A sea change in Mennonite self-definition occurred early in the 1980s.

Without abandoning their commitment to nonviolence and service, The Mennonite Church, meeting in general assembly at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, adopted the statement “Justice and the Christian Witness,” which was refined and printed following the general assembly at Ames, Iowa, in 1985.

The statement expanded on H. S. Bender’s emphasis on peace in his “The Anabaptist Vision,” which had held sway in the church since 1943. Implementation of the statement led to the current mantra of “peace and justice” as the essential commitment of Mennonite Church USA today.

This issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing honors that commitment by publishing writings by five people who have found—or placed—themselves in contexts where justice bringing forth peace posed a challenge and created the opportunity to work it out.

The issue begins with three unpretentious accounts from Mennonites in long-ago conflict zones.

Lois Gunden, in Nazi occupied France during World War II, used clandestine and evasive means to save Jewish orphans from the Gestapo and concentration camps. She was recently, and posthumously, declared “Righteous among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem project, only one of four Americans ever so honored.

J. Lawrence Burkholder, eventual president of Goshen College, left his holiday while teaching at Harvard to join a civil rights protest and sit in, which led to an overnight in jail, in St. Augustine, Florida.

Vic Stoltzfus, now president emeritus of Goshen College, left his pastorate in New York to join the second civil rights protest march in Selma, Alabama, whose 50th anniversary was commemorated this year.

Closer to home and today, this issue publishes an op-ed essay and two profiles by Beth Johnson, whose professional career has been devoted to writing profiles of people, mainly from minoritized groups, who have successfully overcome the obstacles that life and society have placed in their way. The profiles serve as guided reading material for young students, while also offering inspiration and guidance for their motivation and success in life.

Since graduating from Goshen College in 2003, Tim Nafziger has found opportunities and time to join protest and peacemaking projects throughout the world, most notably with Christian Peacemaker Teams. In college he joined other Goshen College students in going to Georgia to protest the School of the Americas (SOA), which trained militias to oppose liberation movements in Central America. In college, too, he was warned by “Ann of Goshen” of the burn-out that might come from pursuing elusive goals, which his fine poem indeed reflects. We also publish the poem by Ann Hostetler to which Tim’s poem responds.

Except for the poems by Tim and Ann, these writings do not conform to the usual understanding of “literature,” even “Mennonite literature.” They tend to be written in plain, prosaic style and are intended to prove a point and/or lead to a particular outcome. They are functional and clear, not teasingly ambiguous and complex. They want to bring about peace and justice.

Notice, though, that the name of this website is “Mennonite writing,” not “Mennonite Literature.” It is worth puzzling out the different meanings of the terms, but one difference relates to the fact that literary study in today’s postmodern age, and influenced by cultural studies, encompasses more than the belles lettres of classic literary study. For instance, erstwhile “popular” writing has drawn the respectful attention of academic literary critics, as illustrated by the graphic novel.

Lois’s journal entries and Lawrence Burkholder’s letter can be appreciated and studied as universal folk genres of writing, which follow their own rules and conventions and yield their own aesthetic satisfactions. Vic’s essay is a memoir, related to autobiography. Beth’s op-ed piece is a personal essay. Her profiles are forms of biography. All of these genres can be loosely fit into the category of creative nonfiction.

All are written in the “plain style,” which Mennonites have historically cultivated with their commitment to letting their “yea be yea and their nay, nay.” Few figures of speech, elaborate expressions, and creative ambiguities are found in these writings. The martyrs depicted in Martyrs Mirror, the earliest Mennonite literature, would feel at home in this literary culture.

In facing the temptations of baroque style, in contrast to plain, Mennonites have, in effect, asked with George Herbert (1593-1633) in “Jordan I”:

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there no truth in beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Herbert concludes “Jordan II” by emphasizing content over style:
There is in love a sweetness ready penned:
Copy out only that, and save expense.

We should also remember that if John Keats said “Beauty is truth,” he also said, “Truth [is] beauty.”

“How beautiful are the feet of them that bring us the Gospel of Peace.”

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.