July 4 and Mennonites

Dear Rebecca:

Do you celebrate July 4?

That’s a question I don’t think will compute for many of our non-Mennonite readers. But our church has a long history of eschewing patriotism, particularly where it curdled into militarism — the folks I grew up with in Central Kansas were descended from people who (in the popular telling) had fled from Germany to Russia to avoid fighting in German wars, then Russia to America to avoid being conscripted into Russian wars. Back in World Wars I and II, those folks had grown extremely unpopular: People with German names — a lot of them still spoke the language, assimilating slowly — wouldn’t take up arms against the Krauts! It wasn’t a popular position.

The manifestations of that theology remain unpopular in the broader culture. A few years ago, a conservative talk show host aroused popular anger against Goshen College because it didn’t play the national anthem prior to sporting events. “It is, after all, about a military battle (“bombs bursting in air,” etc.), and some Mennonites believe that any expression of patriotism, placing love of country above love of God, risks idolatry,” the New York Times reported. “Countries rise and fall; the message of Jesus is supposed to be eternal.” Goshen briefly backed down, but ultimately settled on playing a different, less bombastic song, “America the Beautiful.”

(Editor’s note: The second verse of “America the Beautiful” might sound familiar, thematically, in a lot of Mennonite churches:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

Mennonites have that pilgrim heritage, after all. And oh, how they love self-control!)

Anyway: Independence Day, when this country’s leaders decided to launch a rebel war against their British masters, is unavoidably militaristic. The fireworks!

So: Do you celebrate?

Me? Yes. Ish.

Let me tell a story. It’s one I’ve told publicly before, but it’s kind of a touchstone for me, and so it is here.

Within a few weeks of 9/11, I got in my car and started driving to New York. History was happening, and I’d become a journalist because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. So I drove cross-country on my own. I stopped to talk with people who live outside Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where B-2 bombers were flying attack missions to Afghanistan; I stopped at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana to visit friends and write a story about how pacifists were dealing with events; I visited the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed, and sat in a mortuary with the overwhelmed county coroner, sitting in his socks as he dazedly recounted his efforts of recent weeks.

And then I ended up in the city. I saw what was left of the Twin Towers, saw smoke still rising from the wreckage, and … smelled it.

More importantly, I talked with people who’d experienced the day. Most importantly, I was taken to meet a Puerto Rican family in their home – a tiny apartment where they’d raised their family, and was given lime-flavored coffee to drink while we talked, while the mother of the family talked about watching the Towers come down.

The trip made me love America, but not in a defensive how dare they attack us! way. Driving by myself and covering only the northeast quarter of the country, I’d gotten a taste of how much bigger and more diverse this country is than my Kansas upbringing had allowed me to see. Within a few years, I’d be raising a family in a tiny Philadelphia apartment, even smaller than the place I’d been hosted.

July 4 is problematic for Mennonites for reasons I listed before, and for liberals who don’t hate America, but do want to temper pride with humility, a recognition that the good things we have were often obtained through sinful, destructive means like slavery and Jim Crow and theft of the land from its original owners. And this year, let’s face it, for a lot of us this country seems a bit uglier and meaner than it did a year ago. It’s hard to feel celebratory.

But Mennonites also do community very well. It’s one reason I love them. (And they don’t do it without problems of their own either, as you well know.)

So on July 4, I will go and spend time with friends. We will eat food and my kid will play with their kids. I will enjoy the community I’ve created, and love that America contains so many different kinds of communities, and I will celebrate that as our strength.

We are large. We contain multitudes. That is my July 4.

Sincerely, Joel

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that July 4 is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. It makes the day more complicated for me,  the need to spend time in community even more precious. FWIW.

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