Sunday, March 18, 2007


The word "humble" and all its variations (humility; humbly) and synonyms (e.g., the "blessed are the meek") appear frequently in both the old and new testaments of the Bible, but what is humility?

The Bible says that "the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth." Num. 12:3 (NRSV). The man who spoke to God, confronted and defied the pharaoh of Egypt, and led an entire people into the wilderness towards an unseen promised land was "very humble"? What kind of humility is that?

When I think of humility, I often think of submissiveness, which suggests weakness, but humility in the Bible suggests a kind of quiet strength.

This is explicit in one of the commentaries to "the Lost Gospel Q" (Marcus Borg, Consulting Ed.), which translates the beatitude "blessed are the meek" as "fortunate are the gentle." A footnote explains that the original Greek word was "proates" which is more accurately translated as "gentle but strong" and "connotes strength that is gentle and tinged with of caring."

All those thoughts were jumbled up in my head when I read this passage by William O. Brown (1978): "Humility is a form of inner strength, a kind of dignity that makes it less necessary for a person to pretend." (Daily Readings from Quaker Writings Ancient & Modern, Linda Hill Renfer, Ed., Serenity Press)

Mr. Brown pretty much nailed it there. Humility is an expression of confidence, because a person who is truly confident does not need to brag or boast. And when you combine that kind of confidence with compassion for others, you get the "gentle strength" that Jesus was talking about.

And I have thought of at least two ways in which humility can bring power:
  • Humility gives us the power to see more clearly. All too often, our perceptions of the world and ourselves are clouded by our own egos. When we see ourselves as "right" and others as "wrong," it prevents us from seeing the truth in others and prevents us from learning new truths. And seeing more clearly gives us the power to act more clearly.

  • Humility also gives us power because people are more likely to listen to a voice of humility than a voice of pride or arrogance. The Tao Te Ching says that "All waters are drawn to the sea; it is its lowness that gives it power." People are actually more likely to trust the judgment of a person who expresses occasional uncertainty than the "know it all" who always claims to have all the answers.

Finally, and most importantly of all, humility reflects our right relationship with God. Our faith in God give us confidence and strength. But that confidence and strength is tempered by our understanding of our human weaknesses, by our inability to understand God's plans, and by our knowledge that our salvation comes from God's grace and not because we can earn it or deserve it.

Which helps my understand a little better my favorite passage from the old testament:

"And what does the Lord required of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Invisible Hand

In The Wealth of Nations (1776) the economist Adam Smith wrote that, when individuals pursue their own economic self-interest, the general wealth of the country increases and that general increase in prosperity benefits everyone. He described this as an "invisible hand" that guided individuals to benefit everyone even while they thought that they worked only for their own profit.

I have come to believe that there is a similar "invisible hand" in spiritual matters. When an individual acts to increase his or her own spiritual peace, the general peace of the community is increased, and so there is a benefit to all.

It's the flip side of John Donne's "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." (Meditation XVII.) Changing the negative to positive, every man's joy enriches me, and I never send to know for whom the bell peals, because it peals for me.

And so I rejoice when I learn that someone has made a life-changing or career-changing decision, even if I think that the decision might work against me. For example, if a co-worker quits, it might mean more work for me, or it might mean that I will need to help find and train a replacement. But it also might be good for me in the long run. The replacement might be someone that I can like or learn from. Upon losing an employee, our supervisors might realize that they either need to change their ways or lose more good employees. Or I might finally decide that I need to quit in order to find a better job. But how the change benefits me is unpredictable and not important. The important thing is that someone has acted to benefit his or her own life, and that action can only serve as an inspiration or model for others and only increase the prosperity of peace in the world.

And so I embrace those who have the courage to act to change their lives. I don't know how their decisions will help me, but I am sure they they will, if for no other reason that there will be happier people in the world.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Reaping What We Sow

In one of my previous posts about violence as public policy (i.e., "Guantanamo"), I quoted the Biblical admonition that "you reap whatever you sow." (See also, "The Wide Gate of Torture.") Well, it looks like at least part of the harvest is starting to come in.

The New York Times has reported that, after more than a decade of declining crime rates, many areas of the country have been experiencing double-digit increases in violent crime over the last two years. ("Violent Crime in Cities Shows Sharp Surge," 3/9/2007.) Theft and other crimes against property continue to go down, and the biggest increase in violent crime is in aggravated assaults with guns (i.e. shootings).

The article talks about a lot of different possible causes, including economics, a rise in the abuse of methamphetimine, and declining federal aid to local law enforcement, but most of the law enforcement officials who were interviewed talked about it as a social problem. There are simply more people willing to use guns to settle disputes or avenge perceived wrongs.

The leadership of a country influences the thinking of the country, so let's look at where the Bush administration has been leading us.

One of the most important policy formulations of the Bush administration is the "Bush Doctrine" that was first announced by President George W. Bush in a commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 1, 2002, and is laid out in more detail in the "National Security Strategy of the United States" issued by the National Security Council on September 20, 2002. The essence of the Bush Doctrine is that the United States intends to maintain overwhelming military strength and will use that military strength unilaterally and preemptively against any people or country who might pose a threat to us. This policy has been described as "muscular," but it could also be described as "macho," "violent," and "paranoid."

So then we invaded Iraq without the approval of the United Nations in order to protect ourselves from weapons of mass destruction that might exist but don't, as it turns out. And, in addressing a question about the dangers of attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, President Bush responds with "bring 'em on." (7/2/2003)

The administration also has policies of seizing people it thinks might be a threat (e.g., "extraordinary rendition") and holding them indefinitely (e.g., Guantanamo) while subjecting them to "tough questioning" (i.e., physical and mental stress, threats, and abuse) without the authority of any law and without any judicial review.

And Republican leaders regularly mock those who want to cut back on our use of violence as wanting to "cut and run," implying cowardice.

So, within a few years, people on the streets begin to think (and act) as though the same rules (or lack of rules) apply to them, using deadly preemptive violence to respond to perceived threats, and never backing down from a fight.

We're reaping what the President has sown, and it is still just the beginning.