Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment
Craig J. Slane, Brazos Press, 2004.
Reviewed by Chris Rice
The notion of Martyrdom is a foreign one in our post-modern world. It certainly has more negative connotations when understood as someone willing to off themselves for a political cause. We think of religious martyrdom in the news in terms of fiery blasts and falling buildings in the headlines. How could death for a cause be inspirational in this day and age? Craig Slane guides us through the Christian history of witness from its earliest days to the present, demonstrating how the change in our own times have blurred the lines between dogmatic and ideological witness.
Perhaps just when we need it most introduces us to the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as follower of Jesus unto death. Martyrdom, he points out, for the Christian is not recognized or claimed for one’s self prior to death, rather it is bestowed by the believer’s faith community. This separates Bonhoeffer and all believers from those who would off themselves purposely as a suicidal act. Still, is it true that we are called to identify our faith with death as much as life? Can our faith be a death affirming activity–and why would you want to read a book about that? In an age and for a country wherein Christianity has become more about our best, victorious, and most successful living the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of a costly Christianity that daily identifies with a humiliated and hidden Savior. He reminds us of the Church as a radical community wherein we practice individual confession and repentance, and relationships with Christ as mediator. These things, of course, are all a part of a life well lived following Jesus—to the Cross.
I haven’t had a reading experience like this one since I can remember. Those with abstract thought handicaps beware, and if you develop a skin rash at the mention of Heidegger or A.N. Whitehead consider yourself warned. This work is not for the academic faint of heart. But if you’ve got guts and curiosity I dare you to read this book. It is intended as a step forward for Bonhoeffer studies, but also as an interpretation of martyrdom. Bonhoeffer’s final works, Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics are set in the light of his decision to join the Abwehr and be hung along with Hitler’s conspirators. So reading this book has set my readings of these books in a whole new light. There are many selections from rather obscure letters and texts that help set the right context. As I point out in my review of Stephen Haynes’s book The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon, Bonhoeffer is used constantly out of his context. Its only in setting the scene that we can fully appreciate his witness, and then appropriate his example to our own setting.