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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Let your gentleness be evident to all

"Let your gentleness be evident to all." (Philippians 4:5)

There are several issues that press the collective spirit of the United States: A decade of war, an economic collapse and recession, an environmental catastrophe, and an inability to address immigration issues. Taken together, we have become more divisive and distrustful, more protective and territorial. As a collective, we want to insist on our rights, we feel the need to fight for what is "ours." It is a spirit of grasping and clinging, we are suspicious of others whom we believe are trying to steal from us: terrorists abroad, immigrants within our boarders, the government, or corporate powers.

"Tolerance" is a word that has been debated in our society for a while. Some mock the idea of tolerance: this isn't a tolerant world for the weak, you have to fight for what is rightfully yours. At this point, the sense of tolerance, civility, and gentleness seem only to be words devoid of substance, political rhetoric to give us a moral sense of superiority.

Paul's exhortation to the Philippians is to "let your gentleness be evident to all." The Greek word here, epieikes, is a difficult one to translate. The idea has to do with gentleness, but it has to do with the type of gentleness that yields and surrenders its right of law over others. The lexical definition is as follows (BDAG): “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind courteous, tolerant.”

The scholar R.P. Martin translates this word as magnanimity: "Aristotle contrasted it with akribodikaios 'strict justice.' For him it meant a generous treatment of others that, while demanding equity, does not insist on the letter of the law. Willing to admit limitations, it is prepared to make allowances so that justice does not injure. It is a quality, therefore, that keeps one from insisting on one’s full rights, 'where rigidity would be harsh' (Plummer, 93; cf. Aristotle, Eth. nic. 5.10 §1137b.3), or from making a rigorous and obstinate stand for what is justly due to one."

Whereas a political or cultural climate such as ours would encourage a person to insist on getting their due and asserting their rights, a spirit of magnanimity or gentleness spoken of by the Apostle Paul would be yielding, kind, tolerant, and pull back from insisting on getting one's full due. What is more, Paul's exhortation to the Philippians is that this spirit of gentleness be "evident to all." In other words, it is not merely a private disposition without public ramifications. The idea is that one's magnanimity overflow into public life such that a person is distinctly marked as a tolerant and kind individual.

I do not think this means that one defers from standing up for justice or righteousness, nor do I think that a person need not express strong opinions related to current day political issues. Nor do I even think it is out of place to discuss one's rights or what is due us. However, such ideological discussions should never turn us against another in such a way that we harshly insist on getting our due without any sense of compassion for others. In other words, "let your generosity be evident to all" ultimately means that a person does not hesitate to pull up short of demanding their rights in deference to others. It is a stance of gentleness as opposed to a harsh and inflexible insistence that right is right.

This spiritual teaching from the Apostle Paul is the mark of one who lives markedly different from the prevailing culture of violence that marks our day and age. "Let your gentleness be evident to all."

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