Sustaina[Bi]ble

BY RAFAELA DE OLIVEIRA

As a Christian, I believe the Bible—in all its complexity—is true, and, therefore, I “trust it as a guide to faith and life.”1 In the past couple years, I’ve learned to draw on scripture beyond what I’ve seen or heard within the Church. This happened as I began to understand that Jesus was not just Lord over my Sunday, my prayer, and Bible study moments or my worship but also over my relationships, studies, diet, and even my political ideology (Rom. 10:9-10). 

In my studies as an Environmental Science major, I learned that I had to go back to the Creator as I thought about how to best care for His creation. As I did so, however, I was faced with the reality that the society we live in today is very different than those described in the Bible. The context has changed in many ways, as our lifestyles and ecosystems have as well. 

Today more than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments. These communities are high-density, compact, and diverse, bringing many benefits such as economic growth, poverty reduction, technological advance and innovation, development of infrastructure, and increased access to healthcare, education, and even political and cultural opportunities.2 At the same time, they are increasingly associated with negative impacts like environmental degradation (as rivers are polluted beyond repair, tree-canopy decreases, species biodiversity lessens) and lower human well-being (with increasing inequality and declining reproductive,3 mental,4 and cardiovascular health5). 

According to a report by the United Nations on urbanization, these negative impacts lend themselves to poor planning and management. The solution, many scholars argue, is to promote or develop models of sustainability—where communities are able to provide for their present populations without compromising future generations or harming the environment. Rather than hunting for exact solutions, these models often draw on examples from past civilizations—looking at indigenous communities or ancient cities, studying the values and general ideas that could be applied to modern communities. One size may not fit all. Many modern communities, although similar in structure, differ in climate, socio-economic positioning, culture, etc. So, if we’re looking at values, at lessons from the past, why not look to the Bible and ask unironically, “What would Jesus do? What is a Biblical model of sustainability?”

The Bible is full of examples of different communities’ management and planning. The Old Testament, for example, even includes exact measurements of how much pasture land should be allocated to each town (Num. 35:2-5). Therefore, as I reflected on how to develop a biblical model of sustainability, I realized scripture may have a lot more to say than anything I can pick out in my time here at Duke. It would take a whole life of research to get a fuller picture. I also realized there may be tensions between what values scholarship or the wider culture say are needed for sustainability versus what the Bible suggests. After all, we live in a secular society (at-least here in the U.S.), where there is a continual push toward separation of church and state, church and business, and even church and city-planning. 

And so, I decided to build my temporary, basic model of sustainability on a part of scripture that addressed meeting a need of a community in their present and future. Inspired by one of Pope Francis’ General Audiences addressing waste and equality in 2013, I looked to the account of Jesus feeding five thousand people. 

From this narrative, I observed a model of sustainability made up of five main points. First: those in power must recognize the need and choose to act on it. In three of the gospel accounts, Jesus’s disciples ask him to send the people away so they can go buy their own provisions after he finishes teaching them. “But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat’” (Mk 6:37a, italics mine). This narrative shows that responsibility over resources and how they should be allocated should not be a concern left to the individual who chooses to follow but to those who choose to lead them. The leaders, in this case the disciples, must then take into account the gravity of the situation, how much is needed, and begin to think about how to provide.

After confronting the issue, another aspect of sustainability is displayed in the texts: the community must make use of what is available to meet the present need. When faced with the task of feeding thousands, the disciples calculate how much would be needed to buy enough bread, exclaiming that it “would take more than half a years’ wages” (Mk 6:37b)! Jesus’ response to their distress was to look past the money problem and to ask instead what they had: five loaves and two fish. Taking what was available, Jesus “gave thanks and broke the loaves” (Mt 14:18b). With those five loaves and two fish, Jesus fed and filled over five thousand men (not counting women and children). 

The needs of all were met, expressing another point of sustainability: equity. Equity is the fair distribution of opportunity. Those in the crowd most likely didn’t each eat the same amount of food, but they all had equal access to it and could take as much as they needed, or as John’s gospel puts it, “as much as they wanted.” This miracle reflects our last aspect of sustainability: the community must appreciate the value in making a lot out of little, in efficiency. Jesus didn’t create fish and bread out of thin air, He used the little available, a small input, to produce great quantity. In that great quantity, it’s stressed that there was so much fish and bread that there was plenty left over. Jesus’ call to “let nothing be wasted” reveals the final part to this model of sustainability (Jn 6:12). 

This miracle tells a story of a need being met without compromise, even helping the community in the future. It tells of a model where leaders of a community, recognizing need, make use of what is available to meet those needs for all, both present and future, through efficient efforts and by letting nothing go to waste. When I look back at most of our own communities, the opposite is reflected as we meet the needs of some more than others by feeding into the highly inefficient, destructive, and wasteful engine of consumerism. 

Take the food industry in the U.S., for example, where 30 to 40% of food is wasted in production and export,6 while 10.5% of the population still reports food insecurity.7 There is a disconnect, and I propose that by looking at this narrative in scripture and the model it presents, we can do our part in promoting sustainability in our communities and our country as a whole. 

To begin, we should recognize that as individuals there’s little we can do. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do; the narrative does recount one child giving his fish and bread (Jn 6:9), showing the need and value of personal sacrifice for the good of a community. However, that bread and fish only came to meet the needs of all when the leaders (Jesus and the disciples) worked together with the community in applying the model. From this, we recognize the call for leaders who are able to recognize the needs of the people and for a people who are united, who respect and listen to those leaders because they are working for their good—whether in telling them to sit on the grass to eat together (Lk 9:14-15) or to wear their masks while walking on campus (Duke Compact Rule 1). Many of us aren’t leaders and those who are most likely aren’t receiving one-on-one, in person lessons with Jesus—explaining the unsustainable reality we’re living in today. Many of us aren’t in one community—polarization and hatred have divided cities, divided nations. How then can we come together and break bread with one another? Looking at our world today, I’d say we need more than just this model, we need Jesus, His hope, His wisdom and love, and the unity He brings through His teachings and presence. Without Him, the model is incomplete. Without Him, I’d argue, our world is incomplete. 

I pray that Christians can bring our communities together in love, that we can challenge and inspire our leaders to look beyond the systems of wealth and development that we know and cherish, and we can lead by example, sacrificing for and respecting our leaders, our environment, and our community. I pray that through Jesus working in us, we help meet the needs of the thousands and millions in our communities and that together we reach a sustaina[Bi]ble future.


[1] Placher, “Is the Bible True?”

[2] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, “UN.”

[3] Dadvand et al., “Residential Proximity to Major Roads and Term Low Birth Weight: The Roles of Air Pollution, Heat, Noise, and Road-Adjacent Trees.”

[4] Montgomery, “The Mayor of Happy.”

[5] Rice et al., “Long-Term Exposure to Traffic Emissions and Fine Particulate Matter and Lung Function Decline in the Framingham Heart Study.”

[6] “How Much Food Waste Is There in the United States?”

[7] “Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2019.”

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