Blazing a trail from war to peace
James Juhnke, a 1956 graduate of Lehigh Rural High School, presented a history of the late P.C. Hiebert at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies annual dinner in Hillsboro.
Hiebert helped to establish Tabor College and Mennonite Central Committee.
Known as a Mennonite historian, Juhnke became an activist for peace as an American history professor at Bethel College for 38 years.
“I wasn’t happy about the way American history is taught, going from one war to another,” he said. “World War I was to be a war to end all wars, but it led to another war.”
He saw peace protests and demonstrations made by pacifists as a missing piece in that history.
He has a Ph.D. in social studies and history and has written an autobiography, “Small Steps Toward the Missing Peace.”
After two years as a student at Bethel College, Juhnke went to Germany under the Mennonite Central Committee Pax program as an alternative to military service. He thought he would be building housing for refugees but instead had a desk job for two years.
Working among a group of Mennonites made the transition to a foreign culture easier, but he soon realized he was living in a cocoon of Americans. He struggled to learn the German language.
During his time in Germany, Juhnke read the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., noting how they used nonviolent resistance to bring about change.
America’s military presence in Europe was continuing to grow, and Juhnke felt that in modern America, Mennonites needed to bring their gospel of peace to the political order.
He and other American Mennonites worked to differentiate themselves from American military personnel.
“The armed fist is replaced by the hand of love,” was the Pax motto.
He also learned that German Mennonites and Mennonites from the eastern United States who came to America in the 1700s viewed Mennonites who came to America later and settled in Middle America as not really a part of them. They felt they were more directly connected to the pacifist movement in Europe during the Reformation.
Juhnke found he was an outsider among Mennonites.
“I and my people (General Conference Mennonites) were somewhere out in left field,” he said.
Much later, his conference and the “old” Mennonites merged to form Mennonite Church USA.
After completing his education, Juhnke became a teacher at Bethel in 1967. Freshmen were required to take world history. The teacher was so brilliant, Juhnke said, that many students decided to become history majors and soon found themselves in Juhnke’s American history class.
He also taught Mennonite history and developed a course on Black History. He continued to promote constructive nonviolence throughout his teaching career and after he retired in 2007.
He became actively engaged in politics, running for Congress as a Democrat.
“I’ve been most fortunate to have good health and an interest in significant issues and the theme of peace,” he said.
Last modified May 11, 2022