The Keys to Your Conscience

Over the past few days, I’ve seen a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. The essay “On Stupidity” tries to make sense of how the German people could follow the Nazis into pure evil. The use of the quotation in several graphics now refers to one political candidate in particular, however I think it has a much broader application, and in many ways refers to to the rise of every leader of a self-centered popular movement. Here’s the passage:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion and that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. 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 is inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason great caution is called for when dealing with the stupid person than a malicious one.” (The entire essay is found easily with a Google search: Bonhoeffer On Stupidity.)

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that stupidity isn’t an intellectual defect, but a human one; an otherwise bright person can fall victim to it while someone who seems less intelligent can be immune. He goes on to say that people can be made stupid or can submit to it. Susceptibility to this depends a lot on how involved they are in human society and public life: those who are withdrawn from human society completely or partially are immune to it. Political or religious movements riding a wave of popularity can make people stupid. He implies that no one rises to power with out a great amount of stupidity of others. Human intellect doesn’t cease functioning in them, but gives up autonomy and develops a blind spot which normal reason works around. Challenging the blind spot provokes resistance rather than openness. This sentence describes a reality which is become very common in our day:

“In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that of 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. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

The only remedy Bonhoeffer sees is an act of liberation rather than instruction. The persons exclusion of a particular line of reason or acceptance of fact keep them from accepting a competing viewpoint. He goes on to say that genuine internal liberation usually can only take place after an external liberation. The other must be released from the situation which blinds them first. His conclusion is that liberation lies in a commitment to live “… the responsible life before God.”

I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘stupidity’ to describe this condition, because it’s demeaning and confusing. I think ‘prejudice’ is a better term because all prejudice is stupid and usually imposed from outside the person. The song from the musical South Pacific You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught is a brief but comprehensive description of the process of acquiring prejudice. Teaching prejudice is certainly not only something for children. Anyone seeking to ride a wave of popular fear or anxiety can teach prejudice on a global level. This is the only way some terribly dysfunctional people ever achieve power: Hitler is not the only example in history. There are many religious figures who use this method and even in the past hundred years a few atheists as well. Individuals use it in personal relationship frequently, and it’s a means abusers gain control over their victims.

This reality of human existence has the danger of making one cynical. Bonhoeffer follows his essay with another entitled Contempt for Humanity? He correctly sees that falling into contempt for humanity we fall into the trap our opponents offer. The following thoughts, according to him, can to prevent one from falling into disdain for others:

”Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him.”

”Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us.”

”How often do we expect more of the other than we ourselves are willing to accomplish.”

Bonhoeffer concludes this paragraph with the following:

”Why is it that we have hitherto thought was so little sobriety about the temped ability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings–particularly to the week among them–is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake.”

It’s only human to be attracted to someone who seems strong, dynamic, persuasive, and seems to know what we’re going through. This attraction increases when someone is saying what we want to hear (or doing what we want to do). The process is called “seduction.” Although it is possible we are seduced to someone or something for our own benefit, we need to keep our intellects attached to our emotions because seduction is usually for someone else’s benefit. We become a non-person in the process, and dehumanization is the root of all social evil. If we go to the ballot box to vote for our hero, we need to reconsider who our heroes are. If we attend a religious service to listen to our hero in the flesh, we need to consider who our heroes are. The act of making a living person our hero, handing them the keys to our conscience, making them the center of our logic, is idolatry, which always puts us in mortal peril of losing our soul.

Some would say we don’t need government: fine, move someplace where they don’t have it. Find your own water, grow your own food and protect yourself 24/7. Without government, we will spend all our time taking care of basic life, and without any help, will generally fail. Some would say we don’t need religion: fine, keep your moral compass as best you can alone, mindful left to own our devices we tend to rewrite our consciences to satisfying our wants without regard to anyone else. We become our own idol without accountability, which will tempt others to destroy us. Selfishness is a part of human nature that’s as basic a part of us as what Bonhoeffer calls stupidity. Only through deep accountability to others and a vision of a greater world can we keep our own integrity.

Since it’s not possible for any of us to leave the human race and live apart from it, we need to find a way to stay involved without losing ourselves in cynicism. Living in the human community, whether it’s a political unit or a religious one (including atheism), is about the art of practical compromise, finding ways to share what is best for the good of all while protecting each other from our desire to take advantage of other’s weaknesses. For that we need a conscience that is our ultimate guide. That conscience has to be formed by centering our lives on Compassion, however it is expressed. As a Christian, life in Christ means modeling ourselves on the most unselfish person who lived and allowing no selfish motivation to subvert us into a superficial pursuit of our surface desires. At times we long for a simple vision of Life, one that is clear and not bogged in the complexities of Human Existence. But we don’t get a free pass to ignore what we want to: if we try what we ignore will at least haunt us if not hurt us. We need to protect the autonomy of our souls vigilantly, not let ourselves be discouraged by the mess around us, find strength from others and our contact with the Divine (which is often one and the same), and only give the keys to our conscience to the Creator of the Universe.



  1. Monica Chapman · · Reply

    Excellent! Should be read from all pulpits …

  2. Wow, Father Keith. Just wow. Have re-read this essay of yours many times, and found it once again today! (I actually link to this essay in a online forum entry I wrote.) Just love this; it gets better with every read! 🙂

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