College president, relief administrator and theologian J. Lawrence Burkholder died in Goshen, Ind., in 2010 at age 93. Shortly afterward, his daughter Myrna began editing oral interviews that historian Arnold Snyder had completed with her father and pulled them together into an autobiography.
Her father’s memories, she writes, “reveal his quest to hold together a sectarian commitment to Jesus’ way, instilled in him by his Mennonite upbringing, and a realism informed by his reading of Reinhold Niebuhr as it resonated with his experience of moral dilemmas encountered in relief work and in leadership roles later in life.”
The result is a fascinating account of an influential life that spanned the 20th century and poses a provocative challenge to Mennonite thinking and conduct in the 21st.
Burkholder was born in 1917 and lived his younger years in the south-central Pennsylvania village of Newville. Raised in an educated but isolated Mennonite congregation attached to Lancaster Conference, Burkholder learned to prize the life of the mind. He listened to liberal pacifist sermons on the radio but stayed anchored to his Mennonite tradition, graduating from Goshen College in 1939 and planning a career as a pastor. But equally alluring was the romance of the air. By his high school graduation he had obtained his pilot’s license, which he would use avidly for 70 years.
After seminary training at Princeton and Lutheran Seminary, Burkholder was serving as pastor of a Mennonite congregation in upstate New York in the middle of World War II when a local draft board official “pressed me,” Burkholder says, about his pacifist convictions. Combined with the tug of his conscience, this encounter sent him down a different path. Within a year, volunteer work with Mennonite Central Committee directed him to famine relief in India and then, with the war’s end, to China, where he found his commitments further tested as a relief administrator in the wreckage of the Chinese civil war.
Burkholder’s anecdotes here are worth the price of the book: flying supplies in and refugees out of war zones, his plane being strafed by combatants on both sides; befriending Chinese warlords and members of Gen. Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” Air Force unit, who tried to recruit him as their chaplain.
In China he began to confront the moral ambiguities of life outside cloistered Mennonite communities. As a relief administrator, he realized, he exercised a tremendous amount of power. Directing relief supplies toward people either in Chinese communist or nationalist areas meant people in other zones would suffer. As a result, he said, “I came back from China full of thoughts of ambiguity and conflict,” realizing later that “China was the best experience of my life. I learned more than when I was at Princeton or Harvard.”
Once he returned home from China in 1949, graduate training and teaching at Ivy League institutions would soon draw Burkholder’s energies for more than a decade. Yet these pursuits were interspersed by teaching at Goshen College from 1950 to 1953 and 1955 to 1960, where he discovered his old professors (now colleagues) were not receptive to the questions he was raising. He ran into immediate difficulty with Goshen’s statement of faith, including its commitment to the “verbal, plenary inerrancy of Scripture.” The Garden of Eden, Burkholder ventured to Goshen students, looked to him like a “divine sting operation.”
More troubling for his mentor Guy F. Hershberger were the issues Burkholder raised on Mennonite social responsibility in his doctoral dissertation at Princeton. Hershberger’s dismissive, “discourteous” reaction, along with those of other senior Goshen professors, led Burkholder to accept an offer from Harvard in 1961 to teach in its divinity school. He made it his academic home for a decade, helping to establish the Mennonite Congregation of Boston and plunging into activity with the emerging civil rights movement, at one point spending three days in a Florida jail for an act of Christian civil disobedience. In 1971, he accepted an offer to return to what was now a very different Goshen College to serve as its president, where he remained until his retirement in 1984.
Burkholder’s busy life introduced him to pivotal figures in 20th-century history and placed him at watershed moments. He encountered Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger and South Vietnamese President Ngo Diem. Visiting Europe in 1989, he was at the fall of the Berlin Wall; two years later found him in Moscow during the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. This is a fascinating book for such details alone. But its larger importance for Mennonite readers is found in the questions Burkholder’s experiences pushed him to raise.
These questions especially loom in Burkholder’s last chapter. Working as a relief administrator and college president brought him face to face with ambiguities of power that could not be expressed in academic abstraction. Such social responsibilities mean confronting moral dilemmas, he says, “where love has to become preferential: you love some people more than other people. That’s what a budget means. That’s what a political slate means.”
In previous decades, he suggests, Mennonite social isolation may have obscured these realities from us. But no longer. Burkholder wonders whether Mennonites are ready to face the attendant moral challenges — and has his doubts. “I’m sorry to say so, but I think all this Anabaptist stuff is not taken seriously,” he states. And later: “We’ve watered down Jesus, and we’ve had a better impression of ourselves than we should.” Except for the witness of a few Christian Peacemaker Teams activists, “the pacifist position is easy these days.”
It’s these tough questions that make this is such an important book. We owe a debt of gratitude to Arnold Snyder, Burkholder’s children and the Institute of Mennonite Studies for confronting us with these questions once again. It is left to us contemporary Mennonites to wrestle anew with Burkholder’s challenges and figure out how to respond.
Perry Bush is professor of history at Bluffton (Ohio) University.