Friends, family and colleagues of the late J.R. Burkholder gathered on Saturday to celebrate the life of the Goshen College professor emeritus, ethicist and peace activist. Burkholder passed away on Dec. 20, 2019, one day after his 91st birthday.
Burkholder is remembered at Goshen College for his 22 years as a professor, his role in founding what is now the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies program and his influence as a thinker in the broader Mennonite Church, helping move the Mennonite peacemaking tradition from its history of nonresistance toward one of active, nonviolent resistance.
“Among all of the 20th-century Anabaptist ethicists, sociologists, historians and social activists, J.R. Burkholder most nearly got it right, in terms of both his ethical analysis and his personal practice,” said Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible, Religion and Philosophy, who spoke at the memorial service.
Burkholder crafted a “theologically grounded, relevant and holistic response for Mennonites and others seeking to live faithfully in light of the current times, with fertile roots still linked to the ancient biblical text and a 16th-century radical tradition,” he said.
The memorial service was held at Assembly Mennonite Church, where J.R. and his wife Susan Burkholder, attended since 1975, one year after the church was created. The service included singing, instrumental music, poetry reading and sharing of memories from Burkholder’s life and work. The service was attended by more than 275 friends, and family and fellow congregants.
“I felt it was a celebration,” said Mrs. Burkholder. “It was a real blessing to me.”
During the service, members of Burkholder’s family also shared personal memories of their father and brother.
Burkholder’s younger brother Charles, the middle of three brothers, shared memories of their childhood. He said his older brother liked to read comics—Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny were his favorite characters—and built dozens of model airplanes.
Burkholder’s eldest daughter, Kelli King, shared memories of raiding her father’s stash of Hershey’s miniatures chocolates—Krackel, Mr. Goodbar and the rest—in the second drawer down on the right side of his office desk at work. She described the way her father found new uses for waste at home, like an old cylinder of orange juice concentrate he used to hold pens and pencils or the aluminum pie pan that he fashioned into a light shade.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor of Peace Justice and Conflict Studies, said she appreciated celebrating both the influential peace work and personal, everyday moments he shared with his family.
“That legacy of scholarship, and activism is very important to me,” Shands Stoltzfus said. “I have always wanted what I do in the classroom to have life outside the classroom.”
Indeed, active engagement with the world was what Burkholder wanted for Mennonite peace work, and was a central part of how he lived his life. He spoke and wrote about active nonviolent resistance “academically, theologically, ethically, with integrity,” Graber Miller said, “but he also just lived it.”
In May of 1985, during his last semester as a professor at Goshen College, Burkholder was arrested during a sit-in demonstration protesting U.S. aid to Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
J.R. Burkholder was masterful at standing in one tradition while reaching out and valuing ideas and practices from other traditions as well, Graber Miller said.
“His voice is one that another generation of people needs to be able to hear.”