Bonhoeffer Is Not a Martyr

20th anniversary of the assassination against ...
20th anniversary of the assassination against Adolf Hitler on July 20th 1944 :*Graphics by Gerd und E. Aretz :*Ausgabepreis: 20 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 20. Juli 1964 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 433 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On behalf of Project 13:3 and on behalf of the persecuted church around the world, I delivered an address this afternoon at the 64th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This year, the meeting is being held in Milwaukee, WI.

The paper I delivered was titled “Bonhoeffer, the Bible, and Christian Persecution: Unraveling the Mystery of Martyrdom.” You can read the entire paper here.

The gist of the paper is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer should not be called a martyr by Christians. The reason Bonhoeffer should not be called a martyr is that he was not persecuted for his faith. He did not die as the result of persecution. He died as the result of being guilty of a political plot to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s part was not to assassinate Hitler, but the plot itself did include that ultimate aim. The attempt was made, but failed. Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot.

What I really want to summarize here in this blog post is why it is important to reserve the title martyr for others (like this guy, for example). Specifically, even though evangelicals are not known for the veneration of saints in a manner such as that prevalent in the Roman Catholic tradition, the truth remains that Christians seek role models and are even encouraged several times in Scripture to imitate others–especially others who have persevered and triumphed through trials and suffering.

Whether intentionally or not, those who call Bonhoeffer a martyr do the church a disservice because they are affirming for him a place of honor which is worthy to be emulated. Though it may be acceptable for a soldier to join in subterfuge in order to kill a leader and, thus, serve the greater good of humanity, the Christian call is to a higher order of righteousness. The Christian should not kill.  The Christian should not steal. The Christian should not forge documents and tell lies in order to preserve political secrets.

I do not discount the possibility that a Christian may in certain circumstances be guilty of some of these sins–or maybe even all of them–and still be a Christian. However, awarding such a person the title martyr is dangerous and unhelpful to the long-term witness of the Christian Church.

While one may in fact applaud Bonhoeffer’s willingness to die for what he thought was right, he should not applaud his willingness to kill–or even to employ deception so that others might kill–a political enemy. This is not something Christ ever did.  The title martyr must be reserved for those whose actions are in accordance with the righteousness of Christ.

You may have other thoughts. You are, of course, free to share. But for much more detail, you should read the Bonhoeffer paper.

6 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer Is Not a Martyr

Add yours

  1. “He died as the result of being guilty of a political plot to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s part was not to assassinate Hitler, but the plot itself did include that ultimate aim. The attempt was made, but failed. Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot.”

    great point. i’ve been trying to tell people in the church for years. thanks again.


  2. I think it’s reasonable than to assume that John the Baptist would never qualify as a martyr by some standards. Apparently the life John embodied didn’t result in his death, it was because he ran his mouth to people in political power. He didn’t have to do that. He should have kept his mouth shut when it came to the people in power and his political nature is what got them killed. He shouldn’t have become involved in such a vitriolic behaviour. We could even argue his ministry would’ve been much more effective; he probably could’ve even helped Jesus evangelize and lead many to Christ. Because he had to condemn Herod, he died. I find it confusing, the logic that is, to say a Christian can’t kill. My point in case it’s being missed is that John was a martyr for God because his life embodied something. He became a living epistle which resulted ultimately in his death. That was John story. That was John’s destiny. That is John’s testimony for Jesus Christ. His life would read as a story or a testimony for Jesus. Maybe his friend said, “What is he doing? That’s a sure way to get yourself killed? He’s not a martyr, he is a suicidal maniac!” The Spirit of God worked in John in such a way that it compelled him to be the man he was and to do the things he did.

