Patriotism is love and loyal or zealous support for one's own country. At its best patriotism is an affirmation of neighbor and a sense of joy in a particular land, shared memory, and sense of peoplehood. For Mennonites, dogged by persecution in many generations and countries, patriotism is a relatively new sentiment. Those who have been liberated from a status as persecuted outcasts may react with lavish gratitude to the country which grants them toleration. Mennonites have observed how patriotism is often associated with freedom and independence.
Patriotism as loyal support for one's country was not a sentiment of the 16th-century Anabaptist forebears of today's Mennonites. Walter Klaassen, in an article titled, "The nature of the Anabaptist protest," says that the political protest of the Anabaptists consisted in their refusal to bear the sword to protect the state. This was viewed as treason. The punishment was death, and thousands of Anabaptists paid with their lives. Such was the meaning for them of giving their lives for their country. Many Anabaptists ignored territorial boundaries in pursuit of their sense of calling. When apprehended for crossing a state's border, they declared, "The earth is the Lord's."
Perhaps the persecution of one generation may seed the patriotism of the next. What compromises with the state will Christians make to avoid the sufferings of the past? Genuine appreciation for religious toleration can merge into uncritical obedience to the political powers which grant it. Mennonite immigrants who established colonies under benevolent dictators have illustrated this process over the centuries. The comfortable status of Mennonites in Canada and the United States today may also be an example of this.
For Christians, whose membership is in the church as a global community, patriotism poses inherent problems because it competes with loyalty to Christ and the church (nationalism). The Mennonite understanding of the biblical view of nation is best expressed in verses like Psalms 10:16: "The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land." The nations are viewed as temporary structures, passing away. Psalms 2:1-2 reflects the characteristic opposition of nations to God's sovereignty: "Why do the nations conspire and the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One" (New International Version).
Jesus expressed doubt about the actual status, or authority of heads of state when he said of them: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them," (Mark 10:42). These Scriptures strike the major biblical chord regarding country or nation, a chord which puts distance between God's people and the nations. Paul's call for submission to the authorities in Romans 13 is a minor chord in the total witness of Scripture.
The meaning of patriotism is severely tested in times of revolution. Which country (government, people) shall one love? In the American Revolution of the 1770s, most Mennonites asked a larger question: "How could they remain faithful to their pacifist understanding of the Christian gospel amid the emotionalism of wartime?" (MEA 1; Ruth, Seeding time)
But the subsequent wars of America found Mennonites divided over loyalty to government and loyalty to their pacifist (nonresistant) understanding of the gospel. In the late 1980s the Cold War against communism still fed on uncritical patriotism. Civil religion, prayer in school and in public ceremonies, the national flag in church buildings, the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and the celebration of the military fit the patriot's dream. Yet words of caution are issued by prophetic Mennonite and Brethren in Christ voices from time to time.
Mennonites in Canada during World War I found provincial governments seeking to use the schools to instill patriotic sentiments and foster Canadian nationalism. Later, as Hitler rose to power in Germany, some German Mennonite immigrants in Canada voiced support for his social reforms (Epp, Mennonites in Canada II, 548-56). Military conscription during wartime tested Mennonite loyalties. In recent years as Mennonites have gained recognition in all sectors of Canadian life, Canadian Mennonite patriotism has increased.
Among prosperous people the causes of patriotism are similar: reaction to persecution and avoidance of suffering, appreciation for comfortable circumstances and the desire for social acceptance. It may be argued that the great Mennonite outpouring of relief activity after World War II was in part an effort to demonstrate that Mennonites were good citizens and patriots. The consequences too are similar: muting the call for justice for the poor and oppressed, negating the peace witness and ignoring that the church is an international body.
The poignant cry of Hubert Brown, a black American Mennonite, may sum up the global challenge which patriotism poses for Mennonites and all Christians: "... somewhere along the way from Anabaptism to Mennonitism something drastic has taken place. In my estimation, it is our Mennonite incompatibility with the Anabaptist Christ. As a black Mennonite living in these times of painful oppression and exploitation, I have to wonder what kind of Christ we are serving. I want nothing to do with an American Christ, a blue-eyed white dude that affirms the values of a sick and fallen society. I don't trust the American Christ" (Black and Mennonite, 80).
Peachey, Urbane, ed. Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1980, esp. 5-9.
Kraybill, Donald B. Our Star-spangled Faith. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Redekop, John H. "Mennonites and Politics in Canada and the United States." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 79-105.
Klaassen, Walter. "The Nature of the Anabaptist Protest." Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971): 291-311.
MacMaster, Richard K. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790, The Mennonite Experience in America (MEA), vol. 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985: 229-80.
Ruth, John L. 'Twas Seeding Time. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940: a People's Struggle for Survival. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982: 543-92.
Brown, Hubert. Black and Mennonite: a Search for Identity. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Wiebe, Menno. "Mennonite Adaptation and Identity," in Call to Faithfulness: Essays in Canadian Mennonite studies, ed. Henry Poettcker and Rudy Regehr. Winnipeg: CMBC, 1972: 117-88.
Juhnke, James C. A People of Two Kingdoms. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975.
Lapp, John A. A Dream for America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
"Citizens and Disciples: Christian Essays on Nationalism." Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1974, 31pp.
Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1982, 63ff
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MLA style: Stoner, John K. and Robert S. Kreider. "Patriotism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P387ME.html.
APA style: Stoner, John K. and Robert S. Kreider. (1989). Patriotism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P387ME.html.