Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory. (Isaiah 6:3)
What does God’s glory look like? In the Hebrew Bible, kavod is often translated as glory, splendor, and abundance. God’s glory fills us with awe and inspires reverence, and thus we often think of it in cosmic, otherworldly terms. It is something larger than immense. Yet, I think we fail to recognize sometimes in thinking of God as great, all-powerful, all-knowing, and awesome that we forget how God’s glory surrounds us and is part of the world we live in. The heavens declare…
This means that God’s glory is not merely unseen, but permeates the seen. This is not that we should confuse Creator and creation, but that we should see in creation the goodness, beauty, and glory of its creator. If the Creator inspires reverence, so does His creation.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20).
God is invisible and intangible by some accounts, according to our human senses, yet God speaks to us through His creation (such as through the words of prophets, the mouth of babes, and the beauty of the heavens). Romans 1:20 tells us that God’s invisible qualities can be seen in His work. Jeremiah 51:15 tells us that His power, His wisdom, and His understanding shaped the act of Creation. John 1:2 tells us that Christ was the Logos through which everything that was made, was made.
Christians who are born again will manifest the fruit of gentleness in their lives. Gentleness is not merely softness and tenderness. Gentleness, Scripturally defined, consists of the actions and attitudes we have that manifest reverence towards the sacred beauty of God at work in His Creation, especially in His children that bear His image without exception. We the church are called to gentleness.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40).
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 1:40)
Even the most cruel of humans can be tender when they choose to. Abusers are gentle to some, violent to others. But gentleness is not a fruit of the spirit when it appears sometimes and disappears at others. When gentleness stems from a reverence for God, it is consistent across all of life, from the way we treat our family we love, the neighbors who annoy us, and the church members we like and the ones we don’t. It doesn’t mean that all relationships are the same or that we don’t naturally have more patience in some circumstances than others. Rather, this means that we behold and revere the image of God by giving dignity, respect. and care to each person we encounter as determined by the relational context of that encounter. This is especially true when no one is looking, such as familial relationships behind closed doors. The apostle James did not tell Christians that if they revered a rich person but scorned a poorly dressed visitor that they should be praised for partially manifesting the fruit of the spirit – he said they were in sin. Similarly, Jesus said that our reverence of Him as Lord is reflected in the way we treat the “least of these”. The Good Shepherd’s love is differentiated from that of a hireling because He would go out of the way of the last of a hundred sheep, and because of the length He would go to, sacrificing His own life.
The Empires of this world reflect, in many obvious ways, the ethic of Satan. A non-ethic, essentially. The thief steals, kills, and destroys (John 10:10), the Shepherd is the one who gives life to preserve life. Those who are captive to Satan’s power manifest greed, cruelty, and violence particularly in how, for example, they leave behind a scorched earth in times of war, they destroy everything of beauty in a natural place and raze plants, animals, and human communities to the ground, and they are callous towards the very concept of life itself. Life, in the Satanic worldview, is disposable and used towards selfish ends. Life, in the Shepherd’s worldview, is sacred.
Adolf Hitler scorned gentleness as weakness. Under Nazi ideology, brute force was what made a man a man. A good leader needed to make cruel decisions for the greater good, and heroic strength was exercised towards these ends. This is why the first people murdered under the Nazi regime were people with disabilities. The Reichbishop, Ludwig Mueller, created a Sermon on the Mount for Nazis that reflected their “muscular Christianity”, one that removed reference to meekness, mercy, and peacemaking. Yet, the Nazis were not alone in their desire to eliminate the “least of these”. They simply brought attitudes already existing in many parts of the world to their logical end: asylums in those days often labeled those who with mental health struggles or physical disabilities as “mad”, “insane”, and other, far worse, derogatory labels. Nobody saw, and nobody cared to know. Such people were seen as undesirable and best eliminated from genteel society. They were locked away from society, subject to harsh and cruel treatments that were, in effect, grotesque torture.
By the time Hannah was admitted it housed nearly 200 who were cared for by only seven members of staff. A single bedchamber was normally shared by six to seven inmates. The treatment they received was intentionally inhumane, for the mad, having abandoned the essential human capacity of reason, were perceived as bestial creatures. Patients were routinely restrained with chains and subjected to harsh physical and psychological punishments. In such circumstances, where neglect and abuse were routine and disease was rife, it is no surprise that death stalked the hallways of York Asylum… although the tragic fate of Hannah Mills was greeted with indifference by most of society, it provoked profound outrage among the small community of Quakers of which she had been a member. Several local Quakers, led by William Tuke, resolved to ensure that future members of their community would not suffer like Hannah and set about constructing their own institution for the treatment of the mentally ill. This institution would stand as the antithesis of everything York Asylum represented. It would reject violence and restraint as methods of treatment, it would provide spacious and comfortable accommodation, it would encourage patients to develop themselves, providing the opportunity for useful work, and it would endeavor to treat its patients with dignity and respect.(McDonough-Tranza, 2018)
According to scholar Aldred H. Neufelt,
“The mentally ill had their darkest hour at the hands of the Christian church during the Inquisition of the thirteenth century. With growing fears in society and an increasing sense of instability in the world of their day… hundreds of thousands of mentally ill lost their lives in central Europe in a vigorous effort to exterminate those possessed of the devil” (Neufeldt, 1983, p.5).
