Keeney Peace Lecture recap


Keeney Peace Lecturer focuses on the art of improvisation as a means to nonviolence

During the 2018 Keeney Peace Lecture on the campus of Bluffton University, Sarah Thompson, Generations Fellow at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, shared a call to action. “Whatever your major, make a commitment today to use your gifts in the service of peacemaking, lean into difficult problems, learn about what it means to decolonize the land and be ready for interruptions. Be ready for life to not go as planned, and let’s empathize together our way to a shared and simple sustainable future.”

As part of the lecture, Thompson updated the campus community on the state of nonviolence from Charlottesville to Congo to Cleveland and, along with Dr. Melissa Friesen, professor of theatre, utilized a piece of popular theatre to explain the importance of improvisation to peacemaking.

Starting with Congo, Thompson dedicated the lecture to her good friend MJ Sharp, a peacemaker and graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, who was killed while investigating human rights abuses for the United Nations. And, though the government of Congo is implicated in his death, Thompson reminded the crowd that what is happening in the Congo is directly connected staying connected in the United States.

“Those of us who are using devices (smart phones) that are filled with the rare minerals mined there are not too many steps away from his death. We are deeply connected both here in the tradition of Bluffton to the peacemaking aspect of what’s happening on our planet and to our complicity to the violence,” said Thompson.

Transitioning to Charlottesville, Thompson recalled the preparations that were made by nonviolent protestors to meet the white nationalist rally that turned deadly in August. The protestors, including clergy, community members and activists from outside of the area, had practiced what they would do as police kept the two groups separate. However, as Thompson explained, the police never came “The rules of the game all changed. They found that they had practice for one scenario but had to face another one.”

In Charlottesville, Thompson said, peacemakers listened to the local community and the people of color who were organizing for change. In Congo, MJ listened to the villagers and the displaced farmers, and in Ohio, “We’ve been listening to the impoverished people who are coming together to change our economic system. In Cleveland, it’s the impoverished people themselves who are coming together.”

And, out of necessity, Thompson highlighted the state of nonviolence in a fourth place that starts with “C.”

“I can’t leave without talking about Cape Town, South Africa. They are reaching a point, a day when all of the water dries up. They are currently on massive water reduction plans, but because of the wealth inequality, that just means those who are poor have even less access to water.

And she cautioned that this dire scenario is not the plight of a faraway land. It is a scenario she believes will reach the entire world within the next 15-20 years as the need for water in manufacturing and agriculture rises and the availability of freshwater decreases.

“What does peacemaking look like in a context of panic without water? This is the state in which we are asking you to be a peacemaker.”

She reminded the crowd that even celebrated peacemakers like Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t set out to change the world. Instead, he responded to a phone call from the women of the Montgomery Improvement Association and dealt with an issue that was right in front of him—the segregation of buses.

“So deal with what is right in front of you creatively and know that much of peacemaking is improvisation.” This point was highlighted during the middle of the presentation as Thompson was interrupted by a woman who was late to the lecture and seemed confused as she wandered to find a seat.

“Come in friend. Find a seat,” said Thompson. “I was just speaking to everybody about how, even though you can be prepared for things, the unpredictable happens. Our programs don’t need to go on uninterrupted. This is life.”

At the end of the presentation, it was revealed the woman who seemed to be acting out of the norm, was in fact theatre professor Melissa Friesen, who had concealed her identity.

Thompson explained, “In the state of nonviolence that we are in right now. We deal with a lot of unpredictability. We have to at a moment’s notice leave our abstract thoughts of the academy and deal with what’s in front of us and by dealing with what is in front of us, we change the world.”

Bluffton’s Keeney Peace Lectureship was established in 1978 by the family of William Sr. and Kathryn Keeney to express appreciation for Bluffton’s influence and to strengthen the continuing peace witness among the community.


Sarah Thompson