The Sustainable Development Goals in the Perspective of Christian Faith and Theology

Kjell Nordstokke

Can the Bible, Christian faith and theological reflection be of help when working with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? It depends on the perspective we opt to apply. Biblical texts offer several possible perspectives. Here are some of them:

One basic starting point when reflecting on biblical motifs, is recognising the fact that the Bible largely tells stories about ordinary people and their everyday lives. They include experiences of drought and hunger, sufferings due to war and violence, and a constant fear of being struck by illness or misfortune. These experiences from daily life on the one hand reminded people of their vulnerability, but they also filled them with awe regarding creation, its greatness and generosity. They recognised that they belonged to a reality far beyond their understanding.

They interpreted ordinary life in the light of their faith in God. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers” (Psalms 24:1–2). The notion of God as creator is rooted in their experiences and wondering in daily life, and it links to the expectation of God’s gracious intervention with its promise of a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

According to this faith, all creation and every being possess an inherent value; the gifts of creation cannot be reduced to tools for humans and their desire to conquer and consume. Admittedly, humankind is, according to the narrative of creation, unique within creation, only men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This implies, however, a unique vocation to be God’s co-worker in promoting what is right, good and true. It is a vocation that includes all human beings, not only Christians. And it refers to ordinary people, in their daily lives. Clearly, this perspective adds important insight to our reflection on the SDGs and the work to implement them.

The people that we meet in the narratives of the Old Testament belonged to a people that had entered a covenant with God. According to the covenant, God would protect the people and see to their wellbeing; in return the people committed to keep the commandments and follow their directions. Justice and peace are key concepts here: On the one hand, the people are promised share in God’s justice and peace; on the other hand, they are expected to be good stewards of these gifts and to promote justice and peace in the relations and doings of daily life.

The Old Testament prophets criticised the people for having failed this task and for having turned away from God. Above all, they rebuked the powerful, the political, economic and religious elite and their lifestyle. The way they abused their power and oppressed the poor was not sustainable, the prophets announced. Therefore, God would punish them and the nation would perish unless they repented and again committed themselves to justice and peace.

As Christians we are no longer bound by the covenant that people of Israel made with God on Mount Sinai. The commandments, however, still indicate what it means to live rightly and according to God’s will. According to Jesus, “all the law and the prophets” rest on the Greatest Commandment: to love God and “your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:36–40). It is a calling to compassion and care, to defend human dignity and protect creation, and to promote justice and peace.

How do we do this in practice? Primarily through the daily doings of everyday life, but also through engagement in issues that challenge us to joint action.

This publication aims at interpreting the SDGs as “signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). As a public agenda, the SDGs express a global ambition of making the world a better place for everyone, above all through the construction of sustainable societies. At the same time, several goals articulate issues that have long been on the agenda of churches and marked their social and diaconal engagement. Thus, the SDGs provide a unique opportunity for churches to join in, as part of their Christian social responsibility, in cooperation with others, both public authorities and actors within civil society.

How should we read each of the SDGs in light of our Christian faith? Christians in many parts of the world use the method “see-judge-act” when trying to interpret the challenges of everyday life from the perspective of faith. This method contains three steps; it is important that they follow the right order and to use sufficient time on each step.

The first step is to see. It implies a thorough analysis of a theme or a challenge, using the tools of well documented knowledge, for instance from social and political sciences. The SDGs are all based on such insight and understanding from a global perspective. To see is therefore about obtaining the relevant facts and clarifying the ethical dimension this issue presents, asking: Why is this a challenge that concerns us?

The second step is to judge. Here, the perspective of faith is brought in asking how what is “seen” should be judged in the light of God’s Word and our faith in God as creator, redeemer and giver of life. Now is the time for bringing in biblical motifs and narratives that may sharpen the challenge that is already “seen” in order to “judge” it from the perspective of faith and hope. This should be done through a critical – also self-critical – look. Is it certain that our perspective when reading the biblical texts is the right one? For example, would the text be read differently by wealthy people than by poor people?

The third is to act. After having seen what challenges us and reflected critically on it from the perspective of faith and service, the question arises: What to do? As individuals, as a Christian fellowship, as a local congregation and so on. Both the insight from the first step and the reflection from the second step may contribute to a renewed engagement in activities in which we already are involved. In addition, we may be motivated to make new and bolder commitments, in new partnerships and with clearer objectives.