For me the Christianity deal-breaker was meekness

by tcelferact4 min read26th Aug 202111 comments

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I was raised Catholic, became agnostic around 13, stopped thinking an afterlife made sense at 15, and noticed I was no longer religious at 16.

But I still spent the next ~12 years in pretty close proximity to Christianity. I did religious studies at school, I studied philosophy and theology at university, and most importantly I sung in church choirs, which meant I was regularly attending services.

I also wasn't crazy about the label 'atheist', as I didn't think my beliefs had much in common with famous or 'new' atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling). I often found their objections uninteresting, as they dealt with claims concerning things like 'metaphysics' and 'theodicy' that most Christians I knew didn't really care about. For those Christians, religion was more of a spiritual commitment or a decision to live a certain way, and, for example, their conservative approach to romance seemed like it could be valid even if the Church couldn't explain why God lets evil exist.

But if what you're doing is following a set of practices that are at most loosely inferred from a set of community texts and a history of community tradition, why take the extra step of identifying as Christian? Why not just say 'hey there's some good stuff in here, and I'll join in with the good and leave the bad'? What makes you want to take that extra step?

During the last 12 years I've wondered if I wanted to take that extra step again, until this year, when I realized any desire I had to do so was based in meekness.

Meek: Quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive.
- https://www.lexico.com/definition/meek

Meekness is praised in the Gospel:

Blessed are the meek,
  for they will inherit the earth.
- Matthew 5:5

Not to mention that in the most important story in the whole Bible, the Son of God gives himself up *for death* without putting up a fight. He knows he will be betrayed but he waits for his captors to come and arrest him.

Meekness is a big deal for Christianity. And it shouldn't be. Meekness is not a virtue.

In the dictionary definition of meekness above, 'quiet, gentle' sounds fine; 'easily imposed on' and 'submissive', not so much. Meekness is when you don't stand up and ask for what you need, or it is when you allow what you need to be taken from you. This is a disaster for your personal wellbeing, and perhaps even worse when it comes to looking out for your community.

One of my clearest memories of Catholic school is sitting at a breakfast table watching three kids bully a fourth. The fourth kid had recently returned from a suspension for writing something rude in a guest book; it was pretty clear he had been pressured if not coerced. As if the events happening in front of him weren't enough, the supervising adult at the table would have known all this. But he was very deliberately staring straight ahead and into the distance, focussing his energy on ignoring what was happening.

And if you think meekness is a virtue, why wouldn't you do what that adult did? If you actually value not standing up for yourself, what hope is there for the people around you who might be counting on you to stand up for them?

Unfortunately, Christian communities that break this pattern are in my experience the exception not the rule. We had Marthin Luther King Jr., but he also wrote the following in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows. 
- https://letterfromjail.com/

Meekness.

Why did I wonder if I wanted to join the Church again? I realized I had been missing the sensation from childhood of being 'easily imposed upon, submissive', and letting a greater authority determine a larger part of what I believed.

The world is scary, and as a kid there's a lot of comfort in that kind of a relationship. I can't be the only one who was taken in by it.

But I'm not a kid any more, and as soon as I recognized the roots of what I was feeling, I also recognized it was neither healthy nor acceptable to me. Thanks, but no thanks, I'll be an impartial observer of religion from now on.

If you're reading this and you are a Christian, here are my challenges to you:

  • Don't let meekness be a recruiting mechanism to your Church. Deferring responsibility in the face of difficulty is sometimes necessary, but doing it as part of a fundamental, lifelong commitment is no way to live.
  • Respect yourself. Can you treat yourself with kindness and value your own wishes and desires? Or will you find some excuse for letting them go unfulfilled?
  • Look out for others. Prove to the world that you are not meek. You're committed to loving your neighbour, so whose basic human dignity are you going to stand up and defend, even in the face of opposition?
  • Decide what you believe on your own terms, not on your priest's. (If the conclusion that you reach is that you agree with him, then good for you.)

n.b. I've encountered the term 'protest atheism' which does a decent job of capturing where I am now. A new atheist like Dawkins would say 'God doesn't exist', whereas a protest atheist might say 'this isn't how we should live'.
 

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The English work "meek" is a problematic translation of the original Greek "praus". Praus refers to a wild animal who's been tamed, the connotation being that such a person hasn't lost the virtue of strength of their wild nature, but added to it the virtue of civilized interaction, similar to how a tamed animal learns to do things their wild counterparts would never do.

