Thursday, April 2, 2015

Meek and Mild?

From J.B. Phillips' Your God is Too Small (1961):

It is a thousand pities that the word “child” has so few words that rhyme with it appropriate for a hymn. But for this paucity of language we might have been spared the couplet that hundreds of thousands must have learned in their childhood:

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child.

But perhaps it was not the stringencies of verse-making that led the writer to apply the word “mild” to Jesus Christ, for here it is in another children's hymn and this time at the beginning of the line:

Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

Why “mild”? Of all the epithets that could be applied to Christ this seems one of the least appropriate. For what does “mild,” as applied to a person, conjure up to our minds? Surely a picture of someone who wouldn't say “boo” to the proverbial goose; someone who would let sleeping dogs lie and avoid trouble wherever possible; someone of a placid temperament who is almost a stranger to the passions of red-blooded humanity; someone who is a bit of a nonentity, both uninspired and uninspiring.

This word “mild” is apparently deliberately used to describe a man who did not hesitate to challenge and expose the hypocrisies of the religious people of His day; a man who had such “personality” that He walked unscathed through a murderous crowd; a man so far from being a nonentity that He was regarded by the authorities as a public danger; a man who could be moved to violent anger by shameless exploitation or by smug complacent orthodoxy; a man of such courage that He deliberately walked to what He knew would mean death, despite the earnest pleas of well-meaning friends! Mild! What a word to use for a personality whose challenge and strange attractiveness nineteen centuries have by no means exhausted. Jesus Christ might well be called “meek,” in the sense of being selfless and humble and utterly devoted to what He considered right, whatever the personal cost; but “mild,” never!

Yet it is this fatal combination of “meek and mild” which has been so often, and is even now applied to Him. We can hardly be surprised if children feel fairly soon that they have outgrown the “tender Shepherd” and find their heroes elsewhere...

It would seem that the “meek-and-mild” conception of the Deity could be readily seen through, yet experience shows that it is operating beneath the conscious level of many Christian minds, particularly in those whose childhood has been coloured by a sentimental attitude toward “the Lord Jesus.” Such people find their actions, and even their thoughts, inhibited by a false consideration of what is “loving.” They can neither use their critical faculties not speak the plain truth nor meet their fellows “naturally” for fear they sin against the meek-and-mild god. To non-Christians they thus appear unreal and even as hypocrites, while the “love” they attempt to exhibit toward others is all too often a pathetic travesty of the real thing. For, like other sentimentalists, the meek-and-mild god is in reality cruel; and those whose lives have been governed by him from early childhood have never been allowed to develop their real selves. Forced to be “loving,” they have never been free to love.

There is a further offshoot of the worship of this false god which must be mentioned. It is the sentimental Christian ideal of “saintliness.” We hear, or read, of someone who was “a real saint: he never saw any harm in anyone and never spoke a word against anyone all his life.” If this really is Christian saintliness then Jesus Christ was no saint. It is true that He taught men not to sit in judgement upon one another, but He never suggested that they should turn a blind eye to evil or pretend that other people were faultless. He Himself indulged no roseate visions of human nature: He “knew what was in man,” as St. John tersely puts it. Nor can we imagine Him either using or advocating the invariable use of “loving” words. To speak the truth was obviously to Him more important than to make His hearers comfortable; though, equally obviously, His genuine love for men gave Him tact, wisdom, and sympathy. He was Love in action, but He was not meek and mild.

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