No, Bonhoeffer Was Not a Martyr

I'm a member of the Episcopal Church and our church calendar commends remembrances for "Holy Men and Holy Women" throughout the church year. I can't speak to how other denominations do this, but our list those commemorated, which is modified from time to time through our General Convention, is broader than the Roman Catholic definition of sainthood.

On April 9 we commemorate the life, ministry, writings and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "theologian and martyr", who was executed on this day in 1945 at Flossenburg prison. (See this blurb from the Episcopal Church website.) Like many of you, I find Bonhoeffer's life and writings deeply inspiring and provocative. But I think it's a label him a "martyr", and I wish we would drop that designation from our commemorations.

Of course, everything hinges upon how one defines a term. The Greek word martus literally means "witness," but in the early church the term came to be applied to those who suffered and died for professing the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer certainly was a witness to the faith: His writings -- especially such books as Life Together, Discipleship, the Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge and his unfinished Ethics have inspired millions. His work in the ecumenical movement was exemplary and his seminal contribution to the Confessing Church movement through his work on the Dahlem and Bethel confessions, his secret overseas missions to save Jews and his pastoral and educational work through the underground seminaries rightly establish him as a leading prophet of the German resistance. (By the way, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend you plough through Bethge's magisterial biography. It's a hefty thousand pages or so, but read it cover to cover.)

Bonhoeffer's theological and ecclesial commitments certainly are interwoven, through his biography and all-too-brief career, with the events that led to his death. But he was not killed because of his sermons or lectures on discipleship or even because he secretly mentored ordinands of the Confessing Church. Rather, he was executed because he was implicated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a co-conspirator, along with his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and other high-level dissidents within German military intelligence (the Abwehr) in what was to be a coup to depose the Nazi regime. It was the evidence in documents that implicated Bonhoeffer in this plot that ultimately led to his death sentence.

I'm not entering the debate about whether Bonhoeffer's involvement with the Abwehr vitiated his earlier pacifist commitments (he had once planned to study non-violent resistance with Gandhi in India). Nor am I making the claim here that violence is never justified, from a Christian perspective, in battling radical evil. I'm not going to get into debates about Romans 13 and the question of submission to temporal authorities.

Nor am I objecting to a broadened definition of martyrdom that includes sacrifice of life and limb for political and social causes rather than profession of the Christian faith in the stricter sense. I'm not trying to make any invidious comparison here between Bonhoeffer and, say, Felicitas and Perpetua, who like many other martyrs could have saved their lives if they had renounced their faith and embraced the emperor cult. I first vetted some of these musings in a Facebook post -- and I'm grateful for the pushback several of my friends offered on that thread. One friend lifted up other modern examples of those who died resisting injustice, such as the seminarian and civil rights activist Jonathan M. Daniels, who was murdered in 1965 in Alabama. The same friend also reminded me that the early Christians, by professing faith in Jesus the Christ, were themselves engaging in political protests against the Roman Empire.

Nor am I going to tromp out any Kantian or Augustinian scruples against lying. Still, for me, the fact that Bonhoeffer worked underground for the resistance and feigned support for the regime makes his actions something different from civil disobedience as it is usually understood. My question here relates more to the means used than to the ends sought.

By all means, let's continue to commemorate Bonhoeffer's life and work. But please let's stop calling him a "martyr", for doing so may divert us from facing the critical questions and challenges that pondering his example should raise for us: Under what circumstances may or must Christians employ the tools of violence and deception to fight grave injustice? From what I've read, I imagine Bonhoeffer would be deeply uncomfortable with this label, not out of any sense of false modesty, but rather because he was a Lutheran theologian with a profoundly tragic sense of human sinfulness who considered his involvements in the resistance movement to be extraordinary and demanded by the extremity of the times.

No. Bonhoeffer, though certainly an inspiring witness in many ways, did not die as a martyr. I prefer instead to think of him as an insurgent. He did not put such a great premium on his purity and holiness that he refused to bloody his hands in the guilt of his own people, whom he was trying desperately to save from self destruction. Sometimes, Luther taught, it is necessary to "sin boldly," and Bonhoeffer certainly exhibited great courage.

If he was a witness to anything, his death testified to brokenness of humanity and to the paradoxical hope of resurrection under the sign of the cross. Bonhoeffer bore part of the weight of the cross in solidarity with his past -- his identity as a German and a product of a compromised and complacent evangelical church and a member of a prominent and privileged upper-middle-class family.

And ultimately Bonhoeffer died like the rest of us -- naked, a sinner saved not by his actions or example but simply by the word of divine grace.

(While you're thinking about reading Bonhoeffer, take another look at this post Brandy Daniels wrote back in 2012.)

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