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Trade Paperback
272 pages
Apr 2004
Brazos Press

Bonhoeffer As Martyr

by Craig J. Slane

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



Dietrich Bonhoeffer's story is like that tune we catch off the radio and can't get out of our head. Hardly a day passes without a Bonhoefferian phrase or two crossing my mind. I often think about life's problems with him in mind.

To be honest, though, there are times when I wish I could forget the tune. It can be as haunting as it is rapturous. Over the years, I have discerned a pattern in my life with the Bonhoeffer story. Precisely at those times when I am most alone with my self and thoughts, at my most solitary points, the story often feels the most depressing and heavy. Living with the sober realities of death, martyrdom, and the Holocaust, as one must to write a book such as this, can be a nearly suffocating experience. On many occasions I have found myself at the edge of an abyss, uncertain how to respond in the face of such massive evil. Of Western civilization's many scars, the Holocaust remains the ugliest. No amount of human doctoring can cover it. It will remain forever a unique manifestation of evil. At the same time, as long as human existence is caught in the compulsions of sin, we know we cannot consider ourselves immune to the impulses that brought about the singular horror of the Holocaust. Whatever hell is, we know we cannot confine it to some underworld.

Conversely, when I have the opportunity to share Bonhoeffer's story with others I experience tangibly the promise of God's goodness and grace. Since 1996 I have been telling Bonhoeffer's story regularly in my faith and Culture class at Simpson College. As I argue for "Bonhoeffer as martyr," my students occasionally find the proposition hard to digest. Without fail, however, they are drawn by his passion and understand him as a Christian who helps them navigate the issues of their lives. After three weeks or so, when we emerge exhausted from the emotional weight and theological complexity of the story, we find that Bonhoeffer has quietly transformed our class into a community, has given us a sense of social responsibility and a language to speak about it.

We need Bonhoeffer. He can give us the courage to tell the more macabre truths of the last century to the next generation without bringing it to despair. In the disturbing "exhibition hall" of the twentieth century, lined with genocide, abuse of power, forces of cultural disintegration, and sheer hatred for humanity, Bonhoeffer is a witness to God's love, to justice, and to hope. In community, we can open our eyes to the world's evil and still be hopeful for the human race and the world we create and inhabit.

Singer-composer Ken Medema expresses my hope in his provocative song "Dance in the Dragon's Jaws." For according to the Christian way of looking at things, at the center of history, perhaps at the center of reality itself, stands a hellish episode of redemption in which God established life in the jaws of death. Even at the edge of an abyss, perhaps especially there, we can dance.

As for Paul and Silas, dancing in spirit while their feet were bound by stocks in the inner recesses of a Philippi prison, external dangers do not easily douse the flame that burns inside the martyr. On the continuum of human emotion it is often, surprisingly, extreme joy that accompanies the final phase of the martyr's ordeal. This is because martyrs manage to reach a kind of rapprochement between life and death. Having found the true significance of their lives, they seem all the more willing to sacrifice them, though never on a whim.

From my childhood I can recall fantastic stories of missionaries who had "given all" for Christ. I remember praying for relatives of missionaries who had been recently martyred, people known to my parents. At these times I had the inchoate sense that I was somehow traveling to the most real region of the universe itself. As an undergraduate student, I lived in a dormitory complex named in honor of Nathaniel Saint and James Elliot, martyrs at the hands of the Aucas of Ecuador on 8 January 1956. Though we were separated from saint and Elliot by more than two decades, their story hovered above all of us who slept and studied there.

At that time Bonhoeffer was to me only a regular footnote in sermons or class lectures. I could not have imagined then that these "footnotes" would eventually grab my attention and come to dominate the horizon of my adult life. The Bonhoeffer I knew from sermons and lectures was a soft, contemplative, devotional man who bequeathed to the church gems of spirituality like The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. I knew nothing of political plots, conspiracies, treason, and murder. Of course, I also knew little about the extraordinary complexities of ethical decision-making. And I had only the faintest appreciation for the fact that some of the most powerful and profound impulses of Christianity were world-affirming ones.

When I first encountered the "real" Bonhoeffer, was smitten, provoked, and held captive by the riddle: is it possible for someone who planned treasonous and murderous acts to be honored as a martyr? Over time, it became evident that I was opening a staggering set of issues that would require of me historical competence, interpretive imagination, and nuanced theological reflection. To be blunt, it Bonhoeffer is a martyr, he is not an easy one! Bonhoeffer--with his colleagues in the resistance movement--did not succeed in bringing down Hitler's rule by violent means. But he tried. Had he succeeded, we would likely know him as an "assassin." It offends the conscience of many to try to legitimate Bonhoeffer's activities on a Christian basis, let alone praise them with the accolade "martyr." The Bible certainly provides no clear grounds for tyrannicide, although later prominent Christian voices have justified it. Sometimes, under carefully prescribed circumstances, it has even been considered an offering to God (for example, by Philipp Melanchthon). If God establishes the ruling authorities for the public good, and if those authorities then turn tyrannical against their subjects, the subjects have the right to remove them. For the tyrant has abdicated responsibility both to humanity and to God. So runs the argument.

