In a letter dated August 3, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sketched an outline for a book he never wrote. The outline concludes with a description of a ‘church for others’ – a consistent theme throughout Bonhoeffer’s theology.
The church is church only when it is there for others. As a first step it must give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the freewill offerings of the congregations and perhaps be engaged in some secular vocation.
The church must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell people in every calling what a life with Christ is, what it means ‘to be there for others.’1
This “helping and serving” and “being there for others” informs my short response to Barry Morris’ outline for Christian support of a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI). Pairing this understanding with the economic practice of none-going-with-need as described in Acts 2 and 4 provides further Christian support for enacting a GLI as a logical continuation of Christian praxis.
In the earliest Christian community, according to Acts, no one went with need as those who had more shared with those who had less. Crucially, as well, in Acts 4 they are all “of one heart and soul.”2 Filled with the Spirit, they sold their property and possessions for the communal good, as all were together and equal in Christ.
Later, in the middle of the first century, Paul went to Jerusalem after 14 years away and met with James, Peter and John. Paul explained to them the gospel he was presenting to the Gentiles to gain their approval. After coming to an agreement, as he left “they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor,” which Paul “was eager to do.”3
After this, Paul wrote to, and collected money from, other communities for the poor in Jerusalem.4 Thus from the earliest moments of the Christian community – amidst Jew/Gentile debates – the concern to care for the poor remained central and unifying.
Centuries later, early Christian leaders such as John Chrysostom (“remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor”) and Basil of Caesarea (“the bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes”), argued that the material deprivation of the poor was because of accumulation instead of gift.
Regarding enacting a GLI, Christians should support this as a logical outworking of the above comments. Bonhoeffer, the Acts community, Paul in Jerusalem, Chrysostom and Basil – all recognized the core concern for none-going-with-need as an important Christian praxis.
We are a church for others, and we should prefigure this social reality within the church community and express it to the wider society.
The ongoing housing crisis in the city and the ongoing opioid/fentanyl crisis – with 2020 being the worst year for overdose deaths on record – should be central concerns for the church community in Vancouver.
One of the main concerns I often hear is that legislating ‘charity’ is not a Christian concern, instead it is about individual acts. I am sympathetic to this point, as I do not think outsourcing concern for the poor to the state is what Christian obedience looks like.
Instead, the church community should embody the practice of none-going-with-need and from this ‘internal’ practice, practical legislative considerations are drawn – GLI being one such practical consideration, as Morris outlines well.
In 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison about the importance of seeing “the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.”5
From this perspective, learned within the church community as we encounter those-going-without and unify to meet each other’s needs, a GLI becomes a lot more commonsensical.
This article was first published in Church For Vancouver.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 8 ( Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 503.
2 Similarly repeated in Acts 4:32-35, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (NRSV)
3 Galatians 2:10 (NRSV).
4 1 Corinthians 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15; Romans 15:25–31.
5 Bonhoeffer, DBWE 8, 52.
Chris Sundby works at Jacob’s Well in the Downtown Eastside and lives nearby in community. He is currently studying at Regent College pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology. He has recently begun research for a thesis on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ethics.
On April 8 number of us gathered outside of our MP’s office, in response to the federal Liberal and NDP parties’ decision to repeatedly delay and defer instituting a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI). Read more