A Promise to the Underdogs

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“We’re studying the Beatitudes,” he mentioned as he plopped into the beanbag. His 6th grade Sunday School class was covering, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

So I quizzed him. “What does ‘blessed’ mean?”

“It means God is pleased with you–like it’s good to be meek.”

“What does it mean to be meek, exactly?”

He parroted the lesson, saying meekness was akin to being non-competitive or nice.

So, I prodded, “God likes it when you are not competitive? Does that make sense to you as a star soccer player?”

He shrugged.

The following Sunday there was a second pass at blessed are the meek. This time the instructors added the concept of gentleness and docility to the definition. And again I pressed my son to consider why it is meritorious to be meek.

“I guess God wants us to be quiet,” he said.

But what if we’ve misunderstood meekness altogether?

I asked my son to think about whom Jesus was talking to that day when he preached this sermon, when The Beatitudes were first spoken under the Palestinian sun. He was talking to people who were poor, mourning the losses of life, meek … he was naming their station in life.

“Is it good to be poor or sad?” I asked.

He shook his head to the contrary.

“So do you think Jesus is saying it is a good thing that they are poor and sad–that we should all want to be poor, too?”

“I hope not,” he blurted out.

So we talked about how the people who have the world wired, the ones who get their way in life, are usually the rich, the strong or the powerful people. They are called blessed. But Jesus looked around him at the beleaguered crowd and said “You are blessed.” He was saying that despite their poverty, despite all the reasons they had to weep, they were still blessed with access to God’s Kingdom. Even they could expect to participate in the goodness of God’s world.

But there was still the question: Who are the meek? Because I wasn’t satisfied with the definitions he’d been given thus far.

Turns out the key is in the crowd. The people listening to Jesus were the ones under occupation–again. Under the thumb of Rome, the people suffered with nowhere to go. For previous generations it was the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and then Alexander the Great.

There was always an empire occupying the land.

And, according to Psalm 37: “Those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land … the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” The Psalmist is the first to reveal the meek as title-holders of the land. The Promised Land belongs to them. This is the concept Jesus picks up in His sermon: the meek are the ones still on the land, still under occupation, but still promised this family inheritance.

Empires can come and go, but the meek remain. Indeed, they have no resources to go elsewhere. They are trapped, stuck, living as some kind of squatters on their own land. But, Jesus says, this empire shall pass, too. And when it does, the meek will have outlasted the oppressor and kept their property. There is an irrevocable inheritance for those who have nowhere else to go, no means of escape.

So my son and I engaged in the conversation about the meek once again, and this time we talked about Burundi. Right now the country is amid political turmoil. He remembers the sound of grenades and gunfire, the convoy out, navigating the many dangerous roadblocks earlier this summer. He daily asks after the well-being of his aunties and friends there.

Those with passports have already fled the country–many of his school friends among them. Those who could, took flights to Belgium, England or Kenya. Those with financial means re-settled in Rwanda or Uganda for the time being.

“Who is left in Burundi?” I asked. “Can you name the ones there, the ones who cannot get out?”

He named cousins, his beloved aunt and some other family friends stuck in Burundi.

“They are the meek, son.”

The meek are the ones who have no way out. Who would think they are blessed? Except, Jesus looks them in the eye and says they still participate in His Kingdom and will outlast the current empire or, in Burundi’s case, the current leader. All that the powerless have is staying power; that is the strength of the meek.

By this definition the Burundians with no passport or resources are meek. The people of Gaza are meek. I, with my passport and middle-class life, am not so meek. But I can name the meek and stand in solidarity with them.

Last weekend, I had a bit of a break down. The rigors of motherhood crashed down on me and I felt hemmed in by forces I could not fight. Once you’re a mother, there is no escape route from the demands of child rearing, season-to-season. Crying in the corner of a coffee shop, I felt powerless. For the first time I experienced a true kinship with the meek of the world and knew I must learn from them.

We ought not strive to be meek; that is not what Jesus asks of us in the Beatitudes. But when we find ourselves stuck under yet another empire, we must remember that it will pass, as all the others before it. And, in the end, the Land of Promise will be ours. For now we can endure knowing that, powerless though we are, we remain full participants in God’s Kingdom here on earth.

