“Perspectives on the Anthem” convocation — Against the national anthem
By Dr. Kathy Meyer Reimer, Goshen College Professor of Education
Wednesday, March 24, 2010 — Goshen College Church-Chapel
I’d like to begin this morning by thinking about the differences between cultural oddities or traditions such as eating shoofly pie, borscht, bagels, or kosher foods and symbols or rituals of religious beliefs. I’d like to make the case that playing the national anthem at Goshen College is not jettisoning a cultural artifact or out-dated tradition of Anabaptism, but removing 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.
My understanding of the reason to start playing the national anthem is one of hospitality. I, too, want to make Goshen an open, transparent, hospitable place. And I see this decision as making Goshen less hospitable. The most hospitable thing to do is to clearly express why something is and invite people into open discussion. 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. Anabaptist Mennonites have historically been a people of deed rather than words. Not playing the national anthem was a clear marker—an action, or in this case a lack of non-action, that spoke to anyone who attended a game saying there was something about nationalism that was different here.
I don’t think Goshen College was clear in explaining why the anthem was not played and I don’t think it was the job of the Athletics Department to carry the burden for doing so. When attending a game, something was communicated by the practice of not playing the anthem, but that something was unclear to many. There is no place we talk about Anabaptist beliefs about militarism, nationalism or patriotism in a public, regular or ritual way on this campus. We have nothing in colloquium, nothing in “Knowing the Bible” or other gen ed courses, nothing in chapel or convo or any place a first- or second-year student would find it on a regular basis. This to me is the epitome of “insider secrets” or the total mystery to understanding what’s happening here. You have to have some “secret code” to understand the subtext. That’s not being hospitable. Being clear about what we believe is.
I also find this decision less than hospitable for another group of students — those who grew up within the Anabaptist tradition. When I came to Goshen College, one of my roommates came from a high school in Chevy Chase. Md., right outside of Washington, D.C., and another one came from a big high school in Knoxville, Tenn. In high school we each had to decide how to be true to what we were taught about nationalism and militarism growing up —what we would do every time the pledge was said, what we would do before athletic events, and what we would do during the Gulf War, etc. For this brief four-year period of our lives at Goshen College, we were able to be where we could think with people who had deeper understandings about Anabaptism—where we could explore what we believed without having to make decisions on a weekly basis about what we needed to stand for. I find it interesting in the press release statement about this decision, that those same Anabaptist students are now being invited to be a “prophetic witness” to an Anabaptist institution. This seems odd to me. We’re asking people to be prophetic about nationalism and militarism and to stand against the culture rather than from within it at a religious institution that should espouse some of the same principles on which their actions are based — and at an age when they are forming beliefs that will guide their lives. This does not seem hospitable to me, either.
I want everyone to feel at home at Goshen College irrespective of the traditions in which they grew up. We all belong at GC community and it is not a situation of host and guest. But just as at any family gathering where everyone, with all the differences they bring, is warmly welcomed at the table, all of us who would gather at the table of Goshen College know that our family has some things we do together based on our belief structure or some things we push against in that belief structure. Usually we know why we do what we do, and it seems only respectful to me that at an institution that was founded by the Anabaptist Mennonite Church, we would freely talk and freely those beliefs that affect what we do.
Today we are talking specifically about a how U.S. Anabaptist Mennonites relate to the nation in which they live— nationalism and patriotism. 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. 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. From Mennonite Disaster Service that goes after floods and tornados and Hurricane Katrina to Mennonites that started mental health facilities and hospitals to all sorts of local movements. Again, Mennonites tend to be about deeds rather than words.
What Anabaptist Mennonites don’t generally do is pledge allegiance to anything but God. 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. God asks us to consider the Russian, the Nicaraguan, the Iranian, the Afghan, the South African to be our sister and our brother as much as the person in the next dorm room, the apartment, the next city or the next state. God does not believe USonians are better people than anyone else in the world. 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, such as seeing the Samaritan as neighbor. Anabaptist theology has a perspective on who our neighbor is that is not consonant with current understandings of nationalism or patriotism in the United States.
