissed once in awhile, couldn’t he?

(What I love about that scene: The 80s action-movie horns.)

I don’t have a grand conclusion I’m drifting towards here: I am constantly enraged these days, depressed when the rage wears off, and I don’t really know the best way to make it something productive.

So I find myself lingering on these verses. I hope you’ll forgive the sexism of the King James Version here, Rebecca, because except for that, this is my favorite version of this passage:

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good:
and what doth the Lord require of thee
but to do justly
and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with thy God?

Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

I’ve got a long way to go.

With respect, Joel

Love, gays, Mennonites, and me

Dear Rebecca:

You mention the Mennonite gathering at Orlando this week. As it happens, I was at the 2001 conference in Nashville that created the Mennonite Church USA. Tough to believe there’s a whole generation of high school students with no memories of “GCs” and “MCs.” We’ve been a united (ahem) church for a little while now.

The shirt from the 2001 Nashville conference.

That trip to Nashville affected me two ways:

•It made me love Mennonites more than ever.

•It helped drive me out of the church.

The reason for the first is simple: It’s difficult — for me, anyway — to spend days with Mennonites from across the country, much of that time spend in fellowship and worship and prayer with them, and not come away inspired by the breadth and sweep of the faith. Simply: I met a lot of good people at Nashville — including a few with whom I was in disagreement.

But yes: It helped drive me out, too. Why?

That year, the organization of gay and lesbian Mennonites were not allowed to have a display or official presence in the conference’s main hall. So they set up shop in hotel across the street, instead. I went over, to listen and to talk, and ultimately to worship with those folks.

I met a middle-aged Mennonite couple. I don’t remember their names at this point. But one of the men had had a heart attack a few years before. The other had nursed him back to health. And it was inhering their story that any ambivalence that remained in my heart was washed away: This was love. It was a good thing. And I decided in that moment the onus was not on them to prove they belonged in a faith community, but on a faith community that could look at that love and call it evil.

My faith was tenuous anyway, admittedly. But between that and other events, I decided a couple of things:

•I didn’t believe that God wanted me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community.

•If God DID want me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community, that was not a god worthy of my worship.

•In any case, I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.

I’ve been slowly stepping back into the church of late. It helps that I have a congregation here in Lawrence where I don’t have to have these arguments. (Though the congregation’s history is imperfect on such matters.) But I confess to not being sure how to address the arguments that remain in the broader Mennonite Church. I know that my friends who love each other also love God and I’m pretty sure God loves them too. I don’t know what else to say about it.

Respectfully, Joel