In his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyr, Craig Slane makes the following argument:
“Martyrdom is a circumlocution of sorts for the quite personal and fatal consequences of the ontological collision between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. As a collision of kingdoms, martyrdom is, and always has been, rife with political overtones. And as contemporary martyrs have shown, seldom is it ‘neat around the edges.’ On a clearly reasoned yet sophisticated theological foundation, Bonhoeffer freely brought his faith into the polis–brought his confession into action–entering into solidarity with and sacrificing himself for the Jews of the Holocaust, and thus, like Jesus, he laid down his life for others. I conclude, therefore that Bonhoeffer deserves to be styled a true martyr of the church.”
This reflection is helpful in that it directs attention away from the subjective intentions, feelings, and alleged motives of potential martyrs. Too often we embrace a highly instrumentalistic and moralistic notion of martyrdom. To be martyred is to be killed because of one’s own moral effort in regard to our confession. We are killed because of our explicit and intentional efforts to bear witness to Christ through not compromising our confession, not denying Christ, and so on.
However, as Slane shows, though the lens of Bonhoeffer, this notion is all wrong. Martyrdom is not about moral resoluteness or the absence of compromise. Clearly Bonhoeffer did view himself as compromised and was plagued with crucial questions of moral doubt throughout his life of striving for faithfulness to Christ. What makes Bonhoeffer a martyr is that the church has discerned in his life and death, the collision between God’s kingdom and the powers of Satan. Insofar as anyone dies in that conflict, regardless of their intentions, compromised status, or moral incoherence, their lives become a witness, martus. To be a martyr is precisely not to perform a valiant moral act, but rather to be caught up in the reality of Gods’ kingdom in its irruption into the world. To live and die martyrologically is to be drawn, by Christic and pneumatic grace, into participation into the Trinitarian life of God’s kingdom. As such, we can never martyr ourselves (against the Islamic notion thereof); we can only hope to become martyrs, hope that our living and our dying will be found in the realm of the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of Satan.