Brother Bonhoeffer Says, “Don’t be Stupid”

April 4th 2024



Introduction

In a tumultuous season of political upheaval and cultural revolution in World War II Germany, a young Pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed his country descend from relative peace, prosperity, and social freedom into one of the darkest chapters of world history. Bonhoeffer is noted to have fought against the Nazi regime and the socio-political dogmas of fascist hatred with a simple message of gospel hope built on a biblical framework of divine wisdom. Consequently, the Nazi propaganda and war machine made a martyr out of him just shortly before the Allied victory would liberate Germany from the stranglehold of a maniacal ideology.

Prior to Bonhoeffer’s execution, he found himself in prison pondering how such an affluent and enlightened society could so easily have been manipulated. His beloved Germany became a vitriolic and distrusting populace that was willing to turn in their own Jewish neighbors to the SS, readily abandoning the very principles of democracy, freedom, and human flourishing that were characteristic of the earlier Weimar Republic. To his dismay, Bonhoeffer’s conclusion was not that his nation had turned evil, but rather, that they had turned stupid.

Stupidity Defined

Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Though this verse speaks specifically about discipline, the underlying dichotomy between knowledge and stupidity is very useful. With this as a biblical framework, Scripture sets stupidity against knowledge, but not simply knowledge, more than that, the exercise of biblical knowledge in daily life. Knowledge serves as a roadmap and a guardrail to keep our minds engaged, and in this case, engaged in the practice of divine wisdom. The opposite of this engagement is defined as being stupid.

Now, ridding ourselves of modern cultural uses of stupid as a simple pejorative, stupidity is defined as a state of being in a “stupor,” or lacking sense. It is defined as not being wise to proper action, and thus able to be easily manipulated. Think of Proverbs 7:6–7, which describes a simple young man who lacks sense, simply following his nose and wandering in the marketplaces in the evening when salacious women ply their trade. Like a balloon driven by the wind, this senseless young man falls into the adulterous trap of immorality. Why? Because he is acting stupid. He is acting senseless. He is absent of the practice of knowledge, and the practice of keeping his wits about him. That is the very practical definition of stupidity.

Bonhoeffer’s Theory of Stupidity

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in prison awaiting execution, he formulated a simple and yet profound theory of stupidity that not only explained his nation’s descent into chaos, but also serves for us as a stark warning for how the church can avoid being taken captive by the empty philosophies of whatever culture in which we find ourselves. Bonhoeffer argued the following axiom: Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice.

He argued this by considering the following truisms: He stated that while one may protest against malice or evil, it can be prevented by the use of force. Against stupidity, on the other hand, we are defenseless. Neither protests, the use of force, or even sometimes reasonable arguments, are of any use against this witless enemy. He is quoted as saying, “Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall of 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, 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.”[1]

Avoiding the Pitfall of Stupidity

One of the reasons that ordinary law-abiding German citizens turned on their fellow man was not due to malice, according to Bonhoeffer, but due to stupidity. In the truest sense, the German people were “stupefied,” or lulled into a sense of “stupor” by the rhetoric of Hitler’s government. They set aside critical thinking, common wisdom, and human compassion (all of which are founded in a Judeo-Christian worldview) to follow the propagandist ravings of a madman. In turn, they became the manifestation of a stupid populace. They engaged in anthropological acts they would not have even considered just a decade earlier, all because of being lulled into a sense of simple, senseless action, just like the young man in Proverbs 7:6–7.

Titus 2 is a fascinating text of the Bible which gives stipulations for how certain age groups are meant to behave as godly Christians. When we get to Titus 2:6, where Paul says, “I urge the young men to be sensible (NASB).” Why does Paul limit his instruction for young men to this simple expression? Because at its heart, this urging is the foundational character quality of a wise man. Sensibility, sophroneow in the Greek, means to be of sound mind, to be of right mind, to have your wits about you, and to be sober of thought. Sensibility is the antidote to stupidity. It is impossible to be in a stupor when you are engaged in the game of wisdom with all of your faculties.

Putting on Wisdom

The Bible gives us the antidote to stupidity by giving us the heart and mind of God in everything that we need to live a life of godliness. When we reject the Bible, as an individual or as a culture, we find ourselves spiraling out of our own control toward the inevitable destination of stupidity. The absence of the practical putting on of biblical wisdom is stupidity. We are called to actively put on wisdom every day. Ephesians 5:15 says, “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise…” This is a daily call and command to know and practice the knowledge of God’s Word in every step of our lives. God has promised in James 1:5 to freely supply us with all the wisdom we need in order to avoid the pitfalls of stupidity and sin. We simply need to ask.

The natural state of humanity is stupidity. Bonhoeffer saw that the common grace of a society built on a framework of biblical wisdom erodes quickly and reverts back to the undisciplined mind being swayed and manipulated by the empty philosophies of the day. It wasn’t malicious intent that sent the German populace into moral decay, but the absence of wise biblical application of divine knowledge. Stupidity was their downfall, and if we are not careful, history will repeat itself in America. Perhaps not in such a blatant racial or nationalistic sense, but certainly in whatever the spirit of the age may be. Regardless, it will be devoid of biblical knowledge, and thus, stupid.

Conclusion

How can we avoid being stupid individuals or falling victim to a stupid society? We must remember the foundational dichotomy that the Bible establishes for us, which is that stupidity is the absence of the wise application of biblical knowledge. Stupidity is senselessness, opening our minds to empty worldly philosophy and practice. Stupidity is being lulled into blindly following the world. Ephesians 2:1–2 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience…” As Christians, we must no longer walk in that manner, simply following the course, like mindless zombies. Do you think of zombies as smart? Or as stupid? Zombies act that way because they have no ability to use the faculties of their brain. Christians, having been brought to spiritual life, do have the ability to use every spiritual faculty, and thus, we can and must walk in wisdom instead.

The Bible says that the antidote to stupidity is the active practice of biblical wisdom, in every scenario of your life. In doing so, you will be established in truth and kept from stupid behavior. Dietrich Bonhoeffer figured out the problem only after it was too late for his people. If he were alive today and able to speak to you, I believe his simple, boiled down message to you would be, “Don’t be stupid.”

[1] Jonny Thomson, “Bonhoeffer’s “theory of stupidity”: We have more to fear from stupid people than evil ones,” Big Think, January, 26, 2023, https://bigthink.com/thinking/bonhoeffers-theory-stupidity-evil/

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Author: Kyle Swanson

Kyle Swanson earned a Master of Divinity from The Master’s Seminary followed by a Doctor of Ministry from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as Pastor & Elder on staff at Redeemer Bible Church. Pastor Kyle's roles involve overseeing classroom training, missions, conferences, and various other ministry responsibilities. Kyle and his wife Jackie have one child, a daughter named Lucy. Together they enjoy good food, good movies, their dog Darby, and traveling together to new places.