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For many people these days, much 'religion' has become synonymous with division, bigotry and violence. Sadly, there is plenty of good evidence that this is so. But it is not the whole picture. There are very strong faith traditions that point in exactly the opposite direction.
The Christian practices, convictions, communities and histories which have formed me are strongly opposed to militarism, nationalism, sectarianism and chauvinism in all its forms - both 'religious' and 'secular' (since the idea that non-religious traditions are wholly innocent of bloodshed is, sadly, as false as the idea that 'religion' is wholly guilty/innocent).
Though my background and upbringing is Anglican, I have been hugely assisted and shaped in my life's journey by Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers and Catholics in the peace and justice tradition. These are 'minority' strands within historic Christianity, perhaps, but the evidence of the recent International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) is that nonviolence has been gaining hugely in strength, maturity and centrality within the historic churches in recent years.
Indeed, there are compelling arguments that the religion of Jesus cannot be anything but wholly incompatible with war and its symbolic justifications (as Anglican bishops acknowledged in 1978). Jesus' last recorded injunction to any of his followers was 'put away your sword'. His crucifixion at the hands of an alliance between political and religious power embodies the divine capacity to absorb, transform and reject violence, rather than to inflict it. The resurrection is a decisively non-violent apocalyptic. Baptism is induction into a 'new creation' in which war and injustice (among other sins) are banished, and Christians are re-formed to fight with the 'weapons' of truth, love, forgiveness, faith, and hope - not those of death and destruction. Eucharist is about the triumph of bodily communion over ideological division.
In these terms, the Christian refusal of killing is thoroughly theological, and integral to reflective faith - not some kind of 'ethical option' or 'add on' for those 'into that kind of thing'.
For all those reasons and more, I am absolutely delighted at the news that Goshen College, the Mennonite liberal arts institution in Indiana, USA (of which my wife is an alumnus), has decided to reverse its controversial decision last year to start playing an instrumental version of the US national anthem at sporting events. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14923
Friends of the College across the world, including Christian ministers, theologians and activists from a host of denominations, signed a 'Letter of Resistance' to the original decision to play it. I was one of them. Goshen College's Board of Directors have now listened and acted.
They are right to do so. Stirring though its music may be, 'The Star Spangled Banner' is an anthem drenched in militaristic symbolism, logic and affirmation. It is a religious (but not at all Christian, except in an emaciated 'civic' sense) credo based on nationalism and claims to divine privilege. Some would go so far as to use the word 'idolatry' for such statements - a worship of false gods reflected, tragically, in many other national anthems - including 'God Save the Queen', which I cannot in conscience sing.
Such issues are deeply sensitive, of course. To dissent from some of the central rituals and practices of a nation is to expose yourself to claims of disloyalty and lack of patriotism, or to be seen to be dishonouring your country. This is not how I would view it at all. As a follower of Christ (however failed and faltering), my ultimate allegiance can never be to a set of narrow national interests or to a militarily-constructed notion of security. But that is not a negative stance. Rather, it frees me from captivity to a 'tribal' allegiance and enables me to work broadly with people of all nations and backgrounds for a world in which divisions and differences are overcome by peaceful engagement and argument, not violence; and where the true strength of nations or peoples is rooted in their capacity to celebrate the different contributions of those from other national, ethnic and identity backgrounds - rather than to see them almost automatically as 'alien', 'foreign' or 'the enemy'.
Of course there are enemies, and they must be faced. Those who use religion or any other ideology to justify killing, injustice, impoverishment, the denial of dignity, sexism, racism and homophobia are to be resisted with every (nonviolent) means at our disposal. That in turn requires alliances of a very different kind to those presupposed by nationalistic anthems. Instead, our duty, joy and pain, the Psalmist says, is to "sing songs [of liberation] is a strange land." Goshen College are now helping us to move further in that direction.
Meanwhile, the abuse and hatred which some are directing at the College and its board for refusing to bow to nationalism and militarism indicate, tragically, the real spirit of these forces, and of some who fearfully defend the national anthem's underlying ideology. It confirms the rightness of Goshen's latest decision.
The best response to such aggressive negativity is also a positive one: messages of support, donations, and continued attempts to explain why Christian resistance is about hope and respect in its deepest forms. Let's pray and work to ensure that they arrive in their hundreds.
Also on Ekklesia:
* 'Nationalism and militarism have no place in Christian formation', by Andy Alexis-Baker - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14921
* 'Refusing to sing praises to nationalism and violence', by Goshen student David Jost - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11681
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His long-delayed book Threatened with Resurrection: The Difficult Peace of Christ is due to appear later this year (2011) from Shoving Leopard publishers (http://shovingleopard.blogspot.com/).Tweet