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Violence and Meekness

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“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” –Matthew 5:5

Who can believe this? How can the meek get anything? You have to be aggressive. You have to be bold and assertive. You can’t wait for anybody to give you anything. What was Jesus thinking, telling people that being gentle and mild, being meek will get you anything? We know that the rich—those who really inherit the earth—don’t get it without being decisive, seizing the opportunity, making their own opportunity, and taking what they want. You can’t be soft. You can’t let feelings get in your way. You’ve got to be hard; the world isn’t for sissies.

Of course, you don’t want to be cruel. You want to be kind. But when others use violence, you have to be prepared to respond with force. You won’t strike the first blow, but when you do strike, it will be to end it. You have a right to protect yourself, your home, your family, your property. You have a right to defend yourself against violence. Get a gun, and learn how to use it. If anyone tries to cause you pain, you’ll bring the pain to them.

Of course, sometimes you have to strike first. If you wait for them to make the first move, you could be dead. If they threaten you, they had better be prepared for what you will do. If they so much as glance at your daughter, they won’t get a chance for a second look. If they come through your door, they had better already be shooting. Otherwise you will take them out.


Jesus commends the gentle, calls them blessed—lucky to have soft answers for the wrath of others, favored by God with a mild temper that forbears to injure anyone. He says that they and not the aggressive go-getters will inherit the earth. The world will become the possession of mild-mannered men and women, those who value peace and love and simple happiness. “Be happy,” he says. “Consider yourself lucky if you’re the type of person who abhors violence, who wants to live and let live, who looks for ways to de-escalate tense situations. The world of the future will be yours.”

It is not only the world that does not believe Jesus; it is Christians. How do I know? Because we praise strength when it is a willingness to use violence rather than a readiness to endure it. Search for images of meekness on Google, and you will find a lot of memes proclaiming, “Meekness is not weakness. It is strength under control.” Notice that the virtue being touted is not gentleness or patient endurance. It is control. You harness your violence and make it do your bidding. You keep the threat of force in check and only use it when necessary. The trouble is, it will always eventually become necessary.

This is a lesson taught and reinforced again and again by our media and the stories we love to tell. The good guy knows how to use violence as well as the bad guy, but he uses it judiciously: in self-defense, or the defense of others. He does not use it wantonly like the bad guys who care nothing for others and kill or destroy to advance some evil agenda. The good guy’s violence is under control, made to serve good purposes or at least some end that is less bad than the bad guy’s aim. The good guy’s violence is for justice. It is for vengeance and retaliation. He may train for violence, but he does not originate it. When the bad guys offer violence, he retaliates.

This lesson feels good and right to us, in part because it helps us believe that our wars are just, that our police are upright, that our laws and their enforcement are humane. But this is not a lesson Jesus taught. Until the night of his arrest, whenever the authorities sought to detain him, Jesus always evaded them. He ran away. He avoided confrontation. He didn’t stand his ground. He didn’t put up a fight. During his arrest, when one of his followers tried to defend him, he rebuked him and told him, “Put away your sword. Everyone who draws a sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:50-52). In his own actions and in the teaching he gave his followers, Jesus was relentlessly non-violent. If we consider ourselves his followers, then he taught us to endure violence. He taught us not to retaliate, not to seek retribution, and to leave justice to the Father. We can plead for God’s vengeance, but we are explicitly told not to take matters into our own hands. Those who have sought to emulate Jesus’ teaching of non-violence have had better success in changing the hearts and minds of their oppressors than all the warriors and agitators in history. The future belongs to the gentle. The meek will inherit the earth.

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Lucky

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I would like to reclaim luck.

There is a notion prevalent among evangelicals that Christians should never attribute their good fortune or success to luck but only to God’s blessing. I suspect that many would attribute luck—good or bad—to the devil. By good luck he further ensnares those who are already his and prevents their escape. By bad luck he discourages the faithful and tempts them to desert the way of life.

The bible, however, presents a different view. Even the terrible misfortunes that befall Job, though designed and executed by the devil, are nevertheless permitted by God. His religious friends are convinced that Job is guilty of some great wickedness. They accuse him of robbing widows, enslaving orphans, or getting his fortune by murder and deceit. No one, their reasoning goes, is that unlucky. Job, too, looks for some overarching reason behind his misery. He wants to confront God with his own innocence and insists on his own integrity even if he must die for it. Neither Job nor the friends seem aware of the role Satan has played, and the author does not recur to it at the end of the narrative, as if the devil’s part is not really important. In the bible God takes responsibility for everything. His blessings result in peace, well-being, and happiness. His curses result in disaster and misery.

For me the distinction between being lucky and being blessed is one of emphasis. If I attribute my success to luck, then I am saying that it was not primarily my doing. I merely took advantage of advantageous opportunities. If I attribute my success to being blessed, then I am saying that it was God’s doing, not mine. I am merely the recipient of God’s beneficence. The context determines whether I want to emphasize God’s agency.

One potential problem with emphasizing God’s agency in blessing is the tacit assumption some people will make that God’s blessing has somehow to be deserved. If I claim to be blessed, I may appear to be claiming some kind of special status with God due to moral superiority or holiness. To avoid such an appearance, I might just say, “I was lucky.”

A look comparing how often the phrases “so lucky” and “so blessed” occur over the past 200 years shows that “so blessed” tended to predominate in the 19th century, but “so lucky” surpassed it around the beginning of the 20th century and has remained ascendant since.

Google NGram Viewer "so blessed" vs. "so lucky"
Google NGram Viewer “so blessed” vs. “so lucky”
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Blessed

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Read and comment on my blog.

On a recent Facebook post, I asked if there was any difference between blessing and good luck. I got different answers depending on what the respondent believed about the nature of the universe. They fell into three camps:

  1. The material universe is all there is. It is ruled by the laws of physics. Blessing is just a religious name for good luck.
  2. The material universe was created by God, who established the laws of physics to order it. Blessing comes from God. Good luck just happens at random.
  3. The material universe was created by God, who orders even apparently random events. Good luck is just a secular name for blessing.

I think the common understanding of most Christians is that some events are truly random, but other apparently random events are sent or caused by God. In fact, most responses were in the second camp. For example, if I tithe faithfully and give cheerfully, according to some, my life will be blessed in tangible, material ways. My good deeds will be rewarded with unexpected opportunities to make more money or to be more successful or to have greater influence. In this view, an unexpected promotion is from God, but a sudden illness is just a random event (or, possibly, from the devil—I didn’t want to include the devil, but, true to his nature, he butted in uninvited anyway).

This view is comfortable because with it we can absolve God of all catastrophes. Good things come form God; bad things come from nature (or the devil). God didn’t cause the Haitian earthquake; it was the result of tectonic movements deep underground. It was the result of the operation of gravity and impersonal mechanical forces. Or perhaps it was the work of the devil. Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a centuries-old curse, a pact with the devil that the Haitians made in exchange for the power to drive out the French during the slave revolt that led to Haiti’s independence.

But Christians have a problem. It is God’s omnipotence. While we hastily defend God against accusations that he causes earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, or other disasters, we usually aren’t quite ready to say that he is powerless to prevent them. (Some Christians have said that, and in doing so have diminished God rather than magnifying him as they ought.) If God does not cause calamity, surely he allows it, and isn’t that morally equivalent?

Here we must tread carefully, for this question is not an academic one. It is deeply personal for each one of us. Everyone has had bad things happen to them: death of a parent or child or spouse, a debilitating illness, an incapacitating accident. Such things happen to everyone and cause many to conclude that there is no God or that if there is he does not love them.We have to confess that our judgment has already been compromised.

Once we put God in the dock, we set ourselves up as his judge and agree in principle that there are moral laws that, if they apply to God, surely apply to us as well. And if God really is God, we may find ourselves having to answer to him for our sins rather than judging him for his.

It is natural to believe that bad things befall bad people and good things befall good people. It is how we would order the universe if we ourselves were in charge. We would reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and we would do so immediately. Disaster would be reserved for those who are exceptionally wicked. This was what Job’s friends believed. Repeatedly they demand that Job repent of his heinous sins. He must have been scamming single mothers or selling children into prostitution or ordering mass executions to have incurred such wrath from God. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health all in a short time, yet he claimed to have done nothing to deserve it. ‘Fess up, Job. Nobody has that much bad luck. You must have brought it on yourself.

Funny thing about Job. He never blames Satan for his troubles. The writer of Job lets his readers in on the scenes in heaven, but Job is never privy to them, and he never realizes that the Accuser has accused him of being righteous only for gain, only for God’s blessing. In Job’s mind God is the one ultimately responsible, and it is to him that he wants to present his case: the case of a righteous man unfairly singled out for punishment.

Here’s the funny thing about God. He never acknowledges Job’s case. Instead he overwhelms him with evidence of Job’s own inadequacy. In the end, Job is forced to admit that he is in no position to question God’s actions. He repents and prays for his friends who were guilty of the far greater sin of misrepresenting God.

So put me in the third camp. Despite it’s strange affinity with the naturalistic view of the first camp, I think it better represents the way the universe actually works. Nothing occurs by chance. God has his purposes in everything he causes and allows, and somehow those purposes are better than any alternative we, with our finite capacities, can imagine. I am blessed to be without a job now, and I will be blessed still more when I have a job again.

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