Archive for Sunday, January 26, 2003

Mennonites’ opposition to war spans history

Group often faced criticism, ridicule for pacifism

January 26, 2003


— Peter Jantzen doesn't want the United States to go to war against Iraq.

The 17-year-old high school senior knows his position isn't popular with all his classmates, but in this community that many Kansas Mennonites call home, he isn't alone in his beliefs.

Earlier this week, he and nine other students formed the Students for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Newton High School. On his locker is a poster that reads, "Pray for Peace, Act for Peace."

"I'm a pacifist," Jantzen said. "Being with people who are like-minded is reassuring. But even in Newton there are people who have opposing views."

Kansas Mennonites, roughly 40,000 of them, have a history of opposing violence and war. With the possibility of war with Iraq looming, many are considering how they will respond.

Mennonites believe in strictly following Christ's teachings, which they believe requires them not to kill people or support war efforts.

Signs of peace

All over Mennonite country these days, signs, letters and voices for peace are prevalent. Jantzen takes solace in the fact that generations of Mennonites before him have stood up for peace and that many in his community are doing so again.

In North Newton, Jim Juhnke has a peace sign in his front yard. His wife, Anna, has written letters to local newspapers, protesting America's threats of war.

The next street over, Victor and Elizabeth Goering, both 82, turn to the Bible for guidance on peace. Victor Goering has opposed wars before, and he opposes one with Iraq, too.

"I feel if we get into a war with Iraq, we would be invading a country that has not invaded us," he said. "Who is to suffer but innocent people?"

In sticking to their religious convictions, Mennonites know they may be out of step with popular opinion and that it opens them up to possible discrimination and perhaps even physical harm. Generations before them have been persecuted for their pacifist beliefs.

Long history

In the 1870s, the Mennonites fled to the United States from Russia to escape serving in the Russian Army.

They came to Kansas not only for its farmland, but also because they wanted to be free to practice their religion, said Juhnke, a retired history professor at Bethel College in North Newton who has written articles and books on Kansas Mennonite history.

Throughout the 1870s, Mennonites settled in such communities as Goessel, Newton, Hesston, Inman, Buhler and Moundridge.

When the United States entered World War I, Mennonites were discriminated against by non-Mennonites who didn't understand their faith or why they chose not to serve in the military.

Mobs in McPherson, Butler and Harvey counties put pressure on individual Mennonites to buy war bonds.

Although no Mennonite was killed during World War I, there were a number of Kansas Mennonites tarred and feathered, Juhnke said. One notable confrontation occurred on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.

That was when John Schrag, a Mennonite farmer near Burrton, was met by a mob who wanted him to lead a parade celebrating the end of the war. They thrust an American flag into his hand. When he didn't take the flag and it fell on the ground, the mob decided to hang him. Someone got yellow paint and smeared it on Schrag's hair and beard.

Tom Roberts, who was head of the local anti-horse-thief association, put himself between Schrag and the crowd. Schrag was then placed in the local jail, where Roberts guarded him with a gun until tensions subsided.

Peaceful service

By the time America entered World War II, Juhnke said, Mennonites still felt some hostility, but not to the extent of two decades earlier, in part because World War II-era Mennonites were also third- and fourth-generation Kansans.

Many, when drafted, chose to serve in Civilian Public Service. They helped staff the nation's mental health hospitals, fought forest fires or worked in land reclamation projects.

They received no pay or compensation.

Goering was one of those who chose to go into the Civilian Public Service. In three years he worked on a dam project in South Dakota and a hospital in New Jersey. His wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1943, would visit him and work with him when she wasn't teaching school. Today, they are active in peacemaking by writing letters to President Bush and Kansas officials.

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