Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder

March 7th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger, Editors Blog

When we left the first part in this series, I promised that the second part would look specifically at Mennonite educational organizations and the case of James Brenneman and J. Lawrence Burkholder. However, I’d like to start by giving some background on J. Lawrence Burkholder and his influence with another Mennonite institution: the institution formerly known as Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA), now Everence.

I first became familiar with this story in Keith Graber Miller’s piece “Mennonite Mutual Aid: A Margin of Difference.” In it he tells the story of MMA adopting the practice of underwriting. The practice meant that healthier people would pay less for their insurance policies and sicker people would pay more or be denied coverage all together. It was seen by some in MMA’s leadership as necessary for the survival of the institution. Underwriting had become the norm among most insurance companies at the time. But in practice, it would have a painful impact on sick or at-risk people who would be denied coverage, and it was difficult for those in MMA who were responsible for denying them aid in their time of need.  In 1988, an MMA task force went so far as to say that strict underwriting was “contrary to the mission of MMA.” The report also said, “We are caught between those conflicting needs of serving the church and being a sound business.”

Graber-Miller tells of the struggles MMA president Howard Brenneman felt in making this difficult decision to begin underwriting MMA insurance policies. Brenneman clearly struggled with his role in the decision to move to underwriting. He told Graber Miller that he “had heard Burkholder talk about ambiguity” and liked what he heard. Brenneman said, “When I really get to stumbling around, I visit with [Burkholder] at breakfast.” (Graber-Miller 287) Through the work of Brenneman and others in the MMA administration, the organization shifted farther along the path to becoming another insurance agency with a Mennonite constituency. He identifies this process of becoming like similar organizations as “institutional isomorphism” as described by sociologists Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell (Graber Miller, 266)

Institutional isomorphism can best be described as the “peer pressure” which, over time, leads organizations to become more like other organizations in their field and less unique. In the case of institutions tied to Christian denominations, they become increasingly indistinguishable from similar secular organizations (267). In “Church-Related Organizations: Mission, Image and Promotion,” Herman Bontrager says:

Organizational missions change. However valid the changes may be, the changes reflect, at least in part, the organizations’ tendency toward self-perpetuation. Often the changes are a sign of accommodation to pressures that threaten the viability of the organization. (339)

Bontrager’s article examines how these changes, though sometimes necessary, over time can make church related organizations “more like the dominant culture of which they are a part and less like the mind of Christ.”

A “new school of thought”

It is in this context that I found Jim Brenneman’s invocation of Burkholder so striking when he announced that Goshen College (GC) would begin playing the national anthem at sporting events. In his Jan. 15, 2010, presentation, he justifying this decision by laying out a “new school of thought” for GC centered around Burkholder’s theology (Brenneman). In his speech, Brenneman briefly re-told the history of Mennonites and GC through the lens of Burkholder’s philosophy. In this school of thought, Mennonites “naysayers” (who insist on a critical approach to world and culture) are ill-equipped to responsibly act in the real world:

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 protester, 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.

Here we see a re-framing of early Anabaptist critique. Their radical political and social critique of the “nations and cultures” of their time is “idealist” and unsuited for the realities of compromise and accommodation necessary for surviving in the dominant culture. Brenneman suggests that their quaint notions were (and are) based on a mis-reading of the biblical prophets and a lack of political and social sophistication due to widespread martyrdom of the early Anabaptists.

Brenneman goes on to claim that the central school of thought at GC has been one of dissent and “selective nonparticipation.” A central part of Brenneman’s narrative is that Burkholder’s dissertation “was all but banned from public debate, literally going underground for 30 years.” In a letter to The Mennonite, historian Theron Schlabach disputes this claim (Schlabach 1). Regardless of the details of why Burkholder’s dissertation was not published for 31 years, Brenneman’s criteria for “underground” seems quite shallow when we consider the impact of  Burkholder’s administrative approach on Mennonite institutions.

Burkholder was president of GC from 1971 through 1984 (Garrison 1), and during that time instituted major institutional changes based on his personal philosophy. He brought the school in line with the bureaucratic practices of other colleges. One major example was the creation of an endowment, a move that some in the church opposed because they felt it would insulate the college from accountability to donors and the wider church. From the example of Howard Brenneman we can also see the way he had an impact on institutions beyond Goshen College.

The Limits of Kingdom Ethics

To understand the use of Burkholder by Howard Brenneman and Jim Brenneman, let’s look more closely at the elements of Burkholder’s perspective that are being used to justify instiutional isomorphism. In The Limits of Perfection: A Conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder, Burkholder shares an autobiographical sketch of his childhood in a traditional Mennonite community and his introduction to “the world” while working in China as the administrator of a relief organization where “something in [him] died” as he was forced to make a series of difficult moral decisions (35). These dilemmas culminated in his experience of forcing refugees off a plane at gunpoint in order to be light enough to take off. In China, Burkholder came to see ambiguity and compromise with governments and bureaucratic institutions as an inevitable part of acting for justice in the world:

It is not a historical possibility because the ethical situation is ambiguous, ambiguity being grounded in nature and compounded by history. Therefore, one must do the best possible, which unfortunately will necessitate “compromise.” Compromise is, of course, a complex idea, but suffice it to say here that it allowed what Anabaptism denied. While Mennonites were counseling “try harder,” I was saying, “Yes, try harder still,” but in the context of the world where people are helped, albeit by “proximate” realizations of the ideal (Burkholder, 35).

