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The Force of Gentleness

John Thornton

Luke 22:24–30: A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

A few summers ago, I participated in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship “Advocacy in Action” weekend. Pastors from across the country gathered together to learn how to become political advocates for our communities. The basic idea of advocacy is that people with a little power ought to go to those with a lot and petition them to use their power on behalf of those that have very little. The week concluded with a visit to our representative’s office for a scheduled appointment to urge them to protect people against predatory lending.

It was my first time going to the congressional office buildings in D.C. With a few hours to kill, I decided to wander around a bit. Walking the halls you know you’re in a place of power. This was the beginning of 2016 and so I walked around and saw the names of several people running for nomination for President. I saw generals and people in expensive suits. I saw the people that Jesus says lord their power over others.

Eventually, I wandered down to the underground hallway that connects the two buildings that house the some of the most powerful people in the world. About halfway through this tunnel, there’s a cafe that serves sandwiches and coffee. It seemed like the only place to actually sit down so I got a cup of coffee and read for a bit, doing so next to a table of military leaders whose uniform decorations showed me they’d won some victories. And in the back corner I noticed a door that led to the back office of the coffee shop where employees clocked in and out, the manager scheduled shifts, they kept the paper towels. The lowliest of servants quarters sitting right beneath the heights of power.

Politics is always about a story, a story of who has power, why, and how they should use it. In our passage today, the disciples want to know the story of power they’ll tell in the coming kingdom and what part they’ll play in it. They want to know who will be the greatest. Which ones will wear the fancy uniforms and the expensive suits and have the pride that comes with such power. Who will be the greatest?

But Jesus upends their story. The greatest amongst you will be like the least. He tells them that the typical story of power goes like this: the rich, the powerful, the most forceful, they lord their power over others, forcing them to do what serves the ends of the powerful. But it won’t be in Jesus’ kingdom. There it’ll be those that serve the needs of others, whose power comes not from above, but from below. There’s more power in those that gather in the little closet in the bottom of congressional offices than all those generals and politicians. They’re the great ones and if you can’t live together like them, you really can’t claim to be great.

This understanding of power, that it comes without a claim to the authority of violence reminds me of philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle’s concept of “gentleness.” For her gentleness names a way of being in the world, a way of being with and for each other. An intense, wandering meditation, she offers little by way of definition of gentleness, but rather points of characteristic. Gentleness is a kind of humility, a recognition that in order to approach another with gentleness, I have to be willing to be hurt myself. Gentleness removes the barriers we put up between one another. Gentleness is also a form of care and compassion, of feeling with and suffering with another person in the way a mother does with a child, in the way animals do with one another. It’s not just an acknowledgement, but a sense of being with one another that might undo us both. But gentleness is also a force, an intelligence. It’s not mere mushy feelings or sadness. Gentleness seeks to discern what is the best relation amongst people from that place of vulnerability.

Dufourmantelle writes, “There is an art that further illustrates the inherent in­telligence of gentleness: the equestrian art. It requires agreement between human and animal to a high degree of refinement and complicity. One must comprehend (guess, tolerate) the other to the point of being accepted by him. The horse may be guided, trained, bridled, whipped, but it will accommodate the rider only if the latter knows how to gently find the lightness of hand and the movement that will adjust to the stride of the animal.” And this relationship has to be maintained, begun anew with every relation it isn’t just given.

This is perhaps a good way of thinking about what Jesus means when he says the disciples will only come to power through service. It’s only through gentleness, through the openness and humility, compassion, and intelligence that the rulers of this world are incapable of because of their addiction to ruling over others. Ruling with the force, the power of gentleness opens up the possibility of new relations with each, different than the ones that have the powerful on top and the lowly in the basement hallways. That we can know and be known by one another with a force other than benefactor and lord.

But the lords of this world are tricky. They know how to take gentleness, to repackage its goodness and make it serve their own ends and I’d like to look at three ways they’ve done so in the last few decades.

The private, Christian school I attended has as its mission statement “graduating authentic Christian leaders.” Now I have no idea if I fulfilled their expectations, but I remember a significant part of our curriculum around leadership included the term “servant leadership.” A seemingly paradoxical phrase it finds its Biblical basis in our passage today, but its historical origin dates back to the late 1980’s in Wal-Mart. As Wal-Mart stores expanded across the country they initially opened in rural, heavily Christian communities in the south. Because of the kind of work they offered and their structure as a company, they encountered a number of problems in these communities. The first was that when men worked in these stores they often had service jobs that put them in a subservient relationship to others. Instead of working in a factory or a mine, they had to show someone where the socks were on aisle 12. This reversal also happened with women as they left the house and took on authority in the workforce many for the first time. Their traditional role as homemaker giving way to some form of leadership in the workplace. And finally, as Wal-Mart made a profit, Sam Walton and other executives went from good ole boys from Arkansas to some of the most powerful people in the world.

So about this time the concept of servant leadership made its way through Christian culture. Servant leadership took gentleness, the act that lets go of authority and hierarchy and told men that by serving customers, they were in fact leaders. Women, too, came to see that their leadership in the workplace was actually similar to their service in the home. And Sam Walton could believe that the further up he moved, as long as he kept the mindset of a servant leader, he could keep whatever he earned. As Wal-Mart’s head of Human Resources said, “the higher up in the organization you go, the more of a servant you become.” Quite convenient if you ask me.

And so gentleness doesn’t upend the world, but is used to maintain it.

