Sincere Ignorance and Conscientious Stupidity

Sincere ignorance

There is no irony that Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor, coined the terms “sincere ignorance” and “conscientious stupidity.” The church is overflowing with both. On bad days, I fantasize about quitting my work and going into marketing, or the fashion industry, or something unapologetically tone-deaf to justice.

King expanded on what this conscientious stupidity in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“The white moderate… constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’… paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom… lives by a mythical concept of time and… constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

This comes up again and again. Of course climate change is bad. Of course we should do something about immigration. Of course poor people need help. The church can make these kind of vague statements, but so often, it stops short of the payoff “…and let us change ourselves so that this evil might change.” It settles for “somebody more intelligent than me ought to fix that.” Or “what a shame.” It settles for sincere ignorance of how to go about with social change.

The dilemma is universal–working in a profession that is so explicitly tied to the moral good, you often meet people who are more invested in maintaining their lifestyle than responding with creativity and joy to the presence of evil. It’s the definition of burnout–running up against the constant tug of “but I don’t wanna!”

The most exhausting part of church work is remember that Marx is right, that some people show up on Sunday morning looking for their opiate. I spoke to a pastor this weekend who said, “Maybe the biggest mistake we ever made as pastors was being paid by our congregations. We’re invested in their stability, in not pissing them off.” He said, “Maybe the church was never meant to have high stability–look at the church in Acts. It’s always on the edge of being an institution.”

This is what I love about Martin Luther King, Jr.: a guy who figured out how to say “That’s not fucking good enough. Embrace the unknown and the unstable and the unpopular.” He didn’t just say it about racism, but about poverty and violence, too. It’s also why I love Jeremiah, Micah, Elijah, and Ezekiel. It’s also why I like the letter to Laodicea. It’s also why people–young and old–leave the church. They burn out. It’s true of congregation members and it’s true of pastors.

Living without opiates is terrifying. (We all use some opiates; it’s called coping strategies. I strongly advocate for coping strategies. The problem is when these coping strategies numb our empathy.) But it’s not a question of stability versus chaos. It’s a question of holding our lives lightly, so that when Jesus rocks the boat, we take it as our cue to start dancing. Wendell Berry said it like this:

“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”

What clutter do you own? What would you be relieved to see catch fire? Why not just set those things aflame, and go on with the creative and joyful work of kingdom building?

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