National Anthem. I'll wait...
How did you do? Did you miss any of the words? Did you find it hard to remember the
first verse? Did you have to stop to think about what to write?
The majority of Americans cannot call to mind something as basic to being an American
as the first verse of our National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. This, in spite of the fact
you cannot attend a sporting event or other public event without the song being played. The
poetry of Francis Scott Key eludes them.
Last week, Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, opened their college baseball season with
a doubleheader against the Sierra Heights Saints. According to the New York Times, for the
first time in school history, the National Anthem was played before the game. A person might
ask themselves, why is that? Goshen is a college founded by Mennonites. Mennonites
descended from the same Christian roots as the Amish, but adopted and adapted to modern
convention unlike their Amish brethren. One thing, however, the Mennonite faith did not
compromise is a faith in pacifism based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. So, until last week,
games at Goshen started with a team huddle and nothing else.
Historically, school administrators and students believed the words to the U.S. National
Anthem glorified and celebrated war, a view which has caused unnecessary violence and the
deaths of millions of people. Goshen has about one thousand students, almost half of which
are not Mennonites. The non-Mennonite students began to press for the playing of the anthem
before games. The debate, going on for a number of years, culminated in a decision by the
college president to play the music but not the words. And...as a sort of concession, after
the anthem was played, those in attendance were asked to recite the Peace Prayer of
St. Francis of Assisi. Trust the Mennonites not to make compromises of this sort without a
Non-Mennonite students cheered the decision and reminded other students that the flag,
the anthem, and the freedom they represent are what made this country great and are what
gives us the freedom to believe and pray to whomever we wish. Very nice, but there is a
problem with their logic: most Americans can't remember the words to their National
Anthem. The reason the tradition of playing it before sports events began was a response to
the rise of totalitarianism and communism in the Soviet Union. After September 11th, 2001,
the singing of God Bless America was added to major league baseball's Seventh Inning Stretch.
Apparently, Americans were not only amazed the flag was still standing, but also believe that
God was responsible.
As counterpoint to all the "feel-good" flag-waving and the mouthing of words we can't
remember, some passionately cry out that "patriotism" is the last refuge of scoundrels. They
say more harm has been done in the name of "patriotism" in this country than by almost any
other concept. "Patriotism" led to the Mexican War and the annexation of vast tracks of land
that once belonged to Mexico. It led to the genocide of the Native American people cloaked as
a love of country. It led to a bitter Civil War divided equally between those wanting both to
preserve and destroy our union. It led to the U.S. taking the last of Spain's overseas colonies.
Worse still, "patriotism" led to numerous laws restricting the very freedoms we at one
time worshipped: President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, making
it a crime to criticize the government or the president because it could harm the country.
Japanese-Americans were put in camps because of the fear that some might possibly not be
loyal Americans. The 1950's brought the imposition of loyalty oaths, blacklists, and witch
hunts due to the "red scare". The Patriot Act (ironic name, don't you think?) was passed by
Congress just days after September 11th redefined every American citizen as a potential
terrorist. Telecom companies illegally spied on their customers, couching themselves as
patriotic Americans acting on President Bush's request. Americans who opposed the Vietnam
War, the Gore in the Gulf, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were attacked because of
their opinions and were branded as unpatriotic.
But who am I to talk? Simply a person that was told to leave the country because of my
criticism of the Bush Administration's lies. These lies were quickly exposed; but being right
doesn't improve people's view of how much you love your country.
Now, let's go back to the Mennonites at Goshen College. Despite a noble history of
weathering criticism, despite suffering persecution, despite threats of violence and actual
violence against them for their convictions about war and, in particular, wars of aggression
by any country, they had to compromise. They believe it is impossible to claim to be a
Christian, to follow Jesus's command to turn the other cheek, love your enemy, forgive an
infinite number of times, and then support the organized killing of human beings; but to
maintain good relations, they've given in.
We can debate the value and pragmatism of pacifism and we can debate how one puts
into practice their Christian faith. There is no debate, however, about the nature of the
National Anthem. It glorifies war, killing, and the view that defending or advancing your
country's values, including the evil of imperialism, justifies the use of force. Despite hearing
the song hundreds of times, most Americans can't remember all the words of the first verse;
so it's ludicrous to suggest that by simply playing the National Anthem before a baseball game
that a love of country will well up in the common heart of America.
Goshen College stood out as a place putting its beliefs into action. Their refusal to play
the anthem made people think. The college took the easy, white-bread kind of "love of
country" most Americans hold; and challenged it by simply not going along. Ideally, attending
a sporting event at Goshen might have caused a person to ask why the Mennonites weren't
playing the anthem before their games before this current change in policy. It might even
have caused a person to reflect on the Mennonite world view, so as to contrast and compare
them with our own. One thing for sure, the Mennonites are witness to a system of beliefs that
is truly patriotic because they honestly love their country enough to hold up a mirror for those
Americans whose only connection to any kind of primitive "patriotic" thought is right before
someone yells "play ball!"
I'm sorry to see the tradition end; but as a consolation, any game that starts with "Make
me a channel of your peace..." (The Peace Prayer) has something more to offer the average
sports fan than mere diversion and entertainment. The thoughtful among us will always find
a way. Thank you Goshen College!! What do you think? I welcome your comments and
rebuttals. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org