A perspective on the anthem–Kathy Meyer Reimer

(from the March 24 2010 chapel, “Perspectives on the anthem.”

Good morning.

I would like to begin this morning by thinking about the differences between cultural oddities or traditions such as eating shoefly pie, borscht, bagels, or kosher foods and symbols or rituals of religious beliefs. I would like to make the case that playing the national anthem at Goshen College is not jettisoning a cultural artifact or out-dated tradition of Anabaptism, but removing one of the symbols and sacred rituals borne out of Anabaptist convictions about nationalism. The anthem controversy also speaks to how we make decisions both large and small when there are conflicts between what we feel is asked of us by our faith and by the good country in which we live.

My understanding of the reason to start playing the national anthem is one of hospitality.

I, too, want to make GC an open, transparent, hospitable place. I see this decision as making GC less hospitable. The most hospitable thing to do is to clearly express why something is and invite people into open discussion. If we want people who are not familiar with Anabaptism to understand some of the assumptions basic to practices that happen at GC, we need to be clear and willing to talk about the core Anabaptist beliefs that become rituals. Anabaptist Mennonites have historically been a people of deed rather than words. Not playing the national anthem was a clear marker—an action (or lack of action) that spoke to anyone who attended a game saying there was something about nationalism that was different here.

I don’t think Goshen College was clear in explaining why the anthem was not played and I don’t think it was the job of those in athletics to carry the burden for doing so. When attending a game, something was communicated by the practice of not playing the anthem, but that something was unclear to many. There is no place we talk about Anabaptist beliefs about militarism, nationalism or patriotism in a public, regular or ritual way. We have nothing in colloquium, nothing in Knowing the Bible (or other gen ed classes), nothing in chapel/convo or any place a first or second year would find it. This to me is the epitome of “insider secrets” and inhospitality–it is a total mystery to understand what is happening here—you have to have some “secret code” to understand the subtext. That is not being hospitable.

I also find this decision less than hospitable for another group of students–those who grew up in an Anabaptist tradition. When I came to Goshen College one of my roommates came from a big high school in Washington DC and my other one from a h.s. in Knoxville, TN. In high school we each had to decide how to be true to what we were taught about nationalism and militarism —what we would do every time the pledge was said, what we would do before athletic events, what we would do during the Gulf War, etc. For this brief 4 year period of our lives at Goshen College, we were able to be where we could think with people who had a deeper understanding of Anabaptism—where we could explore what we believed without having to make decisions on a weekly basis about what we needed to stand for. I find it interesting in the press release statement about this decision that those same Anabaptist students are now invited to be a “prophetic witness” to an Anabaptist institution. This seems odd to me—we are asking people to be prophetic about nationalism and militarism and to stand against the culture rather than from within it at a religious institution that should espouse some of the same principles on which their actions are based–and at an age when they are forming beliefs that will guide their life. This does not seem hospitable to me, either.

I want everyone to feel at home at GC irrespective of the traditions in which they grew up. We all belong at GC and make up the GC community—it is not a situation of host and guest. But just as at any family gathering where everyone, with all the differences they bring, is warmly welcomed at the table—all of us who gather at the table know that our family has some things we do when we are together based on our belief structure—or things we have pushed back against in the belief structure. Usually we know why we do what we do, and it seems only respectful to me that at an institution that was founded by the Anabaptist Mennonite Church we would freely talk about how those belief structures affect what we do.

Today we are talking specifically about a how US Anabaptist Mennonites relate to the nation in which they live—nationalism and patriotism. Anabaptist Mennonites have not expressed gratitude for those things they appreciate about living in the United States as often as they could or should, but it is not that they haven’t, on the whole, worked for the good of their communities or been of great service in times of national disasters. Mennonite Disaster Service has worked all over the United States from floods to tornados to Hurricane Katrina. Mennonites have helped to start mental health facilities and hospitals in communities. Again, often with deeds rather than words.

What Anabaptist Mennonites don’t generally do is pledge their allegiance to anything but God. There is an understanding that God loves all of God’s people—that God does not bless one nation more than another in a material or spiritual sense because God does not think one country is better than another. God asks us to consider the Russian, the Nicaraguan, the Iranian, the Afghan, the South African to be our sister or our brother as much as the person in the next dorm, apartment, city or state. God does not believe USonians are better people than anyone else in the world. If our country violates the rights of other people in other places—through war or oppression, Anabaptist Mennonites believe God calls us to speak on behalf of their welfare as much as we would if they were our next door neighbor.

Of Jesus’ two most important commandments—to love God and to love your neighbor, the critical thing is how Jesus interpreted them. Jesus defined neighbor in inclusive and non-nationalistic ways, such as seeing the Samaritans as neighbors. Anabaptist theology has a perspective on who our neighbor is that is not consonant with current understandings of nationalism or patriotism in the US.

