Brenneman calls for new ‘school of thought’ at Goshen of positive engagement in the world

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GOSHEN, Ind. – The time for “yes” is here, said Goshen College President Jim Brenneman, who believes it is a new day at the school.

In his Jan. 15 chapel sermon, “Getting to Yes and Amen! The New GC ‘School of Thought'” — based on 2 Corinthians 1:20-22 — Brenneman juxtaposed the prior “school of thought” of a culture of dissent with the new “school of thought” of a culture of assent, and affirmed that both are needed. The president gave much credit to President Emeritus J. Lawrence Burkholder, who attended and was recognized during the service.

“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 the radical dissent, nonconforming idealism, and prophetic disestablishmentarianism,” said Brenneman. “There were more ‘no’s’ than ‘yeses.’

“Saying ‘no’ a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he added.

Brenneman pointed to the earliest Anabaptists as the inspiration for dissent. “We came to such an ethos quite honestly,” he said. “They said no to the fundamental religious and civil order of the time. They rejected the church-state union, which had dominated Christianity for some thousand years. They championed human freedom and the separation of church and state and they were persecuted and executed for beliefs which have since been enshrined in all Western democracies.

“These early Mennonites/Anabaptists were also ‘idealists’ and ‘perfectionists’ for whom the word compromise was considered sinful,” Brenneman added. “Unfortunately, because so many of them were silenced and killed during those early years, they never really had the opportunity to try to put into practice a social or political model of how their beliefs might actually have played out in the world of nations and cultures where compromise can be seen as a positive norm.”

This understanding, Brenneman said, led to being on the side of prophets, rather than political leaders; on the side of protesters, rather than the establishment; and being on the side of the individual, rather than institutions. But, he said as an Old Testament biblical scholar, that understanding doesn’t include the full view of the biblical prophet. “Clearly, they came down on the side of the prophetic dissenter largely based, in my opinion,” he said, “on a somewhat narrow understanding of biblical prophets as primarily naysayers and exclusively critical.”

Manifestations of Goshen College’s “culture of dissent” include the publications of “The Anabaptist Vision” by Goshen College Dean H.S. Bender, which called for true Christians to “withdraw from the worldly system and create a Christian social order within the fellowship of the church.” As well, Goshen College Professor Emeritus of History Guy F. Hershberger authored the book War, Peace and Nonresistance. But Brenneman said the “greatest advocate and facilitator” of this “school of thought” was the famous Christian theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder, a 1947 Goshen College alumnus.

President Emeritus J. Lawrence Burkholder and President Jim Brenneman on Jan. 15, following the message

In contrast, Brenneman told the story of philosopher J. Lawrence Burkholder – a 1939 Goshen College alumnus who went on to serve as GC’s 11th president from 1971 to 1984. When he wrote his 1958 dissertation, it went unpublished for 30 years and was nearly banned from public debate on campus at the time because of articulating a new “school of thought.”

This theses “called for Mennonites and those trained at Mennonite colleges to become engaged in the civil, business, political and institutional establishments of the world,” Brenneman said. “In a bit of provocation, he asked, ‘What right has one to prophesy, without accepting responsibility for decision-making, management and accountability?'”

Being positively engaged in the world and recognizing the effectiveness of compromise as part of leadership defined Burkholder’s life of serving Christ. He flew cargo planes of food into China as the United Nations representative for relief during World War II, negotiating with both sides in the country’s conflict and making hard decisions about feeding starving people.

“His philosophy of positive engagement and social responsibility grew out of his governmental work in China,” Brenneman said. “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.”

Then as Goshen College President at the height of the Vietnam War, he made the decision – for the first time in the school’s history – to fly the American flag on campus, alongside a United Nations flag “as an open door for active engagement with the community.”

Brenneman said, “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.”

After walking the Goshen College students, faculty and staff in attendance through a bit of the college’s history, Brenneman concluded by calling for a new day at the college, one in which both “schools of thought” have a home. “We need both,” he said. “To side with one to the exclusion of the other is to settle for half-truths. We need some naysayers, no question. Goshen College has been particularly good at nurturing dissenters, prophets and nonconformists, 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.”

Brenneman believes that this coming together of two “schools of thought” will strengthen the full educational opportunities students receive at the college as they prepare for their lives after graduation. “If the traditional GC ‘school of thought’ was primarily that of prophetic dissent, deconstruction, critical inquiry, separation from the world as outside observers – all characteristics of a good academic mind and of good critical inquiry – 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.”

– by Jodi H. Beyeler

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report‘s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit