There seems little doubt that we have witnessed, over the past half-century or more, a fundamental deepening of Mennonite social consciousness and an acceptance, by large numbers of North American Mennonites, of a vastly expanded sense of Mennonite social responsibility. In a series of well-regarded books and monographs, a number of scholars have outlined a trend that Mennonite peacemakers have mapped out in practice: the increasing Mennonite insistence, over these past decades, in intertwining their calls to peacemaking with the demands for justice.
The titles of some recent well-regarded texts are instructive in themselves: Mennonite Peacemaking: from Quietism to Activism, for example, orFrom Nonresistance to Justice. In light of this, it is all the more puzzling why Mennonite scholars, church leaders and peace activists alike have remained so silent about one of the major issues of our day – the growing chasm of economic inequality – with all the attendant issues it raises about matters of economic justice. In this piece, I merely want to explore some of the reasons for this silence and some of the resources Mennonites have for breaking out of it, particularly in their heritage of labor relations.
The fact that American income inequality has widened to Grand Canyon dimensions over the past three decades seems to be inescapable, though this recognition seems to have entered our current political considerations only just recently. A number of scholars have documented that, for about a quarter century after World War II, income inequality actually narrowed in America. The middle class grew remarkably, poverty rates declined, median family incomes rose across the board and came even to include people of color, traditionally relegated to the economic margins by endemic American racism.
Those economic equalizing trends came to a halt in the early to mid-1970s. Since then we have witnessed their steady reversal. What has followed now has been about a 40-year period in which most Americans have seen their wages either increase slightly or stagnate, and a disproportionate share of the national wealth flow upwards to the people in the top one percent. By the turn of the 21st century, writes the labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, “real household income for young families (breadwinners under thirty) stood at one-third less than their counterparts in 1973, even though their total working hours were longer and the educational level of the head of household higher than a generation before.’ Levels of income inequality lessened briefly in the Great Recession of 2008-09, when the incomes of nearly all Americans took a hit, but have accelerated since then, with the vast percentage of income gains concentrated, as before, at the very top of the economy. In the three years from 2009-12, people in the top 1 percent of income brackets saw their real incomes rise by 31 percent, while the rest of us in the bottom 99 percent enjoyed a rise of less than half a percentage point.
We do seem to be witnessing – finally – a delayed political reaction to such trends. Americans, pollsters and commentators tell us, can tolerate remarkably high levels of income inequality as long as they perceive that access to wealth remains widespread. In other words, regardless of our political affiliation, nearly all of us cherish a firm self-conception of America as a meritocracy: a place where we are free to rise as far as our talents and capacity for hard work will take us. It’s only when Americans perceive that access to upward mobility is threatened that they take to the streets – or at least, to the voting booth – in response. At two other periods in our national history, the political commentator Kevin Phillips tells us, we’ve seen eras of profound wealth concentration: in the Gilded Age economy of the robber barons, and in the 1920s. Both were followed by periods of widespread political protest and then reform – the populist/progressive eras and then the New Deal of the 1930s, respectively – in which Americans checked these wealth concentrations and took measures to address the needs of the people they had left out. In this light, the lack of a similar response to the rising wealth inequalities of our own day has been puzzling. If a disproportionate percentage of the national wealth is flowing upwards to the top 1 percent, I have periodically wondered aloud to my students over the past two decades, then where’s the protest? Why are people accepting this so passively? I don’t know how else to read the recent populist surges on both the left and right of the American political spectrum – the millions of Bernie Sanders voters, on the political left, and the rise of Donald Trump on the right – except as evidence that this political response may be, belatedly, at hand.
Economists and sociologists have produced a wide number of explanations as to why this growing gap in income inequality has developed. These range from deep-seated structural changes in the national and global economy to technological shifts that facilitated the outsourcing of jobs, to demographic shifts emanating from the new immigration, to the educational deficiencies of the American working class. One key cause for the growing income gap, however, seems to be the growing weakness of unions. For decades, the solid wages paid to the nation’s manufacturing workers – made possible by union power – served as a basic prop to a more widespread economic prosperity. From its apex in 1953, though, organized labor has entered into a long pattern of steady decline. Unionized workers now comprise only about 13 percent of the entire American workforce, and only 9 percent in the private sector. This is a level of union representation that ranks the United States at the very bottom of the world’s industrialized countries.
Of course, Mennonites have not been immune from the fundamental underlying shifts in the American economy. To a large degree, though not entirely, they have benefited from them. Partly because of the way Mennonites have gravitated towards the “helping professions’ and away from blue-collar occupations, church sociologists tell us that increasing numbers of Mennonites have achieved higher levels of education. As a result, they have been able to locate themselves in middle-class, professional occupations to a higher extent than even other American Protestants, and certainly at a much higher rate than American society as a whole. Not that these economic buffers have entirely sheltered Mennonites from the negative effects of the growing economic divide. In one of the few pieces ever published by an economist in decades of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, in 1997 James Harder traced the impact of decades of wage stagnation on Mennonite institutions of higher education. In contrast to the two preceding decades of economic boom, when Mennonite colleges received a number of smaller gifts from a large pool of comfortable but not wealthy givers, since the early 1970s, these institutions have come to rely on a smaller number of larger gifts from fewer very wealthy donors. This may reflect, he suggested, the increasingly straitened economic circumstances of the Mennonite middle class.
Harder’s evidence was thin only because Mennonites have not paid much attention to these matters, either among themselves or others. One looks in vain for much analysis of class relations or economic justice in Mennonite publications. In the extensive bibliography put together by Willard Swartley and Cornelius Dyck of Mennonite writing on peace and social concerns, social class did not appear as a category. Neither did it materialize in Urbane Peachey’s compilation of Mennonite statements on these issues, nor in Ervin Stutzman’s work (ironically titled From Nonresistance to Justice), nor in Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill’s analysis of Mennonite peacemaking. These people are all capable scholars. But they took their cues from the church, and chose not to focus on an issue that the church did not pay much attention to.
The only major exception to the lack of Mennonite attention to class relations has been a focus on unions. Throughout most of their history that attention has been distant at best and sometimes hostile. Kermit Eby, a Brethren activist and union official who worked a lot with Mennonite and Brethren business managers, saw this clearly. “Almost without exception,’ he noted in 1954, “their operations are unalterably antiunion.’ These attitudes are not hard to understand. Union membership seemed to run up against the biblical prescription against the “unequal yoke,’ and the economic coercion inherent in any strike also seemed to violate the traditional Mennonite teaching of nonresistance. Moreover, these attitudes were reinforced by the socio-economic-demographic context in which most North American Mennonites lived. In the early 20th century, when unions first began to appear on their radar screens, they were largely a conservative rural people, many heavily influenced by the outside import of protestant fundamentalism, and nearly all heavily shaped by the small-town business and farm communities they called home.
Even so, Mennonite responses to the challenge posed by industrial labor are worth visiting again. As a way of exploring the pitfalls and potentialities of the Mennonite encounter with labor in the 20th-century United States, it might be useful to take as a point of comparison the historical journey of an allied activist in a sister church: the Brethren leader Kermit Eby. He is a pivotal figure. He worked closely at one point with the key Mennonite leader on labor issues, Guy Hershberger. But Eby also mounted a direct challenge to Hershberger’s classic restatement of Mennonite nonresistance, the ethical construct he produced for his church as they increasingly began to confront the world and its needs. As a Brethren pastor, labor activist and educator, Eby raised all sorts of issues that Mennonites at the time and today might consider: their responsibility for social justice, for example; the thorny intellectual difficulties involved with political and economic power; and the extent to which peace Christians should sully themselves in the world of politics, with all its attendant compromises.
Before proceeding further, two short narratives of historical background may be in order here, especially for Mennonite audiences. First, a short primer on the Church of the Brethren might help. The Brethren have their own unique history, but their parallels with the Mennonite story are inescapable and fascinating. The Brethren emerged from the same ethno-cultural roots as many especially Mennonite Church (MC) Mennonites: the principalities of southern Germany. They emerged later, in the early 18th century – so they do not bear the same heritage of brutal persecution leveled onto the Anabaptists – and out of a rich blend, writes the Brethren scholar Carl Bowman, of “two historical streams of religious dissent: Radical Pietism and Anabaptism.’ Within decades of their founding, they emigrated, along with many of their Mennonite neighbors, to Penn’s Woods in North America, and then outward to neighboring states. American neighbors lumped the Brethren together with the Mennonites as part of a broad mass of plain-dressing “Pennsylvania Dutch’ farmers, but distinguished them by their practice of total immersion baptism – hence their popular name “Dunkers.’
Like the Mennonite story, the Germanic, ethno-cultural isolation of these German Baptists could not forever withstand the attractions of wider American society. The pace of Brethren acculturation began to accelerate in the later 19th and early 20th centuries due to the same forces that drove the parallel Mennonite process: the language transition from German to English; the development of Brethren schools and colleges; and the increasing attractions of American consumer culture, especially as embodied in new technological wonders like the telephone and automobile. Again, like Mennonites, each of these accommodations was bitterly resisted by Brethren traditionalists. This was a process which – heavily influenced by another outside import, Protestant fundamentalism – resulted in a series of Brethren schisms, with more conservative evangelical or Old Order groups splitting away from the progressives. Finally it was especially among these progressives, now grouped together in a new denomination, the Church of the Brethren, where a deepening of the Brethren social conscience occurred in the 20th century. Sparked by the trials of remaining a people of peace in a nation at world war, Brethren began to take on more responsibility for social injustice, pushed by younger pastors and activists like Harold Row, Andrew Cordier, Daniel West and Kermit Eby.
Given their similar historical trajectories, and the fact that through much of their history, Brethren and Mennonite congregations tended to be physically located near each other, their parallels engagement on issues of labor and economic justice in the mid-20th century should not be surprising. Before we can explore this, however, perhaps a second brief refresher course would help on another critically important development: the rise of organized labor.
Put most simply, industrial unions arose in the 1930s because they were necessary. Without unions, workers had no power to counter that of management; without power, they faced workplace conditions that could be brutal, dangerous and dehumanizing. Once workers walked through the plant gates, they immediately lost all the basic rights of citizenship – of assembly, free speech and democratic participation – that they enjoyed outside of it. Job foremen possessed nearly unlimited power to hire and fire at will. In a time of Great Depression and massive unemployment, for workers these were literally life and death decisions. Inside the plant, the speed-up of the assembly line pushed them to the edge of human exhaustion. “You could drop over dead,’ one such laborer remembered, “and they wouldn’t stop the line.’ In response to such conditions, in the middle 1930s, workers finally began to organize on an industrial basis through a new organizing vehicle, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Management responded with blacklisting, paid informers and then paid thugs to disrupt such organizing; workers responded with the means available; and the nation was swept by increasingly large, militant and sometimes violent strikes. Longshoremen struck in San Francisco, teamsters struck in Minneapolis, miners walked out from mines in West Virginia and Kentucky, and the centers of automobile and steel production across the industrial Midwest – Akron, Flint, Detroit and Youngstown – were convulsed by wave after wave of strikes.
In contrast to the common fate of such strikes before the 1930s, however, this time organized labor would meet a different result, largely because of their political power and because a sympathetic and astute president realized that workers could vote. After some hesitation, Franklin Roosevelt soon embraced the cause of organized labor as a centerpiece of the New Deal. This was especially true of the Wagner Act, labor’s “Magna Carta,’ which gave workers the fundamental right to organize. Labor rewarded Roosevelt with their votes. Already by 1936, blue-collar votes swung solidly behind FDR and labor became a key element of the Democratic Party’s agent of political success, the New Deal Coalition. Meanwhile, labor seized on the door that Roosevelt opened to achieve astounding new levels of growth. In the single year of 1937, notes one labor historian, almost 5 million Americans “took part in some kind of industrial action that year, and almost 3 million joined a union.’ Thus the foundation was laid for the three decades of sustained U.S. economic growth that followed the Second World War. Life expectancy increased, real wages doubled between 1940 and 1967, and during the 1960s alone, the economy grew at an average of 4.1 percent a year. These decades of economic boom had a number of interrelated contributing factors. Many economists suggest, however, that a major cause of this boom was the power of unions, which assured that working Americans would receive a share of it.
Brethren and Mennonites rode that upward economic escalator along with everyone else. Yet one could only imagine how these decades of industrial strife would have appeared to them, peace-loving Christians located mostly on farms or small town businesses. At the end of World War I, as the nation shook to another great wave of strikes, one journalist simply told his readers that “the greatest of all wars between organized labor and capital seems to have begun.’ William Jennings Bryan commented that it would be “a war of extermination.’ In this context, it’s no wonder that the Brethren and Mennonites initially responded to unions as they did. At the 1904 annual meeting of the German Baptist Brethren (the forerunner of the Church of the Brethren), leaders ruled that since unions “often lead to violence,’ and are often “contrary to the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ,’ members were prohibited from joining them. They lifted this strict prohibition in 1912, but as late as 1941 the church allowed union membership only with hesitancy. More conservative and Old Order Brethren groups kept the prohibition.
The Mennonite response to unions is not as easily summarized. MC Mennonites worked it most carefully, and after about 1937 largely placed it in the hands of Guy Hershberger. He remains a figure of central, paramount importance in any analysis of Mennonite social ethics in the 20th century. Hershberger was a complex, nuanced thinker, someone deeply concerned about the problem of injustice in all its manifestations. Moreover, he worked much of his adult life in a dogged, determined campaign to push his church into activism on such issues, despite determined opposition from its fundamentalist wing. Indeed, to a fair degree it was partly because of Hershberger that the word “justice’ began to enter the Mennonite vocabulary. In his definitive construction of Mennonite nonresistance, his classic text War, Peace and Nonresistance, Hershberger worked out a profoundly influential answer for how his church might answer the problem of social injustice. It was epitomized in his model of a socially engaged alternative community where, in line with still a traditional reconstruction of two-kingdom theology, Mennonites would not demand, but simply do, justice. They would not take on explicit responsibility for social injustice. As Hershberger’s biographer Theron Schlabach has pointed out, he saw that way defined too centrally through the prism supplied by Reinhold Niebuhr. Instead, in Hershberger’s formulation, Mennonites would retreat, ideally to their rural communities, where they would simply deliver justice in word and deed, in accordance with the ethics of their own kingdom.
To a great degree, from the 1920s and well into the postwar years, the Mennonite churches fleshed out this vision, though not always in ways that Hershberger quite intended. Immediately upon the end of World War I, they launched the massive new relief venture of Mennonite Central Committee. Others followed in the wake of World War II: Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Voluntary Service, and the like. Here were practical expressions of that “curative’ mission that Hershberger advocated, and one that spoke to an emerging new Mennonite identity as a people of service. On the other hand, as hard as Hershberger and his allies might try – and they did try – they proved unable to refasten the Mennonite churches back into rural isolation. The pressures of acculturation were too strong. The cultural, socio-economic and theological walls Mennonites had constructed between themselves and outside society were coming down; they began to encounter a world of pain and need; and in particular, they began to encounter unions.
Perhaps the first and clearest recognition of these dynamics appeared in 1938 in a paper Hershberger gave at a MC “Conference on Applied Nonresistance’ and published soon afterwards in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, titled “Nonresistance and Industrial Conflict.’ It came to assume such an importance in MC circles that Schlabach called it a “manifesto.’ In reading it, one is struck by Hershberger’s historical scope, the way he contextualized the labor struggle for his church, and his interest in carving out a middle way for his church between management and labor. He detailed the growing dominance of the “great impersonal, soulless corporation’ and the rise of the CIO in response. He told fellow Mennonites that at least initially, the demands of labor “were not unreasonable,’ though this was not the case in 1938. The CIO, he said, was clearly aiming for “a position of dominance.’ Most importantly of all, he wrote in clear recognition of how, given the pace of acculturation, how these developments were now ensnaring many Mennonites. “It may be said that the nonresistant churches in America are facing the challenge of industrial conflict in a really serious way for the first time,’ he realized. “Many of our Mennonite people are now in the cities and do not find it easy to return to the farm.’ So what should they do?
It was clear to Hershberger what Mennonites could not do. They could not take sides nor take part in the industrial struggle. That, he said, “is a fight for power with which to achieve social injustice, whereas Biblical nonresistance enjoins submission even to injustice rather than engage in conflict.’ They could not engage in campaigns of nonviolent coercion, which, after all, were still coercive and hoped “to humiliate the enemy.’ Hershberger just had a couple of ideas of how Mennonites should respond. The best way, he said, was to strengthen their rural communities and stay on the farm. This was a longer-term solution, he admitted, that would require the development of large new financial resources like mutual aid. In the interim, for Mennonites caught up in the industrial struggle, he pointed to an agreement that their leaders in the Pittsburgh area had recently worked out with the United Mine Workers. It allowed them to technically stay out of unions as long as they did not obstruct union organizing activities. They would not exactly pay union dues, though the same amount of money was deducted from their paychecks and directed into union treasuries. Hershberger admitted the system was not perfect, but it was the best they could arrange at the time, and it had promise.
In the end, this is exactly the kind of arrangement that the Mennonite churches worked out in regards to unions, and for about two decades, Hershberger took the lead. The MC church passed two resolutions, one in 1937 and the other in 1941, that condemned Mennonite participation in unions because of the biblical injunctions about the unequal yoke, reiterated Mennonite neutrality in the industrial struggle, and forbade members from union membership. The church installed Hershberger at the head of a committee ultimately called the Committee on Economic and Social Concerns (CESR), empowering him to hash out individual agreements with unions in localities across the country, wherever Mennonite employees faced organizing drives. It was work he seemed to find especially rewarding. It provided an opportunity to create a kind of conscientious objection in the field of labor relations and counter Niebuhr’s charges of Mennonite withdrawal. Perhaps best of all, suggested Schlabach, it furnished Hershberger another opportunity “to exercise his lifetime genius for taking ethical thought right to where church members lived day to day.’
Not that Hershberger was always successful, nor the arrangements perfect. Some unions (like the United Auto Workers) were more cooperative than others (like the Teamsters). Individual Mennonites sometimes violated their professed neutrality by voting against unions in elections or crossing picket lines. Moreover, Hershberger and his committee could not always guarantee the church that Mennonite “check-off’ funds ended up in charitable causes, as they hoped, instead of union treasuries. In the end, Hershberger said, it did not matter. It was more important to “give witness’ than engage in “perfectionism.’ As long as the church was willing to accept that ambiguity, the work of Hershberger and his committee seemed successful. By 1956, they had signed general agreements with six major international unions and many local ones. Unions were happy enough with the arrangement that in 1954 labor chief Walter Reuther sent out a memo to CIO-related unions directing them to cooperate.
Hershberger mostly confined his work to MC Mennonites but there is evidence he spoke for other groups. Located mostly on the southern plains, General Conference (GC) Mennonites were distant enough from the labor struggle that they never did pass a church-wide resolution on union membership. Their general agreement with much of what Hershberger was doing was perhaps suggested by a comment in 1957 by the progressive GC activist Elmer Ediger, suggested to the General Conference Mennonite Social Concerns Committee that “there must be a better way than outside labor organization and an importation of many of its tactics and attitudes.’ That comment emerged out of an increasing dialogue between Kansas Mennonites and management representatives at the Hesston Manufacturing Company. This dialogue ultimately resulted in the creation, partially assisted by Hershberger, of an official “Workers’ Association’ certified by the National Labor Relations Board, an arrangement that “practically amounted,’ summarized two scholars, “to a Mennonite union.’
The fact that Hershberger helped midwife the Hesston agreement reflects a broadening of his thought in the 1950s on matters of Mennonites and social responsibility. He was increasingly aware of unhappiness among some GC Mennonites with his stricter, two-kingdom dichotomies in War, Peace and Nonresistance. At a conference in Laurelville, Pennsylvania, in 1951, he recognized that Mennonites were dealing with a different kind of state than the oppressive one faced by their Anabaptist ancestors, one that now performed many functions beyond just bearing the sword, some of them good and useful. The old rigid divide between the church and world, he began to suggest, might be softened. The further ferment in his thought is perhaps best seen in his next and last major statement on Mennonite social ethics, his important book The Way of the Cross in Human Relations, published in 1958. While still adhering strongly to some variation of two-kingdom theology, and to his call for Mennonites to do but not demand justice, in this new book Hershberger subtly moved away from themes of isolation, withdrawal and an apolitical Mennonite orientation. Instead, he pushed Mennonites more towards engagement with outside society in various ways and to their periodic duty to issue a prophetic call to the social order.
Even so, in the further evolution of his thought, Hershberger expressed views that were at once more flexible and more rigid towards unions. Under his guidance, the CESR recognized that unions “serve a useful purpose for the maintenance of justice and balance in a sub-Christian society,’ and now permitted a Mennonite employee a provisional involvement with them “in so far as doing so does not conflict with his Christian testimony.’
On the other hand, at the same time, Hershberger revealed his limited use for unions as a public backlash built against them, beginning with the massive strike wave of 1946, the largest in U.S. history. In response, the next year a new Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. Among other measures, Taft-Hartley legitimated the open shop – that is, it allowed workers in a plant to remain employed while rejecting union membership. The results were devastating for organized labor. Whole sections of the country, principally the South and Southwest, quickly passed “right-to-work’ laws and banned union-only shops. This was a development that, decades later, would facilitate the deindustrialization of labor’s heartland, the industrial Midwest. For people more interested in preserving an individual’s prerogative in the workplace than in preserving unions, the open shop amounted to a watershed breakthrough for personal freedom. Hershberger, for one, found it a wonderful development. Such legislation across more states, he wrote in The Way of the Cross, would allow the “individual Christian’ to be “more free to choose the way his conscience directs him,’ thus pushing labor to “operate on a higher ethical level.’ For all his abhorrence of coercion, Hershberger was also open to harnessing it in Mennonite labor relations. At various points, he considered asking the federal government to pass legislation requiring unions to respect Mennonite neutrality. He demurred in 1953, though admitting that “I am closer to that position…than I used to be.’ But in 1965, he did recommend such legislation to a congressional committee.
The reason, of course, that Hershberger was increasingly encountering these ethical ambiguities was that, to his credit, he was attempting to adapt a two-kingdom theology Mennonites had developed in isolation to a new day when that social distance was disintegrating. If this point escaped him, he was reminded of it in 1958 by a fellow member of the Goshen College faculty. “The basis of understanding with the labor movement,’ the young Goshen ethicist J. Lawrence Burkholder wrote in his dissertation, “is typical of a general unwritten and more or less unconscious agreement between Mennonites and the worldly powers according to which Mennonites will do little or nothing to disturb the equilibrium of social and political forces providing they are given the privileges of living a quiet and godly life in isolation.’ As that isolation lessened, there were other models of a peace Christian social responsibility available. By 1952, Hershberger was working with someone who could apprise him of such alternatives. This was the Brethren pastor and labor activist Kermit Eby.
Because Eby emerged from a similar historical trajectory to Hershberger, but arrived at a very different professional and intellectual place, a bit of a biographical sketch may be in order. Like Hershberger, Eby came from a peace church rural community, though in this case a Brethren, as opposed to a Mennonite, one. Eby was a Mennonite name and came from Mennonite stock. In fact, “I would be a Mennonite today,’ he wrote in 1961, had not his grandfather advised his father, then a young man, that if he wanted to be successful in his courtship of his daughter he had better avoid the “unequal yoke’ and get baptized in the Brethren faith. So Eby was born, raised and nurtured a farm boy within the patchwork of neighboring Brethren and Mennonite farms, north of Wakarusa, Indiana, and about a dozen miles west of Goshen. More specifically, his world centered around his family’s church, the Baugo Church of the Brethren. For the rest of his life, Baugo and the cultural values instilled there – personal integrity, faith and deep devotion to individual rights – remained the pole to his personal compass.
Eby graduated from the denominational college (in this case, Manchester), was elected a Brethren minister and, like Hershberger, gravitated towards education, at first teaching Amish children in a rural schoolhouse near Goshen. Then the similarity of their paths diverged. He did a stint of graduate school at the University of Chicago before accepting a position as a high school teacher in Ann Arbor in the early 1930s. There he immersed his students in the great problems of the day: politics, the Great Depression and the labor struggle. While he was careful to bring in guest speakers from the right and left, some of his students’ parents objected to the latter and soon labeled him that “communist teacher.’ The smear was effective and ultimately cost Eby his job. But his education continued apace. He embraced the cause of Christian socialism. Social worker friends took him to meet the city’s poor, people without jobs and hope and struggling to survive. There he encountered the smell, the feel and the texture of poverty and later said it always haunted him. Soon he was joining carloads of local activists to drive up to Flint and help with the great sit-down strike of 1937, peeling potatoes in the strike kitchen and walking picket lines. It was in that context where Eby developed an identity with the labor movement that would shape the rest of his life. He met the Reuther brothers and other labor leaders and thrilled to the culture of radical unionism. “I found my own religion in the social sense, and I sang in earnest all the old union and radical songs which are now reserved for the museums,’ he recalled later. “I liked the CIO in its a-birthing stage and one of the reasons I liked it is that I am biased toward those people in whom the blood runs high.’ Moreover, it was in those days helping to organize the CIO such that Eby learned a different lesson than Hershberger about how to apply his sectarian heritage. He discovered, he recalled later, “how the rather isolated idealism of the Brethren could find expression in organizing the unemployed and actively engaging in politics.’
Eby’s association with the labor movement began in Flint in 1937 and continued for 15 years in various roles as a union organizer and administrator, all while he remained a Brethren lay minister devoted to the church. His Brethren commitments – prizing, as they did, things like individual autonomy and sympathy for the underdog – fed a career with organized labor that was sometimes tumultuous. He led the Chicago Teachers Union until he was fired in 1941 for “insubordination’ in battles with the Kelly-Nash political machine of Chicago. Then he took a position in Washington, D.C., as research director for the CIO, where he lobbied government officials on behalf of labor, represented the CIO with UNESCO and waged periodic smaller battles within the CIO office on behalf of individuals he thought who had been wronged. He did not function well, it turned out, as a cog in a large bureaucracy.
In 1948, Eby accepted a position teaching social sciences at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his premature death from cancer in 1962. Yet even as a college professor, his thoughts and writings repeatedly turned back to unions, increasingly now expressing a deep disillusionment. He loved the labor movement in its passionate youth but was increasingly aghast at its too-quick transition to stolid, unimaginative middle age. The Taft-Hartley legislation meant that unions were increasingly forced, summarizes one labor historian, into a “narrowly-focused defensive brand of private-sector collective bargaining.’ By the 1950s, as a major power block within the Democratic Party, labor had become Big Labor, “internal oligarchies administratively top-heavy with technicians and officials, and increasingly parochial in their bargaining strategy and political outlook.’ Through the decade, in article after article and several books, Eby decried the transformation. “The union movement is no longer a fellowship of dreamers sharing one big faith and aspiring to a common destiny,’ he lamented in 1961. “Today, big unionism is big business, and its power structure resembles that of the corporation.’
It was at this point, and with such perspectives, that Eby found himself useful to Hershberger. In the early 1950s, Hershberger began bringing Eby as a consultant with various Mennonite businesses as they sorted through relationships with their employees. While Hershberger was sure that Mennonites had the requisite theology for such work, Schlabach said, Eby could provide the “technical expertise’ they needed. In the process the two developed a “real friendship.’ No doubt this was true, though Eby had his own take on what he was doing. “For three years I have acted as a consultant for the Mennonite Committee on Economic and Social Relations,’ he wrote in 1958. “My primary assignment is the interpretation of the Mennonite heritage to Mennonites. Ironically they want my competence as a labor-management consultant! Exactly what I do not want.’ So the Mennonite heritage he presented in these seminars was a radical one: of Anabaptist forebears who were communitarian levelers, who valued workers more than property and whose leader, Menno Simons, denounced the charging of interest. None of this gave Hershberger pause. Eby “is not as radical as he once was,’ Hershberger assured a former student in 1953. “Twenty years ago he went into the labor organizing field with evangelistic zeal, thinking to bring Christian justice to the oppressed.’ Now, those years with the CIO had taught him that “organized big labor is as dangerous and unchristian as organized big business. He now admits frankly that the real Christian way is the Anabaptist-Mennonite-Brethren way which…brings employers and employees etc into one brotherhood, working things together in the way of Christian love.’ In The Way of the Cross in Human Relations, Hershberger held up Eby as example 1-A of a formerly naïve but now wised-up ex-labor leader, and quoted his disillusionment with big labor at length.
