The Common Good

"Oh Say Can You See": Shane Claiborne and Jim Brenneman's Email Exchange (Part II)

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[Editor's Note: Jim Brenneman is the president of Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana. The Mennonite tradition is part of the historic peace churches committed to Christian nonviolence, simplicity, and a healthy suspicion of power and nationalism. Shane Claiborne is an author and Christian activist (www.thesimpleway.org) committed to many of the same values. This is their email exchange about Goshen College's decision to allow the college's athletic department to play an instrumental version of the anthem prior to select events, along with a reading of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis (read more at www.goshen.edu/anthem).]

On Feb 18, 2010, at 11:56 AM, Shane Claiborne wrote:

Dear Jim, my brother --

I remember the lunch we had some months back there at Goshen, sharing some dreams and struggles, hearing each other's hearts. One of the things that came up was Goshen's desire both to remember its roots and distinctiveness, while also bearing witness in a fruitful and relevant way to the larger society. We mentioned the struggle over sports events and the national anthem or pledge... and I have continued to pray with you and Goshen for wisdom, as I was incredibly encouraged by the time there. I continually recommend Goshen to folks exploring education options -- in fact one of our recent community members from The Simple Way is now there at Goshen.

My heart sunk a little this morning to hear that a decision was made to begin playing the national anthem at sports events (as I understand). I think there is a ripe moment right now in our culture for the Mennonite witness that is very unique. People have grown so tired of militarism, and are sensing the myopia of nationalism, and are questioning the patterns of the American dream (at least according to Wall Street). The Anabaptist witness and tradition is uniquely poised to bear witness in powerful and relevant way, and has a credibility that many of us evangelical types long for.

I can only imagine the various strains you feel as president there (and I can imagine as some of them are familiar!), and I was so very encouraged by the humility and courage you exude as you navigate the narrow way there at Goshen. Perhaps there is a way to be creative in all of this, to make sure folks see a unique witness -- of creating a new song or pledge that says, "We love the people of the U.S.A., but our love does not stop at any border... our Bible does not say God so loves America, but God so loves the world." Even having flags from Iraq or Afghanistan next to the U.S. flag raises these healthy tensions. I love your desire to move beyond "no" -- the time for yes is indeed here, a time of moving beyond protest to protestifying... committing not to tear down without building up something better. For too long, we Christians have been known more by what we are against than by what we are for. I want you to know I am continuing to pray for you and would love to talk further ... you always have an open ear. Send my love to Goshen.

Your friend --

Shane Claiborne, The Simple Way

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On Apr 20, 2010, at 9:13 AM, Jim Brenneman wrote:

Dear Brother Shane,

Greetings in Christ. As I have engaged with persons about our recent decision regarding the national anthem, I have been thinking a lot about your words and carrying them with me. And I have been looking forward to having the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with you, someone who I deeply respect and value. This decision raises many significant issues that we as Mennonites need to continue engaging, but which I also believe the broader Christian church is wrestling with.

I couldn't agree with you more that the moment is ripe -- perhaps, especially so among young Evangelicals -- to hear a strong Christian (Mennonite) voice calling into question unbridled militarism, materialism, and nationalism. My hope is to continue to keep Goshen College in the center of that conversation, alongside you and many others. There is much work to do in that arena -- with this country involved in two wars and the national debate continually more uncivil -- and we can't do it alone.

I am also committed as president of Goshen College to an honest evaluation of who our neighbors are, which I believe is also an outgrowth of our Christ-centered core values of compassionate peacemaking, global citizenship, servant leadership, and passionate learning. For some 40 years, the answer to that question has most frequently been anyone far off in one of our many Study-Service Term (SST) locations, be that in China or Tanzania. Of course, such global neighborliness and awareness was and remains a central component of a Goshen College education required of all our students. In an odd way, Goshen College has been quite receptive to "Samaritans" far away, while tending to remain more distant to those right next door and down the street whose religious and political perspectives significantly differ from those more readily found here on campus. I believe Jesus invites us to live in the particularity of our "neighborhoods" -- as you in The Simple Way community have done so admirably in a different way -- even to the point of accommodation to some degree if it opens doors to common ground and true community, rather than closes them prematurely. Does this connect at all with your own experiences of learning how God calls you to be a neighbor to people quite different from yourself?

The playing of the anthem is a gesture of welcome to our immediate neighbors -- whether they are students or members of this Northern Indiana community that we reside in -- many of whom are new immigrants who see the anthem as affirming of their hard won citizenship or other long-time citizens of our community who have no difficulty sequencing their loyalty to God over their loyalty to the nation. We make this gesture -- incomplete and insufficient on its own -- as a largely (Mennonite) Christian community that is saturated (in a great way!) from top to bottom, inside and out, with explicit core values and years of ardent peacemaking commitments (conscientious objection to war, conflict resolution training, leading letter-writing campaigns against injustices, etc.), such that any student who comes to this college will have no difficulty understanding our greater allegiances and divinely peculiar practices as Anabaptist/Mennonite followers of Jesus.

I don't presume to have answered nearly all your questions with these few lines, but I hope it sheds a bit of light on a rather complex set of issues worthy of thoughtful consideration. I leave you with a story. Recently, Goshen College hosted the African Children's Choir in our concert hall. Their final number was the South African National Anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel'Afrika," a beautifully emotive piece. They stood at complete attention with hands over their hearts, and all this in a "Mennonite" concert hall. The crowd erupted with applause and a standing ovation. I wondered then, how many of us attending felt the irony of our sincere exuberance for these children singing their anthem, while our hearts sink or are conflicted at the playing of our own national anthem? Differences abound, but the irony remains. I wonder how you would define what a healthy sense of patriotism means, as a Christian living as a citizen in this nation state?

I truly appreciate your candid thoughts, your winsome wonderings, and your brotherly love. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

In Christ's just peace,

Jim

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On May 15, 2010, at 6:59 PM, Shane Claiborne wrote:

Dear Jim, my brother --

Thanks for your note, and for this helpful and healthy conversation.

I admire your desire to be welcoming and inclusive at sporting events, particularly to folks who may not share our Christian faith, much less understand the particular history and witness of Mennonites. I suppose the question that is always before us -- whether we are a Mennonite campus wanting to be seekers sensitive to U.S. patriots or a mega-church wanting to be seekers sensitive to un-churched non-believers -- in this: How do we remain unapologetically uncompromising in our convictions, while allowing others who may not share those convictions to feel included and welcome. I have questioned the decision of mega-churches that have removed the cross from their buildings to make non-Christians feel welcome, and I would similarly challenge the decision to play the national anthem at Goshen's sporting events. The reason is that I think it is a well-intentioned act of inclusiveness, but comes at the cost of compromising the integrity of the witness (and a very much needed witness).

This is a timely conversation. The Mennonite witness of simplicity and non-violence is increasingly relevant and fascinating to our world that has felt the emptiness of materialism, come to question the unsustainable patterns of "progress", and has grown tired of militarism and war. What strikes me is that this intrigue is coming at the very time when many traditional Anabaptists are questioning their "relevancy" and their cultural engagement. There are many Mennonites that have begun to make steps to rethink or even compromise some of their rigorous convictions at the very moment when folks are beginning to listen and to pay attention to those convictions. In fact, I am finding that more and more Evangelicals and main-liners find themselves attracted to the integrity of schools like Goshen, while many of these schools are tempted to tone down their peculiar witness in order to make room for non-Mennonites.

I have been to Mennonite churches with jumbotrons and just visited a Quaker school that now has an Reserved Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). I imagine some of these transitions are attempts to be inclusive and relevant to the world around them, but I fear it could be at the cost of their own particular character

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