The eleventh General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation wrapped up yesterday, and the theme of the conference was a petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). There was a good deal of reflection and self-expression from the hundreds of delegates gathered in Stuttgart, Germany, on topics related to global poverty and hunger. And while the assembly’s introduction explicitly noted the contribution of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the LWF meeting would have been improved if there had been a more substantive integration of Bonhoeffer’s views on the ecumenical movement, poverty, and work, into its proceedings.
The LWF is a global ecumenical body consisting of 140 member churches  in 79 countries, representing over 70 million Christians. The LWF, founded in Lund, Sweden in 1947, has much to learn from the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in the prime of his life by the Nazis two years earlier. This year’s LWF assembly opened on July 20, the sixty-sixth anniversary of the failed Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler, in which Bonhoeffer was implicated. This year also represents the seventy-fifth anniversary of one of Bonhoeffer’s most significant essays, “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement.” In this essay, Bonhoeffer challenges the ecumenical movement to identify itself as either an institutional form of the Christian church, with all the attendant responsibilities and duties, or as a simple gathering of interested Christians, with no binding authority or official purview.
In the latter case, says Bonhoeffer, the actions of such a group would have “only a neutral character, not involving any confession, and this conversation might only have the informative character of a discussion, without including a judgment or even a decision on this or that doctrine, or even church.” In the intervening decades, Bonhoeffer’s challenge continues to resonate, since the LWF, for instance, continues to waver between its self-understanding as an expression of Christian communion on the one side, and its political and social activism on the other.
The problem with the social witness of the LWF and the broader ecumenical movement is not simply that it addresses problems like hunger or poverty. It is, instead, the way in which it has done so, as typified in the recent Stuttgart meeting. Here we saw statements decrying “illegitimate debt,” the privileging of “profits over people,” and in the words of LWF general secretary Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, “the gap between those who do not have enough to eat and those who have far more than they need.” But beyond this kind of activist jingoism, or pietistic bewailing, there was precious little in terms of helpful analysis of the complex realities of a globalized world.
Rather than engage in the difficult work of providing a coherent and normative basis for responsible social proclamation, the LWF preferred instead -- as is so often the case in the deliberations of mainline ecumenical groups -- to point to “neoliberal globalization” as the structural injustice causing extreme poverty in the world. The missing element in the LWF’s poverty discussions, most recently at the General Assembly, has been a nuanced and comprehensive valuation of the role of creative work and entrepreneurship in the creation of material wealth. The social witness of ecumenical groups like the LWF have, for the better part of the past 50 years, consistently undermined work and labor as God’s order of blessings to provide material sustenance for humankind.
Bonhoeffer himself identified the mandate of “work” and “culture” (in the sense of human cultivation of God’s creation) as one of the four arenas (in addition to the family, church, and government) in which we fulfill our calling to serve God through our service to others. There are certainly cases in which God miraculously or specially provides material goods for our wellbeing, such as manna and quail from heaven (Exodus 16) or the seemingly bottomless baskets of bread and fish (Mark 6:30-44). But the regular means that God has graciously ordered in the world for meeting our physical needs is the realm of work.
We can see this in the Apostle’s injunction, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Far too little of the LWF deliberations about the nature of food and hunger, work and poverty, have focused on the role of human labor in economic relationships. The difference between the productive worker in a modern economy and the subsistence labor in primitive societies is the extent to which the worker and the fruits of his or her labor are brought into relationship with neighbors: local, regional, national, and international.
As the Reformed author Lester DeKoster writes in his little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, “Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind.” This connection of work to civilization is achieved through the kind of relationships made possible in a globalized world. And the ideological opposition to globalization manifest in the ecumenical movement would relegate the labor of those in the developing world to the margins of civilization itself.
As Bonhoeffer writes of the relationship between work and our daily bread, “the bread is God’s free and gracious gift. We cannot simply take it for granted that our own work provides us with bread; rather this is God’s order of grace.” It is precisely this “order of grace” that the developing world needs most, and the social witness of the ecumenical movement offers least.