By Tommy Airey
I am someone who spends a lot more time casting a vision for what’s coming next than composting what’s already happened. It is both a gift – and a growth edge. I am learning that the more I slow down and process the particulars of my suburban past, the more I can subvert the sources that scripted my supremacy. One of those old sources was Gene, the father of one of my best friends. He was a passionate and playful pillar of the community. He was also a purveyor of patriarchy – and he had a profound impact on my early years.
Gene dismissed the perspectives of women with a warm smile and a witty joke. He made it clear that he believed that women were the weaker sex. Why? Because the bible says so. One time, when we were teenagers, Gene read us the passage from I Peter that says that wives must accept the authority of their husbands and that real women – biblical women – should stop obsessing over outward appearances, and instead embrace the lasting beauty of a meek and quiet spirit.
When I started studying the original languages of the bible in seminary, I learned that the word meek, in Greek, is praus, pronounced prah-ooce’. It is a divine strength soaked in gentleness, confidence, humility and open-heartedness. The irony is that Jesus used it to describe himself, not women. Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish rabbi who empowered people who were oppressed by professional religion and Roman culture. Jesus preached that God reigns not from the perches of the powerful, but from within the hearts of weary and burdened people.
The message of Jesus, according to Howard Thurman, focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of his people. They had access to divine power and agency. It was rooted in how they responded whenever provoked by their oppressors. Thurman wrote that humility – not fear, hypocrisy or hatred – is the best defense against everything intended to humiliate. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus said, “for I am praus and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
This ground-breaking passage is found in Matthew’s Gospel, which uniquely animates Jesus as the new Moses, described in the Hebrew bible as the most prah-ooce’ person on the planet. Like Moses, Jesus marched up the mountain, but he delivered a new interpretation of the law. Like Moses, Jesus subverted the hierarchies created by religion and empire. He proclaimed that people who are prah-ooce’ will inherit the earth. This is Indigenous wisdom. Those who are prah-ooce’ do not have dominion. They receive the earth as a gift, with reverence, so they can pass it along—in even better condition—to their children and their children’s children.
Jesus proclaimed that he did not come to cancel the law of Moses, but to fulfill it. I believe that followers of Jesus are deputized to fulfill I Peter too – by disrupting it. Because this is what Jesus did, over and over again. He did it with the rich young ruler. He did it when he preached at his home synagogue in Nazareth. He did it to the sacred Sabbath – always to subvert supremacy and reclaim a radical mutuality. What, then, would Jesus do with Peter counterfeiting prah-ooce’ by projecting a hard-and-heavy yoke on to the women? What would he do with Peter pacifying prah-ooce’ into a doormat discipleship? He would not quote it verbatim. He would not shelve it altogether. He would creatively confront it.
This is precisely what Rev. John Mars did too. In 1850, the pastor of Sanford Street Church in Springfield, Massachusetts (photo above) exhorted his almost all-Black congregation “to beat plowshares into swords,” reversing the famous nonviolent imagery found in Isaiah and Micah. Mars disrupted the text because it was being used by white liberals to pacify people of faith after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The new law gave slave-owners the authority to hunt down runaway slaves in the North without a warrant or trial by jury. Plantation owners hired white militias to do their dirty work. Rev. Mars joined a coalition of men and women who formed the League of Gileadites, armed and ready to be first responders if some fugitive slave shit went down in the streets of Springfield.
We find ourselves in another fugitive moment. When I look around, I see the chickens coming home to roost. White self-sufficient masculinity has maintained authority over this continent for five hundred years. This supremacy story – scripted by the opposite of everything that Jesus taught – turns meekness into weakness. It is the root cause of climate catastrophe, corporate greed, Covid minimalism, conspiracy theories, disinformation, domestic abuse, depression, anxiety, addiction, book-banning, homelessness, mass incarceration and police brutality.
As has always been the case, all this dysfunction and disease drill those who are dark, the undocumented, the women and the working poor. The problem is bigger than white men. The problem is that this whole thing has been built on an anti-prah-ooce’ spirituality that stigmatizes slowing down, falling in love, healing ourselves, staying curious, creating beauty, being vulnerable, grieving hard and pursuing intimacy. White men receive the vast majority of material rewards for perpetuating this problem. The leftover rewards trickle down to white women – and a few token others.
When bible verses are militarized by white men to sanctify supremacy, we can disrupt them just like Rev. Mars did. We can put Peter’s version of prah-ooce’ in the ring with Jesus. We can force these texts to fight it out because, clearly, they contradict each other. Bible cage matches create a liberative consciousness that theologian Obery Hendricks calls “guerrilla exegesis.” When Jesus wins this battle, I Peter 3 is prescribed, not to women, but to an audience of men.
In this fugitive moment, we desperately need a new masculinity animated by the lasting beauty of a prah-ooce’ and quiet spirit. A posture neither passive nor submissive. Meek ain’t weak. It is the source of divine power, driven by what Audre Lorde described as a depth of feeling that men are taught to fear so much that they rely on the service of women to access it.
When Jesus wins, men start to explore the power of prah-ooce’ within ourselves. When Jesus wins, men start to cultivate humility, instead of fear, hypocrisy and hatred. When Jesus wins, we start to chip away at the plaque of patriarchy so we, too, can get free – the first thing we must do, so we can disrupt a fugitive world soaked in supremacy.
Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He roasts his own coffee, roots for the Kansas Jayhawks and rests his head in Detroit, Michigan with his partner Lindsay. He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.
2 thoughts on “Meek Ain’t Weak”
Thank you for this! This is powerful and useful to a man like me.
Once again you illuminate something my eyes had missed (the scales of culture and scriptural translation clouding my vision as they do). Jesus describes HIMSELF as meek. And then (and again and again) says FOLLOW ME. To MEN. So grateful for the time and space and intention you are giving to weaving these words of wisdom for our wounded world. (Alliteration intended a la Tommy Airey!)