Mary Karr’s “Who The Meek Are Not”: Evangelical Alabamians and the End of Serfdom

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5

In politics and religion, I’ve always felt very torn in my allegiances. I love and hate my home state of Alabama, which is mostly conservative and sometimes quite progressive. Weird and traditional. Kind and cruel. Ruled by God and the devil.

I left Alabama, but I love going home. The people there are friendlier, funnier, more eccentric, and more open than the people near DC, where I live now. Here, people are mostly busy shuffling facts, climbing ladders, and trying to sound incisive.

And yet. You’ll find more overt racists in Alabama (and the Deep South in general). You’ll find more people who are scared of new ideas and new people, who want to return to some mythical past everyone was happy with a clearly-defined hierarchical social order. Back then, they say, God was in His heaven. Wealthy, worthy (white) men led the state and country. Husbands ruled their households. Tragically, many people who champion the old ways truly believe they’re doing God’s work.

When liberal progressives browbeat conservative evangelicals and call them stupid, conservative Southerners just dig in their heels. They think they’re like the horses in this Mary Karr poem, “Who The Meek Are Not.” More often, they’re like the serfs. Middle-class and lower-class Southerners work hard carrying water for conservative politicians—men with money and influence who pretend to be populists. The poor get nothing but lip service for their labor. They “make the wheat fall in waves / they don’t get to eat.”

Things are changing, though. They will change. And to say the least, conservative Alabamians don’t have to give up their faith to kill their cruel sides. They can open their Bibles and consider what it means to be meek.

Over the years, my religious beliefs and my politics have changed. I’m not a conservative evangelical anymore. I’ve seen the closed-mindedness of the Deep South hurt others with overt racism and poor access to social services, and I know it’s hurt me with sexism and regressive attitudes towards mental health care. Yet whatever questions I’ve had about life and God and eternity, Christ’s basic teachings are incredibly clear. He taught that the work of life is to love. He taught that what we do for the poor, we do for God. He taught that the meek (not the rich, not the popular, and not the good ladder-climbers) are incredibly powerful. They will own this earth.

This message has been bought and sold so many times, it’s hard to hear. It’s muffled by pop songs and politicians’ speeches. Sometimes the call to live with love seems preachy and cliché. To make matters worse, some liberal progressives pretend to be caring and kind, and then they call people names, live in mansions, and pretend to be Mother Theresa. How can you win people over to a life of love by mocking them and lording over them?

Similarly, many middle-class and lower-class liberal progressives are also serfs. They carry the message for rich liberal politicians and celebrities, and they get nothing in return. While the rich and powerful get glory, the rest are left behind, “bent in burlap sacks,” forgotten and unimportant in the continued hierarchy.

As Karr’s poem encourages us—let us not be serfs who serve the rich. That’s not the meekness we need to inherit the earth (or America). I don’t blame you if you don’t believe in the Great White Man in the Sky. I personally do believe in a conscious deity, and in the deity of Christ. But even if you don’t, you probably do believe in love.

Like the great, muscular, and meek stallion in Karr’s poem, ordinary people are powerful. We carry the wisdom of generations. Without the ease of vast wealth, we have learned to overcome tragedy through personal courage. We are rippling with strength that the rich and famous lack. I hate to see us waste that strength. I hate to see Alabamians (and anyone else) squander their spirit in the service of leaders who don’t care about them. Only when we surrender our strength to the service of love can we be led to green pastures and still waters. Surrendering to the greedy and power-hungry leads us only to strife and want.

As long as we wish to conquer others, to live in a world where we are served by serfs, we become serfs. We acknowledge the hierarchy by attempting to be at the top, and then we devote our lives to maintaining it. As Christ said, no one can serve two masters. You can’t serve love and hegemony.

How can we pave the way for a better America, a united nation with policies and attitudes that serve the people? In one sense, the answer is very complicated. Choosing the best policies requires research, thought, and serious debate. Our guiding principles, on the other hand, can be quite simple.

We can stop seeking our own glory. We can stop the push to dominate others. We can learn to serve others and esteem those who serve. We can become meek and submit to the rule of love.

4 thoughts on “Mary Karr’s “Who The Meek Are Not”: Evangelical Alabamians and the End of Serfdom”

  1. You write really beautiful, thoughtful work. Your thoughts shed light on, of all things, my thoughts about the Hollywood scandals.

    Dana Goodyear wrote a balanced New Yorker piece asking whether Hollywood, that is, its male establishment, can fundamentally change its attitudes towards women. A group of women from Oprah to Reese Witherspoon are trying to use the sex scandal to gain ground for a future in which companies in Hollywood and elsewhere will be perfectly 50/50 men and women. This answers the article’s question by revealing (not to be Marxist) that what looks to be a cultural issue has had and increasingly will have an underlying economic dimension. There are only so many jobs in Hollywood and elsewhere, only so many seats at the table. Men and women are now staring at each other across the table as factions fighting for a few seats. Both sides need sexism, i.e. attacks on the opposing group, in order to gain a competitive advantage, unless, to be very unMarxist, an economic class is to work against its own best interests. That transcendence would require service, as you suggest.

    The Mary Karr poem is lovely. It might be read as any analogy for peaceful protest. The peasants who by quietness and longsuffering are the traditionally “meek,” never gained any political power, any “earth,” for those qualities. Neither did the blacks who suffered with “meekness” for decades under racism until they banded together under MLK, flexing muscle but not using it aggressively, like the bridled stallion.


    1. Thank you for your comment (the first ever comment on this blog)!! My post was probably less a logical manifesto than an emotional response to discouragement with some aspects of Christianity and Southern culture (both of which I love). I do believe it is sometimes necessary in the service of love to be really bold and aggressive in the face of oppression. I don’t think you’re disagreeing with that idea, though. I think you’re saying that some of the women ostensibly standing up for oppression right now are perhaps seeking personal economic profit. I don’t know much about the Hollywood situation. Naturally, I think equity in leadership and pay for women is important…but that a society that idolizes wealth and status is a more overarching problem. I know that many women experience abuse in the workplace, and that it’s dehumanizing, and I believe it’s worth being aggressive about to end. On the other hand, I also think it’s important that women not dehumanize men. I look forward to reading the New Yorker article! Thanks again!


      1. I have no idea where I was going with the Hollywood thing. Please feel free to delete that.

        The takeaway is I found your blog via Dappled Things and I’m blown away by your smarts. You have the dazzling mind of a virtuoso. It cascades quirky flair and talent across genres. Also, you’re breathlessly funny. I almost broke a rib on “7 Quirky Wedding Ideas.” The point being please keep sharing your talent.


      2. That’s very generous of you to say! I’m glad you found your way over from DT. The internet isn’t always a friendly place, and leaving nice comments means a lot to lowly writers who are scribbling away. I tip my hat to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s