Another way gentleness came to be used to maintain the world is through the movement of “Compassionate Conservatism,” a term coined by George W. Bush. By the end of the 1990’s conservatives had a big PR problem: their advocacy of slashing welfare, cutting Social Security, and imposition of means-testing and job training came across as cruel. They, of course, wanted all these things, and they understood that after two decades imposing them, they hadn’t worked. So they looked inward. “Compassionate conservatism” they said was concerned not just with the poor’s material well-being, but their heart. It wasn’t enough to change material circumstances, they had to listen and then transform the hearts of the poor. This meant that when someone said they needed food or a higher wage, what they really meant was that they wanted independence from government and to be a motivated worker and the way to do this was withholding welfare or handouts. This was a difficult way of gentleness, but a necessary one. When he first coined the term, Bush said it was a “severe mercy,” an allusion to a book about a young Christian who comes to see his wife’s death from cancer as a blessing from God as it brought him a deeper sense of religious calling. The cancer here is the “severe mercy” and I have to admit, it’s a bold political strategy to compare your political paradigm to cancer, but politicians work in mysterious ways.

And so the rulers of the world used the act of gentleness to again lord their power over others. To ultimately force the poor into the programs they wanted them in all along.

Finally the rulers of this world have used the intelligence of gentleness to harm the poor and lowly, to keep the workers in the basement down there. They’ve done so by being “smart on crime.” A great illustration of this faux-gentleness is truancy country. The political story of truancy court goes something like this: truancy rates are highly associated with drop-out rates and drop-out rates are associated with higher rates of poverty. All sounds about right so far. So the way to lower the poverty rate is to lower the truancy rate. Okay. And the way to lower the truancy rate is to connect parents to resources they need to make sure their children are cared for and one levy of power to get parents attention is law enforcement. So truancy courts aren’t really there to throw parents in jail (though of course, they might if they have to), but to get parents attention and get them resources. When a kid misses too many days of school, parents have to start showing up to truancy court. But courts aren’t places of gentleness, they can’t be because you can’t perform acts of gentleness while threatening to throw people in jail.

This perversion seeks intelligent solutions to the problem, but the authority of that intelligence rests on the assertion of violence, not the compulsion of gentleness.

Okay. So at this point you’re probably wondering what would it look like for us to practice gentleness in our world? What can we, Ephesus-soon-to-be-Jubilee do to be people of gentleness and not lordship?

While I worked at First Baptist Church Greensboro, I was gifted an amazing opportunity. A member, moved by compassion, donated a significant amount of money that he wanted used to help someone that was homeless gain employment and stable housing. He put few restrictions on it, and over the course of a few months I put together what we called “The Christian Restoration Fund.” The premise was simple: let’s pay for the things people need to get employment. That’s it. No education or training, no mentorship or community building. Just the stuff they need and we’ll pay for it. And so we bought one person a car, insurance, and gas plus some work clothes and he got a job as a welder. We paid for the deposit on an apartment and the immigration clearances for another and he got a job as a valet and later started a successful Saturday afternoon pickup basketball game for 4th and 5th graders at the church.

As Dufourmantelle tells it, gentleness means true humility, a recognition that simply claiming to be a servant leader doesn’t mean one actually acts with gentleness. “Gentleness cannot be possessed. It can only be offered hospitality.” Developing the Restoration Fund required acknowledging that me and many in the church weren’t equals with the recipients and that we ought not pretend we are by calling it servant leadership. This approach doesn’t give up hope that we could be equal, that we could live together with gentleness, just that we’ll have to develop a hospitable room for it amongst us, we can’t demand it or possess it in the way that servant leaders believe they can.

Gentleness also means that true compassion isn’t pretending to listen to what a person needs all the while knowing what’s in their heart that needs changing. It means what when someone needs food or shelter because that’s where their suffering comes from, we believe them because not doing so isn’t really listening. Dufourmantelle says, “Embracing the other’s vulnerability means that the subjects cannot avoid recognizing his own fragility. This acceptance is a force; it makes gen­tleness a higher degree of compassion than simple care. To empathize, to ‘suffer with’ is to experience with the other what he feels, without giving in to it. It means being able to open yourself up to others, their grief or suffer­ ing, and to contain that pain by carrying it elsewhere.” It’s an openness to the other’s true vulnerability but not to feel good for feeling bad, but to carry that feeling bad somewhere else and if that feeling bad is from a lack of food, housing, or healthcare, it means providing those things.

Gentleness is intelligence but not the smart on crime intelligence that forces people to go to court. Dufourmantelle says, “Being gentle with objects and beings means understanding them in their insufficiency, their precariousness, their immaturity, their stupidity. It means not wanting to add to suffering, to exclusion, to cruelty and inventing space for a sensitive humanity, for a relation to the other that accepts his weakness or how he could disappoint us.” To rule with the force of gentleness is to see people as something other than caught between sufficient hard worker and potential criminal.

I’m not sure the degree to which the program was one of gentleness, but it did require an approach to others that didn’t offer the faux humility of servant leadership, the feigned listening of compassionate conservatism, or the violence of smart on crime. It rested on some different kind of relation one that seemed to approach gentleness.

As we move towards our re-plant in the fall, we plan on using our newly created Jubilee Fund in just such a way. I hope that we use it effectively to help people acquire housing, get out and stay out of poverty. I hope we see people’s lives changed. But more than anything, I hope that in doing so we learn to rule not with the force of authority, not lording what we have over people, but with the power and force of Jesus, through the power, force, and authority of gentleness. Amen.

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