Failing to recognize who we really are, image bearers of God (Gen. 1:26), causes us to lose our moral way. The Christian virtue of gentleness is a perfect test case. For hundreds of years, due to the Christian moral tradition, men and women alike were encouraged to be gentle (as reflected in the use of “gentlemen” and “gentlewoman”). Yet, today, a search for articles discussing gentleness in the literature on virtue, moral education, or public life is a search of futility.
In fact, despite an academic revival of virtue ethics in the last fifty years, a search of the now famous books on character or virtue will reveal no mention of gentleness. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published his famous work, After Virtue, and the theologian Stanley Hauerwas published his groundbreaking work, A Community of Character in the early 1980s but neither one mentioned this virtue.1
In the 1990s, William Bennett, published The Book of Virtues and the education professor Thomas Lickona published his groundbreaking work, Educating for Character that would catapult the character education movement into national prominence within K-12 public education.2
Yet, you will not find the virtue of gentleness mentioned in either of these works. Psychology, which found itself behind the times, was quite late in coming to the virtue party, but in 2004, Martin E. P. Seligman and Christopher Peterson published a work that would help catapult the positive psychology movement into the public consciousness.3
This movement made its emphasis the study of positive character qualities or virtues such as generosity, forgiveness, and more. Yet again, this work did not contain an index entry on gentleness. In fact, unlike other virtues such as gratitude, grit, patience or forgiveness, there is no psychological measure that has been developed for gentleness. Overall, I could not find gentleness in academia.
The revival of virtue ethics prompted politicians to climb aboard the virtue bandwagon. In the decades after the virtue revival of the 1980s, states started passing laws supporting character education in public schools. In 2006, I did a studywith a colleague of all the recent character qualities listed in these laws. We found 64 different virtues in all, and yet, the virtue of gentleness failed to make this list. I could not find gentleness in character education policy.
I undertook a more rigorous search for scholarly articles within the past three decades that might reference an empirical examination of this virtue. I did not find one.
Surprised by the emerging pattern, I undertook a more rigorous search for scholarly articles within the past three decades that might reference an empirical examination of this virtue. I did not find one. I searched the academic journals Ethics, Ethics and Behavior, Journal of Moral Education, and Journal of Religious Ethics and did not find any references for gentle other than a researcher describing an aspect of her method that including a “gentle prodding.” Indeed, if one is to trust the Google n-gram, the use of the word, “gentle,” is at its lowest point in the last 300 years. Microsoft Word even suggests that I change gentlemen to “men” or “people.” Based on these trends, it appears our society thinks we no longer have use for gentleness.
Yet, if there is a virtue that we need to resurrect in our abrasive and coarse times, it is gentleness. After all, as proverbs reminds us, this powerful virtue can turn away the wrath of kings (Prov. 15:1; 25:15). Yes, we need gentleness now more than ever, but for some reason it is nowhere to be found in American ethics, education, and life. What is the reason for the absence of gentleness from our moral ideals?”
Gentleness is absent from our societal imagination because we have neglected our identity as image bearers created by God. Rather than acknowledging the reality of the God whose image we bear, we attempt, instead, to cultivate virtues in our own image, placing ourselves as gods. Like the kings of old, fearful of being supplanted, we reason away any need for gentleness. Showing gentleness to another would reveal weakness and the tenuous nature of our supposed reign. No, there is no room for gentleness in our imagined would-be kingdoms. The world today, as in the time of Jesus has no space for gentlness. Gentleness makes no sense to a world vying for power.
Gentleness is absent from our societal imagination because we have neglected our identity as image bearers created by God. Rather than acknowledging the reality of the God whose image we bear, we attempt, instead, to cultivate virtues in our own image, placing ourselves as gods.
In contrast, gentleness is a deeply Christian virtue we must co-author with the Spirit for God’s Kingdom. Gentleness is the sensitivity and willingness to forego power for the sake or benefit of another. Gentleness is a caring, calm, humility that allows one to see others as God sees them. In the gospels, gentleness is a virtue specifically attributed to Jesus (Mt. 11:29:21:5). Think of how Jesus dealt with those on the margins of society. Think of Jesus coming gently into Jerusalem on a donkey. Not surprisingly, one of the only scholarly books to use the word “gentleness” in the title comes from a book of an intellectual mentor of mine, Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus. Only by encountering Jesus’ gentleness once again, can we hope to revive this dying virtue.
The Apostle Paul clearly recognized the importance of imitating Jesus’ gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1) and included it among the fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:22). He advised Christians in Ephesus, “Be completely humble and gentle,” (Eph. 4:2a), admonishing the Philippian church, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (Phil. 4:5), and told the Colossian Christians to cloth themselves with “gentleness” (3:12). In I Timothy (3:3; 6:11) and Titus (3:2), one important characteristic of leaders of the church is that they be gentle. Peter also highlighted the importance of answering questions with gentleness (I Peter 3:15). Without a doubt, citizens of the kingdom of God who are called to be “in Christ” and embody the fruit of the spirit are to embody gentleness.
Of course, many Christians during this post-Christian time are simply timid, but they are not gentle. They do not have the courage of Christ. Gentleness comes from a strong faith in which one trusts God for the outcome and does not need to use what appears to be effective but is really not—cowering in a corner or using brash or powerful tactics that are meant to intimidate with power.
Jesus demonstrated, and the Spirit reveals in us, gentleness is a virtue that reveals a greater strength. Unfortunately, when we disconnect our identity from God (imago Dei, in Christ), our society loses the reason for and understanding of why we pursue and practice gentleness. As a result, we have lost a valuable fruit of the Spirit that the church and society desperately need during these times. We cannot reap the fruit that we did not sow. Instead, as Hosea 8:7a reminds us, “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” We have not sown the seeds of gentleness, and we are reaping the consequences. Lord help us.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I did not find a past article or book review in past CSR publications about gentleness that I could reference.
- Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, (Notre Dame, Ind: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981).; Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
- William J Bennett, The Book of Virtues (New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1993).; Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1991).
- Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Washington, DC: New York: American Psychological Association; Oxford University Press, 2004).