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

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

£21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

Ashdown Group: Assistant Management Accountant - Part Qualified CIMA / ACCA

£30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are recruitment for an Assistan...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive - OTE £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Recruitment Genius: Logistics Analyst

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be a part of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea