Tag Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Three ‘Martyrs’

Stephen was the first Christian martyr: right? Well it depends what you mean by martyr. Stephen’s death is described in the Acts of the Apostles. In verse 58 of chapter 7 it says:

“….and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of  a young man named Saul.”

So according to this account it’s those who watched the stoning of Stephen who were the martyrs. The Greek word means simply ‘witness’. Gradually the word came to be applied only to those whose witness to their faith caused their death. As us Christians move towards Easter in our liturgical calendar we enter a fortnight known as Passiontide. So let me introduce you to three ‘martyrs’ – two Dutch women (one a Jew) and a German man. Two were killed for their commitment to the truth as they understood it. One survived into old age.

Etty Hillesum (1914 – September 1943) was what you might call a secular Jew. Together with many Jews she died in Auschwitz on September 30th 1943. (At least that’s when the Red Cross reported her death). She kept a diary and here’s an extract from it:

“I know the mounting suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet, at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms around me are so gentle and so protective and my own heart-beat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop. That is also my attitude to life, and I believe that neither war nor any senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.”
‘But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

“…..if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matt 26:39)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 1906 – April 9th 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler and imprisoned by the Nazis. On the day the failure of that plot was revealed he wrote the following letter from prison to a friend:

“During the last year or so I have come to appreciate the ‘worldliness’ of Christianity as never before. The Christian is not a homo religiosus but a man pure and simple, just as Jesus was a man, compared withJohn the Baptist anyhow. I don’t mean the shallow this-worldliness of the enlightened, of the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious. It’s something much more profound than that, something in which the knowledge of death and resurrection is ever present………Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman (the priestly type so-called) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. This is what I mean by worldliness – taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and that is what makes a man and a Christian (cf Jeremiah 45). How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?” July 21st 1944

“…..unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Corrie Ten Boom (1892 – 1983) survived Ravensbruck concentration camp. She and her family had been betrayed by Dutch informers for sheltering many Jews in a specially constructed attic in their house. The rest of her family were executed. Corrie was released. She afterwards discovered that her release had been a clerical error. After the war Corrie visited Cologne Cathedral. As she approached the door she was horrified to see, standing there greeting worshippers with outstretched hand and smiling face, one of the concentration camp staff. In her heart she said, “Jesus, I cannot forgive this man. You must do it for me.” She felt a relaxing warmth spreading through her body that set her free to grasp the other’s outstretched hand
“…..he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven;….” (John 20:22/23)