Demonstrations of protest and of support were passionate but peaceful Tuesday when a Mennonite college in Indiana played the national anthem for the first before a sports event.
Though debates over Goshen College’s decision to play the national anthem sparked strong sentiments from both sides in the days and weeks before the historic day, they remained – for the most part – civil.
That's not too surprising for a school whose founding denomination - Mennonite Church USA – is known for its pacifism.
"Goshen College is a special place,” the school’s president, Jim Brenneman, told the press Tuesday after the anthem was played for Goshen’s doubleheader against Siena Heights University.
“It's more than a college,” he continued. “It's an academic think tank, an international change agent, a Christ-centered, spirit-filled community, and it's home to a whole new kind of peace movement.”
Though some may find the controversy over the playing of the national anthem a trivial one, for Goshen College, it was a “complex issue.”
"The crux of the matter has to do with our relationship with God and with our country,” explained Brenneman. “We are asking ourselves such questions as: how should faithful Christians order their allegiances? How do we celebrate the freedoms and opportunities of this country and still challenge injustices that also exist in our midst? And how does a church college retain its historic peace heritage while welcoming an increasingly diverse student body from other traditions?”
Though Goshen College has maintained a distinctive Christian Mennonite environment since its founding in 1894 as the Elkhart Institute, today, only 55 percent of the students are Mennonite.
And so many on campus have no objection to flying the flag or playing the anthem.
Still, there are many students committed to pacifism whose parents or grandparents were conscientious objectors of Goshen’s decision and who grew up with a deep suspicion of patriotic observances.
Some faculty also stood against the decision, but were careful to "give witness to the loyal dissent" present on campus.
“We are deeply saddened by this decision and believe it is in significant tension with our Anabaptist identity and core values of Christ-centeredness, compassionate peacemaking, global citizenship, servant leadership and passionate learning,” wrote some 30 Goshen faculty members in a letter last month to the Goshen College President’s Council, which decided in January to allow the college's Athletic Department to play an instrumental version of the national anthem prior to some sporting events beginning in the spring.
“Although some of us signing this letter feel strongly that the decision should be reversed, we wish to focus our energies on balancing this new practice with ways we can engage others around our core values and ‘peace by peace’ distinctive,” they added, before offering some suggestions on how to ensure that Jesus’ teaching on peace remained at the forefront.
One suggestion, which was put into action Tuesday, was to follow up the anthem with a reading of the Prayer of St. Francis, which begins with asking the Lord to “make me an instrument of your peace.”
“In addition to the above proposal, we strongly affirm the Board of Overseers’ recent call for structured dialogue and prayerful discernment around differing viewpoints, and their plan to review this decision in June 2011,” the faculty added.
Having seen the response from both all sides of the debate, Goshen President Brenneman expressed gratitude to God on Tuesday for how things have turned out so far, saying that at the heart of making peace in this country and in the world is people’s ability to listen to each other and respect each other's views.
“I am committed to retaining the best of what it means to be a Mennonite college, while opening the doors wider to all who share our core values,” he said in conclusion. “And I invite others to join us at Goshen College as we make peace in all of its forms, even with the national anthem."
Presently, among the five colleges that the Mennonite Church USA provides denominational oversight to, three now play the national anthem before sports events – namely, Goshen College; Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio; and Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.
Two, meanwhile, still refuse to play the national anthem - Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and Hesston College in Hesston, Kan.
The 110,000-member Mennonite Church USA also provides oversight to two seminaries in the United States - Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and Eastern Mennonite Seminary on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University.
The Mennonite Church USA represents the largest group of Mennonite Christians in the United States.