    Regarding a Christian killing another human being, I believe the truth of the matter is, a Christian should not commit murder. If a man is a Christian on a battlefield is he a murderer? So it would seem to me that your theological position on killing, which is a major premise in your argument, is that it is wrong for a Christian to kill, ever. I suppose that would mean any person who is a police officer for example, should never ever carry a weapon unless they are perhaps a sharpshooter and they can shoot guns out of peoples hands or shoot them in the knee. Ultimately then, perhaps our position as Christians should be we should never get involved in law-enforcement or military. We should fully benefit from other people killing on our behalf in the name of freedom and justice. We should pay taxes to pay their salaries to kill people on our behalf, but we ourselves should never pull the trigger. I guess that would kind of make us involved in a plot to kill others. There seems to be a major hole in this logic from my perspective. I respect anyone who takes a stand for pacifism. There are many who have. But I do recall Jesus instructing his disciples to buy swords. I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t so they have something to cut the bread with while they were out on the road. It was for self-defense. Unless they were also the three musketeers, I doubt they were going to be doing fancy swordsmanship where they were going to make peoples pants fall down around their ankles so they can trip, or do all kinds of circus tricks with their swords. Self-defence can be a messy business when it involves a sword. I imagine defence of the world could also be a messy business too. If say John and Peter went out preaching the gospel around the world and while defending themselves they died. They didn’t die martyrs cause they weren’t in the middle of a sermon or something? Perhaps they had survived death multiple times, and a number of people may have died at their hand in the self-defense. Would it be reasonable to exclude them from martyrdom because they practised self defence or the defence of others? In my opinion, if Peter had died along the road between cities, he would have been no less a martyr then had he been crucified. I say this because his death was the result of him taking up his cross and following Jesus. He could’ve stayed home and fished and fed his family, but he took a different path. The path he took was a hard path. And though he may not have died upside down and across in Rome in that example, I believe he gave his life fully for Christ in no less no less a manner. A plot to kill Hitler could easily be framed as defence of the world or of the Jew at the very least. War is something very different than killing somebody because they stepped on your lawn. I guess only the Lord Jesus Christ knows whether he instilled into the heart of Bonhoeffer a desire to do something in the hour in which he lived. Because ultimately that’s what it comes down to. If God tells you to do something and it results in your dying, you died in the service of God. And accuse me of flawed logic, but that means you have died for God as a martyr for His cause. Bonhoeffer embodied, in many ways what, I would hope the entire church in Germany should have embodied. Had that been the case history would be very different. I have no doubt that his testimony for Jesus Christ is what led him down the path that ultimately resulted in his hanging. It was the Christ in him that made him the man he was. I’ve read that there were Evangelicals who sang louder so they couldn’t hear the cries of the Jews on the trains being shipped to the camps as they drove past their villages and towns. Just sing louder so we don’t hear them. That is the exact opposite of Bonhoeffer. The Christ in him made him step up and do what the hour are required. Was not the spirit of Christ in those church goers who were singing? I’ll contend the spirit of Christ was equally in them but they didn’t rise to the occasion.
    The camp doctor who witnessed the execution of Bonhoeffer later wrote,
    “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”


    1. Bill,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, friend. I think we agree on more than it seems. I myself am not a pacifist for reasons you cite among others. I don’t think it’s wrong in all circumstances for Christians to kill. I also agree with you that Bonhoeffer’s life and death evokes passion and reflects faith. Many of his writings from prison and his work from the Sermon on the Mount provide much profit for Christian devotion. He seemingly did die as a Christian; he died a Christian death–like many soldiers no doubt have.

      What is at issue here is a very specific, technical definition of martyr. Bonhoeffer was not suffering explicitly for his Christian faith, but for his role in a plot to overthrow the Nazi regime. We might agree it was a good thing for Bonhoeffer to do. But that isn’t the same as saying it was on account of Christ’s righteousness that he took action. In fact, Bonhoeffer was conflicted within himself on account of his own pacifist convictions. The point is not to disparage him or call him non-Christian, it is to help clarify what is and what is not persecution. Christians are salt and light. Christians will suffer simply by being human in a fallen world. Sometimes, Christians will suffer explicitly on account of their displaying the righteousness of God in Christ. That kind of suffering is persecution. Those who suffer that kind of persecution unto death are martyrs of the faith.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: