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A unifying thread: Duane Friesen looks back at 35 years of teaching and scholarship

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- When fall classes begin this year, for the first time in the memory of many at Bethel College, there will be a certain face missing from campus. Duane Friesen, professor of Bible and religion and holder of the Edmund G. Kaufman Chair in Religion, has retired after 35 years at Bethel.

However, a glance at Duane Friesen’s biography shows he won’t "disappear" from Bethel as quickly as all that. His father, Waldo H. Friesen, attended Bethel College in the 1930s. His mother, Linda Zielke, "desperately wanted to," Duane says, but there was no money for it in the midst of the Depression. However, she did participate in a communal Messiah sing at the college, where she met Waldo Friesen.

Seven of Waldo Friesen’s eight siblings and 16 of the 17 Friesen first cousins attended Bethel. Duane, who graduated from Bethel in 1962, met his wife, Liz (Voth), at Bethel. Both of their daughters (Anne and Sara) and sons-in-law (Brett Birky and Brad Guhr) are Bethel graduates. Duane’s only sibling, Larry Friesen, is a Bethel graduate (1967) and has been on the social work faculty since 1983.

By rights, Duane Friesen should never have come to Bethel College to teach. In the winter of 1969-70, he had graduated from Mennonite Biblical Seminary and was finishing his ThD at Harvard Divinity School.

Says his former teaching colleague and Goessel Hall dorm-mate Jim Juhnke, professor of history at Bethel from 1967-2003, "Duane could have taken a position with a much higher salary in a more prestigious university. He could have carried the Anabaptist-Mennonite dialogue into a wider context, as his role models Gordon Kaufman and Vincent Harding were doing beyond Mennonite enclaves."

More to the point, perhaps, was Bethel College’s dire financial straits in the late ’60s and early ’70s. "There was no opening, no slot, for me on the faculty at Bethel," Duane remembers. "Western District Conference was meeting to look at contingency plans that included possibly shutting down the college. But somehow the academic dean, Bill Keeney, managed it."

Duane told Jim Juhnke he thought he’d stay at Bethel "only a few years." At the same time, however, Duane was "a young scholar...possessed by a powerful vision for what he called ‘the role of the Christian intellectual in the institutional (Mennonite) church,’" Jim says.

That unwavering vision was almost certainly one reason that "a few" years turned into 35. But there were other factors, too.

The young Friesen family, by now including two small daughters, found other like-minded faculty families at Bethel. Some of them even considered for a time building a loosely organized intentional community in North Newton close to the campus, near property where Duane and Liz Friesen’s home stands today.

"By the 1973-74 school year, our kids were involved in school and Liz was working on her master’s degree in education from Wichita State University," Duane remembers. "We were involved at Bethel College Mennonite Church and we were building a house because we hadn’t found one we wanted to buy."

"You’re looking for more than a job," Liz adds. "You’re looking for a community."

In addition, "those were heady days" at Bethel, Duane says. He was closely involved in getting a Peace Studies program started as well as a Peace Lectureship--forerunner of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, or KIPCOR, which still sponsors the Peace Lectures. Internationally known Christian peacemakers such as Dorothy Day and Phillip Berrigan were eating meals at the Friesen table.

"I discovered that one could be at Bethel College in this little town of North Newton and have contacts with people all around the world," Duane says. "I probably met and interacted with more people here than I would have at a large university. It was a surprisingly cosmopolitan community."

This kind of "interdisciplinary intellectual interaction" has been a hallmark of Duane Friesen’s entire career at Bethel College. "My writing and research has tended to be broad and interdisciplinary--of course, the down side of that is it can be scattered, not focused," he says. "In a small department, you teach in broad areas. You’re spread widely and enriched by many disciplines.

"The Peace Studies aspect has been a unifying thread for me--the Anabaptist emphasis on peace and peacemaking--because my discipline, Christian social ethics, is inherently interdisciplinary."

It’s not surprising, then, that when Duane Friesen is asked what might be his biggest disappointment over 35 years, he looks at the academic program review of 2004-05, one of the results of which was changing peace studies from a major to a minor (Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies).

But Duane’s sense of accomplishment and his gratitude for his 3½ decades at Bethel College far outweigh the disappointments.

"One big hope--but is it an accomplishment?--is that you made a difference in the lives of students," Duane says. "I do know that [former students] are out there doing significant things. But you have to be humble. You think your ideas as so significant but there are multiple influences on people’s lives. You just hope you contributed to the way people think about peace and nonviolence."

To hear some of Friesen’s former students tell it--and given that he was instrumental in making Basic Issues of Faith and Life one of two classes that every person who graduates from Bethel College will take, there are many of them--Duane Friesen’s teaching has been a major accomplishment.

Patty Shelly, professor of Bible and religion, came to Bethel College as a student in the fall of 1970, when Duane was beginning his tenure as a college professor, "so you might say we were freshmen together," she reflects.

In 1985, when she was the "novice assistant professor" joining Duane on the Bible and religion faculty at Bethel, "it seemed the most natural and easiest thing to do to join Duane in the department," she says, "a testimony to the same collegiality and openness I first experienced from Duane as a student."

Jim Juhnke recalls meeting a student on the sidewalk just coming from one of Duane’s seminars. "He was bubbling with excitement over the readings and ideas he was encountering in that class," Jim says. At a farewell dinner honoring Duane, in late May, Patty Shelly read these words from a former student: "May ‘God’s house’ [Bethel] always have teachers like you."

At the same dinner, Duane and Liz’s daughter, Sara Friesen-Guhr, said, "The connections [my sister and I and our spouses] have had to Bethel College have been instrumental in shaping our lives and the lives of many people, whether that was through classes we took from Dad or through the way he truly integrates faith, life and learning--because who you are and what you do are not separate."

Duane Friesen may be best known in the Mennonite church in North America (and worldwide) as the author of Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict (1989) and Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (2000). "Had Duane had the resources and leisure of a genuine think tank [which he once dreamed of forming at Bethel College], I suspect he would have written a dozen or more books by now," says Jim Juhnke.

Duane looks forward to his latest published work coming off the press this fall--At Peace and Unafraid: Public Order, Security and the Wisdom of the Cross, a collection of essays edited with Gerald Schlabach. The book is the result of a 2½-year project sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee in the United States and Canada that draws on the scholarship, experience and insights of Mennonites from around the world, including Colombia and Indonesia.

He’d like to write about "the interface between theology and science, ecology and environmental issues," and perhaps return to "some issues from my dissertation on the relationship between church and culture." And he would like to do something both theologically and autobiographically reflective, that his four grandchildren could one day read in order to learn about both him and his ideas.

"There’s still a course I’d like to teach," Duane says, "something on the interaction of theology and literature."

No doubt about it--Duane Friesen may be retired, but he isn’t nearly done yet.

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