After a year of conversation and deliberation, the verdict is now in: Goshen College will give its blessing to the playing of the national anthem, to be followed by prayer, at sporting events. Assuming that the decision on the anthem will stand, I would like to shift our attention to the second half of the equation—the prayer that is to follow the anthem—and offer a proposal that may address the concerns of those Goshen supporters who were surprised or deeply disappointed by the outcome of the decision.
Public prayers, no less than the anthem itself, can be complicated rituals. On one hand, they are easily trivialized—prayers before athletic events often serve mostly to communicate a general sense of the school’s piety and as a public service reminder about the virtues of good sportsmanship.
On the other hand, in our context they have the potential of becoming mini-sermons—with the national anthem still echoing in our ears, public prayers could easily become coded messages of civil religion or heavy-handed admonitions to the audience about our commitment to peacemaking.
If, as President Brenneman has suggested, the new policy should help us to embrace tensions while engaging in more open conversation, I would propose the following alternative to a public prayer, an alternative that I think better expresses Goshen’s deepest commitments and values.
At the beginning of each event a recorded message would say something like the following: “Please rise for the playing of the national anthem and remain standing for the words of Jesus taken from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5.” Then, immediately following the national anthem, a recorded voice would read the beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-10) without commentary, followed by a pause, and finally: “Welcome to Goshen College. Enjoy the game!”
Sure, it may seem awkward to read from scripture before a sporting event. But on further reflection it’s really no more odd than starting our games with a hymn to the nation. The real beauty of the solution, however, is that it publicly expresses our commitment to being “Christ-centered;” it uses only the words of Jesus; it communicates in a few brief sentences almost all of our core values; and it gives Jesus the last word, a point about which all Christians would agree.
Moreover, the words of the beatitudes are gracious and invitational—they pose a challenge to all of us, regardless of your position on the national anthem. And if they should prompt those in attendance to engage in further conversation, then the conversation will need to start from a shared commitment to Jesus and will explore differing understandings of Christ’s claim on our lives, rather than degenerate into a political debate about who really “loves America.”
By reading the beatitudes, or a portion of them, we would be giving public expression to the appropriate tension that we feel as citizens and as Christians in a gracious way that honors cultural traditions while testifying to our distinctive form of Christian identity.
John D. Roth is a history professor at Goshen College, director of the Mennonite Historical Library and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review.