This links to several other similar notions spread through the New Testament. For example, when Jesus:

a) Tells his disciples to be "harmless as doves" but "wise as serpents";

b) When he orders them to first go around and learn to preach without carrying weapons, thus having to resort to fleeing when threatened, and then, after they managed to do that, instructs them to arm themselves with swords, the implication being that now they have the experience needed to know when violence can be dispensed with, and when it cannot;

c) Or when he teaches them to give the other face, which also is quite misunderstood modernly. Back then when a person of higher social standing wanted to deeply offend someone from a lower social standing, they slapped them with the back of their hands. By showing such a person "the other face" they couldn't use that movement, and were forced to slap you with the palm of their hand, a gesture reserved to challenging someone of their same social standing, which most wouldn't dare do.

In short, such expressions have a connotation of deliberately restraining one's own savagery, but not letting it go, so that others may know that, while you're fine and good and helpful, you aren't weak, and aren't to be trifled with. A connotation that more often than not is lost in translation.

Came here to say the same. This doesn't necessarily diminish the original point, since I think most English-speaking Christian think "meek" here means exactly what the OP does, but I think it's also worth saying that in this case the problem appears not to be with the text of the Bible itself, but with modern misunderstanding of the translation of it into English and the implications of that misunderstanding.

Many American Christians seem to equivocate between the naïve and informed interpretations of "meek" in a motte-and-bailey-esque fashion.

The first thing that comes to mind is submission to church elders and (sometimes) others of the same denomination, restrained (barely) savagery when dealing with people who don't believe as they do.

There is an element of submission, but originally it meant submission of the will to the knowledge of those who know better even when what they say goes counter your base interests.

For example, going back to praus/taming/meekness, one reference Jesus use is that of his "yoke" being easy and with a light load. Yoke is a U-shaped bar used to fix two draft animals together, so they can pull loads together. One way animal trainers used back then (and maybe still use today) to train an animal in a new job is to fix his neck on one side of a yoke, and on the other a very experienced animal. This way the learned animal, doing his well practiced routine, leads the untrained one to learn them much faster. So the idea here is that, by emulating the elders, the novice gets "there" much faster, and with much less difficulty, than he would by doing things on his own. Which, considering this is in context of iron age societies, in which an established practice remained as the state-of-the-art for generations at a time, in general tended to be true.

Nowadays things change at such a fast pace that this isn't the case anymore, so there's a clear mismatch between what the intended purposes of such a saying was meant to convey, that is, that one should listen to those who know better, and what one derives from the saying in a modern context, which depending on circumstances ends up frequently being the opposite.

It's worth noting that Paul teaches the exact same thing in a much more straightforward way, for now still understandable verbatim, when he said it's good to learn about everything to then prudentially chose what to actually use from all one learned. A huge number of Christians definitely don't do that, preferring instead to practice the misinterpreted version of the "yoke" metaphor.

Thanks for sharing this. When I was studying theology, I most enjoyed learning about the first and second century communities that circulated the gospels, and that was because of points like the one you've raised (although I wasn't familiar with "praus"). It's a shame most of it never made it into church when I was a kid! The messaging of those early communities and the messaging of modern churches are very different.

You're welcome. There's a stronger continuity if you look at pre-modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but yes, Christianity changed a lot over time.

By the way, something that may help you locate your own personal moment in your relation towards the religious teachings you received are in light of Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg's theory of stages of moral development, and Fowler's theory of stages of faith development, as these helped me understand my own. They build one atop the other in this same sequence, Fowler's depending on Kolhberg's, which in turn depends on Piaget's, so it's important to read the 3 links in the order provided.

Even when I was just a kid I never understood how others could just completely disregard or only pay lip service to the stuff like "does God exist?" and just be happy with "I like the way these people live".  As if disregarding the supposed basis for a way of life isn't inextricably part of living that life.

As I grew older I realized that people just don't give enough consideration to the matter to even realize that they're disregarding the fundamental basis of most things. Not because people are stupid, but because it's advantageous to be able to be able to ignore pesky things like truth and reality. 

I don't think my life is unambiguously better because I realized God isn't real. In some ways my life is actually worse. In fact, if I could as easily set aside my search for accurate maps of reality as many people seem to be able to, my life would inarguably be better if I was a devout religious person. Unfortunately (in some ways), I can't set that search aside, and don't want to.

Your post feels solidly in line with Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow. According to the book, mainstream protestant Christianity is losing men (and, as a consequence, failing to add women as quickly as they die) because it's too lovey-dovey. Hardcore religions like Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity are growing.

A lot of the reason for meekness, "turn the other cheek", etc. is based on the promise of reward in the afterlife. Without that incentive, I agree that valuing meekness makes less sense.

Also, there's a difference between not standing up for yourself and not standing up for others. In my understanding only the former is considered a virtue.

Also, there's a difference between not standing up for yourself and not standing up for others. In my understanding only the former is considered a virtue.

I think that's correct, but also I think if you practise not standing up for yourself enough, it will spill over into not standing up for others. I'm not yet clear on how I'd want to make that argument though.