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United Methodists give Bonhoeffer martyr status

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

June 17, 2008

Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been dead for more than 60 years, the well-known German theologian has been a role model of faith for many Christians, including the Rev. Charles Sigman.

That’s why Sigman, the 42-year-old pastor of First United Methodist Church of Newport, Ark., about an hour and a half north of Little Rock, has helped make Bonhoeffer the first martyr officially recognized by The United Methodist Church.

A Lutheran pastor, Bonhoeffer was a member of the resistance against dictator Adolph Hitler and was executed by the Nazis in 1945, during the final months of World War II. “I always find myself quoting him because of the way he lived his faith and because he really teaches us all that there are things in this world worth dying for,” Sigman told United Methodist News Service.

As a seminary student, he was shelving books one day in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University when he happened to glance at a book from 1956 written by a Lutheran pastor. The pastor was lamenting the fact that children were holding up athletes as their role models and that the church itself had failed to lift up role models of faith. “Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about it,” Sigman added.

The musicians, actors and athletes that today’s youth idolize are all going to fail in some way, he reasoned, but Bonhoeffer “rose above our basic human instinct to proclaim a love that is worth dying for.”

The resolution he submitted to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, was simple: “In keeping in line with the Church of England and the Church of Wales, we, as United Methodists, should also recognize Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a modern day martyr for the cause of Christ.”

It was approved when the conference met April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. During the same General Conference, United Methodists approved a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Rebellion against Nazis

Born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906, Bonhoeffer received his doctorate from Berlin University in 1927, where he lectured as part of the theology faculty in the early 1930s and was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1931.

In rebellion against the Nazi-controlled state church, some 2,000 Lutheran pastors organized the Pastors’ Emergency League in 1934, which later became the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer was head of the independent church’s seminary at Finkenwalde. It was one of five seminaries closed by the Nazis in 1937.

A member of the resistance, he communicated with the British government and also worked on his book, Ethics, from 1940 until his arrest in 1943. As Simon & Schuster points out in a description of the book on its Web site, “The Christian does not live in a vacuum, says the author, but in a world of government, politics, labor and marriage. Hence, Christian ethics cannot exist in a vacuum; what the Christian needs, claims Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is concrete instruction in a concrete situation. Although the author died before completing his work, this book is recognized as a major contribution to Christian ethics.”

Bonhoeffer’s fellow resisters tried to kill Hitler but were unsuccessful. Executed with him on April 9, 1945, were Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German Military Intelligence, General Hans Oster and Hans von Dohnanyi, who was married to Bonhoeffer's sister, Christine. On April 23, two other members of the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer's brother, Klaus, and a second brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher, were executed, seven days before Hitler committed suicide.

In his rationale for the General Conference resolution, Sigman wrote: “During a time of grave darkness in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer shined the light of Christ all the way to a hangman’s noose. Nearly every clergy has studied him and used him in sermons and theological discourse. It is time we recognize his accomplishments and martyrdom of the highest calling.”

Sigman believes it is important for the church to show how people sometimes die for their faith. “I hope it will start a precedent,” he said. “I personally think we, as a denomination, need to start recognizing these people.”

Recognizing saints

Alan Combs, a 25-year-old provisional elder with the Virginia Annual Conference, said he was excited by the resolution on Bonhoeffer. He has been working on his master’s thesis at Duke University, which focuses on how The United Methodist Church looks at the issue of recognizing saints.

“I hope it will start a precedent. I personally think we, as a denomination, need to start recognizing these people.”
–The Rev. Charles Sigman
“I think the writer of the resolution was smart to use martyr because we don’t have any formal recognition of saints,” he said.

A martyr can be a saint, but the reverse might not necessarily apply, Combs pointed out. Christianity’s early heroes were martyrs because the church was under persecution. Saints lived lives of holiness but weren’t always subject to persecution.

John Wesley “liked the community of saints,” he said, but the idea may not have universal appeal among church members. “We’re fairly willing to call biblical heroes ‘saints,’ but beyond that, we start getting uncomfortable about it,” he explained.

Combs – who will become the associate pastor at Heritage United Methodist Church in Lynchburg, Va., on July 1 – applauds taking a look at people who lived holy lives as a way of influencing Christians today. Such recognition could include biblical heroes, founders of the church and leaders of early American Methodism.

As a director of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns for the past four years, Combs also appreciates the recognition of ecumenical leaders such as Bonhoeffer. “We’re recognizing the martyr of another church,” he said. “That’s a way of us affirming the holiness we see in them.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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