The division of the world into the strong and the weak, the worthy and the unworthy, the human and subhuman, the glorious and the shameful, and the greatest and the least, serves, very simply, as an excuse for sin. Such hierarchical thinking, such as that in social Darwinism’s doctrine of “survival of the fittest”, is inimical to the gospel of peace in every way yet something that seems to have permeated Christian history at many points. This is because compromise with Empire means a fundamental compromise with the gospel. The age-old pursuit of enlarging one’s domain, vanquishing one’s enemies within and without, and seek to triumph by superiority was not only a project of Hitler’s Third Reich but every empire to have ever existed, included Constantine’s imperial army that emblazoned a “cross” on their shields and banners, marching off to proclaim their supremacy over competitors. Yet Jesus died on a cross, a visceral piece of imperial propaganda designed to show how much the empire had ravaged and weakened even the most insignificant threat to its sovereignty. The Roman Empire won the “competition”, but Jesus Christ the Bondservant won the true victory by rejecting the very grounds of competition.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are. so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:27).
Neufeldt’s research shows us that Christians who rejected the sword and pursuit of supremacy, were among the first to institute humane care for the disabled. This included, historically, the monasteries of Saint Jerome, Saint Basil, and Saint Benedict in the fourth to sixteenth centuries. Then, in recent history, Quakers were among the first to reform mental healthcare.
The theological view that each person is a child of God, no matter what their condition or state of life, has deep roots in Anabaptist tradition. One can infer the presence of such a value in the work by Mennonite COs in mental hospitals during WWII. These were young men and, later, a few women, by and large raised on farms, with little or no training or experience relevant to working in large mental hospitals. Yet, as documented in a recent book on the CO experience by Steven Taylor, they gained a reputation of being able to make small positive changes to life on the wards by showing genuine interest in the persons they served. It is reasonable to argue that an implicit understanding of the distraught, naked, long stay inmates of mental hospitals as each a ‘child of God’ characterized the understanding of these untrained COs seeking to make such individuals’ lives just a little bit better. This value continues to be present as a characteristic of MMHS services, reflected in statements like the following: “Patients or clients are viewed with ‘a deep kind of sensitivity and caring about human values…the humaneness”; (Melvin Funk); “instead of being treated with the ‘custodial mechanisms that dehumanize the individual,’ the person is treated with dignity and respect.” (Neufeldt, 2011, p.193, emphasis added)
The young farm COs found that physical and sexual abuse of patients was not uncommon, but far more common was the immense neglect in wards of grossly over crowded institutions where there often was only one paid attendant for 100 to 200 ‘patients’. According to Steve Taylor’s recent study, somewhat different strategies were used to confront such systemic practices, depending whether COs were of Quaker or Mennonite background. Those of Quaker background gravitated towards active public advocacy, including public exposés of abusive conditions in such national media as Life magazine and others, and prompted development of a highly effective advocacy organization in the USA known as the National Mental Health Foundation. Mennonites felt that tackling systems change was too complex and would not change conditions very easily, and so decided instead to see about changing conditions in small ways on the wards during the war, and on the war’s conclusion to set up their own small mental health facilities. (Neufeldt, 2011 p.195, emphasis added).
Gentleness is revolutionary. Where the Assyrians scorched the earth, slaughtering every animal and burning every tree, a child of Jesus’s Kingdom is called to have a sacred reverence for all of life and all of Creation. Since Jesus taught us that it is blessed to be merciful and since the Scripture proclaims gentleness as the fruit of the spirit, we have to begin to live this way of peace even if it goes against the core values of a broken, selfish, cruel, world. Where do we start?
1. Be Gentle to Yourself
Stealing, killing, and destruction in this world are often motivated by a desire to prove one’s worth. “You are worthless unless…” is a phrase that leads to so much evil, primarily because it begins with a fundamental disrespect of God’s creation and ends with a motivating desire to harm someone or something else to prove one’s supremacy or be subject to shame, ridicule, and rejection. Competitiveness is antithetical to goodness because it did not exist in Creation. Adam did not have to struggle to survive or fight with animals or other humans to be given stewardship of Creation. He was beautiful and worthy. Creation was beautiful and worthy.
“Survival of the fittest” – the strongest, the most powerful, the most dominant, the most capable – is deadly. It leads to extermination and genocide. There is a reason why colonial and imperial rulers were trained not with gentleness and love but with cruelty and callousness designed to “toughen” them against compassion and gentleness.
The world today is doing everything it can to push you into competition to have you strive for success in one way or the other. It sucks us into this vortex of individualism, self-interest, judgmentalism, cruelty, condemnation, and harshness. Feelings of worthlessness do not come from God. Self-hatred does not come from God.
This internal work is perhaps the hardest work of all. Unless we do this work, we are poised to hurt others with our words and attitudes. One cannot be gentle to others if one is harsh to oneself and in one’s outlook in general, because this kind of cruelty is inimical to God’s fatherly agape. God chose to redeem us because God accepts us, welcomes us with open arms, and longs for us.
