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.

July 4 and Mennonites

Dear Rebecca:

Do you celebrate July 4?

That’s a question I don’t think will compute for many of our non-Mennonite readers. But our church has a long history of eschewing patriotism, particularly where it curdled into militarism — the folks I grew up with in Central Kansas were descended from people who (in the popular telling) had fled from Germany to Russia to avoid fighting in German wars, then Russia to America to avoid being conscripted into Russian wars. Back in World Wars I and II, those folks had grown extremely unpopular: People with German names — a lot of them still spoke the language, assimilating slowly — wouldn’t take up arms against the Krauts! It wasn’t a popular position.

The manifestations of that theology remain unpopular in the broader culture. A few years ago, a conservative talk show host aroused popular anger against Goshen College because it didn’t play the national anthem prior to sporting events. “It is, after all, about a military battle (“bombs bursting in air,” etc.), and some Mennonites believe that any expression of patriotism, placing love of country above love of God, risks idolatry,” the New York Times reported. “Countries rise and fall; the message of Jesus is supposed to be eternal.” Goshen briefly backed down, but ultimately settled on playing a different, less bombastic song, “America the Beautiful.”

(Editor’s note: The second verse of “America the Beautiful” might sound familiar, thematically, in a lot of Mennonite churches:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

Mennonites have that pilgrim heritage, after all. And oh, how they love self-control!)

Anyway: Independence Day, when this country’s leaders decided to launch a rebel war against their British masters, is unavoidably militaristic. The fireworks!

So: Do you celebrate?

Me? Yes. Ish.

Let me tell a story. It’s one I’ve told publicly before, but it’s kind of a touchstone for me, and so it is here.

Within a few weeks of 9/11, I got in my car and started driving to New York. History was happening, and I’d become a journalist because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. So I drove cross-country on my own. I stopped to talk with people who live outside Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where B-2 bombers were flying attack missions to Afghanistan; I stopped at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana to visit friends and write a story about how pacifists were dealing with events; I visited the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed, and sat in a mortuary with the overwhelmed county coroner, sitting in his socks as he dazedly recounted his efforts of recent weeks.

And then I ended up in the city. I saw what was left of the Twin Towers, saw smoke still rising from the wreckage, and … smelled it.

More importantly, I talked with people who’d experienced the day. Most importantly, I was taken to meet a Puerto Rican family in their home – a tiny apartment where they’d raised their family, and was given lime-flavored coffee to drink while we talked, while the mother of the family talked about watching the Towers come down.

The trip made me love America, but not in a defensive how dare they attack us! way. Driving by myself and covering only the northeast quarter of the country, I’d gotten a taste of how much bigger and more diverse this country is than my Kansas upbringing had allowed me to see. Within a few years, I’d be raising a family in a tiny Philadelphia apartment, even smaller than the place I’d been hosted.

July 4 is problematic for Mennonites for reasons I listed before, and for liberals who don’t hate America, but do want to temper pride with humility, a recognition that the good things we have were often obtained through sinful, destructive means like slavery and Jim Crow and theft of the land from its original owners. And this year, let’s face it, for a lot of us this country seems a bit uglier and meaner than it did a year ago. It’s hard to feel celebratory.

But Mennonites also do community very well. It’s one reason I love them. (And they don’t do it without problems of their own either, as you well know.)

So on July 4, I will go and spend time with friends. We will eat food and my kid will play with their kids. I will enjoy the community I’ve created, and love that America contains so many different kinds of communities, and I will celebrate that as our strength.

We are large. We contain multitudes. That is my July 4.

Sincerely, Joel

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that July 4 is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. It makes the day more complicated for me,  the need to spend time in community even more precious. FWIW.

Jesus and Memorial Day



I’m not one of those pacifist Christians who pooh-poohs the idea of Memorial Day. Though my own inclinations are dovish, I have friends who have served honorably in the military — I care very much for and about those friends — and I know that people who served in our military have almost always done so with the best of intentions. Live and let live, I say.

On the other hand, I have to admit being skeptical of this:

Every year there are the usual Christian bloggers denouncing the supposedly idolatrous nationalism of patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and July 4. Any display of the flag in proximity to the church or congregational reverence for fallen soldiers is ostensibly a grievous rebuke to the Gospel.

This globalist mindset for Western secular elites is increasingly true for many American church elites, including some Evangelicals, whose elitism recoils at populist patriotic spirituality in Christian and especially evangelical subculture. It’s part of a larger spiritual universalism that rejects or minimizes particular loyalties. Although it nobly aspires to love for all humanity, it fails to appreciate that love meaningfully can only begin with relations in proximity, with family, friends, neighborhood and country. Loving everybody everywhere abstractly is unlikely without first loving nearby persons.

And that’s why Jesus was the Messiah *just for the Jews.*

Forgive the snark.

Loving the people around you is easy, but Jesus rarely preached the virtue of easy attachments. He spoke of loving your enemies, of visiting the prisoner. He offered parables about good Samaritans — Samaritans being outside of Jesus’s circle of “nearby persons.” John 3:16 speaks of a God who loves *the world.*

I am very much against Christianity as nationalistic tribalism. It’s one reason I’ve not found a place in the church. Living the way that Jesus speaks, with a kind of universal love, is damn hard. It doesn’t preclude your nearby attachments. It does suggest that killing for those attachments … might be unwise.

Which might be read as a criticism of Memorial Day, after all. Nah. I suspect some of us are called differently. Life is complicated.