Blessed are the peacemakers, but what do they leave for the meek? than the falsely modesty 'meek'

Share
Related Topics
IN HIS speech at the signing of the first accord between Israel and the Jordanians in October (where those two heroic chain-smokers, King Hussein and the late Yitzhak Rabin, had to go outside for a drag because Hillary Clinton had banned all tobacco products from the White House) President Clinton exerted his usual privilege of making the concluding speech. And as usual, he resorted to the Good Book. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he intoned, "for they shall inherit the earth." I see that he did the same thing a few days ago, while officiating at the lighting of a Christmas tree in what the American press unvaryingly calls "strife-torn Belfast". If Bill gets hold of a good line, he tends to repeat it - as once he repeated his now-forgotten talk of "The New Covenant". Face composed for the solemnity of the occasion, he proposed: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth."

I say "propose" because this is, as far as can be determined from a study of the Scriptures, Clinton's very own idea. As a child, I had to listen attentively to the bits of Matthew that occur between chapters five and nine. I experienced some of the same infantile difficulty that occurs to the audience in The Life of Brian. ("Blessed are the Greek"? "Blessed are the cheesemakers"?) And I often received the same sorts of reply to my piping questions. ("Cheese- makers are not intended to be taken literally. It's a reference to all those who are involved, in a very real sense, with the dairy industry.") However, by the end of the process, I knew for sure that it was the meek who would inherit the earth, and not the peacemakers. The peacemakers had to be content with the consolation prize: "For they shall be called the children of God." Things were even worse, as I recall, for the merciful. In a rather tautological verse, they were offered the guarantee that they, in return, would "obtain mercy". What if they hadn't asked for it? What if they didn't need it? I used to want to know.

My point, for now, is this. Did Clinton make a subconscious slip, or did he (subconsciously also) veer away from the claim that his political allies are "children of God"? After all, America is saturated with bible- bashers and with those who think that the two testaments are the unmediated words of God. Only a few weeks before the Israel-Jordan agreement, Clinton had officiated at the Rabin-Arafat handshake and had won golden opinions for claiming that his own speech was the result of an encounter during the small hours with the Book of Joshua. And the Beatitudes are among the New Testament verses that everybody knows, or that everybody used to know before they started messing about with the King James version. Yet nobody rose to tell the President that he had got the wrong verse, or had attributed the wrong reward to the wrong (or right) virtue. This is especially amazing in the instance of Belfast, which is rich in biblically minded folk and where there would be no need of "peacemakers" if not for the number of those who take their Christianity seriously. It seems that nobody in either audience had the wit, or the reverence, to try to correct him.

Of course, the errant claim that Clinton's political allies "shall inherit the earth" is also a rather immodest one. But it can have a secular ring to it, at least. It suggests that earthly rewards may descend upon those who are broad-minded and diplomatic enough to "get with the program" - which is the actual vernacular in which the White House staff discusses these matters. Only a few months back, faced with a number of awkward questions about the Whitewater affair, the President confided to a huge press conference that he had been deriving consolation from his reading of the Book of Psalms. I tried and failed to elicit from the White House press office the information about which psalm, or which verse of which psalm, had been of assistance. I had no better luck in asking whether the Leader of the Free World was hoping that the psalm reference would help him in this world or the next.

But I thought I could guess. A man who doesn't know one Beatitude from another, and a man who mentions the Bible when he and his wife are in a tight political corner, is a man from a very recognisable tradition. And there probably isn't a journalist in Washington who would be other than cynical about the uses of religion if the exhortation came from the fundamentalist right. Yet when Clinton reaches for the Bible, he has the same effect on the hacks as did Jesus in Matthew chapter 8, verse 26, when he rebuked the winds and the sea, "and there was a great calm". (Incidentally, in the chapter and verse that intervene between this episode and the Sermon on the Mount, we come across the founder of Christianity as he employs sorcery to command devils to enter the bodies of pigs. The pigs thereupon commit mass suicide. I used to wonder, even as a boy, why I was supposed to be favourably impressed by an action that seemed sinister and unbelievable all at once. And so to this day, I am careful of describing the mass and herd movements of my fellow-scribblers as "Gadarene".)

We are very fond of lampooning or pitying the religious foolishness or stupidity of lesser peoples. Many British soldiers will spend the pagan holiday we know as "Christmas" in the snows of Bosnia. Bored as everybody is by this subject, everybody has the vague idea that something must be done for the "Muslims" to be saved from slaughter. I don't mind that the words "Bosnian" and "Muslim" have become interchangeable, because there is a reality behind the simplification. But when did you last read, or hear, that "the Catholics" bombarded the city of Mostar, or that "the Christian Orthodox" shelled Sarajevo? This would actually be much truer - and much less insulting - than to say "the Croats" in the first instance or "the Serbs" in the second. Yet a reporter wishing to use this much more accurate shorthand would soon be on his bike, I suspect, because we cannot (again to quote from Matthew chapter 7, verses 1-5) distinguish between the beams in our own eyes and the motes that reside in those of others.

Obviously, a goodly number of back-room deals will continue to be made. Very often, these will involve the apportionment and partitioning of small countries by big ones. From whom is this supposed to be a secret? Any leader of any superpower can "make peace" with enough leverage, and can even write (as is written in the Dayton agreement) that the deal is supposed to last for only one year or as long as it takes to become a re-elected person. It's not as if this fact is unknown to the small countries. It is when the thing has to be "sold" that the King James version is dusted off.

But why do we consider a public figure to be acting with more modesty rather than less when he quotes or misquotes a verse that nominates him as a child of God? These chaps are already in power. Their kingdom is already of this world. They don't just intend to inherit it, they think they own it and all that it contains. They did not get where they were by being meek. Give me the cheesemakers every time.

Christopher Hitchens writes the 'Fin De Siecle' column for 'Vanity Fair'

Neal Ascherson is ill

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick
 

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing