Goshen College professors present contrasting views on the national anthem

(Left to right) Joe Liechty, professor of peace, justice and conflict studies, and Kathy Meyer Reimer, professor of education, talk with President Jim Brenneman following the convocation about different perspectives on the national anthem decision. (Photo by Jodi H. Beyeler/Goshen College Public Relations)

Visit the national anthem overview page, with more news and views about the college’s decision.

GOSHEN, Ind. — Two Goshen College faculty members united in their commitment to pacifism, the teachings of the Mennonite church and extending Christian hospitality to others presented conflicting opinions on playing the national anthem before sports events at the college.In a March 24 campus convocation, students, faculty, staff and alumni were treated to fast-paced presentations by Kathy Meyer Reimer, professor of education and chair of the department, and Joe Liechty, professor of peace, justice and conflict studies and chair of the department. Meyer Reimer and Liechty argued their positions with theological sophistication, intensity and civility.

The 33-minute convocation, titled “Perspectives on the Anthem,” took place the morning after the national anthem was played before college sports events for the first time ever. The anthem was played March 23 before a baseball team doubleheader against Siena Heights University and softball team doubleheader against St. Joseph’s College.

In an introduction to the convocation, President Jim Brenneman said it is important to discuss complex issues with academic vigor and a spirit of love. And the college, he said, is committed to continued conversation on the anthem issue. “In a world where we have been so acculturated to disagree with each other in increasingly disagreeable ways, we have a moral imperative to model civil dialogue as the first principle of a Christ-centered peacemaking option,” he said.

Meyer Reimer began her presentation by stating that Goshen’s decision to play the anthem had removed “one of the symbols and sacred rituals borne out of Anabaptist convictions about nationalism. The anthem controversy also speaks to how we make decisions both large and small when there are conflicts between what we feel is asked of us by our faith and by the good country in which we live.”

She said those who approved playing the anthem in order to extend hospitality to non-Mennonite student-athletes and coaches may have made the college less hospitable. “If we want people who are not familiar with Anabaptism to understand some of the assumptions basic to practices that happen at Goshen College, we need to be clear and willing to talk about the core Anabaptist beliefs that become rituals,” she said.

Meyer Reimer said Mennonite and Anabaptist beliefs about militarism, nationalism and patriotism often are misunderstood as a lack of appreciation for the country. “Anabaptist Mennonites have not expressed gratitude for those things they appreciate about living in the United States as often as they could or potentially should,” she said, “but it is not that they haven’t, on the whole, worked for the good of their communities or been of great service in times of national disasters.”

She also said that Anabaptist Mennonites don’t pledge allegiance to any country or anything but God because of their faith understandings.

“There is an understanding that God loves all of God’s people — that God does not bless one nation more than another in a material or spiritual sense because God does not think one country is better than another,” Meyer-Reimer said. “If our country violates the rights of other people in other places — through war, oppression or other action — Anabaptist Mennonites believe God calls us to speak on behalf of their welfare as much as we would if they were our neighbors next door. Of Jesus’ two most important commandments — to love God and to love your neighbor — the critical thing is how Jesus interpreted these. Jesus defined neighbor in inclusive and non-nationalistic ways.”

Meyer Reimer said that she believes the anthem is too closely linked to national loyalty and to militarism to be played without sending a mixed message at the college, which promotes compassionate peacemaking and global citizenship. The college also should more strongly promote pacifism, she said.

“Our not playing the anthem should have been more clearly linked to living out biblical passages of ‘you shall not kill,’ ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you’ — prophetic, costly, biblical principles upon which the teachings in Anabaptism were founded,” she said. “As Goshen College engages our country and our culture, we decide on many issues whether to assimilate or to live in alternative ways — when to be people of assent and when to be people of dissent.”

Liechty began his presentation by stating that he grew up uneasy about patriotism. “I was in second grade when I decided that I shouldn’t say the pledge of allegiance, and I didn’t. As a high school student during the Vietnam War, I experimented with not standing for the national anthem, but then I decided that standing was the cost of playing basketball and football at Goshen High School, and so I stood, praying that God would understand that I was at least grumpy in my heart,” he said. “Today, I don’t sing the national anthem or put my hand over my heart, which is a gesture that gets way too close to devotion for my comfort, although I do always stand for the anthem out of respect for those for whom the anthem is important.”

Despite misgivings, Liechty said he supported playing the anthem before campus sports events to promote the welfare of the college community. In reaching that conclusion, Liechty said he balanced one faith commitment to refuse militarism and the excesses of nationalism and another faith commitment that a Christian college must promote hospitality and inclusion. “One commitment cannot simply trump the other; both need to be taken seriously.”

Liechty drew a distinction between the hospitality at a Mennonite church and a Mennonite college. “To the 45 percent of our students who come from other religious traditions, or no religious traditions, we say, ‘If you can embrace our core values — that we seek to nurture graduates who are Christ-centered, passionate learners, servant leaders, compassionate peacemakers, and global citizens — even in fact if you can just tolerate and respect the core values, you are part of this learning community. You are not simply suffered… You are not a guest; you are family.’”

Because of that, Liechty said Goshen College should accommodate reasonable requests, such as playing the anthem. “When I think about what the anthem means, I conclude that it does not have a fixed, inherent meaning.” He said that since the college has decided that the anthem will be followed by the reading of the Prayer of St. Francis, “it would be hard for anyone to go away with the idea that Goshen College supports militarism and nationalism.”

Liechty also said that he believes the college can play the anthem without undermining its commitment to peace.

“By just about any comparative measure, it’s hard to imagine a place where peace has a more prominent role, where it is more honored, more reflected upon, more acted on. We can afford to honor the desire of community members who want to play the anthem,” he said. “For those of us who have wanted not playing the anthem to be a witness in relation to militarism and nationalism, we will need to find other ways, and we can.”

In his concluding remarks, President Brenneman thanked Meyer Reimer and Liechty for demonstrating “passionate learning and compassionate peacemaking at its best” and called for continued conversation. “Let us now leave more able to put into practice peaceful dialogue with those with whom we differ.”

In January, the Goshen College President’s Council, led by President Brenneman, decided to allow the college’s Athletic Department to play an instrumental version of the national anthem prior to some sporting events beginning this spring.

In mid-February, the college’s Board of Directors affirmed the decision of the President’s Council and asked college’s leadership to create opportunities for thoughtful and prayerful discernment in ongoing structured dialogue. They also decided that the decision will be reviewed by the Board in June 2011.

Though the college has had a practice of not playing the Star-Spangled Banner prior to sporting events, since beginning to participate in intercollegiate athletics in 1957, it was never officially banned. The U.S. tradition of performing the national anthem before baseball games began in World War II.

Goshen College is owned by Mennonite Church USA, an historic peace church. The denomination does not have an official position on the playing of the national anthem, and there are varying practices among the other four Mennonite colleges and universities.

—Written by Richard R. Aguirre

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.

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Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit www.goshen.edu.

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