Eby was a more complex thinker than this, and it would have behooved Hershberger to pay more careful attention. Admittedly, this would have taken some effort. Eby was a prolific writer, author of four books and over a hundred articles in religious journals like The Christian Century and The Christian Scholar, as well as intellectual periodicals like The Progressive and The Humanist. But he did not develop his ideas systematically. The Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh called him an “intellectual gadfly.’ Eby’s books were largely autobiographical and more popular than scholarly. As a teacher, he was somewhat idiosyncratic, openly admitting to his students that what he really taught was just “the life and loves of Kermit Eby.’ Yet taken together, the body of Eby’s writing ultimately presented a clear and direct challenge to Hershberger’s carefully constructed Mennonite answer to the problem of injustice.
Eby’s answer to the problem of injustice emanated from the same intellectual base as Hershberger’s: his sectarian heritage. Eby began the first session of every class, recalled a former student, by simply admitting his biases, “discussing the bases of his convictions and explaining his political and ethical position.’ These biases were openly sectarian; in fact, they were Brethren. Eby’s thoughts, like his lectures, would turn, soar and wheel, but would always return like homing pigeons back to his childhood home and church along Baugo Creek west of Goshen. His heroes from that childhood were many and varied. Yet one stood out above the rest: his grandfather, the red-bearded, patriarchal Monroe Schwalm, pastor of the congregation, who guided and led his Brethren community in the manner of an Old Testament rabbi. Schwalm was someone, Eby testified, who embodied personal integrity, who taught him as a child that his word was his bond, and who demonstrated him in word and deed the values of thrift, hard work, clean fence rows and the larger responsibility to the community.
Eby did not so immerse his childhood Brethren world in such nostalgia that he was unable to perceive its faults. Intermingled in the rosy memories are admissions of the gossip and prejudice that the Brethren church of his youth also harbored, its emphasis on work as an end in itself, its mindless Puritanism, and its underlying authoritarianism against which the younger Eby clearly rebelled. Perhaps it was that lingering rebellion that fueled his passion against the impersonal bureaucracy of big labor in his older years, especially the way it seemed to have let the needs of the larger organization override those of the individual. Set against that, Eby treasured memories of “the fierce utopianism of those who built the CIO…They were singing, vital, morally committed men.’ In the context of McCarthy-era America, he discovered those previous associations could land him in trouble. In 1953, Eby was subpoenaed to appear before Senator William Jenner’s Senate subcommittee investigating possible communist subversion. He was glad to appear. He told his inquisitors that “I had never been and was not now…a communist; that I had always, by virtue of long-held conviction, been anti-authoritarian; that I belonged to the order of the Brethren by birth and was both a minister and professor by trade.’ Further, Eby told Jenner’s committee, if they wanted to try him, then they really needed to try his whole Brethren tradition that had produced him. This was too much for the senators, so they dismissed him. Perhaps the church was really to blame for his presence in front of Jenner’s committee anyway. “I am active in the labor movement less by choice than by accident,’ Eby wrote. “If the church was as militant for the values which concern me most, I would be working in it instead of in the CIO.’ Hershberger would have only nodded in agreement.
At the same time, Eby refused to accept the easy bifurcation that others from his Brethren-Mennonite tradition made between the political and coercive world and the supposedly apolitical church. Not long after he left his Brethren community and plunged into union organizing he realized that “I took to the same old church – in disguise. The Sectarians of the Left – the Schachmanites, Trotskyites, Lovestoneites, Socialists, Social Democrats, Social Fascists – were all, somehow, disturbingly familiar faces from my youth. Where had I seen them before? In the inflamed and ecstatic face of the local parson preaching of a Sunday against sin.’ Politics permeated everything, he told young idealists new to the labor movement; politics was “…just as natural as breathing. There is politics in every family, every church, every institution’ – and especially, perhaps, in the church. Anyone who insisted on the apolitical nature of the church would have been dismissed by Eby as inhabiting a fantasyland. He had lived in the Brethren community long enough to recognize authoritarianism when he saw it. The same secular words even applied. The church elder clearly was the “boss,’ those supporting him comprised a “caucus,’ and the others below were governed “quite ruthlessly…We would be more honest,’ Eby stated bluntly,’… if we admitted we are political and if we didn’t so often involve God’s sanction for doing what our power interests dictate anyway.’
Since the realms of church and world could not be so easily bifurcated, it only followed, to Eby, that the church’s values ought to be applied to the society outside of its doors. As he made the transition from the Brethren farm into the CIO, he realized that “peace, the good life and the ordered society still depended upon Brethren values,’ and that this “was a realistic possibility to the extent that these values were moved into the world of politics and economics.’ All that idealism was “meaningless,’ he said, unless it was “translated from the day to day into specific and concrete action in the political arenas.’ His years in the labor movement had made him, Eby admitted in 1958, a “hard-bitten person,’ unwilling to accept that peace would “float down like a cloud from heaven.’ Instead, it would only arrive “as a by-product of the day-by-day political decisions in ward and precinct.’
Eby made it clear that there were better uses for their sectarian commitments than isolating them in rural religious preserves that would model Christian love. Over and over, Eby insisted, they had no such refuge left. He left his old Brethren community, he suggested in 1956, “because of some realization that there are no islands anymore, not even Brethren and Mennonite islands’ – especially not now, in the era of the bomb. In the face of such peril, Eby knew that “the ‘love’ or Agape ethic of my fathers must be universalized.’ This, he said, would require sectarian Christians to shake off their inclination to withdraw from the world. Instead, they needed to plunge into politics to safeguard the common good of all. Such a course would require “more courage…than to withdraw into an island of the like-minded.’ In fact, he said, it required “more courage to live, conscious of Christ’s teachings, in the rough and tumble world, than in any assembly of saints.’ Eby’s location in this “rough and tumble’ world of the labor movement had enabled him, perhaps more clearly than many Mennonites, to count the cost of their isolation. “The simple honesty and brotherhood that prevailed to a large degree within my home community failed,’ he recognized, “before the challenge of larger society.’ Brethren had proclaimed peace, he said, but their community had prospered on “war profits’ and nine-tenths of their young men had entered military service in World War II. They had proclaimed brotherhood but had actually done little politically to combat Jim Crow.
