It’s nice to be a by-stander to controversy occasionally

I grew up Mennonite and graduated from Goshen College, a Mennonite school. While Mennonites are most familiar to larger American culture as people who have some strange habits and practices, especially with regard to dress and the like, in fact the branch of the tradition from which I come had abandoned most of those peculiarities by the time I came along. What it hadn’t abandoned was the central conviction that at the heart of the Gospel and Jesus’ ministry was a commitment to his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, especially the commitment to peace. What that meant was that young Mennonite men who were drafted in WWI and refused to bear arms were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth. By WWII, there were alternatives for conscientious objectors and many Mennonites did alternative service in mental hospitals, national parks, and the like. Mennonites have often been vilified by other Americans for their refusal to participate in America’s wars. This was especially true when the enemy was Germany, and many Mennonites still spoke German.

Goshen College recently made public its decision to play the National Anthem at athletic events for the first time in its 114-year history. To outsiders, it may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but in fact Goshen is one of the Mennonite Church’s key institutions and something of a bellwether. You can read about the decision here. There is an online petition here. It is a controversy that goes to the heart of Mennonite self-identity and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I left the Mennonite Church twenty years ago but retain deep affection for the tradition and have friendships with many Mennonites. My theology is shaped profoundly by the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition and my teachers at Goshen College. When I return to the church of my childhood and encounter contemporary evangelical style worship, I long for the four-part a capella hymns we used to sing and the simpler ways of forty years ago. In spite of the long journey I’ve traveled, I seem to want the church and college of my past to remain where they were, fixed in time and fixed theologically.

Such feelings are common. People who grew up Episcopalian and may only attend services on Christmas and Easter often tell me that they miss the language and liturgy of the 1928 prayer book. They expect and want the church of their childhood to remain what it was, in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

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