The Common Good

Mennonite College Will Now Play National Anthem Before Sporting Events

Goshen (Ind.) College recently unveiled its landmark decision to play the national anthem before athletic events, having never before played the song out of its historic peace stance. But now, out of hospitality, the athletic department will decide when to play an instrumental version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" starting spring 2010.

With its national anthem decision, college president Jim Brenneman said, "One of the greatest U.S. freedoms is that we can express our faith and love of country in different ways, and we recognize that Christians differ in how to do that." Brenneman understands the pluralistic society we live in and acknowledges various expressions of our greatest faith traditions.

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But there's a moral difference between patriotism and acquiescence to societal norms. Most people don't consider Mennonites as politically engaged, but think of them as passive pacifists, maybe even unpatriotic, since Mennonites don't traditionally support our military-industrial complex. But with a new generation, passive non-resistance has been replaced with active nonviolent solutions.

For instance, since I was too young (by a few months) to vote in 2004, I found myself a part of what CNN termed the "league of first-time voters." Six of my Goshen classmates and I had a conversation on CNN with Rick Sanchez.

I told Rick that we should envision our dance between engagement and disengagement of earthly things not as "unpatriotic" but as "more than patriotic." Because yes, we are citizens of the United States -- and this world; but more importantly, we are also followers of Jesus Christ who daily live into God's reign here on earth.

While on CNN, I unfortunately forgot to attribute my ideology to its source, J.R. Burkholder, a retired religion professor at Goshen College. Burkholder once wrote that, "For the pacifist, citizenship in a particular nation-state is just not that important. She cares less about national interests than about the well-being of the people of all nations." And pacifists, Burkholder said, "consciously adopt a more global worldview than most Americans. They wear tribal identifications lightly and see themselves as global citizens."

So our core value of peacemaking runs congruently with the value of global citizenship. Though one's national faithfulness is traditionally linked to support of the military, God calls us to carry our patriotism lightly.

Keith Graber-Miller, a professor of Bible, religion, and philosophy at Goshen College, wrote in the summer 2007 issue of the Goshen College Bulletin that we are "first and foremost disciples of Christ and citizens of God's reign, then citizens of the world, and finally citizens of a given country."

So the question becomes: How might we draw on the best traditions of all three allegiances (country, world, God)? Perhaps it is through compassionate peacemaking as global citizens. Because in a violent world, Jesus, our Prince of Peace, has a message of peace that is ordinarily radical.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God," Jesus says in Matthew 5:9. And Jesus isn't just referring to passive peacemakers, or even people who just get along well together. He embodied shalom -- peace -- with all peoples, tribes, and nations. Jesus, therefore, invited us into shalom -- in both our interpersonal relationships and international diplomacy.

So I respectfully disagree with Goshen's decision to use the national anthem as a gesture of patriotic hospitality. Because we are, as the college affirms, global citizens who make peace in all its forms.

I understand President Brenneman -- whom I agree with most of the time -- believes that playing the national anthem "offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events ..." And though I am encouraged by a clear and wonderful diversity of voices on campus (meaning less dominantly Mennonite), I cannot personally affirm this decision. After all, it's a Mennonite institution that declares that peace is not only the absence of war or hostility but the presence of "justice, openness, shalom, common ground, understanding, and stewardship" (cited by Goshen's peacebypeace.com). I support showing hospitality, but not if it means compromising one's values.

In the book of Romans, Paul suggests that our hope lies in our humble allegiance to Jesus alone. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2).

It sounds like Brenneman is attempting to encourage pluralism through our most nationalistic fight song. But expanded Christ-centered global citizenship and peacemaking cannot be realized through American assimilation. We can, however, renew our minds by striving daily to live into Jesus' radical call to healing and hope.

Sheldon C. Good is media assistant for Sojourners and a recent graduate of Goshen College.

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