The Danger 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.

Bonhoeffer addressed what he labeled “stupidity,” but was referring to what the inspired wise writer wrote much on: foolishness and fools.

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 Corinthians 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.

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 his 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 Timothy 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” (Galatians 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 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.

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 toward 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 (Psalm 111.10 — S.H.) declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.”

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