Tradition of Mennonite activism prevails for Bethel community
ARRAN KEARNEY Staff Writer
Bethel has not been immune to the great political awakening that America as a whole is undergoing in the build up to this election, which promises to be one of the most dramatic and consequential in living memory. In light of the enthusiasm that has been displayed on campus, we decided to explore some of the Colleges own political history, which has of course been forever intertwined with the activism of the local Mennonite community. Professor Jantzen, one of the many resident Mennonite experts here at Bethel had much to say.
“The tenants of the Mennonite religion as interpreted by the founders of Bethel made political activism almost inevitable. The college was built by Mennonites who decided to engage with society…and felt impulses to improve society even back in the 19th century,” Jantzen said.
Political activism started small, and the new ‘progressive’ Mennonites (so named by the former Bethel student and professor James Juhnke) were initially drawn towards the Republican Party.
Though Republican influence still holds sway, Jantzen notes how “in the 60’s and 70’s they [Kansas Mennonites] were influenced by social justice movements, particularly by those inspired by the Vietnam War, and some became more attracted to the Democratic Party.”
Bethel College, led by its Mennonite students, saw its true political awakening in this period. The staunch pacifism of the Mennonites drove the campus to partake in 1969 ‘Moratorium Day’ in protest against the government’s ongoing prosecution of the Vietnam War, for which it received a personal reference in Life Magazine.
The October 24th Edition titled ‘Day of Dissent’ described how almost exactly fifty one years ago “members of the Bethel College Peace Club borrowed an old church bell from the College museum for four days, and rang it once every four seconds in memory of each US soldier killed in Vietnam.”
The events are well remembered - that same bell is still rung on several special occasions in the College’s yearly calendar. The protests at Bethel were somewhat shocking for the time, considering the Mennonites heavy association with the conservative right.
Yet James Juhnke, who ran as a candidate in the elections to the House of Representatives in 1970, insists that Bethel’s Moratorium was a religious event in his Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics, published in 2017.
It is clear that Bethel’s involvement in political activism stemmed directly from the principles of the College’s founders, and from the Mennonite community more broadly.
The divisions between Progressive and Traditional Mennonites have become more clearly defined over time. Jantzen observed how there is now a clear urban – rural divide between the politics of the community, which is indeed a recurring feature across all of American political life. Newton itself, and particularly the areas close to Bethel College, are now far more heavily associated with the Democrats than with the Republicans. Jantzen noted how the Democratic representative to the 72nd District (Newton, North Newton and the surrounding areas) of Kansas, the Mennonite Tim Hodge, lives just across from the Kauffman Museum. Certainly, the activism on social issues that was seen at Bethel in the last century has continued in the present day, with a number of current and former students becoming engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement over this past summer.
Thus, with Bethel’s own history of political activism fresh in our minds, we can turn once again to the grand election that is even now unfolding across Kansas and the United States. The events in November will certainly live long in memory of this College, and of this country.