Saturday, January 23, 2010

GC's Decision to Play the National Anthem

This is a rather long winded response to the following article and it's other companion pieces.
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.


benjamin s. yost said...

thanks britt.

Ninja Fast said...

Well said. You write with an articulation and patience that escapes most of us.

-Ted Houser

Tim Nafziger said...

Well said, Britt. Unfortunately, it feels like this signals a broader direction in which Brenneman hopes to take GC.

Britt Kaufmann said...

Thanks all.

Tim, your article takes it to a new level... It makes me wonder: Is this how the alumns 15 years ahead of us felt about GC when we were there?

Anonymous said...

Wow, Brit, that was incredibly well written. While I couldn't identify with all of your athletic connections (I only played sports for two years at that private high school, never coaching), I am really impressed with your articulation of much of what I find important in identifying as Mennonite.
Thanks for taking the time to write this.
(PS. I found this through Tim's link)
Abby (Tim's younger sister)

Tim Nafziger said...


Thanks, I'm glad you found it as useful as I found your piece.

My impression is that GC has moved more to the right in the past 15 years then it did in the 15 years before that. But that's really just a hunch...


Redboots said...

I'm glad you posted this Britt. Though I'm not Mennonite, I admire your passion and integrity immensely.


Leroy said...

Britt - Thanks for your comments. Very well written and articulate. As one who has spent most of his professional career teaching in public universities and having sent three children through public schools (also in NC), I can identify with your comments regarding the opportunity to stand apart and witness to our beliefs.

Britt Kaufmann said...

Thanks for all the affirmation, all.

han said...

I was able to read your post through a link sent to me by my pastor (all the way in TX!), and I really appreciate the way you've articulated here the same things that I've been feeling. I too went to a Mennonite high school and Goshen, and played soccer throughout both. I was always proud of the little things that made us different, and happy for the opportunity to talk about those differences with other people.
I knew that there had recently been some controversy over the absence of the anthem, but was still surprised to hear about this shift of position. Surprised and quite disappointed.
Thanks again, and well said.


Laura said...

The beautiful thing about the Church, the bride of Christ, is that we are diverse: of varied, race, ethnicity, yes, nationality, and maybe even denominational backgrounds--in that they are varied expressions of our faith in Jesus. I find it somewhat ironic; however, that we should often choose to embrace the particularity of denomination (in in doing so, often present ourselves to the world as a fragmented people) and not the particularity of nationality. If playing the national anthem is, in fact, not what God would want from us because it shows allegiance to country over Him, then Mennonites (and GC) should stand upon this conviction. But perhaps the decision has become more about setting ourselves apart as Mennonites than about following God with our full allegiance. I suggest that perhaps GC is making an attempt to build bridges with other Christians and those who have felt alienated, maybe even offended, by Mennonites' lack of support for their country, a country which I am certainly thankful to be a part of. Let us truly seek God's heart on the issue.

Britt Kaufmann said...

Laura, you raise some interesting aspects. I think the Pledge of Allegiance is far more specific about what we are aligning ourselves with: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the country, for which it stands...

The Anthem itself, doesn't contain such language... but its words do glorify war. For me, it is the glorification of war that I choose not to participate in. (And I think that's how GC is hedging -- by only playing an instrumental version of it.) Now, how I would feel if the anthem of a country also embraced peace efforts, diplomacy, acceptance of people of other faiths is an entirely different matter. I don't know how I'd feel then. My guess is I'd be much more open about singing the anthem.

Thanks for commenting. Seeing that you're from another country and naturally had a different anthem caused me to think about the generalizations and specifics of the issue in a new way.

Saints and Spinners said...

Thank you for this post, Britt.

John Fisk said...

This was a good post. Thanks for your thoughts on the issue. Looks like some other Mennonites have a slightly different take though. Andy Alexis-Baker just posted a blistering critique at Jesus

--John Fisk

richmomma said...

Beautifully said! I am a very disappointed alum. Goshen used to be the "college of choice" for my children, but I find this decision in direct opposition to the teachings/environment I'm looking for in a college. Raised like your children, Goshen's new "culture of assent" will to them scream "NO!" rather than "YES!"

Dave HW said...

Hi Britt, this was a very thoughtful essay. Being raised in the same congregation and attending the same high school as you, nevertheless I find myself at a different place than you and a lot of the commenters I've been reading (including a number of GC alums in my family). (Full disclosure: I'm an EMU alum.)

There is a lot I could say, but I'll try to keep it brief.

At EMU (and I presume GC as well), professors often tried to get us to think in "both/and" rather than "either/or" ways. Yet I am hearing a lot of "either/or" in your essay and the comments, especially in terms of what Mennonites *don't* do. We don't play the national anthem, don't recite the Pledge, don't take communion, etc. etc. But those definitions aren't really about who we *are*, but about who we *aren't*. Is that really what we want to emphasize? Are we Mennonites only if we're *not* U.S. citizens and *not* other-than-Mennonite Christians? Can't we be "both/and"? Both U.S. citizens *and* world citizens? Both Mennonite *and* Christian (more broadly)?

I'd much rather be known as a people (and a school) that produces thoughtful, caring peacemakers, simple-living stewards of the earth, and engaged members of the community who volunteer their time and talent to make it a better place (and/or have paying jobs that do the same). Does whether we play the national anthem at sporting events really make the former more or less likely to happen? If playing a two minute song before a game makes “outsiders” even a little more willing to hear what a GC professor, student, or alum has to say, I say it’s well worth the risk of “selling-out.”

As a somewhat tangential aside, I wonder if this difficulty of being “both/and” is related to the Mennonite tradition of abstinence (shown most clearly in alcohol consumption, but permeating many other realms of life and thought). Mennonites seem very fearful and skeptical of “responsible use” in whatever form, be it drinking the occasional beer or engaging in occasional (and, let’s be honest, relatively meaningless) patriotic behavior. I’ve come to accept this among the traditional Mennonite crowd, but I’m quite bemused to see it among the “Young Anabaptist Radicals” and GC alums on this issue. Guess it just goes to show that, to paraphrase Avenue Q, “every Menno’s a little bit absolutist, it’s true.”

Dave Hockman-Wert

Britt Kaufmann said...


I certainly hope the outcomes of the decision are as you hope: That it does make others more willing to listen.

I think that in this essay I do mention how I am defined by the things I "don't" do... but that is because I have those things called to my attention frequently because of where I live-- a non-Menno community. (And let me tell you, my northern accent sticks out like a sore thumb.) However, it is not necessarily my primary means of definition to look around and say "I'm not that" and "I'm not that." I say that I am someone who believes in "Believers Baptism." I say that I am a pacifist, a person who believes in seeking non-violent means of resolving conflict. Attending a Presbyterian Church and serving on the Christian Education Committee with other members who are retired military has been a personal lesson in "both/and." And certainly not one I was likely to have in a Mennonite Church. But I can see that I focus on "either/or" a lot in the essay and could readily give that impression.

I think part of the strong reaction is that so many alumni were unaware that the decision was being contemplated and felt, as I did, that the rug had been pulled out from under their feet. I know I often said (in explaining why I don't sing/recite), "the Mennonite high school and college I went to doesn't play the anthem." I can't say that any more.

All of this certainly does make me more curious about the larger culture on campus and the other changes Brenneman says are occurring in the gen ed required classes.