I deeply regret that I was oblivious to the task force (Come on, though, who are you kidding? It was a committee) on this topic when they were seeking alumni responses. I surely would have sent this in before the decision was made.
An Open Letter to Goshen College,
The issue of playing the national anthem, saying the pledge of allegiance and flying the flag in a church or church school is a charged one for me—one that I have a long personal history with.
When I entered the ninth grade, I made the choice to attend a private Christian high school affiliated with the Mennonite Church. It wasn’t such a stretch since my mother graduated from that same school and I grew up Mennonite. I knew it made me “different,” but there were other kids there who were the same kind of different as me: committed to pacifism, eager to attend college, and rather rooted in traditional, if not agrarian, values. We were rarely put to the test for our counter-culture beliefs because we were surrounded by like-minded peers and teachers in all of our classes.
Then, in my junior year, the Gulf War broke out. Suddenly everyone in the surrounding counties noticed that we didn’t play the national anthem before our basketball games. There were letters to the editor of the local paper. As an athlete playing basketball at the time, it was something we were very conscious of. At away games, people scrutinized us, to see if we were standing respectfully as they sang and saluted. At home games, the visitor section would sing the anthem on their own. (I will add, though, I do not recall a single school being disrespectful during our prayer.) I remember attending a boy’s game at an opposing school where nearly every student in the cheering section waved a flag and during time-outs repeatedly tore across the court in front our cheering section with a large one snapping behind the proud bearer. We even had a few schools drop us from their athletic schedules over the issue.
It would have been easy for the school to change its policy then. But for me, it reinforced the message. As Mennonites, we believe in peace, peace between nations, peace between people. We align ourselves with God’s children, who belong to God regardless of their country. Or loyalty to God supersedes our commitment to our country. This difference, not playing the anthem, allowed us to articulate our beliefs to ourselves and others when such dialog would never have occurred had we simply played the anthem like everyone else.
Finding myself in such a situation in high school was good preparation for my later, though short, career as a public high school teacher and coach. As a religious person employed by a public school I had to be considerate of how I conducted myself with respect for others’ religion or lack thereof.
It is typical for the coach, whether in Indiana, Michigan, or North Carolina (all places I’ve coached) , to lead the team in prayer before each game. Always, I declined to do this. I would attempt to explain to my players that I consider myself a religious person and hold my religious beliefs very dear, but I cannot, out of respect for the separation of church and state, hold a prayer that I’d expect players to join me in. I never forbade them to pray, and often a student leader would step up and begin the Lord’s Prayer.
The next challenge at each game came with the playing of the national anthem. There I would be, standing on the court in front of my players, their parents, other students, the other team, the athletic director who employed me and I would not sing. (Although, I will admit that I often hummed the alto part as an ironic nod to my Mennonite roots.) Each game I coached, I aligned myself with my Mennonite values of not placing my country before my God and God’s children. It wasn’t easy in a new community that knows nothing about Mennonites. And while it scared me that someone might confront me about it, I also welcomed it as an opportunity to express my beliefs.
Last week, at my daughter’s elementary school awards program, set deep in the Appalachian Mountains and Southern Baptist country, I rose, but remained silent as they asked everyone in attendance to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Already we are different here because our northern accents and for being mover-inners. The last thing I want is for my daughter to be ostracized at school, made fun of or taunted. It would have been so easy to just mouth the words, but I didn’t. We are different. We are called to be. I’m sure other parents noticed my silence, but no one has brought it up with me yet. (Though being from a small community, I suspect they’re talking about it.)
I feel I have to take these little stands to teach my children what it means to be Mennonite, to be a pacifist, to be an Anabaptist.
Aligning ourselves with God’s children all over the world is the foundation of our pacifism. Pacifism—our great claim to fame, our right given to us by this country with freedom of religion. Certainly Mennonites might be seen as abusing this freedom of religion because we can claim conscientious objector status as a part of our religious rights. Indeed, how convenient that we refuse to fight to defend the country that gives us such a freedom. How cruel that we expect other mother’s children to die and we would not sacrifice as much ourselves. Point taken.
I know, from high school, how not playing the nation anthem can make people think Mennonites are not patriotic or do not love our country—though this is far from true. I know how people can jump to conclusions, like the ones above, that Mennonites are just chicken, scared of dying or being subjected to the horrors of war. Especially in times of war, like now, when families are grieving the loss of soldiers, how we are perceived by a non-pacifist public is on our minds. Apparently Goshen College wants to be seen as welcoming, as though we are actively trying to mitigate our pacifist stance with the outside world. It also makes me wonder if believing “it is the right decision for the college at this time,” as Brenneman writes, has something to do with recruitment, tuition and finances.
We are not letting go of pacifism, though. In this way we want to be different, to hold ourselves apart from the norm. But the ways in which we hold ourselves apart seem to be growing fewer and fewer.
I am certainly an example of new Mennonite mobility. Currently, the closest Mennonite church to me is almost an hour away, so I have begun attending a Presbyterian Church. I believe it is important to be a part of a community of believers and for my children to have friends in the church. But I do not want to give up the core values of the Mennonite faith. Being “different” is hard for my children and for me, but I feel that is what I am called to do. My children are the only ones in our home church who do not partake in communion, because they have not been baptized. We did not baptize them as infants like other Presbyterians, continuing our Anabaptists convictions. Communion Sundays they remain conspicuously seated while everyone else files up the center aisle. They know they are different, as does everyone else.
Yet that is important to me: to be Mennonite, to be different. Being outside of the Mennonite community I have to make some hard decisions about what beliefs and behaviors define a Mennonite. Sure I’m scared that if one of my sons would be drafted years from now, the government would not honor his conscientious objector status because he did not grow up in a Mennonite Church. And it’s not that I’m trying to take the freedom-of-religion cop-out to keep my sons from dying in a war. I would be proud to send them someplace scary and war-torn as peacemakers. It’s like I tell them, I’m not so much scared about them dying as I am them killing someone else. (That’s why I still have not allowed any water guns in our household.)
So, when I read today that my alma mater Goshen College has chosen to begin playing the national anthem before ballgames, I was very disappointed. It seems that a Mennonite College should also do the little things to hold itself apart make itself obviously different from other colleges, because it is. I am hoping Goshen College can remain a bastion of Mennonite belief and behavior in the face of the pressures of the outside world. I hope it can remain a place that opens young people’s minds to new knowledge, a greater understanding of the world, and God’s people. I believe that by refraining from playing the national anthem Goshen College invites dialog. We must continue to dare to be different and be open to the ensuing conversations. I believe one can be Mennonite and patriotic and still respectfully decline to sing/play the National Anthem or say the Pledge of Allegiance. Hopefully I will have a chance to communicate that to my children and the community which I am a part of now. I think that’s what Goshen College taught me.