By the later 1950s, Hershberger had read enough of Eby’s writings to know that his earlier confidence in his soundness had been misplaced. He responded directly to the challenge in 1958 in The Way of the Cross in Human Relations, and in tones of uncharacteristic condescension. Eby’s disillusionment with big labor fundamentally lay, Hershberger said, in a “confused awareness that, however just the cause might be, the coercive methods of organized labor are not in harmony with the basic Christian ethic as it was understood and taught by his Brethren-Mennonite forebears.’ To prove the point, Hershberger turned to Eby’s model of his Brethren patriarch, Grandfather Schwalm, who Eby had dismissed, Hershberger said, as naïve. Maybe so, Hershberger admitted. But Schwalm “gave love its rightful priority over justice, as the New Testament also does. No Brethren preacher ever had more evangelistic fervor than has Eby himself. The difference lies in the content of the Gospel which is preached. For, once Eby found himself marching down the road of organized labor, with justice as his goal, the vision of the higher law of love became obscured.’ Eby seemed to be grasping this truth, Hershberger said, in his “undisguised, wistful nostalgia…for a more pristine economy based on Christian brotherhood.’ But then, when Eby finally faced situations of “actual conflict…methods of power apparently continue to take precedence over the way of the cross, so that one must ask in all seriousness whether it is not Grandfather Schwalm’s red beard and other superficial cultural accoutrement which the nostalgic Eby has grasped, rather than the basic principles for which the grandfather stood.’
Eby’s response came later that year when he reviewed Hershberger’s Way of the Cross in the pages of the Christian Century. The review was titled “Square with the World.’ “In the Mennonite world which nurtured Guy Hershberger and myself,’ Eby began, “the big bank barn was the central point of the farm scene. Before the barn could be built it had to be laid out; and before it could be laid out the foundation had to be built; and the foundations had to be sturdy and, above all, square with the world.’ This was just the way barns had to be. “Guy Hershberger’s book is like that barn,’ Eby said, “well laid out and square with the world.’ There was not a shade of gray or doubt in its pages. Its course “is almost exactly between Niebuhr’s neo-orthodoxy to the north and Rauschenbusch’s Christian action to the south.’ Sometimes it veers a bit more toward one pole or the other, Eby said, “but never for long.’ Readers can proceed through its pages in confident assurance of God’s ultimate victory.
Yet in reality, Eby continued, “having lived through many barn-buildings laid out square with the world,’ the actually construction process is usually not so smooth. Disagreements crop up all along. Where will the windows go? Will the barn be all red or trimmed with white? Will the horses be stabled on the north or south end? “In other words,’ he said, “it’s with the internal layout that the trouble begins. Not all of us are Mennonites, and not all of us have the same blueprints.’ Indeed, “it is this very assurance of direction and destiny,’ he added wryly, “which makes Mennonites a bit difficult to work with.’
On the face of it, Hershberger’s ethical construct, Eby said, appeared as solid and square as any Pennsylvania Dutch barn. But its broad and neat frame masked a number of structural ambiguities. For instance, take the crystal firmness outlined in the book about pacifism. Of course Mennonites do not participate in war. “But what they do as taxpayers and incidental beneficiaries of a war economy isn’t nearly so clear,’ Eby pointed out. “I am not as sure as Hershberger seems to be that one can steer a clear path between when one serves the state and rejects it, when one is a beneficiary of the economy and a victim.’ And of course he “disagreed completely’ with Hershberger’s portrayal of the labor movement. It was not his experience, he said, that the movement hindered the free expression of conscience. On the contrary, the thrust of Hershberger’s analysis “leads to individualism and right-to-work laws.’ What about a willingness to advocate for justice for those beyond the church? Ultimately, Eby admitted, he “would have felt more kindly towards this book if it held out more hope for those outside the heritage.’
That seemed to bookend the exchange. Eby completed a final book before becoming consumed by his own health concerns. Hershberger increasingly turned his attention to the emerging civil rights struggle, and to pushing his reluctant church towards a deeper commitment to racial justice. So the dialogue between the two men seemed to have largely ended. We might only ask what relevance it holds for us today.
We have come a long way since the days when Hershberger’s unmodified two-kingdom precepts functioned as a satisfactory answer to the problem of injustice, at least for many of us. A number of scholars have documented how a Mennonite concern for justice emerged from the acculturation process to full blossom in the later 20th century. This paradigm shift emanated from a number of developments. The collapse of the socio-cultural walls Mennonites had constructed played a signal role, of course, but it was accompanied by a parallel theological development, a rethinking of what it meant to proclaim the Lordship of Christ. Jesus was Lord over both church and state, leaders like Hershberger and an emerging cohort of younger leaders argued, and relied on the church to communicate to the state God’s expectations for its behavior. Hence Mennonites had a responsibility to witness to the state. This realization soon extended beyond the peace witness to encompass a determination to speak also to justice. Indeed, Mennonites soon recognized that peace and justice were inextricably linked, and one could not exist without the other.
Yet a parallel Mennonite effort to speak directly to economic justice, disconnected from peace concerns, has been missing. In part this silence may emanate from our social location. Janis Thiessen has recently outlined the relationship between Mennonite class position and their attitudes towards unions. The disproportionate number of Mennonites who make their living in white-collar as opposed to blue-collar occupations means that by the late 20th century, only about 6 percent of Mennonites across all of North America held union membership. Official church teaching against organized labor, delivered by leaders like Hershberger in the United States and John Redekop in Canada, has dissipated. The sociological surveys of church members in 1972, 1989 and 2007 did not even ask about Mennonites attitudes towards union membership. Today Mennonite attitudes towards unions oscillate between dismissal and neglect – we just don’t think about them all that often. Thiessen ascribes this to a basic, underlying, pervasive Mennonite individualism that reflects a fundamental shift in the locus of religious authority in their lives from the larger religious community to personal and familial wants and needs.
