are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5)
It may not be
obvious why I find the words “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the
earth” profoundly important as President-elect Barack Obama takes office in
just thirteen days.
Most people think
of “meek” as synonymous with “weak” or “faint-hearted.” It is not regarded as
a praiseworthy quality. But in the biblical Greek, the term connoted “humility,”
the opposite of “arrogant” or “abusive anger.” In a broader sense, it is used
to describe the openness to self-reflection and awareness of ourselves as creatures
with limited power.
were apparent in President-elect Obama’s Grant Park address on the night of
the election. Quoting Lincoln, he said, “‘We are not enemies, but friends…though
passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to
those Americans whose support I have yet to earn — I may not have won your vote,
but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.”
And again, “There
will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every
decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve
every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we
face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”
Barack Obama brings
to the presidency talent and skill at the highest level. Even those who opposed
his candidacy conceded that they were up against an individual of "first-rate
temperament and first-rate intellect." He is trained as a professor of constitutional
law. His gift of language is perhaps the greatest of any president since Lincoln.
But talent alone
is not enough. Humility and critical self-reflection are needed to lead the
world today, and to bring it closer to what we wish it to be. These are the
qualities that most distinctively define Barack Obama and the hope of his Presidency.
There is nothing
weak about humility. Just the contrary: with it comes perspective and balance
that make strength possible. It permits an openness and honesty about the challenges
that face us. It corrects the arrogance of American exceptionalism abroad.
In biblical times,
Christians thought they would "inherit the earth" in the world to come, in accord
with God’s justice. But for contemporary Christians, this phrase has a continued
relevance. Together with “blessed are the meek,” correctly understood, the entire
beatitude tells us that if we want justice in this world we must demand character
in our leaders.
Barack Obama brings
humility to the challenges of the Presidency. Our prayers will be with him and
the new administration in difficult months and years to come.