Monday, June 28, 2010

Brethren & Mennonite attitudes toward the national anthem of the U.S.A.

by Brian Gumm

First, to all those who have been following FWFS and are suddenly wondering who this "Brian Gumm" fellow is, let me do a short introduction. Doing so will not only clue you in to who I am but also help contextualize some of the comments I'll make below on the named topic. I'm a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren, studying at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Seminary as well as the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. I've been following FWFS for about a month now and had recently put it up on the blogroll over at my blog: Restorative Theology. About three weeks ago, Nick mentioned that he wanted some more authors for this here blog and after a nice e-mail conversation I gladly agreed to contribute my voice. Now, with the 4th of July quickly approaching, we move on to the topic at hand...the national anthem! Yay! (Or boo?)

Earlier this year there was a flap in the Mennonite world (in the U.S. at least) when Goshen College decided to start playing the national anthem of the United States at sporting events. This led to all sorts of interesting media coverage, the most humorous (to me) being a blog post entitled: The Mennonites no longer hate America (from which the picture to the right was idea where that author got it from). There was almost an audible gasp on the campus here at Eastern Mennonite, and people all over the campus were registering, mostly, their discontent in various social arenas both temporal and digital. Facebook groups shot up both in favor of and against the decision, and I could watch as my Mennonite friends on Facebook fell into one of those two lines. The president of EMU even updated his statement on the matter and re-communicated it to the entire university community. This came in advance of EMU hosting a few NCAA Div-II basketball tournament games on campus, wherein the playing of the national anthem is an NCAA requirement. Even in the seminary classroom, in a believers church class this past spring this issue made for some stimulating discussion.

Meanwhile, in my Church of the Brethren circles, something entirely different was going on in respect to the national anthem. In my home district, the Northern Plains, my pastor's daughter has been singing the national anthem at sporting and civic events of all sorts for years now. From here in Virginia, I just got an e-mail from a recent Brethren EMS alum whose wife is competing in a national anthem singing contest, the winner of which would win money for their resident public school district. Quite a marked contrast from these two Christian movements that have historically shared much in common.

I need to offer a few provisos here. First, my personal stake in this is rife with ambivalence. I not only grew up singing the national anthem and not thinking twice to theologically question it, I also sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in high school all-state choir competitions...and it was my favorite song! Just the other day, I found myself quickly humming harmony to a recording of the anthem I heard while out and about in Harrisonburg. On the other hand, from my two years spent in a Mennonite institution of higher learning reading folks like John Howard Yoder, I've learned to have a healthy dose of theological and political skepticism about these exercises in national allegiance, celebration, and pride, not to mention their state-violence-legitimating undertones (sometimes not so "under").

My next proviso is linked to my being Brethren in a Mennonite institution of higher learning. My experience with Mennonites has been almost entirely academic (and only one school for two years) while my more-extensive Church of the Brethren experience has been almost entirely congregational. And not only congregational but limited to my home district, which represents only a small percentage of the denominational whole! (I vividly remember my schock at National Youth Conference in 1994 when the busses from Pennsylvania pulled up..and pulled up again...and kept pulling up, with a relative sea of youth pouring out of them.)

I'm assuming a mostly 1) Brethren and 2) academic audience here, so if that's safe let me ask the audience: Was the Goshen College thing on the radar? (Nice military analogy, right?) What was your Brethren upbringing like in relation to things like the national anthem?


Eric said...

Here's a jab at your two questions:

I was not brought up Brethren, but am currently apart of a Church of the Brethren congregation and have been educated in COB and Grace Brethren institutions. I am sure my “dyed in the wool Brethren” peers may have some varying feedback. I grew up in a Brethren community and have had the privilege of meeting many conscientious objectors of World War II and Vietnam, while at the same time knowing just as many war veterans from Brethren backgrounds. I was introduced to and became convicted of traditional Anabaptist beliefs by the witness of many Church of the Brethren members, but also attended numerous Fourth of July celebrations at Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren affiliated college, with fireworks, patriotic music, and the display of a large United States flag. The same would go for my time at Grace College, the Grace Brethren affiliated college, where I learned from many individuals who gently held to traditional Anabaptist beliefs on the church and state while sitting with classmates who were aspiring military chaplains. Cleary, there are varying perspectives on this issue among Brethren.

I personally do not think the Goshen College choice was correct, and am a little puzzled by it. While the greater Christian world is beginning to take more and more notice of traditional Brethren and Mennonite beliefs (the recent work The Naked Anabaptist is a wonderful example) it feels like many of our institutions want to or long have pushed away from it. I am currently in a historically non-Anabaptist area, and am always meeting individuals who have read John Howard Yoder (or on less occasion Dale Brown) and are so excited about what a church can be and our histories, while it appears that we ourselves are more concerned about the status quo or preparing for another fight at our annual conferences. I grieve for the situation of our institutions, but not for our faith or the power of our living God.

Brian Gumm said...

Awesome response, Eric! Thanks! Your final statement is especially striking and hopeful. The interest in Anabaptism outside Brethren & Mennonite circles which you pointed out is astounding! I was just talking with my theology prof. at EMS yesterday and he mentioned two people from Calvin Theological Seminary who have written their doctoral work on John Howard Yoder! Can you believe that?! Reformed theologians writing about an Anabaptist!

In re: to your comment about fights at AC and institutional atrophy...I'm thinking about that a lot in my current summer study of historical Brethren thought+practice, especially as I've been reading about the big three-way split back in the early 1880's. You might see a post from me show up on that topic in a week or two...

zebe912 said...

I grew up in the CoB and have always struggled with anthem/songs and the Pledge. I remember my pastor talking about pledging allegiance to the flag could be seen as putting an idol before God. So I think of this around patriotic songs as well. I think of it even more when I don't agree with the situations our governments puts our country and our troops into.

I work in the public schools and I don't like using patriotic songs with my students. I try to not be at the assembly during the pledge or anthem so that I can just avoid the whole hand over heart business.

I always wonder what other people in the CoB think about such things, so this was a good topic to see.

Nico said...

Apparently the latest issue of Messenger has an article about Brethren patriotism that features what Elizabeth Keller calls a "really bad" picture of me. I've yet to see this, but I suspect the picture was taken in 2006 in Des Moines, when a bunch of us were singing patriotic songs to be ironic.

Brian Gumm said...

Nick, now you see the dangers of being ironical around a photographer! You lose the context and BOOP! there goes the irony! :)