A response to John D. Roth’s “A Moderate Proposal for Peace,” published in the Goshen College Record, Feb 16, 2010
This morning, I read one of the latest entries into the discussion on Goshen College’s decision to break with 114 years of Mennonite tradition and play the national anthem instrumentally at select sporting events. Written by John D. Roth, history professor at Goshen College, director of the Mennonite Historical Library and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, “A Modest Proposal for Peace” calls its audience to “shift our attention to the second half of the equation—the prayer that is to follow the anthem.” He then offers a concrete suggestion on how to accomplish this, stating:
At the beginning of each event a recorded message would say something like the following: “Please rise for the playing of the national anthem and remain standing for the words of Jesus taken from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5.” Then, immediately following the national anthem, a recorded voice would read the beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-10) without commentary, followed by a pause, and finally: “Welcome to Goshen College. Enjoy the game!”
Before I delve into my own reflections on this proposal, I want to say that I respect Roth and believe that his reputation for being a thoughtful theologian and scholar is well-deserved. Furthermore, I want to say that I admire the courage he showed as one of the few Goshen College faculty who has publicly voiced his disappointment with the school’s decision. That said, there are a few flaws in his proposal that I feel compelled to address. I hope to do so as diplomatically as possible below.
As I see it, Roth’s proposal is pointing at the wrong target. The problem with Goshen’s decision is not the longstanding Christian discipline of prayer that demonstrates one’s faith in God to hear and respond to God’s people. The difficulty is with the anthem itself, which is little more than a worship song to the flag and the national hymn of American empire. For this reason, what is most needed are proposals for ways to work at repealing the decision before it becomes entrenched (at best) or truly subverting its privileged position at games (at least). In my view, focusing our attention on what to do after playing a nationalistic song with violent and idolatrous overtones does neither.
My second thought on this proposal has to do with substituting the prayer following the anthem with the beatitudes. Although I admire Roth’s creativity and agree that in the context of the national anthem, “public prayers could easily become coded messages of civil religion,” I also don’t think this suggestion adequately addresses the theological problems at hand. Many of the people I know that support honoring the nation through its holiest song are aware of Jesus’ teachings on the mount. Yet for many people, the words have also been theologically dismissed as lessons that serve only to remind us of our sinful, imperfect humanity, are seen as impractical for “real life” situations, and have been re-framed in decidedly unhelpful and un-Christian ways. Simply reading these verses without commentary as Roth suggests does little if anything to communicate that Goshen College, the Mennonite Church and the Anabaptist tradition understands these words as ones Christ’s-followers are called to live by to the best of our individual and collective abilities. In other words, it does nothing to either state our position in relationship to the war song that proceeds it or to shift the paradigms of those for whom, “Blessed are the peacemakers” may be little more than a prayer of support for the troops.
Finally, it is my understanding that there is widespread dissatisfaction from Goshen College students, alum and faculty that the anthem is being played at games. Yet, the sense I have gotten from people within that community is that most of those people are cynical and disillusioned about the possibility of change. While I concede that what I have heard has been primarily anecdotal, I wonder why Roth advocates a kind of accommodation that will likely reinforce that sentiment. I have always seen Goshen as a place that teaches its students to believe that transformation is possible. Indeed, its brand new slogan, “Healing the world peace by peace” paints Goshen as the best place to learn how to intervene in various conflicts and attain real peace. At the risk of sounding too critical, I am perplexed about how the next generation is supposed to be ready for these lofty tasks if they don’t even feel empowered to resist a war song on their own campus. If I was a student at Goshen who was upset with this decision, I would want to be supported and encouraged by teachers who shared my view to find creative, direct and even public ways to speak and act against it. Yet what this article seems to propose is for rightfully displeased people of conscience to settle into an uneasy truce in which they stop trying to achieve the change they’d really like to see and start focusing on ways to just live with it.
In light of these critiques, I would like to make a couple of less-modest proposals. As someone who came to love the Mennonite faith several years ago and who sees Goshen’s decision to play the national anthem as undercutting the Anabaptist witness that has touched the lives of Christians like me and those who have signed our petition, I submit that it is vital to keep resisting the national anthem’s place in the campus community. Indeed, I urge people who are opposed to the decision and the implications it has for the direction of the school and the church as a whole to make repealing this action a top priority. If the Berlin Wall can fall and the Cold War can end and legalized segregation can be overturned, then there is more than a little hope for getting the national anthem removed from select sporting events at an Anabaptist school.
Second, if the anthem begins playing in March as planned, I would like to suggest another less-modest proposal that people discern active and public ways to subvert the privileged position it holds in both Brenneman’s and Roth’s formulations. For example, instead of playing the anthem at the start of the game, play it after a prayer and/or a 5 minute history lesson on Anabaptism and/or a sermon about peacemaking and/or an introduction to one of Goshen’s core values and/or a well-loved hymn — and play it on kazoos. Or for the sake of fairness and true hospitality, play instrumental versions of all the anthems represented on the teams or at the colleges in general in alphabetical order with the anthem of the United States of America falling where it may — and play them after reading Scripture from 1 Samuel 8. Or better still, just play the national anthem after the game as people are leaving — on nose flutes. If the national anthem is “just a song” as people who are puzzled by the passionate response against it tend to argue, then it shouldn’t matter if the college assigns it to a place that better reflects our primary allegiance to Christ.
Attempting these and/or other not mentioned less-modest proposals, requires that we not just assume, as Roth seems to, that the anthem is here to stay before the first note is even played at the college’s first game. It also requires continuing to point to the theological and ethical problems that including the national anthem in the life of the institution and in the Christian faith more broadly. All of these things are even more crucial in light of Goshen’s new statement, which amounts to little more than a declaration that they will simply wait out our “emotional” reactions to this move by “revisiting” the issue in a year. May we be bold enough to rise to this challenge.
– Nekeisha Alexis-Baker