The global ecumenical movement and sustainable development

Oct. 3, 2017

ACT Alliance, World Council of Churches and their members working together

During most of the coming week, I will be in Geneva with about 75 other people from around the world to offer up our best thinking about new ways of understanding churches’ participation in development.

Our gathering, entitled the “Ecumenical Strategic Forum on Diakonia and Sustainable Development,” will strengthen the churches’ collective efforts toward accomplishing “the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.” More on that below.

The problem is that four decades of economic growth policies that favour corporate notions of development over other approaches—sustainable, transformative, human, social, or any other modifier—have left us with ever-greater gaps between the rich and poor both among and within countries. The World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance—the two key organizers of this week’s forum—call for a new approach that integrates more dimensions: rising nationalism, climate change, marginalization of non-governmental organizations in some countries, deepening inequality, war, forced migrations, and inclusion of children, youth and women.

They see in the United Nations-defined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a way forward, and they see in the churches’ own history and theology of diakonia a solid justification for further action.

Diakonia is one of those New Testament Greek words that in the church over time became either a liturgical function or a specific, service-oriented ministry. In this new millennium, its deeper meaning is being recovered. One background document for this Geneva meeting speaks of diakonia as the “church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation.” 

That definition resonates with me. It seems to open the possibility of understanding some aspects of our work in a clearer way: reconciliation is not just penance or reparation for past wrongs, but an agenda for transformation of broken relationships. Sharing is not just about imparting technical expertise or sending money, but about honest dialogue about differences of race, class, gender and power. 

Those Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

As principles or even as guides for action, I support the Sustainable Development Goals. Who but the most reactionary would not? And I agree that the goals are an opportunity for churches and others to hold governments accountable for national strategies of sustainable development. 

But we have lived through successive and failed “decades of development.” We see governments that refuse to live up to their commitments to the United Nations and to all sorts of multilateral agreements. Extreme poverty, social conflict, and injustice cannot be eliminated, or climate change fixed, without significant structural changes to the global economy.

What I will be looking for in the coming days are practical steps toward building alliances that enable real transformation that benefits the people who usually get left out because of economic calculations.

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