GC also says we want to be global citizens. We want to be US citizens, yes, but world citizens also. We want to call our country to account for how we behave in the world arena. Claiming the US flag and anthem will not help us do that. Who and how we are in the world are not mentioned in those symbols. In settings where we will now use the national anthem, how will we effectively communicate our desire to interact with and learn from all the worlds’ citizens?

There is also the ritual nature of how the anthem is used. The point of ritual is to have people do things so repeatedly they don’t think about it anymore. I want my children to pray before they eat. It is not that I think it is unhealthy physically or spiritually for them to eat without praying. It is not that I believe they even think about the words they say before eating sometimes. But it is that the very act of stopping before they eat each meal that gets into some deeper part of their psyche. They pause at a specific time every day which brings some awareness of the fact that they have food to eat and there is gratitude for that. It is part of the fabric of their lives. It is a ritual and they may not even think about it as they move out of our home, but I would guess they will notice the times they don’t pause before they eat because that pause means something.

The national anthem is also a ritual. Done so frequently that many, I understand from the discussion we have had so far, consider it “a part of the game.” It is a ritual, done so often and regularly a game doesn’t seem “right” without it. What about the game isn’t right without it? What does it do to our players and spectators to think through the song every time a game is played? What does that repetition bring into the psyche of every player and every spectator? I would suggest the point and end product of the ritual is to develop a loyalty to the US nation. (The ritual became common practice during WWII when baseball players were given deferrals from going to war to keep playing. They were receiving lots of critique for playing instead of going to war. So, they started to play the national anthem at every game so people would know how patriotic they were.)

At a school that professes compassionate peacemaking and global citizenship from an Anabaptist Mennnonite perspective, does a ritual born to show how supportive we are to our nation in wartime belong in our community practice? It may not mean the same thing to each of us—but clearly it is a powerful ritual or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And one of the things it explicitly does do is honor our country in such a way that we can easily start to believe our country is better or more right or superior to others. One of the functions of ritual is moral education, but we have little control over the actual content; popular culture defines the symbols more powerfully than we can. Can we practice the same ritual played all over the country and expect it to carry a different message, a message of hospitality, just because we are doing it in the context of GC?

Am I suggesting I think other countries are better or I do not like living in the US? In no way. Having lived in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Japan, and Europe at different times, I am always glad to come home to the US. Do I love how my country acts all the time? No. Do I want my country to be the best it can be? Yes. Am I willing to help Goshen and Indiana and the United States improve? You better believe it. But I am not willing to pretend it is always right. Do I value serving my country? For sure. I am on the public library board, I volunteer in schools, I am part of a community neighborhood association. I try to be part of the national discussion surrounding education on behalf of the children all over the US. Do I want to help the world improve? Yes, I want that, too. And I know that sometimes my country gets in the way of that. Will I harm other people on behalf of my country? Not knowingly.

In fact, I am not eager to have others harm other people on behalf of my country (or for me), either. Even more misunderstood by mainstream US society than patriotism and nationalism from an Anabaptist perspective is pacifism. The idea that you would love your enemies in the face of death—even the death of your children, your spouse or your mother is an anomaly. Compassionate peacemaking is important—but it doesn’t convey the full extent to which pacifism is willing to suffer until death rather than to impose death on someone else. If our compassionate peacemaking encompasses this foundational Anabaptist Mennonite tenet of faith, then it must be clear in our courses and in our actions. Playing the national anthem will not help anyone understand about this.But not playing the anthem – by itself – has also not been a helpful or hospitable stance, leaving those new to Anabaptism struggling to understand what it means. Our not playing the anthem should have been more clearly linked to living out Biblical passages of “you shall not kill,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you” — prophetic, costly, Biblical principles upon which the teachings in Anabaptism were founded.

As Goshen College engages our country and culture, we decide on many issues whether to be more assimilationist or to live in alternative ways—when to be people of assent or people of dissent. Deciding how and when to engage requires great discernment, listening to multiple perspectives, allowing for time for discussion, testing ideas, and including all the stakeholders. Complex issues are not resolved quickly. I hope we continue to discuss this complex issue and I am pleased we are taking time today to do so.

Written by Marlys Weaver

Marlys E. Weaver is a senior journalism major and editor-in-chief of The Record. She grew up living and working on a Guernsey farm and has worked at Maple City Market as a sales staff member and newsletter editor, and on an organic coffee farm in Peru, giving her a well-rounded interest in food and agriculture. She has also reported for "The Farmers' Exchange," "The Elkhart Truth," "The South Bend Tribune," and collaborated on a story on msnbc.com.

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