The virtue of gentleness is much-needed in society

Published 9:00 am Friday, August 16, 2013

By the Rev. Nancy Overgaard
chaplain at Thorne Crest Retirement Community

The recent stabbing in northern Iowa raises again the specter of domestic violence and again a question: Would we really be better off as a non-Christian nation as some continue to clamor for? In Galatians 5:22-23, the Apostle Paul notes that one fruit of the Spirit, one character quality that develops naturally in the lives of those connected to Christ, is gentleness.

Before men tune out, together with any who think they might prefer a diminished Christian presence in our nation, consider the difference gentleness would have made in the life of that north Iowa woman as to all victims of violent crimes. For the ancient Greeks, gentleness was far to be preferred over roughness, bad temper, outbursts of anger, bitterness, wrangling and arguing, to name a few of its opposites. To them, gentleness, also translated considerateness and courtesy, was an essential social virtue. The same quality has also been described as a quiet and friendly composure that does not become embittered or angry…whether at people or fate. Ah, what bliss to live in a society filled with people like that!

Our American conception of gentleness, which we tend to associate with women, may prevent us from realizing the far-reaching impact the presence or absence of this one virtue could have. A conversation with a student from Belarus sticks in my mind. High rates of domestic violence, together with alcoholism and depression in that former Soviet Republic compelled her to study Christian theology and counseling. Could it be the diminished Christian presence in her nation due to 70 years of atheistic communism contributed to those social ills? She thought so.

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A weather story in the New Testament Book of Acts is illustrative. Unintended by the author, it contains a parable and a paradox on the merits of gentleness. In Chapter 27, Luke recounts an ill-advised attempt to sail around the island of Crete to Rome in a violent storm. In his words, “When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force…swept down from the island.” To paraphrase Luke, unable to make headway, they gave way to the storm and were driven along. Ultimately, the ship took such a battering they had to throw the cargo overboard and swim for their lives as the ship broke into pieces.

The paradox is this. The gentle breeze would have gotten the ship to its destination whereas the overly forceful wind blew it far off course and caused extensive damage. The parable is this. A person may think force and aggression will get him (or her) what he wants. And, for a while it may seem that it does as others are forced to give way. Yet, in the end, aggression makes a shipwreck of lives and relationships and no one makes it to their desired destination.

For those concerned gentleness (also translated meekness) may be misconstrued as weakness, consider another paradox. Gentleness and strength are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are stunning in combination. I noticed it first in my brother-in-law as he taught a self-defense seminar for women, and again as he strolled along a boardwalk at Yellowstone National Park with his 5-year-old son. “Here, take my paw,” my bear-sized brother-in-law said to his young son as they passed signs warning of hot liquid spewing nearby. Resting on a bench, he sat with his arm tenderly around his son, my nephew, completely at rest in his presence.

Yet, my brother-in-law is all about strength. There is nothing of weakness in him and it would be foolhardy to think so. As a SWAT officer in Phoenix he works out daily to maintain his edge over the violent criminals he confronts. He specializes in defense tactics and instructs others in them. To cite his website he is a five-time national kick-boxing champion and has earned black belts in two disciplines. If that were not enough, he almost always carries lethal force, even fishing.

What strikes me most about the compelling combination of tenderness towards the weak and vulnerable alongside exceptional strength and power to protect is how it mirrors the same awesome combination in God. The prophet Isaiah unites the two as he describes the one with the power to create and govern the universe alongside the gentleness to tend his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them close to his heart (40:11-12). It is that gentleness that makes Jesus as approachable as my brother-in-law to his son, despite his great power, as he invites us to rest in his presence, protected and unafraid (Matthew 11:28-29).

Would you really want to live in a society lacking the virtue of gentleness, or miss out on the God who embodies and inspires it? I, for one, do not. I hope you will give it some thought.