An increasingly concerning problem for American Christians is the way our moral responsibility to be gentle to each other has been oversimplified. It is as if someone with little moral awareness got ahold of some loppers and lopped off more of the moral shrubbery than they should have. In an effort to improve this situation, it’s worth examining a few ethicists that have had something to say on the subject of gentleness.
C.S. Lewis delivered a series of lectures during the Second World War which would later form the basis of The Abolition of Man. Lewis references Plato’s Republic to summarize his own views on the consummate ideal of education. Lewis believed we must aspire to be humans of gentle hearts.
“The well-nurtured youth is one who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or in the ill-grown world of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart…’”
If you read Lewis’ lectures you will see he’s rewording an earlier description of gentleness:
“All teachers, and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it–believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”
When these two quotes are examined together we discover the truly educated are gentle and the gentle are those whose response is most fitting to the situation; they give that which is merited. Returning to Plato, they blame and hate the ugly. They give delighted praise to the beautiful.
The same line of thinking may be found within the works of a popular English Protestant reformer, William Perkins. Lecturing on Philippians 4:5:
“Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand,” Perkins viewed gentleness as “…a worthy Christian virtue, so excellent as the careful practice thereof is the marrow and strength of a commonwealth…And [it is] so necessary [that] without the practice of it, no house, family, city, commonwealth, kingdom or church can stand or continue.”
Perkins viewed this Christian virtue as the tendency to apply the law with a measured hand. He used the case study of thievery to illustrate his meaning. Suppose, for example, that a young boy, “…pinched with hunger, cold, and poverty,…” stole a loaf of bread. Should his sentencing be the same as a grown man who stole with none of those extenuating circumstances? A virtuous Christian, whether as a public judge or a private mother, would maintain the justice and peace of kingdom and home by sentencing each person as they deserved. Accordingly, the starving boy would be shown mercy, whereas the grown man would be treated with the rigor of the law. In Lewis’s words, the judge would give each case what it merits. The judge would rule in gentleness.
Perkins appears to rely on Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century theologian. Under his many articles concerning justice, Aquinas discussed the virtue of equity. Equity is a translation derived from the latin aequitas. Thomas, though, had in mind the Greek word, ‘Epieikeia’. This is the same word translated ‘gentleness’ in Philippians 4:5. As you would expect, Aquinas discussed this virtue under the art of ruling well. In particular, the equitable or gentle ruler is one who knows how to apply the law well to individual cases giving each their due. Aquinas gave a helpful case study of a madman who entrusted his sword to a friend for safekeeping. If the man while in a state of madness wanted his sword returned, should the friend return it? If the madman was in a healthy state and sought return of his sword to fight for his country, should the friend return the sword? The case study relies on two facts. 1.) The law says that a person has the right to their property. 2.) The intent of the lawgiver is for people to flourish. Aquinas’ case study is brilliant because it makes you realize that any good ruler would not violate the intent of the law in order to stay strictly with the letter of law. The gentle ruler, in other words, keeps in mind what each case deserves with reference to larger God-given purposes.
The ancient society of the Israelites also taught a fuller definition of gentleness. Both in the Torah proper (the 5 books of Moses) and in the later wisdom literature especially, the society esteemed a heart-shaped to rule the self, house, church, and nation in justice by giving each object, event and deed its due. The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, under the entry for ‘gentleness’ includes a translation of Psalm 72:4 describing the king as ruling, ‘with gentle sway.’ The NKJV, a modern translation, renders it as: “He will bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the needy, And will break in pieces the oppressor.” Are these not all the features of gentleness? The king brings justice through his measured rule. The poor of the people and the children of the needy merit one attitude and action. The oppressor gains another sort of response. The king has the virtue to deliver to each as they deserve. Under his gentle sway, “…those of the city shall flourish like (well watered) grass of the earth.” (Psalm 72:16)
What difference should this make to our moral deliberations and acts when called to be gentle? Examining our examples, first we begin to notice that gentleness is located within the larger universe of maintaining justice and peace in ourselves, our families, our churches, our states, and nations. If we are to be gentle, then we must have a range of responses that are fitting to the moment. Some situations merit a kind word, others a rebuke. The gentle person knows the right word at the right time.
They suggest, second, a re-reading of the public speech and acts of Jesus Christ. Take Matthew 11:28, for example, wherein Jesus refers to himself as gentle and lowly. Although a different Greek word for gentleness is used in this passage, the traditional sense seems present here. Consider some of the surrounding details: Jesus is contrasted with the Pharisees of Chapter 12. The Pharisees are framed by the narrator as those who misapply the Torah with a rigor that kills instead of gives life. Jesus, on the other hand, rules with equity, moderation or gentleness. The symbol of his leadership is therefore a yoke that is light. What you witness in Matthew 11, consequently, is a king ruling with gentle sway.
They suggest, third, a re-reading of other verses relying on the reality of gentleness (1 Timothy 3:3, 2 Timothy 2:24, Titus 3:2, James 3:17, 1 Peter 2:18). As a pastor myself, I know that these verses are often utilized to make sense of domestic abuse cases. In such high-stakes circumstances, leaders cannot afford to oversimplify scriptural counsel.