As a result, Mennonites – by virtue of their class position and religious inclinations – once again find themselves on the sidelines of a critically important debate in American society today in regards to what to do about the massive wealth inequalities that have emerged and how we might mitigate the harm they are inflicting on the common good. The decline of unions today presents some profound costs that Mennonites ought to consider. Besides providing basic, positive effects in American workplaces – increased rates of worker skill, job stability and productivity – union labor also helped to ensure the supply of $20-an-hour jobs, the kind of jobs that funded school levies, facilitated high rates of home ownership and helped build stable working class communities.s The decline of such jobs in contemporary America has had a host of negative social effects that sociologists like Robert Putnam have documented in detail. Putnam and his crew of researchers have also highlighted the kind of penalties that the existence of this second America – less educated, poorer, socially and physically disconnected from the rest of us – does and will impose. Not only is “writing off such a large fraction of our youth…an awfully expensive course of inaction,’ he argues, but the “bleak, socially estranged future facing poor kids in America today…undermines our democracy and perhaps even our political stability.’ It also “violates our deepest religious and moral values.’
In sum, the Mennonite inability or refusal to engage questions of social class means that we have positioned ourselves to not say much about the ongoing struggle to protect the good of all. At least we are unlikely to do this through the vehicle by which Americans have usually tried to safeguard the common good: by grasping the hand of politics.
The most recent larger Mennonite flap about politics – at least, large enough to be given time on the stage at a church wide conference meeting – was occasioned in 2004-05, when John Roth called for a self-imposed Mennonite hiatus from political wrangling in the heat of the presidential campaign of that year, in particular a five-year Mennonite sabbatical from voting. Roth qualified this appeal carefully and couched it in passionate appeals for Mennonite engagement with their society in other ways. It did not take hold and, in light of other developments in the decade that followed, now seems light years away. But at least Roth’s call prodded American Mennonites to again think critically and reflectively about how they might pursue a sense of social responsibility in the political sphere. The nature of our history – with all its consideration of two kingdoms versus one, its tendency to mostly consider justice in the context of peacemaking, and its prizing of the prophetic witness to the state – has perhaps limited our ability to speak to the uses of politics in other ways. Lawrence Burkholder put his finger on this matter in 1994 in a cogent little critique of Yoder’s Politics of Jesus. “Yoder, while making a place for witness, makes no place,’ Burkholder said, “…for real, earthly kingship or its modern democratic equivalent.’ It is permissible now for us to speak in the political realm, he said, and certainly to witness, “but not to govern.’
Now that our isolation and our pretended innocence is no more, Burkholder recognized a quarter century ago, “what is called for is a Mennonite ethic that will justify in theory what is generally accepted in practice…that engages honestly the relativity of a complex reality. It means the end of innocence and the beginning of a vast and troublesome quest for places to draw the line short of pure nonresistance.’ Maybe Mennonite political hesitancy emanates at bottom from an illusory bifurcation we insist upon maintaining between our political and economic lives. The walls we erected to help maintain this dichotomy have all come down. Whether or not we physically press the lever at the ballot box, we “vote’ every time we buy a pair of shoes. This does not necessarily mean that we must follow the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr to its logical conclusion and pick up the gun. A consideration of political involvement does not necessarily force us into an all-or-nothing set of choices.
Voices from our own tradition have been telling us this for years. With all Hershberger’s worry that politics could suck Mennonites into exercising coercive power, in The Way of the Cross in Human Relations he allowed that the modern democratic state provided many necessary welfare functions that did not by nature threaten the Mennonite conscience. He even conceded that people of peace could function as minor office holders. Sixty years ago, Kermit Eby provided one possible answer to Roth’s plea for a sabbatical from voting. Of course the nature of the American political system presents people of peace with poor choices when it comes to presidential elections, he would have said. These are occasions when, after all, voters select the commander-in-chief of the military. But that does not necessarily mean we avoid electoral politics altogether. Rather than telling our children that they could be someday become president of the United States, we ought to instead just tell them they could someday become precinct captains.
“Thus we stand at an important juncture in Anabaptist history,’ wrote the Mennonite economist James Halteman 20 years ago. “How high should the wall between the two kingdoms be? Will the community of faith become secularized if the wall is reduced or torn down altogether? Is pacifism the only remaining mortar holding the wall together? These questions are difficult to answer,’ Halteman admitted, “but it seems clear that the weakest spot in the wall is in the area of economic relationships.’ He laid out a continuum which seemed to set the parameters for protestant political and economic engagement in modern America. One end of the continuum he called the “modelers,’ which he identified with Anabaptism. It’s the Christian’s job, we Anabaptists supposedly argue, only to present a different model for society and to call people into it and out of the sinful order. The other pole on Halteman’s continuum was the “infiltrators,’ which he identified with the Reformed tradition. Their approach to social change was to “penetrate’ wider society and slowly pull it toward kingdom values. Halteman’s analysis is useful if we reject his equation of the infiltrators only with the Reformed tradition. The larger Anabaptist family tree, extending from reformation Europe to our own day, harbors more than a few of these infiltrators as well, who mapped out the same approach and promised the same fruitful results.
In 1959, three years before his death, Eby sat at a Brethren conference in Des Moines for three days listening to lovely, heartfelt panegyrics about Christian love. Finally he had heard enough and rose to speak. He confessed it all made him tired. Love, he said, “is only half the heritage. The other is the struggle for justice. Justice is the arithmetic of love. It is only when love is spelled out that tension develops. We can love as much as we wish. It is only when we challenge the incumbent power structures that the cross emerges.’
In conclusion, perhaps it is by recapturing these nuts and bolts, this arithmetic of love, that Mennonites can declare, once again, our relevance to the problem of social injustice. Insisting on that kind of arithmetic – even refusing to concede such terms as relevance and responsibility to the Niebuhrians – might be part of our responsibility now that our walls have come down. It is not the only way we can contribute to the preservation of the common good. But it is one way.