Refusing to sing praises to nationalism and violence

By David Jost
2 Apr 2010

On 21 January 2010, administrators at Goshen College, a prominent Mennonite peace church academic institution in northern Indiana, USA, announced the decision to begin playing an instrumental version of the US national anthem at the beginning of some sports games.

To the outside media, as well as many of those who celebrated the decision, the 116-year tradition of not playing the national song was rooted in some sort of arcane Mennonite defiance of worldly practices, or perhaps a simple distaste for the undeniably violent words of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ itself. The change has sparked a flurry of community debate, media coverage, and extensive dialogue.

A typical presentation of the issue in news periodicals includes the following: a mention of the policy change itself, a brief description of Goshen’s Mennonite heritage (often mentioning our Amish cousins), and an explanation for the change, usually involving Goshen’s changing demographics.

Many Goshen students who support the playing of the anthem similarly view the issue in cultural terms, although they tend to see the change as a transition toward an explicitly nationalist rather than a pluralistically hospitable culture, which is the stated goal.

Even Goshen’s administrators have on several occasions compared the decision to historical church decisions to allow pants [trousers] and dancing, as if this were just a question of appearances.

For many of us who oppose new policy, however, the decision is not primarily about a cultural tradition, nor is it even necessarily about our peace stance in the Mennonite church, although that is intimately related to it. It is about our uncompromising allegiance, as Christians, to Jesus Christ our Lord, and our unwillingness to give anyone the false impression that our allegiance is tied to any single state.

Along with the pledge (to which it is often closely linked), the anthem ritual represents a certain offering of allegiance to the American state, an action which Goshen College President Jim Brenneman and the Goshen administration apparently deem perfectly acceptable.

On several occasions, Brenneman has said that he believes that Christians can have multiple allegiances, and that for most Americans, these are roughly arrayed in the correct order.

There are several serious problems with these assertions. Taken at face value, they put Brenneman at direct odds with Article 23 of the Mennonite Church USA confession of faith, which gives our allegiance as a church to God alone (though, granted, he may have been using the term “allegiance” differently).

These statements also do not reflect reality in America at all; if most Americans meaningfully gave their allegiance to God, this country would presumably be much more charitable, peaceful, and servant-like.

Ultimately, however, the rationale given for the decision is that we must, as a community that includes both Mennonites and non-Mennonite Christians, honour the wishes of the large part of our collective body that wants to give allegiance to our country. It is here that the deepest problems with Goshen’s decision lie.

The significance of the anthem, as with all rituals, is in the eye of the beholder. Those pushing for its use on campus, along with Americans who celebrate it generally, make no secret of the fact that they see the anthem as a symbol of our country’s freedoms and young men and women in the armed forces.

Students on campus and members of the community have made it clear they see honouring our troops as a motivator for playing the anthem, and that they feel Goshen should honour our country for allowing us religious freedom, as if the freedom to worship God was America’s to give.

As Goshen representatives have pointed out, our accompanying prayer (that of Saint Francis of Assisi) and statement of core values make it clear that we are not endorsing war by playing the anthem. But when we play the anthem, we encourage nationalists among us to claim Christian identity while offering allegiance to our nation and praise to ‘our troops’.

The new policy tells the many students and community members who (by their own admission) connect the anthem with nationalism and war that we endorse theirs as a valid Christian stance. From a peace church and Mennonite perspective, theirs is not a valid Christian stance and we should not be dishonest and pretend it is.

To love one’s country by working to help the downtrodden and speaking truth directly to power can be an honourable part of Christian discipleship. But civic rituals in the United States honour American military arms for the protection they offer citizens, and they honour the country itself as a source of freedom, which in fact comes from God.

Supporters of the anthem do not hide their misplaced sense of where our faith is rooted. As one pro-anthem student claimed, “we should honour this country because it allows us to worship God.” But a child of God does not ask permission of the state to worship properly.

From Shadrach to the early Christians, from the children of Israel in Egypt to the Anabaptists of Europe, God’s faithful have no interest in even pretending to share the values of the violent powers of the world.

The American state’s promise to kill anyone who would try to kill its citizens does not need or deserve to be reciprocated with thanks, and the fact that the American government does not kill us (at this particular point in history) does not mean we owe it what God has already claimed.

The United States does not deserve our unqualified allegiance for its false promises and attempts to give what it does not own, namely, our right to worship God.

Anthems, flags, and similar rituals to the nation (in the United States, at least) are closely intertwined with the promise of lethal force to guarantee – so it is claimed - rights and freedoms, and as such are not appropriate for Mennonite Christians to participate in.

Certainly we, as Christians, should commit ourselves to good outside the church. But when other commitments come into conflict with our allegiance to God, we must not shy away from differentiating ourselves, publicly if necessary.

American civic ritual, with its endorsement of violence and implication that freedom comes from the state, conflicts with allegiance to the God of Jesus. Goshen recognises this, and as such, attempts to send a strong signal that it disapproves of the inevitable connotations of the anthem by juxtaposing it with a prayer — a practice which can be seen as further needlessly entangling church and state.

But playing it nonetheless, while recognising that nationalist students will understand the gesture as an acceptance of their viewpoint on this issue as legitimate, is dishonest and the policy should be rescinded.

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© David Jost is a student at Goshen College, Indiana, USA.

A statement and petition from Jesus Radicals opposing the college’s playing of an instrumental version of the US national anthem, signed by many hundreds of church leaders and theologians, can be found here - http://www.jesusradicals.com/goshen-college-hurts-the-church/

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