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).

6 responses to “Bonhoeffer the Martyr?

  1. I’m curious as to the separation between “politics” and “violence” in the foregoing analysis. Most opposition to allowing that Bonhoeffer is a “Christian martyr” of which I am familiar has opposed it on the basis of the political nature of his resistance. You reject that as a factor that counts against his martyrdom, but point instead to the “violent” nature of his opposition.

    Isn’t political resistance of any kind inherently “violent,” insofar as it depends on a form of coercion?

    The mainstream opposition to Bonhoeffer as martyr seems to assume this kind of intimate relationship, in that the “violence” of his opposition is an aspect of his overtly “political” resistance.

  2. Michael Morkve

    The denial of Bonhoeffer as a ‘martyr’ seems to me derived from a complete misunderstanding of what Bonhoeffer, and I, would consider the truth of ethics. For Bonhoeffer, the ‘Christian’ is to act AS Christ, which means they are to ‘act’ the situationally subjective ‘Will of the Father’ with no deference to what may be considered as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. This judgment concerning ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is what constitutes our disunion with God. It is only when we relinquish our perception of ourselves as judge and origin of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and seek simply to do the situationally subjective ‘Will of God’ in the now that we can be said to be a ‘follower’ of Christ. In this, the Christ-follower dies to themself and allows Christ to relive/continue to live His life through them. How does Christ live this life; His life? He does so just as He did during His physical incarnation; by bearing the sins of His enemies; becoming sin on their behalf; and dying in their place. What does it mean for Christ to become sin on behalf of the other through me presently? It means that I must be willing to do that which is sin, and bear the consequences thereof, on behalf of the other in ways and situations which re-present the reconciliation of relationship that is available in and through Christ’s incarnation. In this, God (who Himself is said to accomplish ‘evil’ in the scriptures) justifies, forgives and comforts us in that ‘viciously representative action’.

    This is why God will consider Bonhoeffer a martyr. Because Bonhoeffer committed what he himself considered sin, and was willing to bear the consequences for that sin on behalf of those who needed such an action to be accomplished. He believed this to be the Christ-like re-presentation of the situationally subjective ‘Will of God’ for Him in the now. Hence he was executed as a consequence of doing what he believed to be the ‘Will of God’ for HIM to do as a re-presentation of Christ in that situation. There is no greater definition of a martyr than this; that one should lay down his life to empirically reveal the Love of Christ for his neighbor.

    That said, it must be noted that Bonhoeffer would not assert that every person in his circumstance SHOULD do the same. The ‘Will of God’ for you in any situation, place and time is unique to you and cannot be codified. The ethical actions of a Christian are not based on a static law but on the personal, situationally based, ‘Will of God’ for YOU, in the NOW.

  3. Michael Morkve

    If you would like a further and more in depth explaination of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Christo-ethics’ I would be happy to send you a paper I recently wrote on the development of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Religionless Christianity’.

    Just email me at

  4. I believe that Bonhoeffer was a devout Christian who was lead by his conscience to do what he did. In my mind he was a martyr.

  5. As I reckon with events, DB died for the sake of justice-righteousness as a Christian in the struggle against evil. The Third Reich generated a boundary condition which required action at the risk of placing oneself under judgment. The Ethics does not condone a “situational” approach to morality or action under normative conditions. That would give too much credence to individual autonomy outside of community. The Nazi regime and specifically Hitler as “der furhrer” had violated the community of both nation and church most esp. via its Aryan ideology. In such an exigent situation, the necessity of action to eradicate evil was called for precisely for the sake of the Other. DB’s participation in the assassination conspiracy was such an action of necessity, and therefore, ultimacy. This placed DB under judgment, pushed outside the law and onto the cross (along with other conspirators) where he became utterly reliant upon Divine mercy.
    For the sake of Christ and the Church, he acted decisively in a way that risked everything that he might preserve the center. His death was then carried out vindictively by the very one (orders by Hitler) who had become a personification of evil against both humanity and the Church. While I recognize both the political and violent character of DB’s actions, at that particular boundary, I count his death as martyrdom for the sake of Christ.

  6. Pingback: The Pacifism of Bonhoeffer | The Bonhoefferian

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