On Pitying the Fool: Dealing with Holocaust Deniers

by John Mark Reynolds [author, academic]

President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI’s respective jobs require them to deal with fools on a regular basis. There is no safe way to handle fools, as their folly tends to redound on the person who tries to help them.

Who is a fool? The fool is not simply wrong, but believes a falsehood with obstinate fury that is destructive to himself and to his neighbor. It is not that he thinks he is right, but that he never considers that he might be wrong and has no hesitations in imposing his folly on others. The fool is wrong, arrogant, and malevolent.

Jesus is right that we should not label any man a fool quickly or in anger. It is a serious charge that does verbal violence to another human being and so puts us in danger. It is easy to dismiss alternative points of view by hastily labeling it as foolishness. Calling unpleasant ideas foolish hastily is itself the act of a fool!

No wise man wishes to call another man a fool, just as no wise man wishes to judge another, but eventually it becomes necessary. Some people glory in their wickedness and are intent on announcing their folly and must be confronted.

Those men that deny the Holocaust proclaim themselves wicked fools and we have no choice but to accept their self-assessment. They make themselves not merely loathsome, but dangerous.

The difficulty in deciding whether to even talk with such a fool is that the fool is so unpredictable. The Bible illustrates this beautifully in Proverbs 26 when it says:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, / lest you be like him yourself. / Answer a fool according to his folly, / lest he be wise in his own eyes.

There is no “right” way to decide whether or not to talk to a fool. If you talk to him, you run the risk of becoming like him. If you do not talk to him, he will assume it is because you are afraid of his intellectual power. Some things are always right or wrong, but this is not one of them. Talking to a fool must be a matter of prudent judgment.

Before talking to a fool one must ask (at least!) three questions: Is it necessary? Will it do more harm than good? Will it ennoble their folly or expose it?

Is it necessary?

The safest course in dealing with fools is avoiding them, but if you are the President or Pope that is impossible. The Pope in charity and the President in prudence will have to confront fools on a daily basis. The Pope by the very nature of his job must deal with any fool who appears to repent of his folly, but the President has more latitude. He should avoid dealing with fools whenever he can.

The wisdom of a modest foreign policy for the United States is apparent. We should avoid dealing with the leadership of Iran if we can. Sadly, we have friends in the area who cannot even dream of that option. The leaders of our ally Israel are in a neighborhood where a man who persists in proclaiming himself a malevolent fool has the power to do them grave harm.

President Obama cannot let one of our best friends be annihilated and so he will be forced to deal with the leadership of Iran.

Will it do more harm than good?

An aging bishop with foolish ideas is one thing, but the leader of a powerful nation seeking nuclear weapons is another. If President Obama talks too much to the leadership of Iran, he risks giving them time to produce nuclear weapons. A fool with a podium is annoying, but a fool
with the Bomb is deadly.

You cannot talk about the weather to a person who longs to see your best friend dead. President Obama cannot negotiate with the leader of Iran until he concedes that Israel has a right to exist.

Will it ennoble their folly or expose it?

Pope Benedict is trying to restore Christian fellowship with certain bishops, an effort commendable to all believers. Sadly, it was discovered that one of the bishops also held wicked and foolish views about the Holocaust. The Pope was badly served by the vetting process and did not realize that he was talking to a fool. Even though the proposed reconciliation was on another topic, the stench of the folly tainted the entire discussion.

By talking to the fool and offering to restore communion to him, the Pope appeared to make light of the wickedness and folly. The Vatican had to quickly acknowledge this danger and clarify that no bishop could be in full communion who wickedly denied the reality and horror of the Holocaust.

President Obama should learn from this incident. Talking to the present leadership of Iran, widely known to be foolish, without preconditions will not expose the folly to the people of Iran or the world. President Obama has enormous public goodwill and must use it to expose the folly and not dignify the fools.

Eventually, the Bible points out, the persistent fool will need the rod applied to his back in order to protect the rest of us. Unless the leadership of Iran wishes to discuss an abandonment of their folly, President Obama would do well to find a rod that can be used prudently, whether that is economic sanctions or military action. Only a strong man can safely “pity the fool.” The rest of should pity presidents and popes who face the burden of dealing with fools. We pray daily that God would give all leaders the wisdom to do so prudently. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.His personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and his blog can be found at http://scriptoriumdaily.com.

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