Stringfellow on Bonhoeffer, martyrs, and church conscience

The church, anyway, needs no compulsion to gain persecution, in any circumstances at any time in this age, because the power of death, incarnate in the political principalities, as in other ways is truly incorrigible. Death is the aggressor and though the apparitions and forms which the power of death assumes are variegated, that does not imply that death can be quantified. It is no longer the custom to cast Christians into dens of beasts, but that does not mean the persecution has ended. And, whatever else may be attributed to the impress of the Constantinian arrangement, its comity did not abate the hostility which the church, where it is exemplar and advocate of life, endures for the time being in this world.


In quite the same vein, too much is made of the witness of particular Christian so that it is regarded as exceptional (rather than exemplary) and so some few are installed as martyrs, as heroic figures, as super-Christians. An instance is found in the lore which has accrued to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I do not hesitate at all to venture that Bonhoeffer would be deeply provoked by the way his witness has been construed as so unusual that it is unedifying to ordinary people of the church, so bold that it excuses inaction rather than inspiring it. . . .


The point is, of course, that there are no martyrs at all in the church because of the veracity of the sacrifice of the Word of God in Christ for the world. There is nothing to be added to Christ’s sacrifice. No Christian in witness to Christ’s sacrifice volunteers any sacrifice of his or her own. The whole idea of there being any martyrs for the gospel is an embellishment misleading the church and its members and furnishing pretext to simply cop-out.


This whole syndrome in the contemporary church sponsors the notion that, though there may be occasional poets, fools, or super-Christians, with the alleged ending of persecution, all that remains between the church and political authority are some few issues which may prompt intermittent incidents of individual civil disobedience. There are still some Quakers on the scene, plus scattered Anabaptists, but, in general, in the contemporary church, in America and places like America, the questions of obedience and conscience are usually deemed to affect individuals, not the church as an institution and society. And the decisions such persons make are thought to be idiosyncratic and, moreover, arrogant—that is, implicating a claim of superior insight in the will and judgment of God. 


William Stringfellow, Conscience & Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming, Word, 1977, pgs. 99-101.




Filed under bonhoeffer, books, quote

2 responses to “Stringfellow on Bonhoeffer, martyrs, and church conscience

  1. Sue

    Such a point of view is entirely a romantic fairy tail view of the dreadful truth of the church as a power and control seeking institution, which by its very nature has inevitably created mountains of corpses.

    These references are much more truthful about what really happened—and is STILL happening.

  2. Please flesh out your “romantic fairy tale” comment. Why?

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