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April 9, 2009 By 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (born 1906) was executed on this day, April 9, in 1945. He had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was hanged for that political action.

He was plotting murder and got caught; there were non-Christians undertaking the same action. His death is hardly the stuff of straightforward martyrdom, hardly as clear a case as the Christians of Rome being burned at the stake for honoring Christ above Caesar. Bonhoeffer’s death has nevertheless been widely acknowledged as a true martyrdom, a costly confession of the lordship of Christ. Craig Slane has made the most extensive and careful case for the death of Bonhoeffer as martyrdom rather than simply collateral damage of political involvement, in his book-length treatment of Bonhoeffer’s thought. Slane’s case hangs on the way Bonhoeffer’s life, teaching, and death belong together as parts of one single message. Eric Metaxas wove this theme into his best-selling biography of the theologian (not an oxymoron, it turns out), Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

Bonhoeffer’s witness has summoned great writers to respond with attempts to say what they have glimpsed in the death of this theologian. W. H. Auden wrote an oblique 1958 poem called “Friday’s Child,” long on metaphysics and short on biography, but clearly dedicated “In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg, April 9, 1945.”  A couple of memorable stanzas from it:

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

Marilynne Robinson, now justly famous for the prize-winning novel Gilead, published an essay on Bonhoeffer in her collection The Death of Adam. Every page of the short essay deserves study, but here is Robinson’s account of Bonhoeffer’s habitual way of being for others:

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