This Sunday I clung to the promise given to the underdogs: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land. It seems my son and I are learning together what it is to be meek.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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  • Oh Kelley…I am in tears with you. Your writing never fails to stir and invigorate me, painting a picture of a promise so lovely I sometimes can’t dare imagine it. But you bring it to life so beautifully and how I love the people and the contexts that you invite in to help you do that. Thank you for throwing open this passage to us in a whole new way.

    • Naomi, you are so kind. I’m glad we can learn together and imagine life in God’s kingdom!

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    Kelley, yours is a word from God, a prophetic reminder that we gain hold in God’s kingdom of love less by striving for success, spiritual or otherwise, and more by hopeful surrender/acceptance and endurance. This is a fine exposition and I’m grateful for your inspired perspective. Your son is a lucky boy to have you as his mama.

    • Thanks, Donna-Jean. I love how Jesus says we are, in our present situation, blessed and part of his Kingdom. The underdogs are blessed now, not when they overthrow the empire!

  • I’ve just begun working through the Beatitudes with my Sunday School class, and you can be sure that when it’s time to hit #3, I’ll be sharing truth from this inspiring mother/son conversation.

    • Thanks, Michele! Glad this helps offer some clarity. This has always been a confusing Beatitude for me when it was taught as being quiet and non-confrontational, because Jesus wasn’t meek by those standards! Blessings to you as you teach the Beatitudes in the coming weeks!

  • randall031

    After years of being told that we need to aim to be meek – quiet, avoiding confrontation, nice – this finally makes sense. Thank you.

    • I felt the same way when I learned about the interpretation from Dallas Willard and especially the work of Mitri Raheb. It’s not about being quiet and demeure, but staying power and fortitude to survive another empire.

  • Sherry Naron

    I love this, and I love you my sweet friend.

  • Trinity

    This was so beautiful…thank you Kelley

  • Danny Gluch

    I did my Philosophy MA thesis on meekness as a revolutionary response to oppression… and I like so much of this. “Empires come and go, but the meek remain” is such a beautiful sentiment.

    • Thank you so much, Danny. I love the idea of meekness as a revolutionary response!

    • Fabulous!

  • Kelley, this is the first post I have read on “she loves” and I feel so much richer for it. There is a knitting of souls to be found here, in a wealth of culture and kinship. “The meek are the ones who have no way out” reminds me to pray that they might know theirs is the Kingdom and that they are citizens of heaven and a new Jerusalem. Thank you for inviting me in to the Burundian family and reminding me that they are my brothers and sisters and one day I will stand side by side with them, our voices caught up in a Holy chorus colored with every tribe, tongue and nation! What a day that will be, dear sister!

    • Welcome to SheLoves, Trish! So glad we can be learning together as we move toward the New City.

    • So glad you’re here, Trish!

      • Me too! Love the concept! Love the manifesto so much!

  • Rea

    I was always taught that meek meant quiet, unassuming, sweet and saintly. And it never really resonated with me. Over the past ten years or so, as I’ve come to understand more about the upside-down nature of the kingdom Jesus talked about it began to make SO much more sense. So when my 13 year old asked me the other week what it meant, I could tell him about how Jesus is flipping things on their heads here. How instead of the powerful, the ones who grab what they want, the 1% inheriting the earth, it’s going to be the meek. The ones who subvert the idea by serving others, by leading from a position of humility, the ones who let go instead of grasping power, position and prestige. You’ve just added a new layer of richness to my understanding.

    • And you’ve added to mine! Thanks for sharing, Rea. Love that we are teaching our sons about the upside down kingdom!

  • Katie Savage

    I resonate with this piece in so many ways. I taught a lesson on the Beatitudes to the kids at our church only a few weeks ago. I struggled, as I always do when I read these challenging words of Jesus, with what to do with them and how to talk about them (especially with little ones!). I admire the way you and your son struggled through this particular Beatitude– how you didn’t let him settle with the easy answer, and with how you didn’t settle for the easy answer yourself. And now, just this morning, I have been writing about these perplexing Beatitudes too, in a piece that considers how to be present to the refugee crisis even when I am so far away. How to “name the meek and stand in solidarity with them.” Thanks for writing such a beautiful piece, Kelley!

  • I love your perspective on meekness and I love that you look for the clue in the crowd … This is the kind of Jesus I love, turning meekness into a revolutionary act. Ahhhh, so good.

  • I love your unpacking of this. It is a struggle to learn and teach about meekness (or poverty, or mourning) if we’ve been privileged enough to not wrestle with those things deeply. Thanks for a reminder about the truly revolutionary nature of these promises for the underdog.

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