GC also says we want to be global citizens. We want to be U.S. citizens, yes, but world citizens, also. We want to call our country to account for how we behave in the world arena. Claiming the U.S. flag and anthem will not help us do that. Who and how we are in the world are not mentioned in those symbols. In settings where we use the national anthem now, how will we effectively communicate our desire to interact with and learn from all the world’s citizens?
There is also the ritual nature of how the anthem is used. The point of ritual is to have things people do so repeatedly they don’t think of it anymore. I want my children to pray before they eat. It’s not that I think it’s unhealthy physically or spiritually for them to eat without praying. It’s not that I believe they even think about the words we’re saying before they eat sometimes. But it is that the very act of stopping before they eat each meal that gets into some deeper part of their psyche. They pause at a specific time every day, which brings some awareness of the fact that they have food to eat and there is gratitude for that. It is part of the fabric of our lives. It is a ritual and they may not even think about it as they move out of our home, but I would guess that they will notice the times they don’t pause because the pause means something.
The national anthem is also a ritual done so frequently that many, as I understand from our discussion on campus so far, consider it “a part of the game.” It is a ritual done so often and regularly in a game that it doesn’t seem “right” without it. What about the game isn’t right without the national anthem? What does it do to our players and spectators to think through the song every time they play? What does the repetition bring into the psyche of each one of us on campus? I would suggest that the point and end product of this ritual is to bring loyalty to our U.S. nation. In fact, the ritual became common practice during World War II when baseball players were given deferrals from the war and they received lots of critique and so to show their patriotism they started to play the anthem at every game so people would see how patriotic they were.
At a school that professes compassionate peacemaking and global citizenship from an Anabaptist Mennonite perspective, does a ritual born to show how supportive we are of our nation in wartime belong to our community practice? It may not mean the same thing to each of us, but clearly it’s a powerful enough ritual that we’re having this conversation. And one of the things it explicitly does do is honor our country in such a way that we can easily start to think or ourselves or think that our country is better or more right or more superior to others. One of the functions of ritual is moral education, but we have little control over the actual content; popular culture defines the symbols more powerfully than we can. Can we practice the same ritual played all over the country and expect it to carry a different message, a message of hospitality, just because we are doing it in the context of Goshen College?
Am I suggesting I think other countries are better or that I do not like living in the United States? No way. Having lived in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Europe at numerous times, I am always glad to come home to the United States. Do I love how my country acts all the time? No. Do I want my country to be the best it can be? Yes. Am I willing to help Goshen and Indiana and the United States improve? You better believe it. But I’m not willing to pretend it’s always right. Do I value serving my country? For sure. I’m on the public library board. I volunteer in schools. I’m part of a neighborhood community association. I’m part of a national discussion on education in the United States and what we’re doing to our children currently. Do I want the world to improve? You better believe that, too. And I know that sometimes my country gets in the way of that and will harm other people to do that. Will I harm other people on behalf of my country? Not knowingly.
In fact, I’m not eager to have others harm other people on behalf of my country or for me, either. Even more misunderstood by mainstream U.S. society than patriotism and nationalism from an Anabaptist perspective is pacifism. The idea that you would love your enemies in the face of death — even the death of your children, your spouse or your mother — is an anomaly. Compassionate peacemaking is important, but it does not convey the full extent to which pacifism is willing to suffer until death rather than to impose death on someone else. If our compassionate peacemaking encompasses this foundational Anabaptist Mennonite tenet of faith, then it must be clear in our courses and in our actions. Playing the national anthem will not help anyone understand this. But not playing the anthem – by itself – has also not been a helpful or hospitable stance, leaving those new to Anabaptism struggling to understand what it means. 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.
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. Deciding how and when to engage requires great discernment, listening to multiple perspectives, allowing for time for discussion, testing ideas, and including all the stakeholders. Complex issues are not resolved quickly. I hope we continue to discuss this complex issue and I’m pleased for the time we’re taking to do so today.