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.
- How the Blessing of Persecution Works (gregoryccochran.com)
- Church leader’s opposition to Nazis up for discussion (triblive.com)