By Stephen Brown
The worldwide agenda for sustainable development is intended to resolve inequalities but fails to address the unjust distribution of power in the global system, former World Council of Churches general secretary Konrad Raiser told a panel in Berlin.
“It proclaims the comprehensive goal of ‘sustainability’ but does not address the root causes of the non-sustainability of the present international economic, social and political order,” Raiser said in a keynote address to the 6 February panel on ecumenical diakonia – the Greek word for care and service – and the role churches can play in a new paradigm of development.
The panel was organized to mark Raiser’s 80th birthday, which he celebrated on 25 January, and was organized by the German Protestant development service Bread for the World. It was followed by a reception at which family, friends and former colleagues paid tribute to Raiser’s life and involvement in the ecumenical movement over five decades.
Welcoming Raiser, the president of Bread for the World, Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, introduced a recent study document on “Ecumenical Diakonia” prepared by the WCC, the Lutheran World Federation and the ACT Alliance, a coalition of 146 churches and faith-based organizations.
The document is intended to strengthen cooperation between ecumenical organizations, churches and church-related development agencies and, among other recommendations, presents the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a platform for diaconal involvement.
Agreed by the UN in 2015, the SDGs are a set of 17 global goals with stated aims to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.
However, while the sustainable development agenda is supposed to resolve the problem of increasing social and economic inequalities, “it does not address the unjust distribution of power in the global system which is the principle cause of failed human development,” Raiser said.
“While using the space offered to non-governmental organizations with humanitarian objectives, ecumenical diakonia will inevitably be engaged in a spiritual struggle of resistance against the very logic of power inherent in the global system,” he continued.
Raiser recalled how the relationship between development and justice was at the centre of many debates at the time he joined the WCC staff in 1969.
“It was a difficult learning process to acknowledge that participation in the struggle for social justice was a constitutive dimension of ecumenical diakonia,” he said.
In the panel discussion that followed, Norwegian theologian Kjell Nordstokke, one of the authors of the “Ecumenical Diakonia” document, said that “within the biblical and Christian tradition, justice is a fundamental issue.”
In her comments, Füllkrug-Weitzel referred to a shift in understanding in church-related development agencies.
“We used to say we were a rights-based organization but of course we are also a faith-based organization so the question is how we try to bring these two perspectives together,” she said.
Agnes Abuom, an Anglican from Kenya and moderator of the WCC’s central committee, pointed to systemic international financial and economic structures that continue to marginalize people, and the resulting need for people to be empowered to participate in development.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a scientist and former member of the German parliament, warned of a conflict between the UN development goals aiming at economic growth and those seeking to promote sustainability.
“If the 11 social-economic SDGs became a real success story then it would mean the ultimate destruction of biodiversity, of a stable climate, and of life underwater,” said von Weizsäcker, now co-president of the Club of Rome, a group that seeks to promote awareness of the interconnectedness of contemporary challenges.
Raiser joined the WCC staff in 1969 as a study secretary for its Commission on Faith and Order and served as general secretary from 1993 to 2003. He also served as a WCC deputy general secretary, and, from 1983 to 1992, was professor for systematic theology and ecumenism at the University of Bochum, Germany.
Konrad Raiser’s account of his involvement in the World Council of Churches has been published in February 2018 by WCC Publications under the title The Challenge of Transformation: An Ecumenical Journey. More details