Sunday, May 21, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Beginning Blessed Are The Meek

"Blessed are the meek," Jesus begins the third of the Beatitudes and, I must admit, whenever I hear that, my mind immediately goes to one of my favorite films, Dead Poets Society, and the character of Steven Meeks. He's one who walks the line between being a rebel and a good student. While he and Pitts, who also has an unfortunate name, covertly build a radio together to listen to rock n' roll music, he tends to not stray too far into disobeying the rules, like Charlie Dalton and Neil Perry. But is he a good example of meekness, at least in terms of what Christ is referring to in this beatitude?

All of the beatitudes are a portrait of the character of Christ. Each one is like a piece of the puzzle that, when looked at all together, form the whole of his identity and how our identities are to be shaped by following him. So when we filter meekness we must do so through Christ and not how the term "meek" is considered in our culture. If asked, most would admit that the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word "meekness" is "weakness."

In Hebrew the word for meek is anau and means "humble." In Greek the word is praus and means "mild, gentle."

When Christ said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," he must have been alluding to and it would have been connected to in the minds of his Jewish listeners with Psalm 37:11, "But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity." I wonder how many who heard this thought, as many do today, "Is he kidding?" We live in a world that promotes the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Be assertive. Be aggressive. Be in control. Be the boss. Like Sinatra singing "New York, New York":

I wanna wake up in a city that doesn't sleep
And find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap.

It's all about getting ahead. We prize domination. To the victor goes the spoils. As Julius Caesar once said, "If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it." Our own current President bragged, "My whole life is about winning. I don't lose often. I almost never lose." 

Live large. Be in charge.

There are no bumper-stickers promoting meekness. No Nike ads using meekness in their slogans. And yet Christ is telling all those who were listening that meekness is real power, for they alone shall inherit the earth. Humorist James Thurber once quipped. "Let the meek inherit the earth - they have it coming to them."

Of course, Christ also said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Not exactly what one would hear from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a politician running for President, or an football player before the Super Bowl. Yet Jesus is unconcerned with the way the world operates because he is focused solely on how the kingdom of God operates and how that should be the way it is on earth as well. 

When Jesus announced that it was the meek who would inherit the earth, one wonders what the reaction of the Roman soldiers standing at the edges would have been. Snickering? Scoffing? Sarcastic laughs or looks at each other? They knew that Rome was ruling the earth and it wasn't because of any kind of meekness. They understood it was due to war, taking charge through violence and aggression. The meek were those trod underfoot. The meek were the ones who were victimized and suffered injustice at the hands of the rich and powerful. How many in our own government, if Christ was addressing Congress would also mock and ridicule him? How many in the Pentagon would dismiss Jesus as a peace-loving hippie? A kook? Dismiss him as a simple-minded dreamer? 

Even when Constantine declared Christianity to be the national religion, he did no convert because he knew he could not run an empire and live by the Beatitudes. In fact, he did not become a true believer until his deathbed when it would no longer cost him his political power. 

The Beatitudes aren't practical. They aren't the way to get things done. They aren't the way to rule and reign - at least not for long. Not in this world. That's why so few even attempt to.  Even among those who claim to be Christians. That's why we express such admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa but we don't actually want to be them; after all, they never make the Forbes 100 or People's Most Beautiful list. We prefer our comforts and our way of life. I'm certainly no exception. As someone who grew up bullied for being quiet, shy and an introvert, I definitely don't want to be labeled "meek." We see being called "meek" as a stigmatization, as a humiliation. It is an insult. Meekness is mocked and reviled.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher whose philosophy has influence much of modern thought, wrote in works like Beyond Good and Evil that Christ teaching such things as "meekness" only acted to weaken a people or culture. His view was that meekness stifled great individual potential and held back Western culture. Nietzsche rejected meekness as a parasitic revolt by the lowly against the lofty and powerful. Ayn Rand would continue this assault on the idea of meekness and she even rewrote the Sermon on the Mount to reflect her own philosophy. She changed this Beatitude to say, "Blessed are the bankers' trust-funded sons and daughters, for they shall inherit the Earth." Ayn Rand is cited as someone who deeply influenced Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

On the flip-side, Mahatma Gandhi embraced the Sermon on the Mount. Every day, for forty years, he studied and lived them out. For him, he saw meekness as strength by choosing nonviolence over violence, compassion over aggression, and peace over war. The only picture that he had on the wall of his ashram was one of Christ with the words "He is our peace." He wrote how reading the Sermon on the Mount for the first time "went straight to his heart." It was by living out the Beatitudes through peaceful nonviolence that Gandhi would go on to influence Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Meekness as seen in Christ, Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day is not weakness at all. They had a deep inner strength that reacted to violence and hatred and fear with peace, love and compassion. Their outer lives revealed the depth of their inner lives. They grasped that to be meek was to walk in peace, abide in mercy, live in kindness. But the structures of power are not built on such a system as put forth by Christ. It's all about force and sustaining the status quo (much of which is rooted in injustice and inequality).

Christ calls us to learn from him because he is "gentle and humble at heart." This goes against human nature. We tend to hold tightly to our pride and balk at the mere idea of meekness, gentleness and humility because those will only get us taken advantage of. That's why there are Christians who dismiss the Beatitudes as not meant to be taken literally. Why? Because they fear everything they have will be taken away from them. We understand that meekness means that we can no longer put ourselves and our own wants first. This call of Christ to meekness requires of us to let go of the spotlight and grasping after platforms and self-promotion. It means we are not the center of attention, the focus or the most important. Meekness does not seek to sit in the seat of importance, as Jesus warned in the Parable of the Guests. His warning: pride will bring you low, but humility beings you true honor in the eyes of God.

Mother Teresa wrote, "The only thing Jesus has asked us to be is meek and humble of heart, and to do this, he has taught us to pray. He has put 'meek' first. From that one word comes gentleness, thoughtfulness, simplicity, generosity, truthfulness. For whom? For one another. Jesus put 'humility' after meekness. We cannot love one another unless we hear the voice of God in our hearts."

Meekness is contentedness. It is acceptance of what God gives us and not wrestling for more or the pie. It is not a clamoring to get to the top of the ladder. It is not Frank Sinatra belting out, "I did it my way!" Christ is calling us to the opposite. Not our way, but the way that calls us to die to self, to deny self, to pick up our cross and follow him. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translated Matthew 5:5 as, "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are - no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought." This is truly counter-cultural and revolutionary. It is a break from all that our world holds important and dear. It is going against the grain of  our wants to, instead, unite our will with the will of God. It is a redefining of success to wanting what's best for all of humanity. It is realizing that if even one is suffering, we are called to go them and relieve that suffering. As Nelson Mandela once said, "As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."

Meekness is identifying ourselves with the least of these, no matter who we are. It's realizing that if we build a wall, Jesus will always be on the side of the wall of those in the most need. Christ identifies himself with the marginalized, the victimized, the persecuted, the oppressed, the poor, the broken, the hurting, and the forgotten. He is with those at Standing Rock, not with the ones who want to take the land for profit and gain. He is with those who are trapped in human trafficking, not those who are making their billions off the backs of the impoverished (in industries like chocolate, coffee, technology and pornography). He is with those who suffer atrocities, not the mighty powers who are committing them in the name of self-interest. If Christ aligns himself with those who suffer injustice and oppression, how can we, as his followers, not do the same? To do so requires the true strength of meekness.

Are we willing to no longer be neutral or indifferent and become meek? Only meekness will be able to tear down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Only meekness is revolutionary enough to be able to end poverty, famine, war, injustice and the evils of inequality of any kind. Is it any wonder then that the meek shall inherit the earth?

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