Mennonites and Idolatry

At the November 4 town hall meeting about the National Anthem, idolatry was mentioned several times.  If that’s why we don’t sing the anthem to the flag at games, Coach Wiktorowski asked why do we sing our campus anthem and fly Goshen College banners.  He has a point.  Pro-GC/Menno zeal can be a false icon that we follow by trampling important principles about inclusiveness.

If you believe in playing our nation’s anthem, you shouldn’t ever have your convictions disrespected.  Likewise, please don’t think the campus anthem policy intends to offend.  Yes, it is a cultural oddity, but that’s business as usual in Mennonite history, where a core belief calls us to be “strangers and aliens within all cultures.” For the past several hundred years we’ve been regarded as a nuisance, from Switzerland to Bolshevik Russia to Colombia, for things we wouldn’t do – baptize our children, take oaths, or bear arms – because of religious convictions.

Idols come in all forms, but the Old Testament metal kinds stopped being temptations long ago.  The most dangerous idols, like money, can subvert our loyalties because they are, one, powerful, and two, inescapably part of our lives.  Nationalism is too.  While loyalty to GC or the cultural Mennonite identity can be harmful, it pales in comparison to what has been done in the name of nationalism since before Baal and golden calves were fashionable.

While on SST in Haiti I learned to appreciate, in ways I never had before, my country.  It has much good, and, whatever its flaws, it is always “home.”  To the extent that nationalism asks me to serve neighbors within the U.S. borders, I agree, but that definition is too narrow.  SST also taught me that the debt to serve and respect extends across the globe.

I feel passionate about nationalism as idolatry because of my time in Nicaragua and Central America, beginning in the 1980s when the U.S. was involved in wars in three of those countries.  Most of the thousands of civilian victims were not caught in cross-fire; they were targeted for other reasons, among them religious faith.  The victims included many lay Christian workers and more than 20 priests and nuns.  After El Salvador’s archbishop pleaded to the U.S. president to end aid to the Salvadoran army responsible for the massacres, army officials (trained by the U.S.) assassinated the archbishop – while he said mass.

When I spoke to groups in the 1980s about our country’s actions in Central America, it made some angry: not with our country for doing those things, but with me, for saying our country was doing those things.  They thought I was un-American.  The Reagan administration, criticized by many for aiding anti-government guerrillas in Nicaragua, responded by asking, “Whose side are you on?”

Let me paraphrase that: “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other.”  The Mennonite church opposes military involvement around the globe not just because Jesus taught, lived, and died “love your enemies,” but because the innocents being killed are fellow global citizens.  This year the Mennonite Church in Colombia is asking for our solidarity, in part because of several hundred violations against church leaders of different denominations.

The Mennonite Confession of Faith explains that “the church itself is God’s nation, encompassing people who have come from every tribe and nation.” If we’re going to sing any anthem before games, I’d like to hear one to the church.

Doug Schirch is the Associate Professor of Chemistry at Goshen College.

Written by Annalisa Harder

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