The Dangers of Ignorance

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in Germany during the rise of Nazism, and was a staunch opponent who ultimately lost his life because of that opposition, and for his associations with others who were also opponents of the Nazi regime. In 1943, ten years after Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer wrote some letters to friends that were a reflection on events, and addressed what he saw in those ten years. I urge you to read the full text of what he said, but let me make a few comments.

      In his letters, Bonhoeffer addressed what he labeled ‘stupidity,’ which is a rather harsh term nowadays; but it is simply foolish ignorance. Let us move past our perception of the term he used, and note what he actually said, for it is worthwhile. Even the inspired wise writer wrote much on foolishness and fools, so the warnings should be understood and heeded.

      Ignorance is More Dangerous Than Malice. Bonhoeffer specifically noted that this foolish ignorance was “a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice,” and he is right. It was willful ignorance of the truth that moved the religious leaders of the first century to send Jesus to the cross, and that same foolish ignorance that motivated the crowds to shout for the crucifixion of Jesus when Pilate asked what he should do with Him (John 19:14, 15). The apostle Paul would later write, “none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). Yes, ignorance is dangerous — more dangerous than malice. With the malice and ignorance of the rulers, and the collective ignorance of the crowds, the deed was more easily accomplished. Malice alone could have been exposed and their deeds halted by force, but ignorance [sometimes willful] only added to the danger.

      As Bonhoeffer noted, “Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental.” Again, Bonhoeffer has made an astute observation; his statement here echoes that of the wise writer, who said, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15), and, “A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident”  (Prov. 14:16). The fact is, when an ignorant man is shown the truth, he can either learn or he can double down and dig himself deeper into the hole of willful ignorance; Unfortunately, the habit of many is to simply keep digging. And should someone come along and mention the predicament, the willfully ignorant one will deny the facts and keep digging. There is no helping such ones, and they are a danger to truth.

      Ignorance Is Not An Intellectual Defect, But a Human One. Bonhoeffer noted, “There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.” What he is implying here is that education is not necessarily the root problem behind the ignorance; something deeper and apart from one’s education must be the cause, and he is right in many cases.

      The apostle Paul stands as an example of one who did much harm to good, before he finally acknowledged the truth that Jesus was the Christ; the problem was not a lack of education! At that time, he persecuted Christians to the point of death, and threw others in prison (Acts 22:3-5); but after he became a believer, Paul would later admit, “I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). And Paul also acknowledged another factor in doing those things “ignorantly”: the influence of those whom he admired and followed. To the Galatians, Paul wrote of that time in his life when he was “exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:13).  This goes to the point that Bonhoeffer also noted, “that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them.” Paul did what he did because, at the time, he desired the approval of his fellow man, and respected the religious leaders and their ‘stand for the truth.’ Led by their rejection of Jesus, he rejected Jesus. He continued to do so until the truth was staring him in the face and he could deny the truth no longer. The difference between Paul [Saul] and the religious leaders was that he was merely ignorant, while they were willfully ignorant and malicious.

      Ignorance is a Tool of the Power-Seekers. Bonhoeffer also noted that this fact of men being influenced and affected by others to hold positions of ignorance is something the power-seekers exploit to their own purposes. He noted, “Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity…The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.” In other words, the power-seekers gain power and then retain their power by keeping the masses ignorant.

      Bonhoeffer continues: “…it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances…In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”

      Sound familiar? That is the world of politics we see today, and just as Bonhoeffer said, far too many — including many Christians — are mindlessly regurgitating the words of the power-seekers, seemingly ignorant to the damage that they are doing to truth and to what is good. In the spiritual circles, it is no different; religious leaders incite fear and use scare tactics to keep their followers ignorant of the truth, and discourage anyone from reading the Scriptures for themselves, lest they should see for themselves what God’s word actually says. In this perpetual state of ignorance, they are easily led astray, falsely, yet confidently, thinking they are headed towards heaven.

      Liberation is the Solution. While it may seem like a hopeless cause [the ignorant either refuse to acknowledge their ignorance, or simply reject facts and truth], Bonhoeffer correctly notes the only real solution: “Only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity…The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom [Psa. 111:10, SH] declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.”

      To this point, there is no truer statement that applies than that of Jesus when He said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Paul/Saul was freed from his ignorance and from the weight of his sins only by acknowledging truth; and you and I will be freed from ignorance and the weight and condemnation of our sins only if and when we know the truth and obey it. Only when we are freed from human traditions and creeds will we clearly see truth, and only then can we be truly free — and wise.

            It is easy to remain ignorant, but we must put forth the effort to escape its consequences. Humility is the key. Let us not be willfully ignorant.     — Steven Harper