Bonhoeffer Named Martyr by United Methodist Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The United Methodist News Service reports that delegates to the 2008 General Conference voted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be “the first martyr officially recognized by The United Methodist Church.” I wish they hadn’t.

It’s not that I have anything against Bonhoeffer. I think he was one of the most significant Christians of the 20th century. Some of his writings among the most profound ever produced by the Christian church. Charles Sigman, the Arkansan pastor who authored the resolution, said, “During a time of grave darkness in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer shined the light of Christ all the way to a hangman’s noose.” Indeed he did. That’s not the problem.

Rather, I fear that we have just created another category of things about which to argue. The category of “officially recognized martyr” has all the earmarks of yet another political football. “I hope it will start a precedent,” Sigman said. I’m afraid that it will.

At least some people are seeing this as a United Methodist version of semi-sainthood. The UMNS quotes Alan Combs, a Probationary Elder from Virginia, as saying “I think the writer of the resolution was smart to use martyr because we don’t have any formal recognition of saints.” Roman Catholics know how to do “saints.” We don’t. Canonization in Roman Catholicism has a 2000 year history. It has a particular place within Roman Catholic ecclesiology and theology. When Roman Catholics talk about saints, they have an agreed upon set of meanings and procedures. United Methodism has neither the history nor the theological framework for canonization. Nominations will get the same due diligence given hundreds of other agenda items. They will be decided in mere moments of what passes for reflection. Pick a martyr to your favorite political cause and nominate him or her to the next General Conference. If your martyr fits the cause du jour, you’re good to go.

In fact, one of the problems with the semi-canonization of Bonhoeffer is that it corresponds with the contemporary Christian fascination with the geopolitical realm. Listen, I work in the geopolitical arena. It ain’t all that fascinating. It is certainly not the only venue, or even the primary venue, in which Christians live out their faithfulness to God. It may be, however, the realm most imbued with ambiguity and uncertainty about what Christian love demands. Living out one’s faith in the context of the world’s institutions is, to say the very least, morally complex to a very high degree. I don’t know anyone who works responsibly within the structures of government who would say, “Look, here is THE way to live and act as a Christian.” The only Christians who think that following Christ in the political realm is not filled with moral ambiguity are those don’t actually bear responsibility for making difficult decisions. That’s true of Christians in government or in business or in any other institution that exercises power over the lives of many people.

Bonhoeffer’s recognition is probably helped by the fact that he is claimed by people of differing theological and social points of view. Again, Sigman says, “Nearly every clergy has studied him and used him in sermons and theological discourse.” True enough. Christians who like Hauerwas and Christians who like Niebuhr may find little common ground, but they both seem to like Bonhoeffer. People seem to find in Bonhoeffer whatever they want to find.

I’m curious about what people thought they were saying when they recognized as Bonhoeffer as a “martyr.” I’m not even sure that “martyr” is the right word. It is not as if the Nazis asked Bonhoeffer, “Are you a Christian?” and then marched him to the gallows. He was executed as an irregular combatant in an all-to-earthly armed struggle. In Bonhoeffer, Pacifism and Assassination I reviewed Bonhoeffer’s participation in the violent plot to overthrow Hitler and bring down the Third Reich. Were the people who voted for this resolution thinking of the Bonhoeffer who wrote and spoke as a pacifist in the early 1930’s? Were they thinking of the professor and pastor who led the seminary at Finkenwalde? Or were they thinking of the spy and conspirator who participated in a plot to assassinate his country’s military and political leadership and take over the government by force? It was the latter Bonhoeffer who died at Flossenbuerg.

If the General Conference delegates were thinking of the latter Bonhoeffer, then there are hundreds of thousands of Americans, Brits, Russians and others who equally deserve the title of “martyr.” Many of those who fought against the original “Axis of Evil” were Christians who in a morally complex world decided that faithfulness to God required them to take up arms against the Nazis. For most Christians, the issues involved were significant and there was clearly a morally preferable side. They couldn’t stand by while the Third Reich destroyed the lives of millions. The law of love would not allow it. Still, World War II was not a “religious war.” It may have been a “just war,” but it was also “just a war” – an ugly war, as all wars are – and a morally complex conflict. It was not an eschatological battle between angels and devils.

Perhaps we should save the word “martyr” for those Christians who like the early believers give their lives in an unambiguous witness to their faith. Yes, the word “martyr” means witness in Greek and everyone who attempts to be faithful to Christ is in a way serving as a witness to his or her faith. Within the early church, however, the word acquired a more technical meaning. It came to denote those who were executed simply for the act of naming Christ as Lord. There are, in fact, Christians today who face martyrdom simply because of their Christian identity. Maybe we should save the word “martyr” for them. When it comes to the rest of us, those of us who simply make the best choices that we can in faith and then live with the consequences, is “martyr” really the word we want to use? And do we really want to set up yet another arena of intra-Christian conflict about who should and should not be officially designated as “martyrs.”

My response to all of this may seem odd given what I said yesterday about Father Emil Kapaun’s pending canonization. I wrote, “I am happy to see this exemplary Christian life lifted up as an example to emulate and honor.” I would have said much the same thing about Father Kapaun’s exemplary life if the Vatican had simply issued a postage stamp with his picture on it. As a United Methodist, the canonization aspect of this honor is not particularly important, and I don’t think my own denomination ought to be wading into these waters at this point in its history.


UMNS Article:
United Methodists give Bonhoeffer martyr status

General Conference Legislation:
Petition 80110: Recognition for Bonhoeffer