Anabaptists and Anthems: The Moral Failure of the Mennonite Church (Update II)

Posted: 12 April 2010 in Faith and Life
Tags: , , , , ,

I noted elsewhere (scroll down to see the 18 February, 2010 entry) my near despair about the fact that Goshen College–a Mennonite institution in Goshen, IN had decided to play the national anthem at sports events on campus.  I wrote:

For newer Anabaptists like me this is a grave error.  Some of us from outside the Mennonite tradition have spent many painful years extricating ourselves from the enthrall of the state. We have journeyed a lonely path out of a destructive cult that still traps too many of our kin. We have found liberation from a significant “power” of this world… (I)t causes me great sorrow to see Goshen embracing “moloch” in this way. Doesn’t Goshen realize what it is playing with here? I suspect it does not. I suspect that too many don’t really believe that the state is a spiritual power bent on becoming a god…

(Update note: based on the comment of a friend please allow me to clarify this last comment: I do NOT believe the state is completely evil nor that followers of Jesus should reject any interaction with it.  I believe God “orders” all governments to provide for justice so that God’s work on earth can be accomplished.  In other words, the state has a God given function and followers of Jesus, far from avoiding the state, should challenge it to be what it is meant to be.  However, in its “fallenness” the state does things that God never intended–including seeking allegiance to itself–and it is to that I am referring in this comment.)

A group called “Jesus Radicals” launched an online petition to try to persuade Goshen to reconsider.  Just after Easter representatives of the group visited Goshen and presented 1260 signatures from people all over the world who called upon Goshen to change its mind on this matter.

While many people might consider this to be a minor skirmish in the backwaters of an obscure Christian sect (the Mennonites number less than half a million in North America), it is interesting to see the religious diversity represented among those who signed the petition.  Many of them signed merely because they wanted the Mennonites to “be who they are” rather than try to seek some vague sense of “relevance” by showing an openness vis-a-vis the nationalistic demands of this nation (Goshen leaders spoke of playing the anthem as a means to show “hospitality” to non-Anabaptists…as if this is an effective means to do so).  Anabaptists–represented in this case by the Mennonites–have traditionally understood their commitment to Christ to trump all other allegiances and have refused, under pain of death in bygone days, to bow the knee to the state (Even as they sought to live peaceably and humbly as honest citizens. Mennonites follow closely the teaching of Jesus and seek to live lives committed to the way of non-violence).

Several people who signed the petition come from the Catholic tradition, and one of them, William Cavanaugh has recently articulated how nationalism (as embodied in traditions like singing the national anthem) is a religion.  It is sad (and sadly ironic) that non-Mennonites are providing moral leadership to the Mennonite Church on this matter.  Listen to an excerpt from Cavanaugh’s recent interview with Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio.  The interview concerns a book that Cavanaugh recently published entitled The Myth of Religious Violence and in the excerpt he is describing the theological import of the book.

The reasons for the abdication of Anabaptist theology by the Mennonite Church (and by extension Mennonite institutions like Goshen) are not hard to understand.  The church has become a largely middle class entity within America and its members are often more “culturally” Mennonite than truly Anabaptist by faith conviction.  The idea of allegiance to Jesus is troubling to some because such ideas acknowledge Jesus’ “lordship” and the primacy of his “kingdom”–concepts freighted with patriarchal language with which many “progressive” Mennonites are not at all comfortable.  Others have accepted the Augustinian argument that it is, at times, necessary for the state to kill in order to save my “neighbor” from a greater evil. Mennonites in this camp have little trouble accepting the imperative of a strong state and have little problem honoring it for keeping them secure.

Much more needs to be said on these matters but it is clear that Goshen (and the broader Mennonite church which refuses to condemn its actions) does not understand the implication of what allegiance to Jesus implies: that one cannot show allegiance to two sovereigns–in this case to both God and Caesar.  If it did it would not play the dangerous game it is playing.

William Stringfellow, another non-Mennonite, named the problem current-day Mennonite leaders are facing nearly 30 years ago in his landmark work An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land when he wrote:

What is most crucial…is the failure of moral theology, in the American context, to confront the principalities–the institutions, systems, ideologies, and other political and social powers–as militant, aggressive, and immensely influential creatures in this world as it is…
Americans–including professed Christians, who have biblical grounds to be wiser–remain, it seems, astonishingly obtuse about these powers.

Stringfellow–and Cavanaugh–understand better than Mennonite leaders today do that the state is a power–one bent on achieving absolute allegiance to itself–like a god.  My hope is that Mennonites–led by Goshen–will abandon the “need” for relevance, stop pursuing the way of “peace” because it is the progressive thing to do or simply because it is, in some vague way, “what our parents were committed to”, and rediscover the radical reformation for which their forebears died.  My desire is that they will rediscover the importance of allegiance to Jesus and reject the need to “matter” in the midst of the demonic empire into which they have been born.

Update: Go here to see another example of how “non-Mennonites” are leading the way to recapture an authentic radical Anabaptist way of living.  Looking forward to reading this book.

  1. elrig says:

    Great text and summary Robb.
    Just one thing – because I think I know what you mean and what you don’t mean.

    You say: “the state is a spiritual power bent on becoming a god…”
    I think I agree but in these days of tea party mixed with jesus war mongering, people can make the wrong association.

    Readers may be confused into thinking that:
    (1) you condemn the state in all things, maybe ready to embrace the anything-but-the-state of the extreme neo-liberal right. (And I don’t think that’s your intent.)
    (2) any cooperation and work with the state — including by pushing for just and ‘kingdom inspired’ policies — has to be avoide.
    Once again, I think you’re condemning the subjection to a nationalistic ideal as a power demanding to be god, but I don’t think you are condemning taking our place and doing our work within a system, such as it is.

    Am I right?


  2. Brian Gumm says:

    Hi Robb; I was given your blog address by a co-worker at the CJP (where I’m also a student there, and at EMS). Your incorporation of Cavanaugh got me all worked up. His “Myth of Religious Violence” is sitting on my shelf and is high on my summer reading list (and Murray’s book also intrigues me, but it might have to wait longer). I’ve been wrestling with how things such as nationalism you discuss here might be playing out in my tradition, the Church of the Brethren. Anyway, thanks for a great post. You quickly made my blogroll.

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