Alert: This post may contain spoilers of the movie, Selma. The biblical content referenced here may also spoil our desire to rule over others.
Those who take themselves too seriously are easily slighted; they are not meek. Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5; ESV). The meek are not easily provoked. Following on from the preceding beatitudes in Matthew 5, those who are poor in spirit mourn their sinful, fragile, and broken state; such awareness makes them meek. This progression reminds me of David of old. David did not react to Shimei’s ridicule when he fled from Absalom’s revolt, which was bound up with the aftermath of David’s own sin (2 Samuel 16:5-14). All the more significant is Jesus, who though pure and innocent is the epitome of being meek, humble, and gentle (Matthew 11:29). Jesus was not and is not easily angered, though he was often slighted during his life on earth (See the prophetic allusion of Isaiah 53:7). Even on the cross, he asked his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion (Luke 23:24).
If Jesus were easily angered, what would become of me? The thought of his mercy should be enough to make me poor in spirit, mournful, and meek. It should also cause me to hunger and thirst for real righteousness, not petty pound of flesh retributive repayments. The negative cycle of the latter never really ends.
One should not take from this reflection that the meek are doormats. If anything, those who are easily provoked are subject to the rule of others; people rule over those who are easily angered, as they react quickly, even to minor offenses. Albert Barnes offers a helpful reflection on this subject in his treatment of Matthew 5:5 in Notes on the Bible: “Meekness is patience in the reception of injuries. It is neither meanness nor a surrender of our rights, nor cowardice; but it is the opposite of sudden anger, of malice, of long-harbored vengeance.” Meekness is not weakness: According to Wayne Jackson in the Christian Courier, “‘meek’ is from the Greek term praus. It does not suggest weakness; rather, it denotes strength brought under control. The ancient Greeks employed the term to describe a wild horse tamed to the bridle.”
During his trial before the high priest, Jesus spoke up firmly and in a controlled manner when he was struck unjustly: “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23; ESV) Although he was silent before Pilate during his execution trial, he spoke up in a similar manner when Pilate warned him of his authority to have Jesus executed. Jesus corrected Pilate; in other words, he put him in his place. Jesus answered Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11, ESV; see the entire context of verses 1-16).
Jesus spoke up for what was right and just; he did not speak out regarding minor offenses of personal fancy. How do we know that we are not petty in our grievances, but profound? We embody profound values when we take offense against injustice. Concern for justice is vitally important. Justice entails rightful concern for God’s honor and acknowledgment of God’s kingdom authority, as when Jesus rebuked Pilate. It also showed in Jesus’ concern for the people; when we don’t care for those in need, we don’t care for Jesus, who always speaks out against injustice on behalf of the discounted and exploited (Matthew 25:31-46).
The Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against injustices against an oppressed people; he also showed evidence of shrugging off the slights committed against him. These qualities came through in the movie Selma, which my wife and I went to see this weekend. The movie chronicles critical events surrounding King’s and the people’s struggle in the Civil Rights movement in 1965 in Selma, Alabama; the historic march from Selma to Montgomery climaxed in President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act that year. For King, the gospel compelled him to lead a movement for justice birthed in the African American church in a non-violent manner.
The movie Selma shows King’s colleague Andrew Young explaining to someone wishing to react violently to their oppressors that the people would not have stood a chance if they had resorted to guns and violence against the unjust authorities at Selma; their only chance to win rights was to operate in a non-violent manner. Above and beyond the strategic wisdom of this approach in contending against an overwhelming unjust force, King grounded the movement and approach in Jesus’ love ethic. King believed that such love was not simply essential to bringing about reconciliation between individuals, but also critical to effecting social transformation on a massive scale.
One should not think that Jesus or King’s meek, non-retaliatory approach toward one’s oppressors entails groveling in the dirt. In Jesus’ day, turning the other cheek toward one’s oppressor did not rob people of their dignity; it caused the offending party to have to look at those they slapped as equals. The slapping of someone on the right cheek most likely entailed in Jesus’ context a humiliating strike with the backside of the right hand intended for an inferior. If the person intended to strike again, the offer of the left cheek repositioned the conflict as one between equals. In the Civil Rights era, King and his movement did not stoop to the inhumanity of their oppressors. The injustice they endured served to prick the American conscience, as multitudes of people witnessed via the national news the horrors committed by those seeking to enforce segregation and inequality. In view of Jesus and his servant King, those who think they are superior to those they oppress need to realize that only by becoming meek do they become truly human.
As early as 1957, King spoke of such non-violent confrontation grounded in love. Here is what King said in a sermon at Christmas in 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama,
To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” (One can find the message here; accessed on 1/19/15)
King’s non-violent protest flowed from Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). The late Evangelical Anglican statesman John R. W. Stott claimed that King was the greatest model of Jesus’ ethic disclosed in this text in the modern age.
King and company witnessed President Johnson’s action on their behalf, as he eventually signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Perhaps many in the Civil Rights movement felt at the signing of the law that they were on their way to inherit the earth. Certainly Jesus had in mind the eventual restoration of all things at the end of history in his kingdom reign, when he spoke of the meek inheriting the earth. Still, the Civil Rights reform of 1965 bore witness to that just state of affairs at the end of history and foreshadowed it in some way. When we are meek, not weak, working on behalf of Jesus’ just kingdom, sensing our desperate need for Jesus’ intervention and mourning our sinful condition and that of the world, we can take comfort in knowing that we will inherit the earth.
How do you and I want to go down in history? Do we want to rise up with the just or go down with the unjust, up with the meek or down with those who promote an unjust peace? Psalm 37:10-11 declares, “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (Psalm 37:10-11; ESV).
President Johnson did not want history to see him taking sides with Governor Wallace of Alabama on the critical events surrounding Selma, as disclosed in the movie. Rather, he wanted posterity to view him as being on the side of justice by siding with King’s strong, resilient community of meekness. In the end, how will Jesus view us—as those on the side of cruel weakness or meek strength? Only the latter will inherit the earth.
See The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1998), pages 23-24.
See N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part I, Chapters 1-15, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK & Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), pages 49-53.
Compare this message with his Christmas sermon delivered in 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia (One can find the message here). King remained vigilant and consistent in his message during the ongoing struggle.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), page 113.