Photo courtesy of Vada Snider

Jacob Miller, a graduate of Bethel College, took first place in the 2017 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest for his speech entitled, “Mennonite’s [sic] Protest of the U.S. National Anthem Lacks Inclusivity of the Black Community: A Call to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’”

Jacob Miller, a recent graduate of Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, won the 2017 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest administered by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S.

Miller’s speech, “Mennonite’s [sic] Protest of the U.S. National Anthem Lacks Inclusivity of the Black Community: A Call to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’” prompts Mennonites to include race in discussions of peace. He also encouraged Mennonites to recognize the violence inherent in nationalist songs, such as “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“On September 1, 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (who is now a free agent) took the knee heard ’round the world to bring light to social injustices facing Black Americans in contemporary times,” Miller wrote in his speech.

In his speech, he says that although some Mennonite educational institutions do not perform the national anthem before sporting events, they’re missing the connection with race.

“Rarely is Mennonites’ opposition to the anthem rooted in the continued violence of unequal systems that disenfranchise the black community,” says Miller. He was a communications and literary studies major at Bethel at the time of the contest, and now is a graduate student in communications at Kansas State University.

“The why behind the protest matters,” he says. “So, today we must first, look to how Mennonites decrying the anthem generally glosses over the black community’s history of oppression, and second, reintroduce the official black national anthem that Mennonite institutions should play,” he adds. The anthem he refers to is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is hymn number 579 in Hymnal: A Worship Book.

“Matthew 5:9 says ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ but activism without inclusion is not peace; it’s injustice.”

Miller, who is from Westmoreland, Kansas, and is part of Manhattan (Kansas) Mennonite Church, received a cash prize of $500 and a $300 scholarship to a peace-related conference or seminar of his choice. He came in third in the contest in 2015 for his speech, “For the Sake of Peace, Please Remember that Not All Terrorists are Muslim.”

Hannah Meek-Boll, an Eastern Mennonite University student from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, took second place for her speech, “What is Your Intention?” Meek-Boll received $225 in cash and a $200 scholarship. Her home congregation is Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.

Canadian Mennonite University student Marnie Klassen, from Abbotsford, B.C., came in third with a speech entitled, “Filtering Dispositions: Water Pollution in Canada.” Klassen, whose home congregation is Highland Community Church, received $150 in cash and a $200 scholarship.

The C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest is open to all students of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ colleges in Canada and the U.S. To be considered in this year’s contest, speeches must have applied a peace theme to contemporary concerns.

Directors of the C. Henry Smith Trust established the contest in 1974 in honor of the late C. Henry Smith, a Mennonite historian and professor at Goshen (Ind.) College and Bluffton (Ohio) College (now Bluffton University). Participating colleges host individual campus contests, usually during the spring semester of the academic year. Then the judges choose the top three speeches from the winners of each campus contest.

This year, three judges — Titus Peachey, former MCC U.S. peace coordinator, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Janna Hunter-Bowman, assistant professor of peace studies and Christian ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana; and Paul Heidebrecht, director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario — chose the winners.