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First-place speech challenges church on speaking truth to power

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College recently completed its round of the C. Henry Smith Peace Oration competition.

“This year’s contestants offered a very strong field,” said Kirsten Zerger, director of education and training for the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, which sponsors the event at Bethel each year.

Arthur Kauffman, senior from Burgettstown, Pa., gave Bethel’s winning speech, which he titled “Beyond Speaking Truth to Power: New Possibilities in Enacting Social Change.”

Kauffman used the progress and ultimate defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the birth of the Occupy movement in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, which both occurred in fall 2011, to describe new ways of “speaking truth to power” – not by appealing for change to the “regime” in power (which would only legitimate it) but rather by itself epitomizing “true democracy.”

Kauffman argued that even though the church – and particularly Anabaptism – seems well-equipped for this alternative way of speaking truth to power, it has been largely ineffective.

This is mostly because the church has been content to define peace as the absence of conflict – and “the absence of conflict nearly always signals an unjust power dynamic in play,” he said.

“If … we do benefit from a peace that protects us, how do we avoid becoming the oppressor?” Kauffman said. “One way is to be patient and intentional about hearing voices that disturb the peace or feel threatening to us.

“When peace becomes an achievable end-goal rather than a generative, evolving and living ethos,” he concluded, “we need to closely examine who peace benefits and who it harms. It’s only then that we can speak truth to power in a brave and effective way.”

Second-place finisher Aaron Rudeen, senior from Osage City, Kan., spoke about the importance of “engagement,” based on a statement he heard Barack Obama make in his second inaugural address this past January: “Engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

“The engagement he spoke of was not in reference to military action and occupation, nor a boast of the prowess of our army,” Rudeen said. “Instead, the message that rang out over the crowds gathered at the steps of the U.S. Capitol building was a message of peace.”

The president noted that “by engaging with others and forming relationships, we are better equipped to resolve differences peacefully.

“If we engage those around us, adversary or otherwise, at home and abroad,” Rudeen concluded, “the process of working towards universal peace will become a reality, and not just something to give orations about.”

Renee Reimer’s third-place speech, “The Sacredness of Humanity,” came out of her experience of Maundy Thursday communion this past Lent in light of the musical she had directed at Bethel College Mennonite Church, a junior version of Godspell, only a few days earlier.

Jesus, said the senior from Sioux Falls, S.D., “is a symbol for peacemaking and loving others for who they are. … This man changed the world. He put others before himself and cared about the sacredness of humanity.”

Love and kindness make up the way to peace, Reimer said.

“[Kindness] is the answer to all of my prayers of wanting a better world to grow up in. A world where guns are not necessary. Where war is in the past because talking over a cup of tea has begun to solve all of the world’s problems.

“Don’t try to tell me that this isn’t possible, because I [have] faith that this world can, and will, be a better, peaceful place, if we are all kind.”

Kauffman will now send a DVD recording of his speech to Mennonite Central Committee headquarters in Akron, Pa., where it will be judged against the first-place winners from the other Mennonite and Brethren in Christ colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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