Interview with Mark Koenig
Mark Koenig is the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. I’m very grateful to him for giving me a lot of his time to discuss the work of his office, its purpose, justification and achievements.
Koenig understands his work as part of the advocacy in public life ministry of the PC(USA). He quoted scripture examples of those willing to resist and speak prophetically- e.g. Joseph, Sipphora, Jesus taking on the money-changers in the Temple. He also pointed to the example of John Witherspoon. He spoke of the rising and waning of enthusiasm for public witness in the denomination, for example, when a pietistic approach prevailed due to the tensions around slavery. He regrets that recently the denomination seems to have rowed back from public witness work.
But why a presence at the United Nations? Koenig spoke of a theology of interconnectedness- the earth is the Lord’s and every person is made in the image of God (the basis for a Christian understanding of human rights). There is an ecclesial justification also, for this is a way for the denomination to show practical solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
Even before the United Nations was established and headquartered in New York, US Presbyterians were involved in its foundation. The organisation, of course, was the successor to the League of Nations which was the project of President Woodrow Wilson (a Presbyterian). Particularly influential was John Foster Dulles, a Presbyterian from New York (later US Secretary of State), who chaired a ‘Commission on a just and durable peace’ for the Presbyterian Church. Dulles was an advisor to the US delegation at the foundation conference of the UN, at Dumbarton Oaks in San Francisco, during the early 1940s. As the Charter of the UN developed, the Presbyterian Church held study groups on the issues, and the Moderator asked for prayer for the Dumbarton Oaks conference. It seems it is no coincidence that the highest organ of the UN is the General Assembly!
President Roosevelt helped to ensure that the UN Charter made space for participation by what nowadays are known as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and not just national governments. The Church Center at the UN- built on the initiative of United Methodist women, and supported by the then Federal Council of Churches- became the base for various denominations to interact with the UN.
Koenig is realistic about what a Church presence at the UN can achieve (‘we’re not constituents of the Belgian ambassador’, he quipped. Yet the Churches’ advocacy work brings something unique and useful to the UN. Churches have a unique ‘on the ground’ presence, networks of contacts which can bring unique perspectives. Syria was a good example at the time of writing. The PC(USA) General Assembly was attended by an ecumenical delegate from the Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. I met him briefly on my way from the airport at Pittsburgh- he had been travelling extensively in Syria, visiting with the small Protestant Christian communities he represented, despite the escalating violence. It’s voices such as these which the UN office can bring to the national embassies at the UN (national ambassadors are known as ‘permanent representatives’) and the different organs of the United Nations.
Other churches are represented at the UN: the Vatican City State, the Holy See, has observer status, and other denominations have representatives in New York. There is a good deal of ecumenical co-operation, with different denominations taking the lead with different issues. The PC(USA) is providing a resource for the entire Reformed family of churches (through the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), previously the World Alliance of Reformed Churches), bringing the voices of churches who could not otherwise do so to New York. I wondered whether this was a resource the Church of Scotland ought to make more use of.
The task of the office is to bring PC(USA) policy to the UN (it doesn’t create policy). This is done by advocacy (the same word is used of the PC(USA) Washington office’s work). In practice this means that the office will major on particular parts of the world, where historically and perhaps still there has been a connection through Presbyterian mission links. Syria is an example; another current trouble spot where there are many strong links is Sudan. Very often the advocacy will be to the Permanent Representatives, often in an ecumenical manner, sometimes by means of letters. Recent examples are advocacy about HIV/AIDS and the 2011 Security Council resolution regarding illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine (this took the form of a letter from the Palestine/Israel working group, signed by individual organisations. Sometimes a letter will be sent by the PC(USA) office alone, perhaps to all states or to the US State Department.
As well as letter-writing, the office can bring useful resource person to the UN embassies, such as mission partners with first-hand experience of the issues. For example, they recently brought for South Sudan church leaders to meet with 15 UN missions, and the Security Council, UN Peacekeeping agency and the Secretary General. On a smaller scale, a mission co-worker from Guatemala met with a staff person from the Guatemala UN embassy.
Another method of advocacy is participation in UN events. This is possible because from the beginning, the UN charter included a voice for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). NGOs with UN associate status can make written statements to UN Commissions before their meetings Recent examples of advocacy to UN Commissions include:
- Commission on the Status of Women (which included participation by Presbyterian Women)
- volunteering and ageing
- arms trade treaty negotiations
- indigenous peoples
More on my conversation with Mark Koenig in my next blog post.
I visited the UN headquarters earlier in my trip.
- The Presbyterian Delegation to CSW57 (ecumenicalwomen.org)