In a blurb on the back cover of Bonhoeffer as Martyr, John D. Gosey asks the seminal question that informs this entire book: “Can Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor/theologian who was hanged by the Nazis for his participation in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, legitimately be named a Christian martyr?” Craig J. Slane’s answer to this provocative question is, simply, “Yes,” but this valuable book is testimony to the research and reflection that validate this response.
Although there are no accepted eye-witness accounts of Bonhoeffer’s death (the one document describing the event, a letter from the doctor who signed Bonhoeffer’s death certificate, is largely disputed as fictional), there is no doubt that the Lutheran theologian was hanged on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. The question is whether or not Bonhoeffer, by reason of this death, has earned the designation “martyr.”
Slane’s book attracted me immediately because of my interest in the question of whether or not death for a political, not a strictly religious, reason could be considered a martyrdom. One of my primary interests in teaching and writing is social justice, and one of my personal focuses is El Salvador. There is no doubt in my mind that there are many martyrs in Salvador’s recent, tragic history, but not one has yet been granted that status officially by Rome, since their deaths are characterized as “political.” This makes no differences to the ordinary people of Salvador, who hail their “St. Oscar” with deep faith and love, but it would be a spiritual boost to this suffering country to hear a pope say it for the world to hear.
So, can those who die, as Bonhoeffer did, for reasons other than a direct defense of the Christian faith be considered Christian martyrs? To explore this question, Slane first introduces Bonhoeffer and reminds us: “We need Bonhoeffer. He can give us the courage to tell the more macabre truths of the last century to the next generation without bringing it to despair.” (p. 10) Slane then laments the rift between the “public” and “private” aspects of our lives, an artificial separation of the religious and political dimensions of Christian existence. Here, he brought to my mind the awesome truth of Genesis: all of life, all of the cosmos, all of creation is shot through with God. And Jesus, building on the creation themes of the Wisdom tradition, insisted that there is, after all, no difference between our duties to God and our duties to each other. All are sacred; all are holy.
Slane is himself aware of the many places in the world today where people are dying as martyrs, whatever the specific charge under which they are executed. “The lives and deaths of these newer martyrs call for a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of martyrdom and its relation to social responsibility and Christian commitment.” (p.12)
In one of the most moving passages in the book, Slane talks about his visit to Flossenbürg. He had gone there to find something of Bonhoeffer but experienced instead the anonymity of death in the camps. Although Bonhoeffer has, in the years since his death, been singled out for study and veneration, it remains true that his was an obscure death, one death among millions. “As if by some metaphysical law, the fraternity of suffering itself would not allow the visitor to single out any one face from the others. This experience has become for me a metaphor of Bonhoeffer’s solidarity with those who suffer. It was obvious to me that he had identified with those who suffer in his life, but I had not yet considered the kind of solidarity implied by his death. (p. 29)
Slane has done considerable research into the history of Christian martyrdom and much of the book reviews the evolution of the understanding of what it means to be a martyr throughout the Christian era. He cites numerous primary and secondary sources, giving a rich and full description of a phenomenon not well understood by most Christians. Slane then uses Bonhoeffer’s sermons and written works to flesh out our understanding of this conflicted man who struggled with the tension between his bourgeois heritage and the call he felt to radical Christianity.
This book would be useful for anyone interested in the interplay between Christian commitment and political activism. It has particular relevance in a period in history still ravaged by genocide and wars of ethnic cleansing. Sadly, the world has not heard the cry of the sculpture commissioned by survivors of Dachau: “Never again!”