Monthly Archives: February 2009

Bonhoeffer the Martyr?

Is Bonhoeffer a Christian martyr? In the introductory chapter to his Bonhoeffer and South Africa John W De Gruchy answers in the affirmative, I am not however convinced.

As Gruchy notes negative responses to the alleged martyrdom of Bonhoeffer centre around the political nature of Bonhoeffer’s death, as indeed do my reservations. The response of Meiser and Bender is representative of this response:

Bishop Meiser of the Lutheran Church, though he was himself imprisoned by Hitler in the early days of the Third Reich, refused to attend a memorial service for Bonhoeffer at Flossenburg because he regarded his death as political – not Christian martyrdom. Harold Bender, an influential leader among post-World War II Mennonites, was initially strongly attracted to Bonhoeffer by his call in The Cost of Discipleship, but he changed his mind on discovering that Bonhoeffer had forsaken pacifist principles and participated in the conspiracy on Hitler’s life. (P. 16).

What is interesting is that both Meiser as a Lutheran and Bender as a Mennonite (it was Bender you will remember responsible for the characterisation of anabaptism as an uniformlyy pacifistic – and schleitheimic – movement); although in different ways both affirm a two kingdom theology whereby the political and the spiritual are demarcated.

Quite rightly De Gruchy criticises some of the assumptions such an approach can often exhibit by questioning this political/religious demarcation:

Moreover, the cause of Bonhoeffer’s death and his testimony in dying cannot be separated. His death resulted in the name of Christ to the denomic power of Nazism and his struggle to restore a just social order in Germany. Yet the full significance of this political involvement can be appreciated only when read in the light of his witness in his prison cell and before his fellows prior to his death … the decision [Bonhoeffer] made to become involved in the plot [to assassinate Hitler] cannot be separated from his Christian Commitment. (P. 17).

In other words, politics and theology cannot be separated into different spheres. As Rasmussen (Reality and Resistance) has shown this conviction of of the gospel’s import for the whole of life resonates throughout Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre. It is also an irrelevant. There is not doubt Bonhoeffer’s actions were consistent with his developing theology, in particular his ecclesiology and christology, the latter taking prominence over the former. No one so far as i am aware seriously thinks there was for Bonhoeffer a conscious change in mode of operation from theology to politics.

It is not that Bonhoeffer died as a result of his attempted furtherance of a political aim that casts doubt on his status as a martyr of the Church, it is the manner of that action, namely the resort to violence that should provoke pause for reflection ( I wrote about this in more depth and still by and large agree in this PDF file). The clearest analogy is that of Martin Luther King, in my view undoubtedly a martyr of the Christian Church. Why? Because MLK witness was one that resounded with the politics of Jesus without the ambiguity of Bonhoeffer’s complicity in murder (although, as has been pointed out before although I forget by whom MLK’s success was partly attributable to the violence of some who shared the aims of the Civil Rights Movement that the failure of MLK could have brought to the foreground).

The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’d like to thank Richard for asking me to contribute to The Bonhoefferian. My name is R.O. Flyer and I blog at Rain and the Rhinoceros. At the moment, I’m writing a Master’s thesis on the ecclesiology of Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder. As I study for my thesis and work through Bonhoeffer, I’ll be posting reflections on here periodically. The following is a crosspost of something I wrote a few weeks back reflecting on the legacy of Bonhoeffer:

I’m beginning to realize that part of what I find intriguing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the mysterious character of his legacy. Out of all the great figures of twentieth century theology no one is perhaps more well-known, and therefore also probably more misunderstood, than Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is an iconic figure all over the world for his involvement in the Confessing Church, his participation in the resistance against the Nazi-regime, his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, and his execution by the German state. Like other iconic figures, Bonhoeffer’s life story has been told in a variety of different media from biographies, plays, and films. Bonhoeffer has become one of those kind of figures–like MLK or Gandhi–that you simply must appreciate and honor regardless of your political or theological persuasion.


At first glance, this seems like a good thing, but I wonder if this type of widespread popularity doesn’t come at a great cost. I wonder if such symbolic popularity actually has the obverse effect of deadening a powerful message, of softening it–or better, of “cheapening” it. Does everyone love Bonhoeffer because no one understands him? To the popular imagination, why does his witness transcend politics? Let me just say out front that I am almost always skeptical of stuff that seems to help us transcend our differences. One of the reasons I’m skeptical is because this a characteristically liberal maneouver–a maneouver that has the effect of stifling the confrontation of real difference.


Think of the MLK example. MLK is an almost universally recognizable icon for good, so much so that the U.S. takes a day to celebrate his witness. Whether your a republican or democrat you must honor King and all that he represents. What is silly about this is that King was decidedly not republican or democrat. Not that he somehow “transcended” these differences, but rather he was highly critical of both parties. MLK was critical of the American project altogether–in fact, in his later years he even became quite vocal in his opposition to capitalism. Of course, the divisiveness of King’s message must be fully downplayed in order for it to adequately transcend, and so we uphold this vague, but powerful image, of a figure that represents America’s great struggle for racial justice. Thus, King’s legacy binds us together precisely because he reinforces the notion that we are at heart a good nation, a light on a hill–a nation that has overcome racism. What King’s legacy does not do is break us and divide us. In short, King’s legacy doesn’t do what it should: expose us as racist liars.

I think that Bonhoeffer’s popular legacy is similar in this way. What is interesting to me is how Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy is so appreciated by so many theologians of differing persuasions. To some, Bonhoeffer represents a sort of political realism akin to Reinhold Niebuhr. For others, he exposes the weaknesses of pacifism and demonstrates why it is sometimes necessary to kill. Thus, Bonhoeffer has been in employed to bolster support for the war on terrorism. To others, at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s work is a commitment to radical discipleship and Christianity community. Or, for those who read Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison out of context, he becomes the quintessential advocate of a ‘secular’ or religionless Christianity. To be fair, Bonhoeffer’s work is extremely difficult–something that I am keenly aware of at the moment–which is partially at the root of the differences in the way people have chosen to take him. But, Bonhoeffer can’t be everything for everyone–if we all love him, perhaps we don’t understand him. Perhaps we’re all in some way “cheapening” his message in advance, in order to avoid confronting the real cost that his message demands of us.