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Posted August 6, 2004

Book: Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment
Author: Craig J. Slane
Brazon Press, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 256

An Excerpt from Jacket:

“Can Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor/theologian who was hanged by the Nazis for his participation in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, legitimately be named a Christian martyr? In this scholarly work, Slane explores the issues involved: the variety of understandings of martyrdom in Christian history, its modern interpretation, and how the story of Bonhoeffer’s Christ-centered and socially responsible life and unusual death fit the present definition. On the basis of his careful research, Slane answers the question with the resounding ‘Yes!’.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Christian Life as the Practice of Death

If, as I have suggested, living is a matter of dying, then we should expect to apprehend the deepest significance of human life only by means of a dialogical encounter with death. I Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim he tells the story of Rabbi Baumann, who as he lay dying saw his wife weeping over his impending death. He responded: “What are you crying for? My whole life was only that I might learn how to die.” The rabbi’s statement reveals his commitment to work death into his life’s narrative. He would not permit the unfolding episode of his death an alien status, as if he were meeting a stranger, but instead managed to incorporate it into his personal story. In doing so he understood that within death the whole mystery of his creaturely existence was contained, that in this particular episode of experience there lay some profound and necessary truth about himself which could be grasped in no other way.

The psalmist pleads for a similar understanding when he prays that God will “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart”. Here God is petitioned to provide an awareness of death in order that life may be lived with greater insight and understanding. In Psalm 39: 4-6 the plea is elaborated:

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.

Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
the heap up, and do not know who will gather.

Why does the psalmist appeal to God to know the end? Certainly he is not asking to know whether there will be an end. The fact of his destiny is abundantly clear, for he understands his life already as but “a few handbreaths” and a “shadow.” What he seeks is an alertness toward this destiny by which he can unlock the mystery of his being as a creature before God.

In Ecclesiastes the teacher of wisdom sums up his prolix consideration of life’s temptations and pleasures by appealing to death: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” The wise will remember their Creator in the days of their youth. Such remembrance is brimming with prospects for life, for the “end of the matter is a renewed moral vigor: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Table of Contents:

Part One: Is Bonhoeffer Really a Martyr?

1. Diary of a Bourgeois priest
2. From Flossenburg to Westminster Abbey
3. Martyrdom in early Christianity
4. An alphabet of martyrdom
5. New letters in an old alphabet
6. The distance between a funeral and an operation

Part Two: Interpretive Prospects of Martyrdom

7. Toward a hermeneutic of martyrdom
8. Christian life as the practice of death

Part Three: Bonheoffer in Martyrological Perspective

9. Pushing back Christendom to Christ
10. Finding Christ in the world
11. Journey to Finkenwalde
12. Finkenwalde: training for martyrdom