(Sunday's sermon is just below this post.)
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve always loved this quote from Dr. King. Maybe I’m cranky from having been in church and Christian non-profit work for too long. It could be that I’m drawn to the sharpness of the comment and the nice turn of phrase. For whatever reason, though, this is a quote that sticks with me as we celebrate the anniversary of his birth, and prepare to inaugurate our first president of African descent.
King’s line is a good one to parse carefully. The world is a dangerous place, as we all know, with wars and terrorism and national conflicts and ancient hatreds. The world is an enormous ball of risk, and yet we live and work and serve in it every day. King takes that shared knowledge and experience of danger and announces that he’s found something that trumps it all.
In church culture—and I suppose this is true in other voluntary organizations as well—we tend to overvalue sincerity and conscientiousness. I say overvalue because I believe those qualities to be extremely important; I would never say they were trivial or uneccesary. The world needs more people who live their lives and do their jobs and raise their families with integrity…with sincerity. We’re also in near-desperate need of people who are willing to stick to their tasks—to stay at their posts—without being swayed by the temptations of the easy way out. Surely our present economic crisis will teach us that there is a better way to acquire what we need than through unmanageable debt. But still, we can be blinded by the heat of these qualities while missing the simple point that they generate very little light.
With that in mind it’s important to recognize sincerity and conscientiousness as secondary or supporting qualities—like the auxiliary verbs we learned in school: they point to something more important…more crucial to the point. King’s point is to jar us into seeing a very important truth, not only about grammar of even the Civil Rights movement, but about life.
Nouns are more important than adjectives.
Now you need both, to be sure. English without the ability to describe things would be a boring, colorless language, doomed to being about as interesting as a packing list or an ISBN number. But it’s the nouns that provide the meat, and that’s why I appreciate what King is saying in this brief line.
In other words: No amount of passion or diligence can overcome the damage done by wrongheaded thinking.
I’m sure that the people who bought houses on interest-only loans with no money down were filled with sincere excitement about being homeowners. That doesn’t mean it was a smart thing to do.
I’m equally sure that the bankers who packaged those flimsy loans into investment vehicles for other banks were working hard to make a profit for themselves and their employers—in a way they were being conscientious. But that doesn’t mean it demonstrated a wise or realistic understanding of how the market works.
These are just a few contemporary examples. The genius of King’s quote is that it applies to an unlimited range of human enterprise and experience.
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
No amount of passion or diligence can overcome the damage done by wrongheaded thinking.
As we move into this new year and this new presidency, forced to see both our culture and our economy in dramatically different ways, it would be wise for us to keep Dr. King’s advice in mind. We’ve just barely survived an era marked more by shallow sincerity and misguided conscientiousness than anything else. I think we’ve all been invited—kicking and screaming at times—to think a bit deeper, to study a lot more, and to reflect more carefully on the choices we make for our families, our nation and our world. In the end that will be our only defense against the ignorance and stupidity Dr. King warned us about.
With blessings to you as we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.