Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust"
– Francis Scott Key, Star Spangled Banner, 1814
Last week my alma mater, Goshen (Ind.) College, announced that it would begin playing the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events. Their press release frames the decision as an exciting new theological and socio-political adventure for the college. Make sure to read the press release especially the quotes from GC president James Brenneman and the GC presidential council.
I should say up front that this issue is fairly new to me. I wasn’t much of an athlete, so the playing of the national anthem was not an issue for me growing up. For a thoughtful perspective on GC’s decision from someone who has thought about this all their life, read a Open Letter to GC from Britt Kaufmann, longtime Mennonite athlete, coach and GC alum.
I’m mainly interested in this decision because of the way it was rolled out as part of a broader vision emerging from GC President James Brenneman. See his recent sermon Brenneman calls for new ‘school of thought’ at Goshen of positive engagement in the world.
What right has one to prophesy, without accepting responsibility for decision-making, management and accountability? – J. Lawrence Burkholder as quoted by James Brenneman
Based on the GC press release, the message seems to be, through the text and accompanying photos, that Brenneman hopes to take GC in the path inspired by ethicist and former GC president J. Lawrence Burkholder. That is the Mennonite tradition of institution building and a focus on working from within the system. In the anthem release, Brenneman calls this approach that of the "loyal opposition."
Wikipedia defines "loyal opposition" as dissent "while maintaining loyalty to the source of the government’s power." In the United Kingdom, where the term was coined, that meant the Queen. When Brenneman uses this term, what source of the U.S. government power is he pledging loyalty to? The largest military in the world? It’s economic hegemony?
To understand where Brenneman is headed requires a closer look at J. Lawrence Burkholder. Burkholder’s vision flows out of a focus on the "sea of moral ambiguity" as Perry Bush describes it in his article "The Political Education of Vietnam Christian Service, 1954-1975". Bush references the story I often heard Burkholder tell of the time while working in China when he forced frantic refugees off a plane while the pilot held a gun to their heads so that the plane could take off. For Burkholder, this story was the starting point for an Anabaptist ethical framework based on political compromise and accomodation rather then sectarian idealism.
I respect Burkholder’s critique of idealism and his recognition of the need to engage with moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, there seems to be a pattern of leaders of Mennonite institutions citing Burkholder’s work as they move their organizations towards the mainstream and away from distintive Anabaptist ways of being. In a chapter in Building Communities of Compassion: Mennonite Mutual Aid in Theory and Practice, GC Professor Keith Graber Miller writes about how former Mennonite Mutual Aid president Howard Brenneman met regularly with Burkholder for breakfast as he gradually took MMA from being a mutual aid organization to being just another insurance and investment firm with Mennonites as a target market. For more on this see Peacewashing MMA.
Brenneman’s distinctive take on the Burkholderian path is to compromise and accomodate while in the name of prophetic critique. The GC press release quotes the President’s council saying that playing the anthem will "opens up new possibilities for members of the Goshen College community to publicly offer prophetic critique." That’s some serious Mennonite doublespeak, unless the GC administration has in mind some sort of court prophet role along the lines of Jim Wallis. Aside from Nathan, there aren’t a whole lot of positive biblical models for this. In fairness to Brenneman he does mention the need for "dissent standing outside the systems of the world" but he uses the loaded term "naysayers" to describe this school of thought.
Rather then trying to frame this decision as a new socio-theological adventure, I think they would be better off if they just acknowledged that this decision reflects the increasing number of non-Mennonite students at the college and specifically the fact that the athletic teams (aside from soccer) are mostly non-Mennonite. Simply saying that a majority of athletes want this change and that this decision reflects their wishes (as I have heard may be the case) would be a much less disturbing approach.