An open letter to Goshen College in its time of discernmentIn spring 2010, I was part of a group that delivered more than 1250 signatures resisting Goshen College’s decision to play the national anthem at sporting events. As part of our action, four people lowered the American and United Nations flags from their poles, took them and the petition to the administration, and replaced those symbols with the agnus dei and earth flags. Although we were careful handling all four flags, responses to the action varied. Several people were supportive, expressing thanks for our respectful demonstration. Others were upset that we took down the flags, regardless of how we treated them. Still others, fatigued by ongoing attention to the issue, wished we would stop stirring the pot. Why are we “outsiders” involved? What is it we are trying to prove? As conversation about the anthem reopens and the school moves toward a review next spring, I wanted to answer these questions in my own words.
Reflection on why I am involved in this issue would take more room than is allotted here. However, a simple answer entails at least two points. First, I am passionate about this decision because of my interest in Goshen College as an educational institution of the Mennonite Church and of the Anabaptist tradition of which I am a part. Second, and most importantly, I care because I believe that followers of the Prince of Peace should maintain a critical distance from anthems, flags, and other national symbols—especially those belonging to a modern-day empire that prides itself on military strength, economic prowess and cultural dominance. Currently, our society is saturated with messages that demonize people beyond our borders, criticize political dissidents within, call for ongoing war and promote intolerance. What the church and the world need at this moment are Christians who are willing to embrace practices and symbols that publicly proclaim a distinct identity and a higher allegiance. I believe this at least entails resisting social pressure to express love of country through rituals that champion U.S. exceptionalism and might.
Which leads me to our decision to replace the American and U.N flags. One of the major reasons given for playing the anthem at Goshen College is the desire to offer a “welcoming gesture” toward visitors to and members of the college community. Earlier this spring, we took that sentiment seriously by raising two of the most inclusive symbols we could think of: an agnus dei flag with the image of the Risen Lamb to represent the centrality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection across Christian traditions; and the earth flag depicting the interconnectedness of creation, regardless of our geographic location, ethnicity, cultures or species. Yet even at the beginning of the Easter season, a campus that encourages Christ-centeredness and global citizenship could not be without its more narrow symbols for more than an hour or two. The agnus dei was quickly removed and the stars and stripes returned to its prominent position. The experience left me asking whether hospitality is all that is at stake in this decision or whether this debate reveals deeper conflicts and questions about faith and identity to which we must all attend.
Although I am not as steeped in the life and history of Goshen College as others, I am acquainted with several of its stellar professors and for this reason have recommended the school to many and taken a class there myself. Perhaps this still makes me an outsider. Nevertheless, my proximity to the college does not mean that I do not care deeply about its future. Like the 1400 people who have signed the petition in total—including Goshen College alumnae, donors and students, and Christians of various traditions from the U.S and around the world—my fear is that this decision will unwittingly move a well-loved institution a step away from its core values and push the church even further toward economic, social and political assimilation into American culture. As such, I am thankful for the college’s plans to continue thinking, talking and praying together during this review process, and I look forward to respectful engagement with you in the coming months.