“Perspectives on the Anthem” convocation — For playing the national anthem

By Dr. Joe Liechty, Goshen College Professor of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 — Goshen College Church-Chapel

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

When you grow up in the Mennonite church, the issues involved in this national anthem debate — issues of allegiance to God and allegiance to nation, issues of peace and militarism — they get into your head, your heart, your bones, your gut from an early age. 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. 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. In fact, in a life full of sport, as athlete and fan, I’ve always considered Goshen College’s no-anthem practice a kind of refuge and a solace, a place where my way and my convictions are normal, not weird.

No, I haven’t forgotten my assignment this morning and decided to oppose the anthem decision. I was a member of the task force that proposed that Goshen allow playing the anthem and thus I support the President’s Council in their decision. I do so because whether to play the anthem or not is not primarily about my personal convictions, although I am a member of this community, and so I have a voice.  Neither is the anthem, in my understanding, primarily about the stance of the Mennonite Church, although this being a Mennonite institution, that voice is very important. The right framework for making the anthem decision, I believe, is to consider the welfare of the whole Goshen College community, and when I do this, I conclude that we can afford to accommodate the wishes of the student-athletes and the coaches who want to play the anthem. This is an affirmation I make not with rock-solid zeal and certainty, because I find this anthem issue to a complex issue par excellence, but it is where my best efforts have left me. Let me say a little bit about how I get there.

The anthem is a complex issue for me because it forces me to try to find a way through the tension between two faith commitments: one faith commitment is to refuse militarism and the excesses of nationalism, because Christ calls us to another way, a better way. The other faith commitment is that a Christian college must be deeply understood, and constructed, as a domain of hospitality, of welcome and inclusion. One commitment cannot simply trump the other; both need to be taken seriously. In my mind, the critique of militarism and nationalism points me in one direction on the issue, but it is the commitment to hospitality that keeps the issue alive, keeps me thinking about it.

Now when I think about hospitality at Goshen College, I come to the conclusion that a Mennonite church and a Mennonite college, however closely related, are not the same thing. And the immediately relevant difference is the roles in a Mennonite church and in a Mennonite college of people who are not Mennonite. In a Mennonite church, I hope you will be very welcome, but you are going to be welcome as a guest, and there are going to be limits on your participation in the whole life of the congregation. Goshen College proceeds differently. 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 invited, welcomed, and included. You are not a guest, you are family. And this must raise questions like: In light of such commitments, what obligations does Goshen College have to students who are not Mennonite? What rights do they have?  Who has a voice in what decisions? So the GC community needs to ask, how far can we accommodate the desires of our diverse members?

And of course not every desire can be accommodated, but we do always need to ask the question. And so when I think about whether Goshen College can accommodate the coaches and student-athletes, my fellow Goshen College community members who want to play the anthem, I consider three main issues.

The first one. Not playing the anthem is an expression of Mennonite identity. And yet due to the peculiar relationship of patriotism and sports in this country, the burden of articulating and defending this hard-to-explain, because it is a counter-cultural position and practice, has fallen not on the students and faculty who have been trained and experienced in articulating this decision, but on the Athletic Department. And frankly this is weird. The burden is misplaced, and I want to lighten or remove it.

Second consideration. When I think about what the anthem means, I conclude that it does not have a fixed, inherent meaning. Specifically, and I’m being brief about something complex, but I calculate that if Goshen College makes an inclusion-driven decision to play the anthem, and if we do so in a ritual that makes clear our commitment “to keep Christ's teachings, and in particular his teaching on peace, foremost in our lives,” a ritual that follows the anthem with the Prayer of St. Francis, it would be hard for anyone to go away with the idea that Goshen College supports militarism and nationalism.

Third consideration. I look around me and judge that Goshen College has a peace culture in vibrant good health. Yes, I will be happy to sit down with you and complain about what ought to be, perhaps starting with why do some Mennonite young people not understand their own heritage better. But, 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.

And so I consider these three factors — the misplaced burden imposed by the no-anthem policy; the possibility of shaping the interpretation of the anthem in our context; and GC’s rich peace culture and I conclude we can afford this. We can afford to honor the desire of community members who want to play the anthem. 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.

I am simultaneously really, really tired of this issue and I am energized by some of the new things we can all learn in the year-long review process ahead and even beyond. When I started preparing this talk, I had hoped to emphasize what I think we can and must learn, but now I’m down to my last few minutes, so let me identify just one thing: civil discourse, OK? Civil discourse is not an entirely new concept; in fact it’s one we talk about all the time at Goshen, whatever about whether we practice it. But bear with me here. Civil discourse isn’t a code word for goodness. It isn’t some kind of independent good in its own right. Civil discourse matters because of what it involves in practice and what it can accomplish.

So, first, the practice. When we practice civil discourse we need to exercise the skills of listening and restraint, and the attitudes of compassion and respect. These are invaluable skills and attitudes, and we will be better people for developing them. Second, practicing civil discourse makes us smarter, or you might say, inversely, failing to practice civil discourse makes us stupid. When we fail to practice civil discourse, two main things are likely to happen. First, we lob tribal pieties at each other across a partition, and we learn precisely nothing except how right we are and how wrong they are. Second, we are likely to retreat to the company of the like-minded to rehearse how right we are and how wrong they are, and again we have learned precisely nothing. Civil discourse is the essential life skill for learning in contentious, inflamed situations.

Of everything I have read about the national anthem issue over the past year or so, I have a favorite contribution. It’s my favorite because it is the only thing I can remember that starts from the premise that in order to make my case, I need to understand deeply and respectfully what you believe about the issues.  The article I have in mind is Nate Manning’s opinion piece in the Record last fall, in which he makes the case for playing the anthem at Goshen College.

Nate starts by saying that when he came to Goshen College he was dumbfounded and “close-mindedly negative” when he discovered that the anthem wasn’t played before athletic events. But his next paragraph begins, “As I have spent a year here, learning more and more about the Mennonite tradition, I have come to an understanding of why we do not play the Anthem.”

Here I go off script. I have to say something about Nate’s use of the word “we” here in this last phrase — “why we do not play the Anthem.” In contentious issues, always examine what you mean when you say “we” and “you.” Who do I include myself with when I say “we” and who do I include and exclude in my use of “we” and “our.” So what really impresses me is that Nate is making a case for a practice not present at Goshen College and he might very understandably have said, “I have come to an understanding about why you do not play the anthem,” and instead, he says “we.” Despite his disagreement, he includes himself as part of the whole and that is huge in my mind.

He then goes on to articulate the Mennonite position just about as clearly and concisely as possible.  When I read this I thought, “Wow! You have really nailed it. And I also thought, surely this insight could only be gained by authentic listening as part of civil discourse. Now it’s true that Nate admits that when he was “close-mindedly negative about the situation,” he “did not care who heard me,” so maybe his approach to discourse was, “Hey, stupid Mennonites, tell me why you believe that stupid thing you believe.” But really, I’m thinking probably not. I don’t think you get from close-minded negativity to the degree of insight Nate demonstrates without some genuine civil discourse. And then with this as background, Nate makes his case for why he thinks GC should play the anthem, and it is all the stronger because he has taken seriously the convictions of the people he disagrees with. I hope the Mennonites he talked to profited as much.

While Nate’s article may be the only thing I’ve seen in print that so clearly reflects the dynamics of civil discourse, I’m sure it’s going on in different settings all the time. But let’s make this a deliberate, sustained commitment. Let’s take the risk involved in a deep encounter with views we disagree with. It’s just one of the things we can gain by further reflection on the complex issue of the national anthem.

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