Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains how to fix stupid

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains how to fix stupid September 10, 2023

"I'm With Stupid" by swanksalot is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
“I’m With Stupid” by swanksalot is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

We’ve heard it said, “you can’t fix stupid.” That’s a grim assessment. My good buddy Bob gave me reason for hope awhile back when he sent me an article with a different take on the issue – from the mind of German Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, no less.

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, and and a vocal critic of Hitler’s program. When most of the Church in Germany was silent, complicit, or even actively pro-Nazi, Bonhoeffer and his colleagues founded the Confessing Church to create a distinction between those capitulating to Nazism and those holding to true doctrine.

Needless to say, Bonhoeffer’s efforts to awaken the Church went unheeded for much too long.

As we will explore in the coming days, there are a startling number of similarities between Christians of Bonhoeffer’s time and today, and we might do well to learn from history.

Today, let’s get to know a little of what we’re up against – not the big, dangerous guys on top, but the millions of minions who are all around us: The Stupid.

(BTW, it gives me no pleasure to refer to fellow Americans as “stupid”…ok, maybe a little pleasure… but as we know, we are in a struggle for our nation’s soul. Many other nations are in this same crisis. Strong words are needed to make strong points.)

Bonhoeffer: “stupid” is worse than evil

Spoiler alert: the fix for stupidity is not simple. It is spiritually and/or psychologically costly. But it can be done.

In reflecting about how the normally intelligent and compassionate Christian people of Germany could become complicit cogs in the killing machine of Nazism, Bonhoeffer explains that stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

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…when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental.

Bonhoeffer could have been writing about the MAGA world here. We have the Fox News commentators who know full well that they are lying. The evil deception of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity – telling their audiences to believe something they themselves don’t believe – has been exposed.

Someone who knows a thing or two about stupid:"File:Dietrich Bonhoeffer (um 1938).jpg" by Wissen911 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Someone who knows a thing or two about stupid:”File:Dietrich Bonhoeffer (um 1938).jpg” by Wissen911 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But alas, the Fox viewers who read the exposé are under no obligation to believe that it’s true, or to take any appropriate action. They can just ignore the facts and keep believing the Lie – or if the cognitive dissonance is too debilitating, Fox News can go under the bus. There’s always another network out there that will tell me what I want to hear. It’s just another day in the land where Trump is always right.

The difference between evil and stupid: perpetrators of evil know, at least on some level, that what they’re doing is wrong – even as they rationalize it. Stupidity lacks that kind of self-awareness.

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The dilemma of stupidity: zero self-awareness

Bonhoeffer’s description of the stupid person sounds eerily contemporary:

[O]ne 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…

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.

This is how one can sing hymns while trains chug by, carrying Jews to death camps.

This is how one can call oneself a Christ follower, and at the same time have a Covid-19 death wish for one’s fellow Americans, or find a biblical rationale for caging children.

Don’t think, Stupid! Believe!

As a former evangelical, I can say that we love to be told what to believe. We have been taught not to think for ourselves, but to find a “Bible-believing” leader who “knows” more than we do, and believe them. For goodness’ sake, we can’t be trusted to reason things out for ourselves! Leave that to the experts – and because they are experts, we can have great confidence in them. Certainly they are at least more worthy of our trust than, say, someone secular.

We then multiply the effect of our assumed correctness by living (virtually or actually) among like-minded folks, lest we be exposed to other ways of thinking.

I thought I was thinking for myself, by the way, for all those years (roughly half a century), but now I know I never genuinely interrogated my beliefs and biases – until the day when it all fell apart (I’ve alluded to my deconstruction crisis occasionally; one of these days, I’ll tell the whole story).

The key to change

Ready for a little hope? Me too. Not sure this would qualify, but this is what Bonhoeffer said next, and it’s a starting place. We will explore beyond this point in the coming days (please tell me what you think – on FB or by email

Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity.

Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person.

Germany’s “external liberation” was, of course, the end of WWII. For me as an individual, it was the “left foot of fellowship” that severed me from my church community, and provided me the crevice through which a sliver of light came in. Many of us have loved ones who were liberated from anti-LGBTQ attitudes when they learned that someone they loved was queer.

What might liberate our MAGA loved ones? This is a question to ponder.

Don’t expect a pat answer from me! We have to think this through together. Please comment over on my Facebook page if it’s not too much trouble. Or email me at

Maybe it’s time for a Confessing Church 2.0 to stand against Nazism 2.0.


(If you are energized by challenges to the evangelical status quo like this, please subscribe to my newsletter! If you would like to comment on this post, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment! I welcome your thoughts.)


FEATURED IMAGE: “File:Dietrich Bonhoeffer (um 1938).jpg” by Wissen911 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

About Kathryn Shihadah
I was raised as a conservative Christian, and was perfectly content to stay that way – until the day my stable, predictable world was rocked. A curtain was pulled back on conservative Christianity, and instead of ignoring the ugliness I saw, I confronted it. I began to ask questions I never thought I’d ask, and found answers I’d never expected. Old things began to fall away, and – behold! – the new me has come. What a gift to be a new, still-evolving creation. I found out that it’s better to look at the world through Progressive Lenses, with Grace-Colored Glasses. You can read more about the author here.

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