From quiet musings to fiery debates, anyone connected with Goshen College knows that patriotic rituals have caused quite the stir on campus recently, and their place in the college identity is still being debated.
Rituals, such as the flying the flag, pledging allegiance, and the national anthem, are used to create unity between otherwise diverse peoples, particularly helpful in building support around a common cause. Martin Luther King Jr. was noted for his use of American flags during civil rights marches while still calling the country to change.
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of theology and African American studies at Georgetown University, and Baptist pastor, wrote similarly in an article on beliefnet.com.
“The heart of the civil rights movement,” argued Michael Eric Dyson, “was its desire to reclaim the soul of America by using its patriotic symbols as representative of its best values.”
Nevertheless, the Mennonite Church’s calling to be “in the world but not of it” still puts the use of such rituals in a gray area. Can Mennonites participate in, or use patriotic rituals as King did, yet simultaneously retain their core identity in Christ, not country?
Students, faculty and staff at Goshen college have been struggling with this very question in regards to the national anthem debate. The college’s current policy is to play the national anthem at sporting events followed by the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
And the reason this decision has sparked so much dialogue is because it strikes a cord right at the heart of identity.
For David Jost, a second-year history secondary-education major, these patriotic rituals come in conflict with Christian allegiance. “It is important,” said Jost, “that one’s ultimate allegiance trump others when they come into conflict.”
Jost said that adopting these patriotic rituals “carries connotations of honoring war and national exceptionalism” which he sees as conflicting with Christian identity.
Daniel Foxvog, a senior Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies (PJCS) major, also expresses a similar hesitancy about using these rituals, but while he is personally uncomfortable with using patriotic symbols from his own experiences, Foxvog thinks “certain displays of respect for common values and cultural heritage as a nation can be appropriate.”
“As long, ” he said, echoing Jost, “as they are done in a manner that does not glorify national superiority or proclaim allegiance.”
While being centered in Christ’s teaching is a universal must, some students also expressed the need to recognize their identity as an American citizen.
Melody Musser, another senior PJCS major, said her SST experience taught her that claiming a certain patriotism for her country does not have to conflict with her religious identity.
She said “it is important for people to connect with a sense of patriotism rather than taking for granted the benefits of living in the US.” For Musser, militarism and patriotism are not equivalent, and the militarism is what she has a problem with.
Approaching patriotism critically, rather than unquestioningly, remains a core concern in this issue.
Joe Liechty, professor and director of the PJCS department, remarked that “there is, for Christians, such a thing as an appropriate love of their country and its people.”
However, Liechty takes this a step further to say “if you love your country and know that your allegiance to it—as is the case with all your many human allegiances—is always radically subordinate to your allegiance to God, then you will sometimes need to challenge it and criticize it.”
Foxvog echoed this sentiment, “As an American, I feel the responsibility to hold my country to higher standards and work for a better country—perhaps this is Anabaptist patriotism.”
Critical patriotism—appreciating the United States, while still grounding identity in Christ above all else, may be what most can agree on. Each individual must decide for him or herself where patriotic rituals and allegiance interfere with their own values and, like Martin Luther King Jr., decide when calling for that change is appropriate.
For more conversation about Mennonites and patriotism, consult Sojourner’s Magazine online blog article: http://blog.sojo.net/2010/03/03/peace-is-patriotic-anabaptists-and-the-national-anthem/ by Duane Shenk