Patriotism and faithfulness in a time of war
Goshen College Convocation, 11 September 2006
By: Keith Graber Miller,
Professor of Bible, Religion and Philosophy
: this article features content, exclusive to the Bulletin online.
CV Image The Goshen News headline smacked me like a punch to the gut: "Dissenting voices not welcome in a flag-waving chorus across America."
- Keith Graber Miller
Nearly all of us here, I suspect, remember where we were during the tragic, unfolding events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Even those of us who were living elsewhere in the world likely recall hearing of the devastation on U.S. soil that day, a horrific loss not unlike that which occurs with some regularity in war-torn countries around the globe, not unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor 65 years ago, but unique to those of us born after World War II. Thousands dead at the World Trade Center Towers in New York, and at the Pentagon in Washington, and in a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.

That morning I was in the final throes of preparing a lecture for my Ethics and Morality class when the reports began coming through the airwaves and the Internet. Still stunned, I met my Ethics students at 9:30 a.m. with a television in the front of the classroom, and for the next two hours we watched the towers explode, collapse and plummet into the street in the astounding footage that has now seared its way into our psyches. The classroom was nearly silent except for the reporters’ voices. Some wept. Some were fearful. Early accounts suggested that other planes were headed for cities spread across the country.

Later that afternoon we processed the day’s events with our 9-year-old, who had been shielded from any news by the teachers at his elementary school. Throughout the evening we remained riveted to the television, hearing the emerging descriptions of the possible hijackers and their motives, and the germinal calls for retributive justice. We had entered a new world, a world of suspicion and terror, smart bombs and collateral damage, Freedom fries rather than French fries.

We know well the events that ensued in the following months. First was our relatively brief war with Afghanistan, where we believed Al Qaeda was based even though the 19 hijackers were primarily from Saudi Arabia. Then came the elusive search for Osama bin Laden, followed by brewing U.S. antagonism toward Iraq, false claims of links between Iraq and the events of Sept. 11, and our long and loping war on Iraqi soil. As a nation we are daily reminded of the tragic violence we continue to do, and the gut-wrenching violence that is done to our troops, in Afghanistan and Iraq. In nearly every day’s paper we read of another five killed by a car bomb, another 20 blown to bits in a police recruiting line, an extended family wiped out in the quest for a purported terrorist.

In the weeks immediately following Sept. 11, small pockets of U.S. citizens – some pacifists, some cautious just-war theorists, some veterans and military officers – began raising their voices for a reasoned, moderate, multilateral response to the violence of Sept. 11. But those voices were in a minority. By late September, the Goshen News carried a banner headline that said, “Dissenting Voices Not Welcome In a Flag-Waving Chorus Across America.”

The military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have revealed significant differences among many U.S. Christians. Some Christians have too fully imbibed and embraced American patriotism, too uncritically accepting the rhetoric of the (Christian) right, while others have perhaps too comfortably embraced the left or settled for the complacency of relatively obscure and secure small-town Midwest America.

Divisions have been evident within congregations and across denominations regarding appropriate Christian responses: Can we be faithful to Jesus, whom we call the Prince of Peace, hold our government accountable, and still acknowledge gratitude for our country? Can we be both Christians and patriots? Because we are both citizens of this world and of the world to come, I believe God is calling us to do just that.

Traditionally, Mennonites’ peace position has been rooted in the biblical portrayal of Jesus’ way of love and his willingness to suffer on the cross. Mennonites have been less optimistic about human nature than some liberal pacifists of the early 20th century, but have instead believed simply that Jesus calls his followers to be nonviolent. Sometimes this pacifism “works,” and sometimes it doesn’t. But in the Anabaptist tradition, as in many other religious traditions, faithfulness takes priority over effectiveness. Faithfulness is near the heart of Mennonite theological and ethical thinking, with the deep, confident hope and belief that God has structured the world in such a way that faithfulness also will be, eventually, effective.