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The World Summit’s Challenge to Christians

The political leaders at the World Summit failed to meet the challenges faced by God’s creation. The church must admit that she, too, has failed—failed to sufficiently encourage and support government and business leaders to work toward biblical justice in relation to the problems addressed at the World Summit.

At the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa (the 10-year follow up to the Rio Earth Summit), government leaders from around the world had the opportunity to work toward biblical justice by preventing harm and promoting distributive justice.

The leaders themselves stated: “We recognize the reality that global society has the means and is endowed with the resources to address the challenges of poverty eradication and sustainable development confronting all humanity. Together we will take extra steps to ensure that these available resources are used to the benefit of humanity.”

They took a few important steps. The World Summit agreed to “halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than $1 a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.”

These are laudable goals. But will they be achieved? Will the financial resources to achieve these goals be forthcoming? There is reason for doubt.

Unfortunately, leaders squandered other important opportunities to create biblical justice. For example, the European Union was pushing for a worldwide pledge that 15 percent of all energy would be from renewable sources by 2010. This effort was defeated because the United States and some oil-producing countries opposed any specific percentages or timetables.

The burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal) pollutes air and water and seriously impacts human health. The World Summit’s briefing papers tell us that over one billion people “are exposed to health-threatening levels of air pollution.” The burning of fossil fuels is also the major contributor to global warming pollution.

Even with all of this current pollution, 2 billion people in poor countries don’t have electricity. Increasing our use of renewable energy to 15 percent by 2010 would have been a large step toward reducing and preventing the harm caused by air pollution, as well as promoting distributive justice in the area of energy.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and other leaders tried to put a positive spin on the World Summit. However, in an implicit acknowledgement of the World Summit’s shortcomings, the UN has announced that it will hold no more such summits until demonstrable progress backs up the soaring rhetoric.

I hope the words of the leaders themselves, that echo words from the Apostle Paul (I Cor 13:1), won’t come back to haunt them: “Unless we act in a manner that fundamentally changes their lives, the poor of the world may lose confidence in their representatives and the democratic systems to which we remain committed, seeing their representatives as nothing more than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals.

The political leaders at the World Summit failed to meet the challenges faced by God’s creation. The church must admit that she, too, has failed—failed to sufficiently encourage and support government and business leaders to work toward biblical justice in relation to the problems addressed at the World Summit.

The outcome of the World Summit—both its promise and its limitations—challenges Christians everywhere, especially those in the developed countries. Christians must do their part. We must learn about the issues and encourage our political leaders to do all that is required.

In its Plan of Implementation, the World Summit implicitly recognized it needed the help of religious communities by acknowledging “the importance of ethics for sustainable development” and the need for ethics in implementing the goals of the World Summit and the Rio Earth Summit.

Given the challenges we face, these words from Paul are appropriate: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).

Jim Ball is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and publisher of Creation Care magazine.

For official World Summit documents, see http://www.johannesburgsummit.org/.