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Peace and Protest: Objections to Goshen College

December 28, 2008

It’s been a few weeks since this small media ruckus developed, but I want to comment on it nonetheless.

On November 10, the nationally syndicated conservative talk radio host Mike Gallagher aired a segment in which he noted that Goshen College, a small Mennonite institution near South Bend, IN, refrains from singing the United States’ national anthem at its home athletic events.  In the segment, Gallagher interviewed Goshen Dean of Students Bill Born and suggested to him that neither Goshen College nor the students who attend it should receive financial assistance from the federal government because the college chooses not to demonstrate allegiance to the United States by performing the Star Spangled Banner at athletic events.  This is, Gallagher suggested, simply un-American.

Goshen’s “controversial” stance toward our anthem raises many questions for me.  First, I wonder  why our culture deems it an egregious sin not to sing the Star Spangled Banner before sporting events?  What’s the connection between sport and nation?  Both Noam Chomsky and Dave Zirin have written extensively about the vexed relationship between these two spheres.  Chomsky believes that spectator sports  de-politicize citizens by neutralizing their outrage over injustice via diversion of energies and passions.  And Zirin has provided many examples of ways that the sports media encourages an uncritical allegiance to United States political policy.  Perhaps this is one reason why Goshen keeps sport and nation separate.

Second, I wonder if Gallagher’s aggressive journalism is an attempt to expose Mennonites as being “un-patriotic” because they refuse to sanction violence.  The underlying assumption is, I would guess, that if our national anthem were a little less violent of a song, Mennonites wouldn’t have as much of a problem singing it as they do.  Some might call this another reason why Goshen doesn’t sing our anthem at athletic events, but I don’t think so.

I am not a Mennonite by birth, but I do consider myself  a Mennonite proselyte, wholly convinced that the theology informing the aloof relationship to earthly empires many Mennonite congregations espouse is based on the Gospels’ core message.  This doctrine compels its followers to adapt the ethic of Christ and seek peace on earth, all the while remembering that one’s ultimate allegiance as a follower of Christ is to the Kingdom of God.

Mennonites interpret this mandate differently.  Some systematically avoid all forms of participation in earthly governments, including voting, military service, or political advocacy.  Others are informed by Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, who believes that Jesus led an explicitly political life and was ultimately motivated to challenge the status quo and intervene in political systems to seek what we would now refer to as social justice.  Followers of this doctrine scrupulously keep nation and worship of God separate.

I feel that this is a distinctive worth sharing with others when they confront Mennonite institutions of being “unpatriotic” or even “anti-American.”  Thus, I was disappointed to hear Goshen Dean Bill Born skirt around the issue when he appeared on Ghallager’s talk show.  Even Goshen’s President, Jim Brenneman, spared his readers the details of Mennonite theology, as he explained that the United States should be valued because it is a realm where people are allowed to express faith convictions differently, and without persecution.

Mennonite leaders should take opportunities like the one Ghallager presented to communicate the theological motivations that inform their denominations’ attitude toward patriotism and citizenship in the United States (or other countries).

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From → Media, News, Politics, War

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