At the intersection of 44th Street and 1st Avenue in New York City, directly across the street from the United Nations (UN) Headquarters, stands a 12-story building called “The Church Center.” This building is home to dozens of offices—most of them church affiliated—joined in a particular witness to and engagement with United Nations officials. In one of these small, humble, cubicle-like offices you will find Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Focused predominantly on advocacy, the three to four staff members emphasize making connections with MCC partners working on the grassroots level, allowing them to strategically relay context-specific stories to ambassadors and diplomats. In addition, there is a strong emphasis on relationship building with high level officials from all around the world. These examples of engagement stand in stark contrast to the powerful culture that reverberates through the UN’s walls and the city streets nearby. This office attempts to embody a confession and conviction of nonviolent peacebuilding and justice work.
The MCC UN advocacy office was envisioned and came to fruition in 1998. Continuing on a historical trajectory away from being “the quiet in the land” to a more action-oriented faith brought with it new realities and concerns that Mennonites and their communities had to face. Indeed, the way in which Mennonites were now dialoguing in society was wrought with debate – and still is. How can we speak out in political discourse without neglecting Christ: our one, firm foundation?
Questions like the one above have been addressed by a numbers of Mennonite theologians. John Howard Yoder talked about middle axioms. Political ethicist and theologian Ted Koontz has noted that the acculturation process Mennonites have embarked on has been one of the greatest enemies of those committed to a pacifist faith. Offering a corrective, he proposes that Anabaptists be fluent in two languages: first, the language of theology and faith; second, the language of public policy. Peace studies practitioner-scholar Janna Hunter-Bowman has suggested that Christian churches and organizations ought to have a flexible relationship with the state. This notion describes the ability of a political entity to exist independently from the state; intersecting with it without being consumed by it. In what follows, I wish to reflect on aspects of both Koontz and Hunter-Bowman’s theologies that I see bolstering the witness of the MCC UN office and ultimately the church.
Those working in MCC’s UN office have not only been able to find allies by speaking their first language in The Church Center, but learning the second language of public policy has allowed their voices to be heard, known, and respected in differing capacities across the street. They articulate their visions of peace regarding migration, food justice, and demilitarization in ways that allow for documents such as the Global Compact for Migration to come to fruition. They embody the notion of Matthew 5:44 by going out to lunch with ambassadors that top UN officials wouldn’t dream of. But at the end of the day, they don’t get press or name recognition – nor do they allow the UN’s agenda to co-opt theirs. They attempt to stay true to MCC’s mission of “peacemaking and peace in the name of Christ.”
MCC UN’s deep engagement in the work of translating and bridge building are precisely why I wanted to spend a summer working with them. The percolating question in my mind for a while has been: how do we as Anabaptists speak into public and political discourse in the 21st century? Yes, there is a need to be able to speak to ambassadors and policy makers and yes we must never forget our first language, but what does this mean and look like for the church? There is no longer a question of if we are going to speak out in political circles – this is already happening. So how does our advocacy and bridge-building inform and bolster the life of the church? My question was and is an ecclesial one: how does the church engage with public and political discourse without losing its firm and only foundation?
On my way to work every morning, I pass by the back of The Church Center, engraved with the following inscription: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Those twenty-eight somewhat odd words are followed by one more: Isaiah. Nothing else about the inscription is explained, having different meanings for the masses of people that walk by it on their way to work. And yet these words are quite centering and important for me. They remind me as I start my day that I am not here to fully master a “second language” – the language of public policy. No, my work first and foremost stems from my confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and only through him is peace fully known.
This “church speak,” or my first language, does not make sense to everyone, and I’m not convinced it needs to. It stands pale in comparison to human rights and international relations speak so common here at the UN, making little rational or logical sense. Unlike such discourse, my first language cannot be backed by pragmatic or secular considerations as it indeed sounds like foolishness. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
The power and status that keeps the UN afloat is not the kind of power the MCC UN office strives for or even embodies. It is an entirely different kind of work that attempts to reflect the power of God in everything they do (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:10). In their work, MCC UN strives to be continually formed and transformed into what it means to be an Anabaptist as they work and witness to the UN. Churches and their organizations outside of North America seem to be able to live into this reality in unique and important ways. I think of the work churches are doing on the Korean Peninsula and Colombia that fully embody their confession as they witness to a more peaceful alternative. Colombian Mennonite and former JustaPaz director Jenny Neme is just one example. During my time at the UN I had the privilege of partnering with Jenny as she visited almost a dozen UN ambassadors, talking to them openly about what is taking place on the ground in Colombia. She was able to translate her theological understanding of justice and relay it in a way ambassadors could understand, urging them to continue the UN’s verification mission on Colombia.
Jenny is just one example; I know there are many more in countries all over the world. Parts of the global church are onto something. They have been shaped and formed by their work to the benefit of the church’s witness. They have provided us an example and one answer to what witnessing in the 21st century looks like. As we continue to deepen our relationships and understanding of what it means to be the church, my prayer is that we can continue to learn from each other. May we stay true to our firm foundation, without getting caught in the language of public policy or allowing it to take over our witness.
Bekah York was the 2018 Summer Intern at Mennonite Central Committee's UN Office.