Peace is Patriotic: Anabaptists and the National Anthem

By Duane Shank 3-03-2010

The recent decision by Goshen (IN) College to begin playing an instrumental version of the U.S. national anthem before some sports events after never having done so has sparked a firestorm of protest. A Facebook page opposing the decision now has 1,200 members, and nearly 1,000 have signed an on-line petition. There is another Facebook page for people who support the decision, and one for those who just want to discuss it.

I've read the statements from the college, many of the comments on Facebook, articles in the Mennonite press, and a national AP story. Those who oppose the decision, such as my Goshen College graduate colleague on God's Politics, most often cite what they see as its relation to militarism. So it may come as a surprise that as a Mennonite who has spent four decades as a peace activist, I don't oppose the decision.

Rather, the college's decision and the reaction to it can be an opportunity to rethink the relationship between patriotism and nationalism. I've come to appreciate the difference. It is one that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deeply believed and lived.

As Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of theology and African American studies at Georgetown University, wrote:

If King's actions against war prove anything, it's that there's a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the critical affirmation of one's country in light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it's in error. Nationalism is the uncritical support of one's nation regardless of its moral or political bearing...The confusion between the two has blurred the difference between love and worship of country, a distinction King never failed to make. … Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role as a dissenter and prophet never diminished his patriotism. True patriots love their country enough to tell it the truth. King never confused a healthy patriotism with a myopic nationalism that often wrapped ethnic bigotry and racial terror in a flag -- and around a cross. (emphasis added)

Dr. King fiercely opposed segregation and the Vietnam war, but did so as an American patriot. It is no accident that the iconic photos of the Selma to Montgomery march show a silhouette of marchers against the sky carrying a large American flag; or that the photo of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the start of the march shows both of them holding flags.  The heart of the civil rights movement was its desire to reclaim the soul of America by using its patriotic symbols as representative of its best values.

Like the flag, a national anthem is a symbolic representation of patriotism. And like most symbols, it can be used in many ways.  We have allowed it to be co-opted by those who too often do use it as a “nationalistic war hymn,” “involving affirmation of the waging of war,” and “glorifying the devastation of war on one's enemies,” to note some of the language used by those opposed to Goshen’s decision. But rather than acquiescing in that definition, we should reclaim the symbols in the name of a deeper patriotism. Think of the Olympic Games many of us have been watching the past two weeks.   In the medals ceremonies, the three winners stand as their respective country’s flags are raised and the national anthem of the winner’s country is played.  Is that ceremony a celebration of militarism, a hymn to war?

It is the affirmation of patriotism; my love of this country, its people, and its best values that inform me in being critical of it. To be sure, American history includes slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, imperialism, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars.   But it also includes the abolitionists, women's suffragists, labor organizers, and the civil rights movement.  By affirming their desire to have the country live up to its best values, these forebears of ours were expressing a true patriotism that we should emulate.

If we as peacemakers are perceived by our neighbors as being unpatriotic and anti-American, there is an immediate barrier to discussing our belief in peacemaking.  As the Goshen College President’s Council said in its decision, “Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another." With that barrier gone, we can discuss why, as the bumper sticker says, "Peace is patriotic."

In the same way, as the President's Council noted, "playing the anthem opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique -- if need be -- as citizens in the loyal opposition on issues of deepest moral conviction, such as war, racism, and human rights abuses."

Ultimately, each of us as peacemakers must draw our own line.  For me, as a nonviolent Christian, there are several fundamental principles.  I will not participate in or support war, which is why I resisted the military draft in 1970 and have organized against every U.S. war since.  I will not "pledge allegiance to the flag," my ultimate allegiance belongs to God alone.  And I oppose displaying a national flag or playing the anthem in a church sanctuary -- a place dedicated to worshipping God.  If Goshen College were ever to allow military recruiters on campus or play the anthem in a chapel service, I would be leading the opposition. But playing the anthem before a baseball game does not rise to that level.

Whether one supports or opposes Goshen’s decision, I hope and pray that all of us are putting our energy into organizing petitions, vigils, and rallies to protest the war in Afghanistan.  I hope and pray that we are doing the same to communicate to members of Congress our opposition to the largest military budget in history.  And that we are doing so as patriotic American Christians.

We can show that we are patriotic Americans, and we can also show that we are American Christians whose ultimate loyalty is to God and who desire peace for our country and our world.

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor at Sojourners. This is his personal opinion as a longtime peace activist and the father of a Goshen College graduate.

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