"Is it possible for someone who planned treasonous and murderous acts be honored as a martyr (11)?" This is the question which frames Craig Slane's systematic attempt to legitimate an affirmative response to the aforesaid question when applied to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, despite Bonhoeffer's involvement in "various acts of subterfuge against the German government," active membership in the Abwehr, and his participation in plots designed to assassinate Adolf Hitler (29).
Slane begins his apologetical task by examining martyrdom in early Christianity. Utilizing the imitatio Christi as the axis along which the essential pattern of Christian martyrdom evolves, Slane shows how "the movement from life-witness to death provides the essential pattern for Christian martyrdom (38)." In the New Testament, martyrdom is understood as witnessing to and confessing the truth, "nowhere in the New Testament is one called a martyr because one suffers unto death for her confession in Christ...This is clearly a later development"...although the "interdependence of martyria and death is contained in the embryo of the imitatio Christi (41)," as well as New Testament allusions that one's witness of faith may include death (44). Utilizing Polycarp and the Lyons martyrs as illustrative, Slane shows how, in the second century, martyrdom "increasingly focused on death, such that the true martyr is the one who suffers and dies for the sake of witness (45)." Thus the church came to fuse death and witness to Christ in its understanding of martyrdom (52). Regarding Bonhoeffer, the issue becomes the relationship between his witness to Christ and his being put to death. Furthermore, martyrdom also came to be viewed as an act of freedom (54-57) enhanced by the martyr's innocence (58-62). Again, the question is to what extent do these criteria of martyrdom apply to Bonhoeffer?
Slane addresses these questions by employing H. A. Fischel's analysis of the classic pattern of martyrdom to assess the case for Bonhoeffer (76-88). Given Bonhoeffer's foreknowledge of his death, his refusal to flee, his increased resistance against political powers, the justness of his cause, the comfort he afforded his disciples, etc., one can see parallels between him and the classic martyrs. Additionally, as one looks at Bonhoeffer's theology one can see an ecclesiology devoted to creating a "politically viable form of Christian community (87)" (which Slane sees realized in Bonhoeffer's oversight of Finkenwalde (239) as assessed through the lense of Ronald Green's Religion and Moral Reason (216f)); an understanding of discipleship which "entails the confession and performance of one's faith in the public sphere (91; see also 185-187);" an ethical vision which sees Christ taking concrete form in the lives of those who have united their will to His (143); and a Christological vision which calls one to die to oneself for the sake of living for Christ which, in turn, enables one to live at the service of the world (144, 169). Taken collectively, the case for Bonhoeffer as martyr is edified.
An additional hermeneutical lense is employed by Slane in his efforts to view Bonhoeffer as a martyr: Martin Hedeigger's analysis of being-unto death. Dasein ("the concrete, individual instance of the existing entity of the human") "becomes aware of its own death, grasps it, assimilates it into its existence, and thereby achieves authenticity (124-125)." Hedeigger posits that as "one realizes what it means to be something that will one day cease to be, disclosed is precisely the significance of one's life (126)." Awareness of one's finitude potentially enables one to focus on living with meaning (126). According to Heidegger, an authentic existence is one marked by an anticipation of death met with fidelity to the kind of being one is (127). Hence death serves to illuminate the life of Dasein (128). Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life of Christian praxis resonates with, draws meaning from, and is illuminated by the Christian understanding of death.
Slane also looks at the nature of contemporary martyrdom and sees that today "martyrs become objects of political oppression because they are subjects who engage themselves politically in the interest of human justice (73)," and recognizes that this was particularly the case for Bonhoeffer in the context of the Holocaust (111). Furthermore, "the political powers of our day do not seem overly agitated by strong verbal confessions, unless those confessions lead to actions... In germ this explains how the martyrs of our age have gotten themselves entangled in politics. They confess Jesus Christ by acting for those others who have been marginalized by the polis (114)." Thus one is able to see Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one whose faith compelled him to be concerned for others, a concern that led him to enter the political arena of his time knowing that his own future might be compromised in his efforts to improve the future of others (74). Consequently, Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be seen as a martyr for he "imitated Christ by laying down his life for his friends (74)."
In sum, Slane's work not only lends to the discussion around Bonhoeffer's legacy, but also provides a thorough examination of martyrdom and an overview of Bonhoeffer's central theological and ethical themes. Perhaps as significant, however, are the book's lessons regarding ethical choices in an increasingly complex world, and the challenge that "if the church engages the world properly, the visible church community will always more closely assume the form of its suffering Lord (92)."