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Bonhoeffer as Martyr

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.


  1. Nathan Smith wrote:

    I like the notion of placing the emphasis of martyrdom not on the act of the martyr but on its witness to the church.

    I have been thinking lately about whether Bonhoeffer should be counted among the martyrs since he was described as “martyred by the Gestapo” on the back cover of my edition of “Life Together.” Allow me, for the sake of being provocative, to quote some scripture:

    “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” ~ Romans 13

    “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 20But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?” ~ 1 Peter 2

    The Romans 13 passage is particularly scandalous because Nazi Germany is the antithesis of properly functioning, God-ordained government. And in both cases, we have to attempt to qualify Bonhoeffer’s participation in an assassination plot as “good” or “evil.” The answer to that will vary based on one’s view of Christian violence. It seems to me, though, that if one is striving for a Christian pacifism, one must conclude that Bonhoeffer is not a martyr, because he was killed for attempt to murder the duly appointed head of government. He is a tragic and even inspiring figure, but not a martyr.

    This is part of the reason why Christian pacifism is scandalous. Who wants to say Bonhoeffer was not a martyr?

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Nathan, I don’t think a commitment to pacifism (depending on how its defined) requires one to disallow Bonhoeffer from being a martyr. The whole point I was trying to drive at is that what makes one a martyr is not their moral character or consistency (and Bonhoeffer clearly did not think his violent actions were “just”, he regarded them as simply his only option which he undertook relying on the mercy and grace of God).

    What makes Bonhoeffer a martyr, from my perspective (which is that of a pacifist), is the way in which the total shape of his life and death participate in God’s kingdom, thereby bearing witness to it. Whether or not Bonhoeffer was “right” to be involved in the plot against Hitler, the whole shape of his life and death was defined by his participation in the kingdom of God. Clearly none of our ways of participating in God’s work in the world are uncompromised; they are always already compromised. What makes the martyrlogical is God’s own action of grace and transformation which allows our lives, broken as they are by sin to bear witness to the reality of God and his kingdom.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Chris wrote:

    “This reflection is helpful in that it directs attention away from the subjective intentions, feelings, and alleged motives of potential martyrs.”

    I’d have to do this, if were to consider Bonhoeffer a martyr. As you suggest, he himself was distraught with any notion of self-righteousness. And besides, he was clearly caught up in the wrong crowd—hardly martyrological that’s “neat around the edges.”

    At any rate, I usually think of Sophie Scholl before Bonhoeffer in this regard (precisely because I’m probably focused on the wrong notion as your post suggests).

    Her last words were reported as: “”How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Halden, OK that makes sense. I am curious, do see martyrdom as a subset of ecclesiology? That is, the witness of a martyrs death seems to be for the benefit of the church, as I read you (and I agree). I might pick up Slane, this has piqued my interest.

    By the way, Slane is a puntastic name for someone who writes about martyrs. :-)

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I do. A couple helpful books on this view of martyrdom can be found in Tripp York’s The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom and Craig Hovey’s To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martydom for Today’s Church.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    There’s a great Cavanaugh article on Oscar Romero and martyrdom generally here:

    Well worth reading, especially if you like Cavanaugh.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

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