Anabaptists and the Star-Spangled Banner

(CNN Belief Blog/Getty Images)

This article from CNN’s Belief Blog is getting a lot of play on my Facebook news feed this morning, especially among some of my Brethren in Christ and Mennonite friends, so I thought I’d share it on the blog.

In many ways, this editorial — written by a Mennonite pastor — is a follow-up to a story that the search for piety and obedience covered some time ago: Goshen College’s decision to allow the Star-Spangled Banner to play at selected sporting events. This Mennonite institution, which had never before played the anthem during its 116-year history, has since overturned its earlier decision.

Here’s a taste of the CNN Belief Blog post:

Because they understood the exercise of state power to be inconsistent with the church’s identity and mission, Anabaptists also advocated for the strict separation of church and state. This then-radical stance was prompted by both theology and necessity: Anabaptists had the distinct notoriety of being tortured and killed by both Catholics and Protestants wielding the power of the state against them.

Instead of compromising their core convictions about what it means to follow Jesus, thousands of Anabaptist men and women adhered to their freedom of conscience even as they were mocked by neighbors, burned at stakes and drowned in rivers.

Although there certainly are diverse viewpoints among individual Mennonites today, we continue to advocate for the strict separation of church and state. Most Mennonite churches do not have flags inside them, and many Mennonites are uncomfortable with the ritual embedded in the singing of the national anthem.

That’s because we recognize only one Christian nation, the church, the holy nation that is bound together by a living faith in Jesus rather than by man-made, blood-soaked borders.

To Mennonites, a living faith in Jesus means faithfully living the way of Jesus. Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies and he loved his enemies all the way to the cross and beyond. Following Jesus and the martyrs before us, we testify with our lives that freedom is not a right that is granted or defended with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air. True freedom is given by God, and it is indeed not free. It comes with a cost, and it looks like a cross.

He concludes:

. . . the world cannot know of its brokenness and hopelessness without a people who show a holistic way of life. The world cannot know that there is an alternative to violence and war without a people of peace making peace. The world cannot know that the weak and the vulnerable are cared for by God without a people practicing an economy centered on sharing and mutual aid.

The world cannot know the unsurpassable worth of human life without a people who consistently work to protect it – in the fetus, in the convict, in the immigrant, in the soldier, and in the enemy.

These convictions do not reflect ingratitude or hatred for our country. Rather, they reflect a deep love for the church and a passionate desire for the church to be the church.

Read the whole post here.

Readers: How do you respond to this pastor’s statements? Do you sing the Star-Spangled Banner and/or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Do you think that Christians can/should participate in such nation-glorifying rituals?

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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7 Responses to Anabaptists and the Star-Spangled Banner

  1. Ken Fretz says:

    As a youngster B.I.C., growing up in Canada, the topic was discussed. We were told that the American National Anthem glorified war,,,”The bombs bursting in air, etc.” And yet, I understand Francis S. Key was a Christian man. I suspect American readers know the story better than I! We, in Canada, of course, our proud (?) of our Anthem, as in one stirring phrase we sing, “God keep our land, glorious and free”. So I suppose it is up to the individual and what country he (she) is in, as to whether or not they participate. Personally. I sing both anthems with gusto, while the Jehovah Witness sat by, emotionless.

  2. In addition to the church/state question in this story from Goshen, there’s also one about board governance. Sadly, this is a not-so-happy case study of a board that apparently didn’t think deeply enough about a decision before making it and now has made a reverse face. Hopefully this time around, the board’s decision was based on a more careful analysis than what appears to have happened in January.

  3. R. Aubrey Hawton says:

    Just curious about Messiah College’s anthem position. Anybody know if there is one?

    • Greg Starr says:

      I graduated from Messiah in 1998. I can’t speak to current practice. My recollection is that recorded instrumental music of the national anthem was played before sporting events, but the words were not sung.

  4. Karen D. says:

    Personally, I do not sing the national anthem nor do I say the pledge of allegiance or place my hand over my heart when others are doing so. I stand there respectfully, but I will not say words I cannot back up. Pledging allegiance to a flag implies a willingness or promise to do something to defend my country. Since I am not willing to bear arms to defend my country, I should not pledge to do so.

    Personally, I would not be part of a congregation that displayed a flag up front. The issue comes up from time to time when someone wants to donate an American flag in memory of a friend or relative. Our pastor has answered saying that we are a peace church, and we believe in the separation of church and state. We also believe in the concept of the worldwide Christian Church. Therefore, when we are celebrating Missions Day or something like that, and if there is a display of all the flags of the world, or all the flags of the countries BICWM has churches, then those flags are displayed. But for a church to single out one flag from one country (the US) and display it prominently at the front of the church implies that our country is greater than other countries and that the country is more important than the church as a worldwide brotherhood.

    I also do not believe in the use of the “Christian Flag” because of the horrors of the wars that have been fought “in the Christian cause” over the course of history. The Crusades were fought, in the name of Christ, centuries ago, but the resentment and hatred that resulted from those conflicts and conquests are still deeply ingrained, with the result that wars with anti and pro-Christian sides are still fought in many nations today.

  5. Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

    @Ken & Rebekah: Thanks for your comments. Insightful!

    @Karen: You echo my own sentiments on this matter, on the flags-in-church matter, and on the Christian flag matter. When Katie and I were deciding what chapel/sanctuary we would use for our ceremony, I made it pretty clear that I was not willing to be married in a church building that would place the American flag on the platform. It’s not the kind of image I want ingrained in my memories, or in our wedding photographs — especially since, like you, I could not be part of a fellowship that would allow such an image in the worship space.

    @Aubrey: Greg’s comment reflects my own experiences at Messiah (I’m a 2009 grad). My wife remembers occasions on which a vocals-version of the anthem was played; my quick search of the college webpage reveals several news articles indicating that campus music groups sang the anthem before some special sporting events. Can you imagine some of our plain brothers and sisters singing the national anthem at the old Bible School? 🙂

  6. Elaine Reed says:

    All very interesting! My husband and I go to a church that is not BIC. Our ministers and many of our members are not happy with an Am. flag in the sanctuary, so it is relegated to a corner. A number of our members are very active in peace activities. The flag is used only when a scout group that we sponsor has a presentation. The congregation seeks to be serve all peoples. My sister and I have always groaned when there is a lot of patriotism on July 4th at the churches that we attended. But would a different national anthem help?

    The situation is not easy. One can serve as a medic even if they are anti-war. These comments are a little off topic, but one thing that really hurts me is that our economy encourages mothers to serve in the armed forces.

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