THIS IS SURELY the most difficult beatitude. First, it’s hard to interpret. Does “meek” mean a Uriah Heep-like unctuous humbleness? Does it mean softness or gentleness or weakness? Are “the meek” the powerless, or perhaps the poor? Is their meekness to be displayed toward God, but not toward people? How meek is meek, and do you always have to let bullies kick sand in your face at the beach?
Next, what about “inherit”? That’s a legalistic term; who’s going to die so someone else gets an inheritance? Will the non-meek be pushed over a cliff so that only the meek are left? Or will the non-meek be lowered in status and the meek become rulers, thereby shedding their meekness?
And what about “the earth”? Another beatitude refers to the kingdom of heaven—the poor in spirit have it already, it seems—but “the meek” will instead inherit “the earth.” The material world.
Being Canadian, I memorized the beatitudes at school. But I wondered whether “the meek” had to be people. Could they be some other life form? Scottish physiologist J.S. Haldane felt God shows an inordinate fondness for beetles—having created so many—and my own father speculated that, if humankind destroyed itself by nuclear bombs or otherwise, the earth would be inherited by cockroaches. That would explain everything!
But the opposite of “meek” is surely “proud,” and pride goeth before a fall. Perhaps the meek will inherit when the proud become top-heavy and topple over, as in the reversals of fortune that accompany revolutions. Many of the beatitudes propose place-changing: Those who are up will be down, and vice versa. Is this a warning to the one percent to stop hoarding and start sharing?
What would meekness really be like in action? The three books of my MaddAddam Trilogy contain the Crakers, who lack aggression. To make this plausible, I had to give them some other characteristics. One reason for aggression is sexual competitiveness, so my new Crakers mate seasonally, communally, and without violence. Another reason is greed for stuff—those who go to war hope to acquire land, money, slaves, riches, and so forth—so my Crakers aren’t interested in stuff. They don’t wear clothes, farm land (they can eat leaves), or have social hierarchies.
This is not a virtue in them: They don’t choose their meekness; they’re just made that way. It follows that they would have to be protected from beings of our sort, because they would quickly be killed by us.
In the same trilogy there’s a group that makes consciously meek choices. These are the God’s Gardeners, who attempt a green vegetable-raising lifestyle on flat rooftops in a slum. They’ve opted out from the sinister hierarchies that surround them and are trying to live in a nonviolent manner that is not harmful to other life forms or to the planet. That’s ultra-meek! It’s much more difficult to live this way than you might think at first. (Toilet paper, yes or no? What about the trees? Every small item must be considered.)
Inevitably the moment of decision arrives for the God’s Gardeners: What should they do when they’re threatened physically? Should they defend themselves or not? If not—if they persist in their ultra-meekness—their chances of inheriting anything so concrete as “the earth” will rapidly vanish.
Matthew 5:5 is a paradoxical beatitude, and fraught with pitfalls and perils, once you start considering it. But Jesus was speaking at the time of the Roman Empire, and paradox is a useful tool when you’re surrounded by the double-plus-unmeek.
Margaret Atwood, author of Dearly: New Poems and The Handmaid’s Tale, is an award-winning Canadian poet and novelist.