Thursday, June 16, 2005

Simpson University professor: Was Bonhoeffer a martyr?


Craig J. Slane, associate professor of systematic theology at Simpson University in Redding, also serves on the board of directors for the International Bonhoeffer Society.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and theologian, was deeply opposed to Hitler's regime; the "Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church" puts it simply: "He was arrested in 1943 and after imprisonment in Buchenwald he was hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenbrg in 1945."

Bonhoeffer is best known for such works as "The Cost of Discipleship," "Life Together" and "Letters and Papers From Prison," in which he articulates a Christianity lived in solidarity with the oppressed, a Christianity that takes Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seriously. But Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed not for his profession of Christ but for his complicity in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. It is that fact, Slane says, that makes Bonhoeffer so controversial.

In "Bonhoeffer As Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment" ($22.99 in paperback from Brazos Press), Slane acknowledges that "Bonhoeffer never attempted to justify his conspiratorial activities" and certainly "did not excuse himself from guilt." Nevertheless, Slane argues, this man deserves to be called a true Christian martyr. Yet for such an argument to make sense, Slane must overcome the stereotype of a first-century martyr:

"Images of brave Christians standing heroically before the worldly powers giving unequivocal, lucid confession of their faith before being consigned to beasts, burnings, and boilings are forever etched in popular memory. The pointed encounter between persecutor and persecuted ... makes absolutely clear why these persons went to their deaths: They confessed Christ! Yet given the ... Roman context, it is more likely that these conspicuous encounters derive from the vicissitudes of history than from the essence of martyrdom. Confessing Christ is surely the obligation of every Christian generation, but confession may assume a variety of forms, dependent on the rich texture of God's creative Spirit and human response."

What Slane means is that genuine Christian martyrdom has always included political action, but it was masked in the first century. To confess that "Jesus Christ is Lord" in the context of the Roman Empire is to confess that Caesar is not. In modern times, however, verbal confession excites little attention; it is the development of a Christian community in which servanthood is paramount, and works of justice part of one's daily life, that is the real threat to the powers and authorities. Bonhoeffer, Slane maintains, confessed Christ in working to save a small group of Jews from the Nazis and in building "life together" at the Finkenwalde preacher's seminary in the years prior to his arrest.

Slane takes pains to argue that even though Bonhoeffer, as a man of his times, was not immune from the rabid anti-Semitism of the so-called "Confessing Church" in Germany, he nevertheless identified "with the Jews of the Holocaust" and died "in solidarity with the Jews." This is a crucial (though controversial) claim in Slane's understanding of Bonhoeffer as martyr.

The essence of being a Christian martyr, says Slane, lies in living a life in which the knowledge of one's death, one's finitude, suffuses one's life in a way that the person comes to participate by baptism in the death of Christ. "The cunning of God resides in the fact that my temporal limit is simultaneously a message and a means of grace. By establishing the limit God, ever the respecter of my freedom, encourages me in the strongest way possible to come to terms with that limit, remember him and resolutely present this earthen vessel back to him. I must not complain when death comes," Slane continues, "because wrapped within the sobriety of my sin and guilt before God is also a summons to my final and most important episode of faith. For the Christ-ian, death is the final act of faith wherein one casts one's whole self into the hands of God."

That, says Slane, is what is means to "die a Christian death." Thus, he says, did Bonhoeffer.

"Bonhoeffer As Martyr" is not an easy book. It's a scholarly philosophical exploration of the meaning of Christian martyrdom and how Bonhoeffer's life can be understood in light of it. Bonhoeffer did not seek martyrdom (for such is not the goal of the Christian life) but freely accepted it when it came. That's Slane's claim, and it is worthy of consideration.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.


Zero said...

Slane has an interesting and valid point I will keep in mind from now on and will have to come to terms with - perhaps on a case by case basis.

In Bonhoeffer case though, Bonhoeffer was concious he was fighting for the "soul of Germany", whatever that means, and never thought of himself as living in "solidarity with the oppressed" while he was indeed conspiring against Hitler.

He is a german martyr. Not a christian martyr.

Probably Martin Luther King jr would be a better model for Slane's book. But then again, maybe MLK is too big a man to be a model for down to earth christians.

(a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker - good friend of Bonhoeffer)

Dan Barnett said...

Hi, Zero,

Thanks for your comment. I'd be interested in how you came to know Bonhoeffer, and when.



Zero said...


I am affraid I am going to disappoint you now. I am a good friend of Bonhoeffer simply because I have read his books and some books about him with an open and warming heart.

This is my personal way of saying Bonhoeffer lives; my way of living Life Together.

All the best!