In March of this year, Goshen College will present a ceremonial rendition of the national anthem for the first time in our long history. “This decision was not easy,” President Brenneman said in his e-mail announcing the historic policy shift. People not familiar with Goshen’s campus community and the Mennonite Church may wonder why not. In most parts of the country, this discussion is about as vibrant as that of whether we should replace the statue of liberty with a Karl Marx memorial.
For Goshen College, however, this decision is very troubling. If we want to continue as a ministry of the Mennonite Church, we can neither encourage nor conduct activities that stand in direct opposition to important Mennonite values. Our historic refusal to play the anthem was in no way an act of defiance against those in our community who wish to express love of country, but simply a natural part of giving allegiance to God alone. Our fault was never in our commitment to this allegiance, but in our failure to articulate these values to the wider community.
Article 23 of the Mennonite Church USA’s (MCUSA) Confession of Faith explains why Goshen, as what our Web site calls “a ministry of the Mennonite church,” has always been different: “The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we trust in the power of God’s love for our defense. The church knows no geographical boundaries and needs no violence for its protection.” Our confession of faith challenges whether it is possible for Goshen College to be part of the church, which gives its allegiance to God alone and needs no violence, while conducting a ceremony that celebrates allegiance to country through warfare.
The most striking element of President Brenneman’s e-mail is the language, which directly contradicts article 23 of MCUSA’s confession of faith. He says, “We believe playing the national anthem is one way that is commonly understood to express an allegiance to the nation of one’s citizenship. We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus – the ultimate peacemaker – loving all people of the world.”
The problem with this reasoning is that the Mennonite confession of faith in no way acknowledges a continuum of allegiances. All other “allegiances” we may have to family, friends, school, or even country, are completely rooted in our sole allegiance to Christ. Goshen expresses this in our highest core value: “Christ centeredness”. It is imperative to be loyal in other commitments, but not in a way that is unbecoming to the character of Christ. We refused to play The Star Spangled Banner not because it expresses love of country, but because it is explicitly a celebration of US triumph in war.
How can we ceremonially play a song that celebrates violence while praying to Christ, who we believe stands in opposition to violence? There are people in our campus community who don’t agree with a Mennonite understanding of Christ, or who don’t claim to follow Christ at all, and we should welcome them without compromising the ministry of the college.
The committee did mention that we tried singing a hymn before sporting events, and that this drew complaints. While we should take those who complain seriously and treat them with respect, we can’t assume that complaints alone are evidence that our values are at fault. Singing a hymn before the game would give us the opportunity to explain that our refusal to sing the anthem is not an act of defiance against the US, but a way of expressing that our sole allegiance is to God and to God’s vision for peace in the world.
To maintain integrity in belief and action, we can only have two responses to the recent decision, and I hope a combination of both.
We should find some alternative reasoning that explains how the anthem is neither a celebration of violence nor an expression of allegiance to country. If we can’t do either of these things convincingly, we must repeal the decision or risk compromising our identity.
Goshen’s faculty and students should find more ways to integrate our core values into the daily campus experience. We must ask how we can use the skills we develop to serve others as Christ centered compassionate peacemakers. Doing this in the context of every classroom should become an indispensable part of a Goshen College education.
The board’s decision is unfortunate, but it should provide us with a challenge to express ourselves in new and exciting ways. As students, we must prove that despite the fact that we play the national anthem at our sporting events, Goshen College is still very different. We must remind the administration that an active, unwavering commitment to Christ-centeredness that gives our allegiance to God alone is the only way we will be able to maintain our identity as a peace church ministry. We are not ashamed of daily pledging our sole allegiance to Christ and committing ourselves to God’s healing strategy for a peaceful world, and we shouldn’t behave like we are.
Nathan Vader is a First-Year English Major.