President’s speech: “Getting to Yes and Amen! The New GC ‘School of Thought’”

Chapel sermon by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 – Goshen College Church-Chapel

First, let me say, Happy New Year! Welcome back to each of you who are returning for another semester and also to you who are new this semester. We are very glad you’re here as well! I also would like to say thank you – thank you to all of you who have been praying hard and contributing and looking for other ways to help the people of Haiti. We’ll have a moment at the conclusion of the Chapel to think and pray about the people of Haiti. I hope this semester will the best yet for all of you – especially for those of you who are about to graduate in — can you believe it? — just over three months. If what I say this morning doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps when my comments are dissected and reinterpreted on YouTube as a sequel to the very funny clip entitled, “The Wise Sayings of Jimmy B,” you will find something meaningful to contemplate. That’s for you, Jordan (Miller) and Michael (Neumann).

For now, I would like to consider the words of Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, when he makes the claim that Jesus is God’s “Yes” That’s quite a Christological statement: Jesus is God’s yes and amen. And that God’s “Yes” and that our “Yes” together makes for a wonderfully glorious combination.

In order to fully appreciate the meta-yeses of Apostle Paul’s claim, it’s also important that we understand and think about the meta-no’s of life as well. Truth be told, if you took a jar and you put a penny for all the no’s that you and I have received in life — put a penny in the jar — and took a penny out for all the yeses, that jar, I’m guessing, would never be empty. The no’s of life so often are much greater than life’s yeses.

When I was a kid, our talking parakeet named Perky, in a voice quite similar to my Mom’s, would say things like, “Stop it boys.” And “No, don’t do that.” He never got around to saying, “Yes, you can. Go for it.” I’m not blaming Perky or my mother. I mean, it isn’t easy raising three active boys and a girl without a lot of no’s in the process.

If you Google “just say no,” you’ll get 160 million hits. “Just say no.” You know the familiar ones: to drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll. Just say no to the federal government, to war, to fossil fuels. “Just say no” to the Zhu Zhu hamster, to Cheerios and, believe it or not, just say no to Girl Scout cookies.

Saying “no!” a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Psychologist, Susan Newman, author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It, suggests that sometimes the no’s of life keep us from making big mistakes. Sometimes they set limits on less than good behavior and help us deal with life’s disappointments. Life’s no’s teach us how to argue a point, or prioritize what’s important. A “no” can even lead us to the next great opportunity. I remember when I tried to get my first book published. I got a growing list of rejections slips — over and over again. It was only until I looked back, I was glad that all the other publishers had said no, because the one that said yes, I think, was the best among them.

Gerald Schlabach, Goshen College alumnus and associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, in his forthcoming memoir of his conversion from Mennonite to Roman Catholic faith, claims that Goshen College has a distinct “school of thought” which he calls “a culture of dissent.” By such an accounting, here at Goshen College, we have no difficulty “just saying no,” except in the President’ Council when it comes to making budget decisions.

But we came to such an ethos quite honestly. Take a brief journey back in time with me in order to put our culture of dissent into perspective. The founders of the Mennonite movement, nearly 500 years ago, in no uncertain terms just said “No!” They just said no to the fundamental religious and civil order of the time. They just said no to the church and state union that had been dominating the world for some thousand years. They championed human freedom and separation of church and state and were persecuted and executed for those beliefs, which have since been enshrined in all Western democracies. No wonder they have been described by historians and others as “radical dissenters,” “sectarian naysayers,” and “prophetic nonconformists.”

These early Mennonites/Anabaptists were also “idealists” and “perfectionists” for whom the word compromise was considered sinful. Unfortunately, because so many of them were silenced and killed during those early years, they never really had the opportunity to develop a model for social and political life together that might actually have played out in the world of nations and cultures where compromise can be a positive norm.

Like many others before and since, these early forebears of Goshen College divided the world in two: compromisers and non-compromisers, between yea and nay, between political leaders and prophets, between administrators and agitators, between the establishment and the protestor, between the institution and the individual. Clearly, they came down on the side of the prophetic dissenter largely based, in my opinion, on a somewhat narrow understanding of biblical prophets as primarily naysayers and exclusively critical.

From 1924, by my reckoning, 30 years into the history of Goshen College, until at least, 1989, the normative “school of thought” at Goshen was that of radical dissent, nonconforming idealism, and prophetic disestablishmentarianism, ex-pi-al-i-dotious. There were more no’s than yeses.

During those years, the famous dean, Dean H.S. Bender, wrote a manifesto called “The Anabaptist Vision” in which he called all true Christians to “withdraw from the worldly system and create a Christian social order within the fellowship of the church.” Goshen College historian, Guy Hershberger, author of War, Peace and Nonresistance added his support to the growing orthodoxy of Goshen College’s culture of dissent, at least on the question of war and non-resistance.

Soon there became a fixed canon of thought about what it meant to be a “Mennonite” — at least, a “Goshen College Mennonite” or a Goshen College student. Such a consensus lasted until about the early 1960’s, when it began to unravel as more people began to embrace social action and nonviolent resistance as opposed to non-resistance as a legitimate expression of dissent.

The greatest advocate and facilitator of this “radical dissent” “school of thought” was one of the 20th Century’s leading ethicists and theologians, GC alumnus, John Howard Yoder. You can even, if you can imagine this, get a Ph.D. in Yoderian studies at Duke University.

