Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A Dilemma for Bonhoeffer’s Martyrdom? – Conflicting views of Bonhoeffer as Martyr

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is widely viewed as a martyr, a view that has only become more prevalent as popular-level interpretations of his life circulate broadly. Though it may seem fairly straightforward to claim Bonhoeffer as martyr, there are a number of potential stumbling blocks when it comes to the specifics of this claim. Broadly, Bonhoeffer as martyr makes a kind of intuitive sense if one views him as being killed by the Nazis for religious reasons. However, once one begins to examines his life and the reasoning behind viewing his death as a martyrdom, it becomes more complicated.

Petra Brown has argued against Bonhoeffer’s status from a number of directions in her work, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception. The first way she argued against this status is that she believes viewing his activity as worthy of martyrdom leads to a number of dangerous outcomes (I examine this and related claims at length in my review of the book). The second claim is a more direct challenge: that naming Bonhoeffer as martyr is problematic because it is difficult to locate him within a realm of standard martyrdom accounts. More clearly, she argues that seeing Bonhoeffer as a martyr is a challenge because of the very reasons he may be considered as such.

Again, the first thrust of Brown’s argument fails, I believe, because taking Bonhoeffer in his own context and with his own theology undercuts her point. Though her point could be modified to an argument that Bonhoeffer’s theology may be dangerous when wrongly interpreted, this same point could be true of nearly any ethical or theological system. My arguments to this effect can be found elsewhere. Here, her second argument is worth drawing out. Brown pushes that Bonhoeffer as martyr leads to a somewhat unique dilemma, quoting at length (some formats of this site don’t show block quotes, so my quote from her will be in quotation marks instead of a standard block quote format):

“On the one hand, if Bonhoeffer is admirable because he exhibits qualities praiseworthy of a religious martyr in his decision to conspire [against Hitler in a plot to assassinate him], then… [this] provides an example of martyrs who are willing to kill in the name of religion for political causes. On the other hand, if the theological and religious justifications for Bonhoeffer’s political actions are avoided, and he is judged admirable because he embodied the cultural values that shaped Western civilisation, where civilised sensibilities, education, and reason led him to make a rational choice in the face of an irrational regime that usurped power, then he is a political martyr… There spans a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Bonhoeffer as martyr, who died as the result of faithful witness to Christ, and Bonhoeffer as political conspirator, who participated in an assassination attempt.” (Petra Brown, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception, Kindle location 302-313.)

My first set of ellipses there cuts out her reference to Craig J. Slane’s work, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment. Brown is attempting to show that, on Slane’s own attempt to portray Bonhoeffer as martyr, there are a number of problems. I believe, however, that Slane’s work does a better job answering some of Brown’s charges than it may appear. Additionally, there are other avenues the defender of the thesis of “Bonhoeffer as martyr” could utilize to avoid the horns of her dilemma. None of this is to say, however, that it is possible that viewing Bonhoeffer as martyr may be problematic. Again, this goes back to my critique of Brown’s primary point. It does seem clear that a misreading of Bonhoeffer or an intentional distortion of his reasoning could lead to disastrous and even violent outcomes. That alone is enough to urge caution to the Bonhoeffer scholar or fan.

Brown’s charges are a significant challenge. There are a few ways that immediately come up in avoiding them, however. One is to embrace a horn of the dilemma. For example, one may say that yes, Bonhoeffer may be viewed as a political martyr, and what is the issue with that? Indeed, Brown’s only apparent problem with that is that there are others just as (or more) deserving of being labeled a “martyr” for political resistance to the Nazi state as Bonhoeffer was. But that doesn’t constitute a problem for the Bonhoeffer proponent. The Bonhoeffer proponent could then move on to say that they still highly value and appreciate his theology and ethical system without falling into the apparent challenge of the first horn of Brown’s dilemma. However, it seems likely that most who wish to label Bonhoeffer as martyr would do so at least on some level for religio-theological reasons. Clearly, those reasons are what Slane has in mind in his monograph-length defense of that very idea.

