Archive for August, 2016

Reading Bonhoeffer’s 1942 set of mini-essays called “After Ten Years,” it is a bit of a surprise to find a very short section labeled “Contempt for Humanity?” What brought such a thought to his mind?

My inclination is to think he must be talking about the Nazi contempt for humanity. But when a quick glance at the text makes it clear that he is warning his friends — and himself — about the danger of slipping into the same contempt that the Nazis are showing.

While Hitler despised all non-Aryans, Bonhoeffer was aware that he himself is in danger of despising the supporters of Hitler and the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer’s remarks are so brief that I will simply copy them in full:

    The danger of allowing ourselves to be driven to contempt for humanity is very real. We know very well that we have no right to let this happen and that it would lead us into the most unfruitful relation to human beings. The following thoughts may protect us against this temptation: through contempt for humanity we fall victim precisely to our opponents’ chief errors. 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 what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability 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 weak 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.

In this election season, I need to take this word seriously because I find myself becoming too much like trump, calling people stupid. He is talking about our national leaders while I am talking about anybody who believes trump has any good qualities. But Bonhoeffer points his finger right at me. I too fall into a spirit of judgment which makes me feel superior to any who disagree with me. And that proves not that I am superior but that I am like those whom I criticize.

Drat it! How did that spotlight get turned around and aimed directly at sweet, innocent me? Surely I must be one of the nicest hypocrites you could every hope to meet. . .



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In “After Ten Years,” the small set of brief essays written by Bonhoeffer in 1942 as he reflected back on a decade of resisting Hitler, one of the most important passages is entitled “On Stupidity.” It’s point is simple: When fighting against evil, the most difficult opponents are the stupid ones. They may have normal or even high IQs but for one reason or another they have chosen stupidity in the face of evil. Often they have committed themselves to a person or cause, probably for the wrong reasons, and then choose to be senseless rather than to change. Their problem is not in their head but in their heart and must be addressed at that level, if at all.

Try to read the opening paragraph of the mini-essay without thinking of donald trump’s followers:

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 in 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 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. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

This paragraph is taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 8.


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