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Trust in Obedience: the Key for the Future

Meekness - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/16

by Luigino Bruni 

published in Avvenire on January 12, 2014


The words that do not age can die and be resurrected in every era. One of these words is meekness, which was already great in the Psalms and the Gospel as well as in the ancient oriental civilization. It has been made even more sublime by the great meek people of history - Father Kolbe, the many martyrs of yesterday and today, Gandhi - and many others unknown to the news who, with their humble meekness, make each day better for all on earth.

Meekness is the virtuous answer to the vice of anger that has always dominated and still dominates the public sphere, making our offices, our meetings at work or at the condominium, urban traffic and the venues of political life wicked. If it were not for the meek, our anger would produce many more wars and wounds than it is producing already, and it would make our cities unliveable, dominated by the reciprocity of Lamech, murderers of children for a scratch.

The meekness of a few cares for and takes care of the wrath of many. This would be enough to explain the essential preciousness of the meek, the first prophetic minority that elevates the world, the mother yeast, the first salt of the earth. They are the truly non-violent ones, because with their strength they can prevent violence from dominating the world and our worlds. Meekness is also what makes the chronically ill live, and sometimes live joyously. It helps to grow old and die well. It makes us stand in the long and severe trials of life without becoming embittered and angry with others and with ourselves, but by letting a gentle hand pass over ourselves: the meek are those that bare the hand to pass above them (in Latin: "ad manum venire sueti”, thence in Italian: mansueti, the translator).

When at some point, often suddenly and without notice, there comes a great misfortune and pain in our life, it is education towards meekness that makes the heavy yokes bearable. It's the meekness of Job, who, sitting on the heap of ashes, does not follow the advice of his wife ("curse God and then die"), and continues to live, to resist, to fight humbly. In these decisive phases of life, meekness becomes a painful exercise, likely to dive into one's inner life, to find the hidden, deeper resources and values than those that are staggering around or have disappeared.

And you learn to say “amen”. To say the most important "amen"-s of life and especially the last one well, without wrath and malice, you need the virtue/bliss of meekness. One day a friend of mine who is a teacher of meekness said to me: "If life pushes you down to your knees once, get up. If it pushes you down a second time, get up again. But if you are pushed down onto your knees for a third time, maybe it's time for you to pray" (Aldo Stedile). Meekness is required for true forgiveness, too, which is not only to forget and then feel better, so it is not taking (for-get) but giving (for-give). The meek are capable of forgiveness because while they are forgiving they already turn obedient, ready to receive the other person's hand again.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, meekness is associated with the inheritance of the earth (land). But which land is it? The first land that the meek will inherit is the "promised land", the land of the advent of a reign of peace and justice, wished for by everyone and every civilization yesterday, today and tomorrow. But first of all they will inherit the gift of eyes that can "see" this Earth/Land, and so long for it and love it. You cannot start or continue any journey, nor cross any desert without first seeing through to the end of it, and desiring the fulfilment of a promise at its other end. If we didn't have promise land of in front of us, one that's new and better, how could we fight meekly to make our wounded earth a better place?

The inheritance of the land, however, is also what our children will receive tomorrow if we are going to be meek today. There exists, in fact, a sort of meekness in the use of the land, its resources, its goods, water, air, a meekness we desperately need. All the times that we are violent with the land and its resources we are reducing the value of this inheritance. Meekness is directly related to safekeeping:  Abel the meek and Cain the non-safekeeper are still in front of us as representatives of radically alternative choices that are always possible. The one who is meek preserves the oikos (the home) and so conducts a meek oikonomia. A meek economy is one that uses the resources knowing that they were inherited and that they should be left as inheritance. If we were meek we would do different calculations to measure our growth and prosperity. In those algorithms we would give much more weight to the consumption of non-renewable resources and to all those we found on earth and must leave behind. The "universal destination of goods", the principle underlying the doctrine of the Common Good certainly refers to space but what it really questions is, above all, time. If we were to do so, the concern for what's "after us" would become a general culture that would lead us to use all the common property with the same care as children's things are handled.

By contrast, individualist capitalism, which in these times of "crisis" is spreading unchallenged, is all too often violent in the use of resources, and so it trades the quality of the environment, air and water of tomorrow, the future of entire peoples (I am thinking of Africa in particular), for some degrees of temperature up or down in the houses of the northern part of the world, and continues to greedily consume the earth, the environment and the poor; it does not include the peripheries but destroys them. Economic meekness would mean, especially for large companies, reducing the aggressive presence of advertising in all the moments of our lives, and stopping to squeeze the fresh graduates that, at this stage of severe shortage of employment possibilities are very vulnerable to blackmailing. It would mean reducing the speed and aggressiveness of speculative finance, mitigating the arrogant and vulgar language of the powerful, bending and soothing the hands of many banks towards entrepreneurs and families, or that of the public administration with those who have always paid their taxes but, having fallen into misfortune, cannot do it anymore.

Meekness talks to us through its typical language that's different, but closely linked to the language of the other virtues and beatitudes. It tells us an ancient truth that is at the heart of community life. When we look at the "show" of life that takes place every day in front of our eyes, our first impression is that the smart ones, the violent and evil ones will always prevail and succeed. The meek appear as losers, rejected and unsuccessful under the blows of the powerful and violent, an unfairness that made Norberto Bobbio cry out from pain and disappointment: "Woe to the meek: they will not be given the kingdom of the earth" ("In Praise of Meekness"). The stories and the truth of ordinary and extraordinary meekness tell us instead that this first impression, realistic as it may be, is not necessarily the truest one. When you do the accounts of real costs and revenues of individual and social life, which cannot be measured primarily in currency, the highest profit is often marked by meek people and communities: "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread." (Psalm 37).

If tomorrow we have a better economy than at present, in which young people can work and won't have to be "begging bread", it will not be due to the promises of the powerful, but by the strong, silent and tenacious action of the many meek. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.


  Translated by Eszter Kató

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial



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