The word martyr [μάρτυς] means to ‘bear witness’, this is derived from the word marturion [μαρτύριον] which is understood to mean evidence testimony; witness; to be testified.
The word martyr is also connected to martyromai [μαρτύρομαι] ‘I am urging; I am bearing witness; I am declaring; I am insisting.’1
Along with a lot of His colleagues, family and friends – of whom one was Karl Barth and the other Martin Niemöller, Bonhoeffer fits the profile of declaring; bearing witness; insisting. He was a martyr.
Today, fascist theory might only exist in fringe elements of society, but the style of political activism employed by the Nazi’s isn’t.
Rhetoric and labels offer to tempting of a tool to withstand. Evident in the ‘punch a Nazi‘ slogan, which when translated comes to down being a leftist justification for punching a Trump voter, conservative or anyone who is deemed to be an ”oppressor” by pharisees on the Left.
Anyone who, in their opposition, falls foul of the tar and feathering. The put downs. The emotional manipulation and the slurs. Such as the tattooing of the ”wrong side of history” on the social media arms of their victims. People who in their disagreement and opposition, find themselves, ridiculed into silence, falsely branded as racist, bigot, phobic or worse.
The significance of Bonhoeffer, Barth and Niemöller’s resistance must not be overlooked. Their resistance is as relevant as ever. In 1993, Lutheran academic Gene Veith pointed out that the Fascist political play book is still in service today:
…’fascism is a worldview….the defeat of Hitler and the Axis powers in World War II meant the military defeat of fascism, but an ideology cannot be defeated by military power alone. Ideas linger…despite the military victory over fascism, it will long continue to live’2 (Veith, 1993 Modern Fascism)
Although the Church in the 21st Century shares a different context with the German Church struggle; the Kirchenkampf, there are parallels.
It can, however, be difficult to see those similarities. Some similarities are subtleties. The pretenders are in large part invisible to the majority, but are working hard at ‘gradually liquidating the True Church through intimidation.’ (Bethge cited by Metaxas, 2010:294, italics mine).
‘Marx’s categories [generalised dehumanising labels] have been used to complete the work begun by Napoleon [in Europe] and continued in another more horrible way by Hitler […] to replace civil society with a committee of intellectuals – as the official ”voice of the worker” – in which only abstractions can be uttered and only Leftist bureaucrats takes part’3 (Roger Scruton, 2015. Fools, Frauds & Firebrands)
Part of the Christian and his or her response to this new Church struggle may perhaps require applying Bonhoeffer’s admonishment to ‘not defend God’s word, but testify to it…’ (Metaxas citing Bonhoeffer, 2010:261).The Confessing church is a church of martyrs.
Rather than retreat into gated communities, under the appearance of defeat, or defeatism, the church must, like Bonhoeffer, in Christ, step-up:
…‘Although I am working with all my might for the church opposition, it is perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transition to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those engaged in this preliminary skirmish will be part of the next struggle. And I believe that the whole of Christendom should pray with us that it will be a ‘resistance unto death’, and that the people will be found to suffer it’ (Eric Metaxas citing Bonhoeffer 2010:195-1964)
Marxist, Leon Trotsky saw the danger of not supporting the Church struggle in Germany, which by default meant negatively affecting, through the compromise of freedom, the proclamation and testimony of the Church:
‘…It is only necessary to find real and effective methods to intervene in the struggle, to stir up the religious-democratic opposition, to broaden it and to assist the young Catholics, especially the workers, in their struggle (and not, of course, the Nazi police, which wants to “destroy” these religious organisations). Thus, in Russia we always defended the struggle of the Armenian church for its autonomy.’ (19th August 1935) 5
The work of the church today is to try and define this new Church struggle, not be defined by it. It comes from within, by way of pressure from without: culture seeking to determine the agenda of the Church. In pushing back, the church today must be cautious of schism. Those involved in the opposition, because of their opposition, must be careful not to trigger it. The Church must be careful of it’s “no” and even more careful of it’s “yes”, but speak it must!
Right from the start those in the church opposition have to ask:
1. How does struggle connect with ‘bearing witness’?
2. Is ‘bearing witness’ found in the act of struggle as opposed to full subjugation to the powers with which the Church struggles against?
3. Who or what are those powers?
In 1964, Ronald Reagan said that ‘the martyrs of history were not fools6’. Those who speak out are not fools. Those who bear witness to Christ, to the truth and grace that impacts and transforms are not fools. In Bonhoeffer’s story there is holy ground. His stand and those who stood in the same opposition; their ‘no compromise’ theology and service to the Church are real examples of genuine resistance.
‘The reaction should be one of a spiritual and psychological nature, and on a scholarly level.’ (Jacques Ellul, p.677)
The term martyr (marturion), is understood to be witness. One who declares and insists. All who are raised up in Christ, are called to raise up Christ. As Shelly Rambo puts it:
‘Perhaps the figure of ‘the martyr’ [μαρτύριον – marturion] that we need to mobilize [recover] is not the one who sacrifices him-or herself but the one whose compulsion is to witness and to provide testimony.’ 8
How Christians tell their story, live out the struggle or ‘bear witness’ in testifying to that story, may require more effort and attention than is currently being wielded. One thing is clear, the struggle is something we share. Genuine resistance can and should employ testimony.
If this should eventuate in the way it did for Bonhoeffer, and has done in the Middle East, then, with the Moravians of old, from sigh to prayer, “may the lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.”
The Confessing church is a church of martyrs. Church, sleep no more!
- Goodrick,W.E & Kohlenberger.J.R 1999 NIVAC:The Strongest NIV exhaustive concordance Zondervan USA
- Veith, G.E.1993 Modern Fascism (Kindle Locations 179-181). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
- Scruton, R. 2015 Fools, Frauds & Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
- Metaxas, E. 2010 Bonheoffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet and Spy Thomas Nelson Publishers
- The Church struggle under fascism, 1935 Leon Trotsky
- Reagan, R. 1964 ‘A time for Choosing’, PDF transcript
- Ellul, J. 2015 Islam & Judeo-Christianity: A Critique of Their Commonality, Wipf & Stock Publishers
- Shelly Rambo, 2010. Spirit & Trauma: A Theology of Remaining