Another way around Brown’s dilemma is to point out the first horn of her dilemma appears problematic itself. Bonhoeffer’s death as martyr is not, one may argue, an example of someone willing to “kill in the name of religion for political causes,” but rather is any number of alternatives. Those who use Bonhoeffer’s example to kill religiously for politics would then be distorting Bonhoeffer rather than following his example. Rather than elucidating this alternatives, readers could turn to Slane’s work for some of these examples, and certainly to broader Bonhoeffer scholarship for additional reasons.

Bonhoeffer as Martyr from Slane is at least part of Brown’s focus for her arguments and is quoted and responded to throughout her work. Slane’s own argument, however, is worth examining as I believe that it provides a strong reason to continue to see Bonhoeffer as martyr and shows that it is a misreading of Bonhoeffer to make him problematic in the ways Brown argues. Briefly, Slane surveys a number of Christian conceptualizations of martyrdom, looks at specific examples of Christians widely regarded as martyrs, and then utilizes a filter of a number of categories martyrs often fulfill to show that Bonhoeffer meets the common criteria. Some of these avenues are especially interesting, such as Slane’s deeper examination of Bonhoeffer and specific action related to Jews (see esp. chapter 6). Slane also notes the several streams of thought that see Bonhoeffer as primarily a political martyr (eg. 32).

However, when Bonhoeffer’s life is examined against a kind of standardized list of traits of martyrdom, it stacks up surprisingly well for theological-ethical martyrdom as opposed to merely political martyrdom. And this is, in part, because Slane highlights the reasons for Bonhoeffer’s death as less related to the plot to kill Hitler as it was to his work in the Abwehr with espionage, communication, and at least one instance of getting Jews out of Germany. This point also undercuts some of the thrust of Brown’s argument about politicized religious violence because if Bonhoeffer was martyred for non-violent action, it hardly justifies violent action. A deeper look at the specific reasons for Bonhoeffer’s murder by the Nazis is beyond what I’m doing here, but to my knowledge Slane is closer to accurate here.

Slane links Bonhoeffer’s theological-ethical-political acts with what he calls a “‘Formal Pattern’ of Jewish-Christian Martyrdom” (76ff). While the list of this formal pattern includes 24 points, Slane notes very few, if any, martyrs fulfill them all. What’s meant instead is a broad linking of this pattern to the martyr, and Bonhoeffer meets many of these criteria. Slane notes Bonhoeffer has a kind of foreknowledge of death (78ff), refuses to flee (80ff), refuses to retract (82), increases offense by repetition (here regarding Bonhoeffer’s continued illegal teaching as well as aiding and abetting Jews, see 82-83), comforts his disciples (83ff), pronounces his fate just (84-85), has strength, even gladness of soul (85-86), has last words, proclamation of immortality, and a death of a tyrant (86). Alongside all of this, Slane notes Bonhoeffer’s own theology is itself constructed in such a way as to leave open the possibility of martyrdom (87ff, but see especially 153-156 as well for a deeper look at this unity of thought).

The case for Bonhoeffer as martyr, specifically of the religious-theological-ethical variety, seems especially strong. Slane’s argument is sound, I believe, and it also pre-emptively answers some of Brown’s points despite the latter explicitly working after and even against Slane’s work. The dilemma Brown presents has several answers, but perhaps the most forceful is that Bonhoeffer’s resistance and martyrdom itself obviates against the utilization of his ethics in the very way she charges–individual violent acts apart from any kind of responsibility. Indeed, though Slane only briefly hints at this, broader Bonhoeffer scholarship (such as Christine Schliesser’s excellent Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty) provides means to see Bonhoeffer’s radical “state of exception” as being grounded very solidly in a Lutheran view of guilt, corporate responsibility, and certainly within his own project of seeing the church-community as central to any ethical act.

Brown’s Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception continues to prod at the edges of my thoughts about Bonhoeffer. It’s a powerful critique of wholesale acceptance of Bonhoeffer’s legacy. I believe it deserves wide reading and interaction from Bonhoeffer scholars. Slane’s Bonhoeffer as Martyr was written before it, and is critiqued by Brown, but I still believe it provides a solid foundation for viewing Bonhoeffer as martyr, especially when answering some of Brown’s charges as above.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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