Burkholder is drawing heavily on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr in his claim that Jesus’ “hard sayings” in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere are at best meant for personal relationships. Burkholder sees them as over simplistic teachings that do not equip Christians to deal with the “conditions of nature” (35). Niebuhr criticized the optimism of liberal theology and brought back the pessimism of the reformation, but critiqued Luther and Calvin for only recognizing personal sin and not recognizing social sin. In articulating his view of “christian realism,” Niebuhr argued that Christian ethics should recognize that it is only realistic to try for personal moralism, society will always be immoral (Finger 1). Neibuhr claims “it is not only impossible but wrong for an institution’s leader to follow simply the teachings of Jesus.” (Koontz 428)

Following from Niebuhr, Burkholder argues the only way that substantive help can be offered is through involvement in the institutions of the world, whether in the corporate, governmental or non-profit sectors. To be involved in institutions “one adopts institutional budgets, disciplines evil doers and manages other people’s business.” (36) Burkholder sees Mennonites as retreating from this world of ambiguity into “simple thought, into social enclaves and into moral perfectionism.” (38) He holds to the perfectionism of the gospels and the “extraordinary” claims of Jesus while at the same time claiming their impossibility as the basis for substantive collective action in the modern world. He explicitly credits Reinhold Niebuhr for his views on this point (40).

For Burkholder, “virtually all of life is political.” (44) But somehow by not being involved in electoral politics specifically, Mennonites are ignoring the political realm entirely. His optimistic view of government is seen again when he claims that running for electoral politics is not done for “money or personal glory” (43). He also sings the praises of the genius of western democracies where “channels are open to anyone who would lead in the develop of public consciousness.” (44)

Burkholder makes no acknowledgement of the language of principalities and powers in the New Testament which theologians such as Yoder, Wink and Stringfellow have pointed to as relevant for us in today’s world. Burkholder sees world orders as making provision for structural sin, such as “legalized selfishness, partisan pride, regional provincialism, national prejudice and class privilege.” (50) He does not acknowledge any way in which institutions can be a source of these sins apart from the individuals who are part of them. This leads him to the conclusion that we must simply accommodate these institutions rather then challenging them. It is clear that for Burkholder, bureaucratic institutions are part of the landscape, as unquestionable as gravity. In fact, to question these structures from a biblical framework is immoral. He says “to press Kingdom ethics upon pluralistic democratic order is not only unlikely but wrong.” (47)

Burkholder does not see much continuity between the forms of government in Jesus’ time and those today. He says, “transposing ancient theocratic presuppositions to modern secular democratic processes can be misguided if not dangerous.” (46) Ultimately, he calls for Mennonites to “speak to power with power” by joining government and bureaucratic appointments (46). He calls politicians today the “most courageous men and women of our age” (46). Any grassroots organizing is written off as non-participation in the “power arena” and clearly less effective than “participants in diplomatic services.” (46). He goes so far as to challenge the right of anyone to “prophesy without accepting responsibility for decision making, management and accountability.” (47)

It’s clear that Burkholder’s philosophy and praxis has had a major effect on Mennonite institutions. In part three of this series, I will look at the response of other Mennonite writers and theologians to Burkholder’s world view and its Niebuhrian foundation.

Works Cited

Bontrager, Herman. “Church-Related Organizations: Mission, Image and Promotion” Mennonite Quarterly Review LXXI.3 (1997).

Brenneman, James E. “Getting to Yes and Amen! The New GC ‘School of Thought’.” Speech. Goshen College Chapel Sermon. Goshen College Church-Chapel, Goshen. 15 Jan. 2010. Goshen College Website. 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 20 May 2010. <>.

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. “The Limits of Perfection: Autobiographical Reflections.” The Limits of Perfection: Conversations with J. Lawrence Burkholder. Ed. Rodney Sawatsky and Scott Holland. Waterloo, Ont.: Institute of Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies, Conrad Grebel College, 1993. Print.

Finger, Tom. “Lecture on Anabaptist History and Theology.” IL, Chicago. 29 Apr. 2010. Lecture.

Garrison, Audrie. “GC’s President of Trees.” Elkhart Truth 27 Apr. 2010. 27 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 May 2010. <>.

Graber-Miller, Keith. “Mennonite Mutual Aid: A Margin of Difference.” Building Communities of Compassion: Mennonite Mutual Aid in Theory and Practice. By Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1998. Print.

Koontz, Ted. “Church-Related Institutions: Signs of God’s Reign?” Mennonite Quarterly Review LXXI.3 (1997): 421-38. Web.

Schlabach, Theron F. “Letter to the Editor: Article Needed Balance.” The Mennonite. Web. 20 May 2010. <>.

This blog post is cross-posted on The Mennonite . Nafziger is an activist, writer, organizer and web developer. This blog is part of a two-part series on Mennonite institutions.

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