The Meek Are Reconciled with the Earth: The Basis for Christian Ecology

Jesus says "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

I think one of the most moving stories in the Old Testament is the story of Joseph. He is an example of someone who is meek and who inherited much. Remember he is the scapegoat who is betrayed and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers because of his dreams. He remains meek, and is elevated only to be challenged by Potiphar's wife, who tries to seduce him. But he does not submit to her, and because she accuses him falsely of rape, he is jailed. Again, when he correctly interprets dreams, he is elevated, until finally he is Pharoah's right hand man, the prime minister of Egypt. Due to his foreknowledge given to him by God in dreams, he is able to prepare for famine and store grain for the nation and its neighbors, including his brothers, who come to him for help but do not recognize him. Joseph behaves with extreme grief and contrition even as he frames the youngest son, Benjamin, in order to test his brothers (and all but Judah fail the test) to see if they will again scapegoat the youngest son. Because Judah offers himself in Benjamin's place, Joseph forgives all of his brothers, and finally, when he reveals himself, his brothers are humbled and repentant. This is an amazing story not only of loss and reconciliation, but of Joseph's humility and meekness, his capacity to submit to God despite many difficult circumstances. He finds his contentment and solace in God whether he has been thrown in jail and persecuted, or when he is exalted and given stewardship over an entire nation.

As in all the beatitudes, Jesus exemplifies the characteristics that are inculcated in the lives of those who are blessed: poverty of spirit, weeping in the face of death and its manifestations, and here, meekness. He does not come ostentatiously and with anger, but is incarnate through Mary, whose suppliant obedience also demonstrates meekness in a relatively obscure village. His life is characterized by gentleness and self-control. He is not born in a palace or regaled with all the riches of the world. There isn't even a place for Joseph and his mother to stay on the night she is in labor. He lives simply, owns little, certainly does not compare himself with other men and serves those who follow him, healing their diseases and casting out demons, giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. Near the end of his ministry, he washes the feet of his disciples, and then, even though it is a tremendous and painful road for him, he submits to false accusations, a rigged trial, an unjust sentence and a barbaric crucifixion. Yet, from incarnation to crucifixion, all that he endures and every action that he takes is for the redemption of the world.

Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth. For the meek to inherit the earth speaks to the reconciliation of the human person with creation itself, and all that is entailed by that term, including everything from matter itself to nature and living organisms to animal life and the multitudinous creatures that inhabit the planet. We see this in the lives of saints, where meek, holy men and women of God such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, who befriended bears or St. Mary of Egypt (a lion) or the popular love of animals exemplified by Francis of Assisi; they make friends with animals, and the animals serve them in a way that doesn't involve force or enslavement. We are called to value matter itself, not use it for our own pleasures alone, as St. Athanasius proclaims when he says that we honor material substance because it is through matter that Jesus was incarnate, thereby redeeming the material universe, and through the material substance of the cross that he catches us out from the snares of death, redeeming the entire world, even creation, through his sacrificial death.

There are many promises impacted within the notion of the reconciliation of men and women with the earth. Death entered the world through sin and humanity lost its place of stewardship; the original purpose of man and woman on the earth to be its stewards, to care for it and make it thrive as one would a vast garden, and to multiply in it. The promise to the meek implicit in this blessing ultimately drives toward nothing less that the restoration of that original purpose, and it has its expression in this life, even in the fallen cosmos. Rather than acting as stewards, we have often, in the words of Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard, been guilty of the "rape" of both "man and nature". We have often used the Scriptures for the purpose of "civilizing" life on a scale that is finally destructive and tends toward death, and sins against the planet are committed both in the name of progress and in the name of God. We exploit the earth, objectify it, devalue it and live at a distance from it, both as societies and personally.

To be content with where you are in God's providence, and to be a steward of what you have, honoring your possessions in gratitude as gifts from God, I would suggest is a large part of what it means to inherit the earth. The poor in spirit possess the riches of the kingdom of heaven, those who mourn are comforted with the joy of the Holy Spirit and the meek inherit the earth, which is a promise of contentment. The promise is not for worldly power or possessions, though a meek person may be granted such things. A person who lacks what he needs, but has no refuge in Christ, is always grasping for what he does not have and cannot be content with his life. On the other hand, a person who is always grasping for more than he needs, especially through manufactured needs which are the basis of advertising, cannot get enough, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, "...he who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver," and later, "the sleep of the servant is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep."

But if the meek person is a steward of those things that are in his possession, neither lacking what is necessary nor striving for what he truly does not need, he is satisfied, he is content; he has enough and is not distracted by the glitter and empty promises of all the things people think will make them happy but that do not. I'd suggest, further, that such a person values the things he has more than the affluent value the many objects they acquire, especially in a disposable, throw-away society. The meek person truly possesses what he has and is not possessed by it. But it is far more in line with a Christian understanding of reality to value matter, including the things we possess and use, and not to exploit and use matter merely for our own gratification. So my suggestion is that to inherit the earth is to truly respect creation, including material things that we make and use for our benefit, and not to deny its value through excessive abstinence for its own sake or through taking advantage of matter for the sake of pleasure alone or in a vain attempt to be made secure and happy by the constant and endless acquisition of things. Our respect for creation also includes all living things -- plants and trees and animals and especially other people -- who are made in the image of God.

If inheriting the earth involves truly valuing the things we possess and having respect for matter itself, then might it not also involve a recognition of our kinship with nature as the stewards of what we possess, and the gradual reconciliation of the human person made in the image and likeness of God with the planet itself as its steward?

I'm reminded of a poem by Wendell Berry that was published in the New Yorker:

"A Speech to the Garden Club of America"

Thank you. I'm glad to know we're friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I'm sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied--our world! We speak of it
As "fuel" while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that's fast or cheap to falsify
The body's health and pleasure--don't ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature's laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
A creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

Wendell Berry indirectly describes the way that the earth itself is meek, perhaps as our example, a garden that, as he says, does not go deeper than its roots and lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits, in contradiction to the haywire way we exploit matter, via the fleeting notion of Icarus and his hubris echoed by the jet, which leaves a "sustained explosion through the air."

St John Chrysostom writes,

"The meek man is thought to lose everything, but Christ promises the contrary, saying, 'No, it is the meek -- he who is not rash nor boastful -- who possesses his goods in safety, while the unsubdued person shall often lose his all and even lose his life.'"