To show you how entrenched the “culture of dissent” was here at Goshen College, when a new “school of thought” was articulated by philosopher J. Lawrence Burkholder in his 1958 dissertation, it was all but banned from public debate, literally going underground for 30 years, staying unpublished until 1989, five years after President Burkholder completed his own tenure here at Goshen College as its 11th president. For those of you who think presidents are freest of all to speak their minds in colleges and universities, I would invite you to think again.

It was J. Lawrence Burkholder’s thesis that called for all Christians, Mennonites and others, including all those of other faiths trained at Mennonite colleges, to become engaged in the civil, business, political and institutional establishments of the world. In a bit of provocation, he asked the question, “What right has one to prophesy, without accepting responsibility for decision-making, management and accountability?” If he had wanted to, Dr. Burkholder could very well have also appealed to the precedent of biblical prophets, those who worked within the empires of their day, as well as, other biblical characters such as Joseph, Esther, David, Nehemiah, Daniel and others who were salt and light within the established orders of their times. He did not see such engagement as a negative compromise per se. Nor did he see such engagement as a concession to the demands of the nations. So it was that at the height of the Vietnam War, when he and students rightfully protested the war, he also had the United Nations and American flag raised on campus for the first time as an open door for active engagement with the community.

Dr. Burkholder saw engagement in and with the world “as a way,” and these are his words, “of serving Christ by loving the neighbor with greater effectiveness” by helping to change the intellectual and political systems from within the civic and cultural institutions. By contrast, the other Goshen College school of thought cared much less about political effectiveness, even arguing, and I’m quoting here John Howard Yoder, for a certain “social irresponsibility” by Christians separated from the world in order to be witnesses to the world. Dr. Burkholder thought such a clean separation from the world was illusive, if not illusory.

President Burkholder felt that Christians and non-Christians alike were to be world citizens, taking responsibility for creating a more flourishing life in the world. He wondered at one point whether the argument for a narrow politics of “no” or dissent standing outside the systems of the world as articulated in the Anabaptist Vision wasn’t, perhaps, a sign of arrested development in the Anabaptist movement — frozen in time by martyrdom and elevated to a reconstructed ideal of the past.

While the normative GC “culture of dissent” was being articulated by others from the safe and secluded halls of academia in Europe and in Goshen, a youthful J. Lawrence Burkholder was flying huge DC-3 cargo planes of food into China. As the U.N. representative for relief, he found himself negotiating both between Mao’s revolutionary soldiers and Chiang Kai-shek’s government forces and working within U.N. policy constraints to get food to starving Chinese caught between these two warring factions at one of the pinnacles of China’s modern history.

His philosophy of positive engagement and social responsibility grew out of his governmental work in China. Whereas the traditional rendering of the “Anabaptist Vision” had ruled inadmissible participation in civic and national politics, Burkholder believed such participation in many circumstances was a high Christian calling, a worthy vocation.

Not only was he invited to give the opening eulogy and prayer at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral ceremony at Harvard University, Dr. Burkholder was in Red Square in Moscow during the failed coup against Boris Yeltsin. He was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. He was in China, again, shortly after the democracy movement was crushed in Tiananmen Square. Before making my concluding remarks, I would like this morning to introduce to you the Father of the other Goshen College school of thought, Dr. J. Lawrence Burkholder — my president, our president. Dr. Burkholder.

In conclusion, then, if the traditional Goshen College “school of thought” was primarily that of prophetic dissent, deconstruction, critical inquiry, separation from the world as outside observers — all characteristics, by the way, of good critical inquiry of a liberal arts education — the new “school of thought” adds value to our education by inviting us to become responsible constructive agents in all the many professions available to us.

If the one GC school of thought offers a thesis, the other its antithesis, I long for a synthesis or at least an accommodation where both schools of thought are given their rightful place here on our campus and in our church. Wouldn’t that model true dialog — the essence of a liberal arts education? The one school of thought will proclaim the radical “NO!” to injustice. The other will proclaim the radical “YES, we can” and work to create just systems. While the one school of thought argues for selective nonparticipation, the other will insist on selective participation. If the one school of thought situates us in the middle of salvation history (Exodus/Prophets/Jesus), the other one situates us in the orders of creation (Wisdom traditions). Both are found in the Bible competing with each other.

We need both. To side with one to the exclusion of the other is to settle for half-truths. To side with either or exclusively is to settle for half-truths. We need some Naysayers, no question. Goshen College has been particularly good at nurturing dissenters, prophets, and nonconformists — especially attractive to college students at this stage of life — and we’ve been good at saying who we are not.

But, I believe, at this time in Goshen’s history, we need a lot more radical “Yea-sayers. We need to create a culture of assent alongside our historic culture of dissent. We need new “John Howard Yoders” of influence and “Jane Howard Yoders” of influence who will develop the work of President Burkholder for a whole new generation. We need to say who we are in positive, contagious ways.

We need you to become the diplomats helping to negotiate peace at the highest levels for national and international communities. We need you to become policy wonks and administrators, business gurus, heads of national and international governmental and non-governmental agencies, institutional and political leaders, salt, leaven and light to advance to kingdom of Christ, “God’s Great Yes!” in the world and in the church. Let us join our yes, with God’s yes, in radical engagement to help bring healing and hope to a hurting world. This is no less than our responsibility.

I leave us with a question asked of us by the poet Robyn O’Brien. She says:

In a world full of “don’t”
Full of “shouldn’t and “won’t”
It is easy to fear
When that’s all that we hear.
But what if one day
When the naysayers say
“It is futile, no less”
We (You) found courage for “Yes”?

Amen.

Categories: President, Speeches