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Making peace about creation care, lifestyle changes, speech winner says

Sarah Balzer, first-place finisher in Bethel's 2018 C. Henry Smith Peace Oration contest

Bethel’s C. Henry Smith Peace Oration contest winner, Sarah Balzer, has a simple suggestion: Make peace through potlucks.

Balzer, a junior from Inman, Kansas, took first place in the annual event with “Environmental Inequalities in the Age of Plastics.”

Balzer began her speech with a quote from “eco-poet” Craig Santos Perez, who called plastic “the perfect creation because it never dies.”

“We have become so accustomed to the convenience plastic provides,” Balzer said, “that we don’t often think about where our trash goes after we toss it in the Dumpster.

“However, when we dig deeper, we see the immense environmental impact plastics can have, and how our overuse of plastics can be considered a form of violence.”

Balzer traced the journey of a plastic water bottle thrown into the trash.

Most likely it goes into a landfill, she said, where over time the chemicals that are harmless when bonded together begin to break down and leach, as toxins, into the soil and groundwater.

People who live closest to landfills come from populations that are disproportionately low-income and/or people of color, she noted.

If the bottle doesn’t go into a landfill, then it’s probably in the ocean, contributing to the huge garbage mass, twice the size of Texas, accumulating in the Pacific.

The plastic garbage interferes with fishing and the livelihoods of people with little else to fall back on, Balzer pointed out. They are responsible for killing vast numbers of marine animals, or ending up as toxins in their bodies, which again disproportionately affect the human populations who rely on these animals for food.

“By following the journey of the plastic water bottle we’ve tossed in the trash, we can see how, over time, the toxic substances used in plastic production can wind up on someone else’s plate, negatively impacting their overall well-being,” Balzer said.

“By crowning plastics as ‘perfect substance’ and creating a world in which throw-away culture is the norm, we have unintentionally contributed to the oppression of the poor, who are less able to combat the effects of pollution and environmental degradation.”

Balzer wound up her speech by saying that, in addition to being called to prevent direct physical violence and injustice, Christians are challenged to care for creation.

“When Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor,’ he did not simply mean ‘Do not kill your neighbor.’ Our Christian peace perspective calls us to not only to abstain from fighting, but to also to go beyond current societal norms, examining our own lives to find ways to prevent injustice and speak up for the oppressed- and combating environmental degradation is one way to do so.

“We cannot begin to solve the problem unless we quit contributing to it in the first place.”

While it’s necessary to “educate ourselves and others about the harmful effects of plastics” and advocate for policy changes such as plastic grocery bag bans, Balzer said, perhaps most important is to “change a few of our everyday habits, taking our reusable bags to the grocery store, refusing straws at restaurants or taking the time to do the dishes at family gatherings [and other potlucks] instead of using plastic utensils.

“Minimizing our contributions to plastic waste is one of the multitude of ways a few small changes in our everyday lives can help reduce inequality and injustice and promote shalom around the world.”

Only one other prize was awarded, second place to Victoria Riddick, freshman from Aztec, New Mexico, for a speech entitled “Finding Forgiveness in a Man I Never Knew,” about her recovery from the trauma of the day her best friend was killed in a school shooting.

At Bethel College, the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) sponsors the annual C. Henry Smith Peace Oration Contest.

Both students received cash awards. Balzer sent her manuscript and a DVD recording of her speech to Mennonite Central Committee headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania, to be judged against the winners from the other Mennonite and Brethren in Christ colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.