bulletin 2/2013

Ecumenical Sustainability Goals?

3 questions and answers for co-author Otto Schäfer, Senior Theology and Ethics Officer on the Sustainable Development Goals.


By Hella Hoppe and Otto Schäfer.

The UN Millennium Goals were the first successful attempt to provide concrete and binding goals for the international community to eliminate the most severe forms of hardship caused by economic, political and social factors. In 2015, the Millennium Goals will be replaced by universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in the context of a new Post-2015 Development Agenda.

In accordance with the principle of shared but distinct responsibilities, the SDG are conceived as universally applicable goals that are binding for all UN member states, not only the developing countries. They will address social, ecological and economical aspects and – in contrast to some of the Millennium Goals – will have specific, implementable objectives.

Der Post-2015-Prozess hat spätestens seit dem Rio+20 Gipfel eine sehr hohe weltweite Dynamik entwickelt – sowohl auf der Ebene der Vereinten Nationen und der Staatengemeinschaft als auch in der Privatwirtschaft, in der akademischen Diskussion und der Zivilgesellschaft. Kirchen sind an verschiedenen Orten an nationalen und internationalen Konsultationen beteiligt oder ermöglichen diese.

Ever since the Rio+20 Summit, the Post-2015 process has developed a great deal of momentum – on the level of the United Nations and the international community as well as in private business, academic discussion and civil society. In many places, churches are involved in national and international consultations or even making these consultations happen in the first place.

The Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Busan in October 2013 would be a timely and important milestone for an ecumenical contribution to the discussion about the definition and orientation of sustainability goals. The WCC should encourage its member churches to translate the future SDG for their various local contexts, thereby making a crucial contribution to their implementation. The basic principle of shared but distinct responsibility, laid down in Rio in 1992, corresponds to a Christian understanding of world community. Burdens must be carried together, but in such a way that damages are compensated for by the ones who caused them, and that the strong contribute more to the common good than the weak.

What might an ecumenical contribution to the debate about global sustainability goals look like? In a discussion impulse created by the FSPC for Busan, nine possible areas are discussed and backed up theologically (see box). The following passages will introduce and explain two examples of ecumenical sustainability goals.

Ecumenical sustainability goal: “Water is Life”

One key challenge facing the world community is to ensure universal access to water as a human right. This also includes maintaining well-functioning sanitation systems. The only way to make healthy water available in a sustainable manner is to view it as a cycle. One important ecological factor of water scarcity is connected to the problem of increasing soil degradation, i.e., land desolation and desertification. The main reasons for the lack of affordable water in sufficient amounts, however, are grave social injustice and a failure of politics to enforce fundamental rights. It is true that the privatization of some water supply functions can indeed work (experiences vary, and there are differentiated analyses on the required framework conditions). However, public authority cannot give away its overall responsibility for water as a public good without sacrificing the rights of the weakest, and thus the cohesion of the community as a whole. Gender justice is at risk as well: In many regions with severe water scarcity, women and children, especially girls, are the ones who will march for hours to fetch water from wells that are moving further and further away.

A theological point of view will point out the spiritual significance of water in all religions, including Judaism and Christianity, as well as the rights of the poor as a touchstone of social justice. From the streams of paradise in Genesis 2 all the way to the crystal-clear water of life in heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 22), water is a crucial and defining element of biblical life and imagination. Many important encounters of the history of salvation are stories of wells. The water of the baptism turns the life of believers into a life of promise. Water is the most elementary of basic needs. Therefore, church father John Chrysostom mentions the glass of water as the simplest material sign of charity, which for him is a sacrament just as the baptism and the Eucharist: the sacrament of brotherly and sisterly love. The “option for the poor” includes safeguarding their water supply. Some old wells still bear the phrase from Isaiah 55:1: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters!” “Not for money,” the prophet states, we are promised that which nourishes us and makes us live; he starts with the water and then goes on to talk about the «everlasting covenant» (Isaiah 55:3) God makes with us.

A “Statement on Water for Life” was already adopted by the 9th WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre in 2006. Among other things, it praised the ecumenical collaboration of Brazil and Switzerland working on the water declaration of 2005. Since then, more commitment to its implementation would have been both desirable and necessary. This business is not only unfinished but more acutely relevant than ever. The churches and the WCC (with its Ecumenical Water Network EWN) are well-advised to restate it in the form of an SDG. Switzerland, the “water castle of Europe” and at the same time a business location sending strong impulses towards the privatization of water, is particularly called upon in this matter. With the European popular initiative «Water is a Human Right,” the civil society of the European Union has proved that these questions do matter to the people in the rich and watersaturated industrial countries. This has been the first EU popular initiative ever since the introduction of this democratic instrument one year ago. The Swiss churches have good reason to continue their commitment in this matter 10 years after the 2003 “International Year of Water” and to network for it on an international level.

Ecumenical sustainability goal: “Maintaining Food Rights for Everyone”

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the miracle stories in the New Testament is how much they resonate with everyday practical issues. In this respect, the relationship between the sacramental elements of “bread and wine” and the quotidian items of “bread and fish» is particularly illuminating. Jesus’ Feeding Miracles – in a community of Galilean fishermen on the Sea of Galilee – pertain to bread and fish: five loaves of bread and two fish end up feeding four to five thousand people (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-9). Communing with the Risen Christ, too, occurs as an everyday meal of bread and fish (John 21). The augmentation of bread and fish is described such that everything begins with giving thanks and sharing. Giving thanks and sharing comes before working and producing. The reversal is essential. It is also expressed in the sacrament, in bread and wine. The fortification provided by the bread is complemented by the cheerfulness of the wine, and both together are the “Eucharist” – Greek for “thanksgiving.” The New Testament testifies very clearly that the sacrament of the Eucharist is not a ritualized “holiness” that is removed from everyday life, affording an escape from the world. In everyday life, bread and wine become bread and fish – and here, the miracle occurs that all those present can satisfy their hunger if it all begins with giving thanks and sharing.

The Swiss relief organizations, working on the basis of church development cooperation, divide the goal of “Food rights for everyone” into five subgoals: (1) Eliminate malnourishment and hunger in any form, including malnutrition, deficiencies and overeating, so that all human beings can enjoy their food rights at all times; (2) Make sure that small farmers and rural communities, particularly those of women and underprivileged groups, receive adequate sustenance and income, and to guarantee their right to access productive resources and assets everywhere; (3) Facilitate a transformation towards sustainable, diverse and robust systems of agriculture and nutrition, maintain the natural resources and ecosystems, and counteract land degradation; (4) Prevent after-crop losses and other food losses and wastefulness; (5) Establish inclusive, transparent and just legal and other decision processes in the areas of food, nutrition and agriculture on all levels.

In this context, it is also important to point out a connection highlighted by the Swiss church relief organizations Bread for All and Lenten Sacrifice in their ecumenical campaigns, including in 2009 in the campaign “Food rights need a healthy climate.” The United Nations once again warn against the potential consequences of climate change in their recently published “Report on Human Development 2013.” If nothing is done to prevent it, the number of people living in extreme poverty due to environmental disasters could rise as high as three billion by 2050. Global warming is threatening to cause massive development setbacks resulting in profound economical and social turmoil.

Ever since the financial crises, the financial markets are showing an increasing appetite for food markets: resource-related speculative activities in the capital markets by far exceed traditional hedging activities to protect harvest profits. This trade with new financial products in the resource sector significantly raises global market prices and affects pricing in developing countries. This in turn endangers food security and causes hunger. Being mostly in charge of food security, women in particular suffer from increases in price levels for food such as grains, rice, and soy. At the same time, women are equipped with substantial knowledge and experience regarding the cultivation and preservation of natural resources. However, so far the role of women in the effort towards sustainable development has been limited by discrimination, i.e., a lack of education, landed property and equal career opportunities. Protecting women’s basic rights and working for gender equality are indispensable prerequisites of sustainability.