U.N. Witness: Not by power

Oct 9, 2017 by

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Here on the 10th floor of the Church Center for the United Nations building, a handful of Mennonite Central Committee staff and volunteers seek to be an Anabaptist voice to the nations of the world.

Grant Miller


Not long ago, such an office would have been inconceivable. The dominating narrative in Canada and the U.S. was that Mennonites are apolitical — tightknit communities keeping to themselves, bearing witness through humble lives of nonresistance and holy commitment to God’s kingdom. The world’s turmoil was lamentable but an expected consequence of human sin and refusal to submit to the Lordship of Christ.

The “quiet in the land” mentality began to splinter in the 20th century. World War II and the Vietnam War, along with the civil rights movement, had a profound impact on the church. However, other changes like cultural assimilation and the growing significance of church institutions, as well as missionary efforts that brought in leaders like Lupe de León and John Powell, carried as much impact.

By 1995, MCC had a small office at the UN, joining nations and institutions that have far more money and power to influence international policy and relations.

MCC does not advocate from a position of power. A primary purpose of its UN presence is to communicate what MCC workers and partners are seeing and experiencing. These stories and concerns are usually of those who have no voice within the halls of power. Part of MCC’s work is a humble yet bold assertion that real change comes from these people and the grace of God. As Paul tells the church in Corinth, God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). The reconciliation of all things that we as Christians yearn for does not come through savvy political skills, threat of military might or extreme wealth but through persistent Christian witness and commitment to relationship with those who would be our enemies.

As Mennonites sought to advocate with political bodies in new ways, they had to learn a new language. Mennonite ethicist Ted Koontz has called this the language of public policy. Through new words and frameworks, Mennonites found many allies in the struggle for a more peaceful world. Today, nonviolence is recognized by many as an effective way to accomplish aims.

Yet this is ultimately a utilitarian understanding. While the language of public policy has enabled Mennonites to collaborate with others and sometimes convinced those in power to give peace a chance, it is only useful to the extent that it translates our primary theological language and communicates that peace is the will of God. In the end, our allegiance to Christ and the coming kingdom will not be entirely intelligible. Yet we persist in faithfulness and knowledge that the Spirit moves and continues to do new things.

Advocacy to national and international bodies may feel difficult and awkward for Mennonites who spent four centuries separated from such things. Translating of theological concepts into the language of public policy is difficult. We must avoid the temptation to only think and speak in this secondary tongue. However, this is not the only Mennonite experience. Even more so, Mennonites in places like Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Korea have been and continue to be formed in part by their peacebuilding and advocacy.
Together we continue to learn what it means to be Anabaptist at the UN and in the world.

Grant Miller was a summer intern in the MCC UN Office.

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