2. Choose servanthood, not supremacy
Society tells us that if we aren’t the best, we aren’t worth anything at all. Perhaps one of the scariest things is to be a “nobody”. We all are put into this race to be a “somebody”, somebody worth praising, looking up to, and remembering when they are gone. We have to be somebody – being nobody is inherently dangerous because that means we’re disposable.
The point of being of follower of Jesus is not to be debased as the wretched of the earth, but that no one should be considered sub-human scum. We inherently reject a system that classifies us as powerful or powerless, masters and commanders or slaves and bondservants. This means, practically, that the world is going to consider us all of these things (powerless, slaves, scum), but that in our midst, within and among us, we reverence one another and honor one another as we would honor our Creator Himself.
Jesus rebuked the disciples for striving to the “first” and the greatest because the very pursuit of these ends necessitates treading down upon, debasing, and lording it over the brothers and sisters we are called to love. Unless we manifest a very different dynamic in our midst (love and submission towards one another), we have no witness and nothing at all to contribute that changes what is fundamentally wrong with the world. Our gospel is a gospel of brotherly love or it is no gospel at all.
3. Don’t treat anyone or anything as a disposable means to an end
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. (Matthew 10:29)
Disposability is a word of the age, not only of this particular time period. Disposability is emblematic of the ravaging effects of Empire. Everything has to be consumed, plundered, ravaged, sold, commodified, destroyed. The frontier settlers who encountered the incredible, awe-inspiring redwoods, for example, believed that to conquer them, they had to cut them down. They hunted down the bison of the American plains and decimated the Tasmanian tigers to extinction. They mined, hunted, conquered, and sought to dominate every square inch of the earth, competing for profit and glory at whatever cost possible.
To treat Creation as disposable, as a means to an end, is to objectify and commodify what is not ours to harm. God blesses us through Creation, providing for our nourishment and for many of our needs. There is more than enough. Yet somehow the nature of sin keeps us wanting to turn beauty into destruction, taking everything we can from the world God made and leaving waste and ugliness in our wake.
When we start treating Creation as disposable, human beings become disposable too. We choose to be blind to the fact that when we fill the oceans with poison, we start to poison ourselves. When we churn through cheap, disposable, clothes, home decorations, furniture, and the thousands of accouterments “necessary” to modern life, we enable human trafficking, modern-day slavery, waste, and more. We are making this world unlivable.
4. Cherish life
Life is not just a beating heart. It’s an intertwined, interdependent, gloriously beautiful world that God made, a world that sustains and nourishes us physically as He sustains and nourishes us spiritually, including through communities of faith. When we see life as sacred, we will have started to have the mind of the Creator rather than the Destroyer.
We need to start making choices about living according to a different, revolutionary, set of values. We need gentleness to characterize our lives as Christians so that we do not reap spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical destruction. When we glorify Christianity in creed, we fail to recognize that many indigenous peoples around this world live with one another and with creation with more reverence and respect than those who have endless libraries of theology. They are also never atheistic or human-centric, instead choosing to revere a greater Creator.
I don’t believe “external” gentleness is possible without “internal” gentleness. The call to revolutionary gentleness may feel like an added burden, something to add to an impossible to-do list of spiritual, physical, financial, social tasks we are expected to keep up with, or else. The point is not to make the rat race harder, but to somehow stop in our tracks and say, “Hey, this is not a race. Stop the race. Reject the race. We are not rats.”. Unless we do so, any Kingdom work we are called to do will be impossible and will likely be sequestered into this competitive, deadly, pursuit of worth, dignity, respect, glory… Failure means shame, condemnation, devastation, disaster.
Perhaps the “self” we are called to forsake, the “riches” we are told to leave behind, includes this gentle call to let go of the fear that drives us to stay on the road of impossible, lofty, expectations. Why is our life full of stress and anguish? What fears drive us to push ourselves towards the impossible? What will letting go of this fear mean?
The fear of failure only exists in a world without gentleness, where the stakes are high. We have to step outside of this, recognizing that this cruel system into which we are enslaved is, in effect, the power of Satan from which we are to be saved into the power of God (Acts 26:18). This is not to say that we cease to work altogether, but that we cease to work because we fear. We deprive fear of its oxygen and, in doing so, the power it has over us. This is how we as Christians are called to do good work (Ephesians 2:8-9) – set free from the threat of damnation, we work because it is beautiful and because it is what we were specially, gently, tenderly, made to joyously, confidently, abundantly, do.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The greatest commandment, love, is not a burden. It is not a call to an impossibly high standard of sacrifice and servanthood, but rather an expression of the free-flowing grace, compassion, mercy, and gentleness of God. To be saved from the power of sin is to be saved from the burden of checklists and expectations, from which we need to be saved in order to love the way we were created to love. Salvation is a freedom from the endless need to strive.
What then, is gentleness? Gentleness is a superabundance of love that expresses itself in mercy, kindness, and a desire to see God’s goodness and beauty manifest. Gentleness is a celebration of all things beautiful, and a transformative engine with the potential to change the world as we know it.
Gentleness is Revolution.