Most of us would not be unhappy to learn that someone else had taken on such responsibilities in a time of grave injustice, even if that someone gave her life for the cause. We abhor violence, but when an unpleasant thing needs doing, someone has to do it. Cultures generally honor those who make the supreme sacrifice of their lives for just causes. Citizens operating from overt Christian convictions may show public restraint, inquiring to see whether every option for a more peaceful solution had been deployed. Nevertheless, of all people, Christians understand acts of conscience. Even those bound in conscience by their pacifist convictions find sympathies for Bonhoeffer and his course, whether or not they can endorse it. The problem comes when we try to name him a martyr. Why?

Perhaps because we have been marinating our theologies of martyrdom exclusively in "religion." Among its many consequences, secularization in Western culture has opened a rift between public and private life. Usually politics belongs to the public sphere while religion belongs in the private sphere of "the circle of Christian community," or even "one's own hear." I find it helpful to think spatially here. When one acts in the public sphere out of Christian conviction, this amounts, culturally speaking, to a departure from one reality in order to arrive at another. We have difficulty seeing both the religious dimensions of political action and the political dimensions of Christian existence. Assuming martyrs' actions must be either religious or political, we wonder about their "true motives." Often we find ourselves at an impasse, imprisoned in our own categories.

The categories exist for a reason, no doubt. We cannot obliterate the distinction between politics and religion. We can learn, however, to see them both against the comprehensive reality of God's created order. Martyrs do exactly that. Understanding the totality of God's claim on human life, they perform their religious commitments openly.

As part of the audience, I find myself enamored by their moral courage and earnestness. In an age of asymmetry in belief and behavior, they spawn hope that I might yet weave my own life into a unity of word and deed. I am finding that the esoteric eddies of my personal intrigue yearn for release into a mightier stream where great currents of historical development are flowing. Indeed, if martyrdom is a river, I imagine it to be cutting its channel deeper into the earth. That is, martyrdom is a phenomenon whose connections to the created order--political, social, and ethical--are being illumined as never before. For many recent martyrs, their "giving all" for Christ became also their fullest expression of love for the neighbor, and in the neighbor, God's creation. At the surface, these newer martyrs of the church seem to die for reasons only loosely connected to the Christian faith. But what faith is it that can love God and not tend to the least in God's family (Matt. 25:40)? The lives and deaths of these newer martyrs call for a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of martyrdom and its relation to social responsibility and Christian commitment. This insight is relatively new. However, amid the swirl of postmodern reflection, a consensus is growing that someday will likely yield a full-scale revision in our understanding of martyrdom. My work, I hope, is a contribution toward that end.

As in any study, personal experiences and commitments figure prominently in this exploration. Yet I have tried not to permit my experiential and theological idiosyncrasies to set the terms for my work. I choose to understand theology as a response to the living, active God, and I am confident that my experiences are therefore part of the matrix of human response to something prior and greater. For God himself has established life amidst death in the work of Jesus Christ, and it is he who acts both in and through the lives of both Christian martyrs and those who wonder about them. As such, Christian martyrdom is a theological phenomenon in the most direct sense imaginable.

Chapters 1-6 of the book represent my attempt to solve the Bonhoeffer riddle. I examine Bonhoeffer's life and death in the context of the early Christian martyr tradition, taking into consideration also some key evolutionary developments in the idea of martyrdom itself. Chapters 7-8 investigate the inherent interpretive powers of martyrdom to sum up Christian existence. In them I propose martyrdom as a hermeneutic key for interpreting Bonhoeffer's life and thought. Chapters 9-12 contain my interpretation of Bonhoeffer's life and theology from the perspective of martyrdom. Though theological interpretations of Bonhoeffer abound, to my knowledge none has moved the theological datum of martyrdom itself to the fore. As a result, the term martyr has, in Bonhoeffer's case at least, functioned more as a kind of moral epitaph on a theologian's life than as a theological epitaph on a life lived toward death. I aspire to make Bonhoeffer's martyr epitaph a theological one. In so doing I hope his life might open to us in fresh ways. Perhaps that alone constitutes the uniqueness of this book. For the Bonhoeffer materials have been diligently quarried and hewn by two generations of scholars before me.

As near as I can now discern, my earlier engagement with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead and Wolfhart Pannenberg created the structural possibility for the dawning of the idea of martyrological interpretation of Bonhoeffer. Granted, neither of these figures has written pointedly of martyrdom. But I found Pannenberg's term prolepsis to unpack a cornucopia of possibilities, especially in regard to the configuration of temporality along theological-biblical lines. Whitehead's concept of "concrescence," which Donald Sherburne aptly described as " the growing together of a many into the unity of the one," is similar in its capacity to evoke wonder concerning God's guidance in the creation. This may have contributed to my teleological reading of Bonhoeffer's works in the final chapters, where I test the hermeneutic of martyrdom in its power to illumine the deathward curvature of Bonhoeffer's life by closely examining his Christology and ethics and the so-called Finkenwalde experiment. As ideas gradually become one's own, it is increasingly difficult to sort out origins with precision. But I am confident that these two ideas lie at or near the roots of my thesis.