The Greek-to-English ‘meek’ doesn’t quite do justice

I’m a fan of words. Wordplays, puns, and the etymologies of popular words and phrases have always fascinated me.

One word that I never liked much in the Bible, however, is “meekness”. The word appears most familiarly in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek.”

To be truthful, I have never made it a goal to be meek. Usually, the term implies a kind of Casper Milk Toast blandness that I have never found very attractive. You know the type — people who easily see themselves as doormats, passive when they should be active.

My impression of the word changed, however, when I discovered that the French translation of the Greek word used in that passage is “debonair.” Gone was Casper Milk Toast. Instead, my mental images were of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or of Gene Kelly, singing in the rain.  I would so much rather be debonair than meek!  The debonair are people who move with grace through life. They have style. Blessed are the debonair!

The Greek word “prautas” is translated as either “meekness” or “gentleness” in the Bible. The word can refer to a strong animal such as a horse, who is well-trained and gentle in spirit, in spite of its strength. It can also mean the quality of being teachable — modest, generous, humble and considerate.

In other words, those who are blessed are those who have strength, and yet use it with gentleness.

It seems to me that in recent years, our society has been losing some of its appreciation for this sort of gentle spirit. That is certainly true in the political realm, where the beatitude may well be, “Blessed are the strident.” We come to believe that gentleness is a liability and that forthright speaking of the truth is a virtue. Who can argue that there are times to express our opinions clearly — but what seems to has suffered is a general sense of civility in our country.

Prautas combines strength and gentleness. It means that while there are certainly seasons and situations in which faithfulness means strong speech, it also means that an attitude and tone devoid of graciousness cannot be the default mode. If you are always denouncing and declaring, and never speaking tenderly and with generosity, you’re not combining faithfulness and meekness.

A recent survey at Allegheny College found that among the nearly 1,000 randomly selected Americans surveyed, there was “nearly universal agreement that civil politics is essential for a healthy democracy,” leading the study’s authors to conclude that “passionate, respectful politics is not an oxymoron.”

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, suggests three simple steps to enhance civility:  First, assume that all opinions have value and that we may learn from others, no matter how off-putting their words seem at first.

Second, follow one of the old axioms of civil debate: Go after the opinion, not the person enunciating it.

And finally, the golden rule is golden for a good reason: All of us need to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

As we interact with the members of our community, let us all be debonair.


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