By Jesse Davis
GOSHEN, Ind — Goshen College is bringing the conversation back home.
Now that the national anthem has played and the national media has left, the college is figuring out how to move forward. To that end, the school held a special convocation Tuesday morning in an effort to shape the course of the discussion to come.
GC President Jim Brenneman opened the convocation with some brief comments on political megacouple Mary Matalin and James Carville, as well as his own relationship with his wife, to share a starting point for the convocation’s message.
“My point in this round-up of family differences is to say I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that in spite of our differences, each of us would lay down our lives for the other without hesitation, without question,” Brenneman said. “Our love for each other was and is as strong as ever, hands down.”
Following his own comments, Brenneman introduced the two speakers, Dr. Joe Liechty, professor and director of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies, and Dr. Kathy Meyer Reimer, professor of education. The pair presented opposing views on the anthem issue, with Meyer Reimer speaking first, in opposition to the anthem’s use.
She began by qualifying the basis of her argument, explaining that playing the anthem was not a matter of eliminating an outdated tradition, but removing one of the symbols and sacred rituals born out of Anabaptist convictions.
“The anthem controversy also speaks to how we make decisions both large and small when there are conflicts between what we feel is asked of us by our faith and by the good country in which we live,” Meyer Reimer said.
While one of the main reasons behind playing the anthem is showing hospitality, she said she believes it actually made the college less hospitable. She said the most hospitable thing to do is to clearly express why something is and invite them into open discussion. That was not the case, Meyer Reimer argued, with the college’s prior practice of not playing the anthem.
“I don’t think Goshen College was clear in why the anthem was not played and I don’t think it was the job of the athletics department to carry the burden for doing so,” she said. “When attending a game, something was communicated by the practice of not playing the anthem, but that something was unclear to many.”
Along with that lack of communication to event attendees, Meyer Reimer said there was no obvious or direct explanation available to new students. She went on to discuss the issue from the point of view of a family, full of members with different views and histories, being warmly welcomed at the same table.
“All of us who gather at the table of Goshen College know that our family has some things we do together based on our belief structure, while some things we push against in that belief structure,” Meyer Reimer said. “Usually we know why we do what we do, and it seems only respectful that at an institution that was founded by the Anabaptist Mennonite church, we would freely talk about and freely practice those beliefs that affect what we do.”
Meyer Reimer gave several other points of view, including noting the contradictions between Anabaptist theology and current understandings of nationalism and patriotism in the United States and the importance of ritual, such as prayer.
A matter of hospitality
Liechty, who was a member of the college’s National Anthem Task Force, shared his thoughts and opinions on why the college’s decision to play the anthem was a positive one.
“When I think about hospitality at Goshen College, I come to the conclusion that a Mennonite church and a Mennonite college, however closely related, are not the same thing,” he said. “And the immediately relevant difference is the roles in a Mennonite church and Mennonite college of people who are not Mennonite.”
Liechty explained that at a Mennonite church, while non-Mennonites would be welcomed as guests, there are limits on participation. At a college, however, he said all that is necessary is embracing or at least tolerating and respecting the core values.
“You are not a guest,” he said, “you are family.”
With that difference in mind, Liechty said the college has obligations to all its students, including those who are not Mennonite. That statement brings up questions, he said, of what voice those students have, what say they have in what decisions and how far should the desires of the college’s diverse student body be accommodated.
He boiled his argument down to three main issues — the burden of explaining the lack of the anthem at events was misplaced while left to the athletic department, that the anthem itself has no fixed or inherent meaning and that Goshen College’s peace culture is in “vibrant, good health.”
“We can afford this,” Liechty said. “We can afford to honor the desire of community members who want us to play the anthem. For those of us who have wanted not playing the anthem to be a witness in relation to militarism and nationalism, we will need to find other ways, and we can.”