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  • Lane Shaffer, Staff Writer

34th annual Salem Peace Lecture: Celebrating activists and discussing intersectionality

Photo by Lucy Devlaeminck

On Oct. 18, 2023, Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis gave the 34th annual Salem Peace Lecture titled “Peace, Peace When There Is No Peace: Addressing Poverty, Racism and Militarism from the Bottom Up.” She was accompanied on stage by two anti-death penalty activists and a slew of peace-related community organizations.

Theoharis has a long list of accolades and titles from her lifetime of work organizing in low-income communities, including being the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary; co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival; a recipient of the Children’s HealthWatch Champion Award in 2022 and a published author. According to Willamette Chaplain Ineda Pearl Adesanya, Theoharis is a “contemporary champion for human and civil rights.”

She traveled from New York to speak at Willamette for the Salem Peace Lecture, which has brought peace activists and local organizations together in the name of honoring activists’ work and creating thought-provoking conversations about non-violence, harmony and justice. This lecture was especially poignant as it came in the midst of a crisis between Israel and Palestine, genocide in Armenia, war between Ukraine and Russia and a cold war against China, according to Theoharis.

She spoke for about half an hour, invoking teachings from Martin Luther King Jr. and preaching nonviolence in the face of great tragedy and war. Her speech was preceded by an award for Salem Peacemaker of the Year, given to activists Ron Steiner and Frank Thompson, which set the tone for the night: the sanctity of life. Steiner and Thompson have both worked relentlessly to abolish the death penalty both locally and nationally. “Abolishing the death penalty is a bit like farming redwoods: it just takes a long time,” Steiner remarked in his acceptance speech.

Theoharis took over after the awards, citing scripture to make some of her points: “Jeremiah 6 says, ‘From the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain. From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They dress the wounds of my people as if they’re not serious. Saying, ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace,’” she read, holding back tears. “I’ve quoted this passage for many years to discuss how our society failed in how we dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve quoted it to speak to the racial reckoning and police killing of Black and Indigenous people, to the crisis of our democracy, the biggest attack we’re seeing since the civil war. I’ve quoted this passage to talk about the poor, the poverty, racism, dispossession, the inadequacy of charity. But as I quote it before you this evening, war rages.”

Theoharis has extensive experience doing this work and noted that in times when there is so much violence and uncertainty, it can be helpful to return to past leaders for knowledge. “I turn to the study of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and especially the way that he connected poverty and racism and war,” she said. “In those last years of his life, and even before that, King suggested that an intersectional approach to these tripartite evils was necessary.”

A wide variety of advocacy and community organizations dedicated to peace and justice also joined the event, tabling outside and sharing their own thoughts on the death penalty, healthcare for all and restorative justice, among other things.

One advocate, Rose Hope, who is a part of the Healthcare for All Oregon initiative and was an event partner, has attended many prior peace lectures and said that, “[They] keep us in touch with the broader scope of issues beyond the Salem/Oregon/Northwest area.” Hope grew up during the Vietnam War era and has been involved in peace advocacy ever since.

Some students also attended the event. Inéz Nieves (‘24) is a PPLE and History major with a strong interest in genocide studies, which initially drew her to the event. “The biggest thing I gleaned was about the centrality of peace in transforming society,” Nieves began. “A lot of times, when we think about resisting oppression we think about the necessity of violence in certain aspects, and I think [Theoharis] really pushed back against that and challenged that idea.”

Theoharis concluded with a call to action to push back against that oppression and encourage nonviolence: “I’m here to invite you to keep on staying involved in this mighty movement. To join a moral uprising. To have faith that we can take action together because we are a new and unsettling force and we are powerful.”

Nieves noted that the one thing missing from the event was more Willamette students—most of the crowd was on the older side, but she recommended that everyone take the opportunity to attend future events.

If you were unable to attend this Peace Lecture or are interested in more, there are other speaker events that will come up throughout the year, including the film screening and discussion of “Murer: Anatomy of a Trial” with director Christian Frosch on Monday, Oct. 23.

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