Christian Non-Resistance and Graeco-Roman Culture

In his 1910 article “Christian Morals and the Competitive System” (International Journal of Ethics 20(2) 168-185), Thorstein Veblen claims, first, that the principle of non-resistance was a novelty among the world’s religions and cultures, but, then, that “Mankind, particularly the populace, within the confines of that Roman dominion within which the early diffusion of Christianity took place, was apparently in a frame of mind to accept such a principle of morality, or such a maxim of conduct” (174).

However, as Veblen must surely have known, non-resistance was extremely widespread among Semitic communities, providing the model upon which first century Christians based their interpretation of Jesus’s passivity before Pilate. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In the mid- to late-50s CE, the Apostle Paul then applied this utterance more broadly to the first century community of faith. “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:22-24). In this “hidden” and “secret” wisdom, Paul finds the explanation for why “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are” (vv. 27-28). Nor were first century Christians alone in their conviction that God’s spirit and guidance could only take up residence and become visible and known in vessels emptied of their own will and power.

But it is Veblen’s second claim, that “mankind . . . was in a frame of mind to accept such a principle,” that calls for our particular attention, for it runs in the face of the actual resistance this principle encountered in the face of Roman power. Non-resistance deprived Rome of foot soldiers. It tested Rome’s ability to use fear as a means for compelling compliance. And so it filled Rome’s stadia with martyrs.

Yet, at least in one respect, Veblen’s claim might not be so off-base. In the context of empire, as the rolls of marginalized populations mushroomed, it may have struck the swelling ranks of poor, orphaned, and widowed that despair alone was a worthy companion. The Christian gospel—cynically, according to Friedrich Nietzsche—may have transformed this despair into hope through the very vehicle the Roman’s had intended for fear and compliance. By emulating the cross, martyrs could both participate in the death of their Lord and in His resurrection. Non-resistance, in other words, was seen as a vehicle for conquering the conqueror.

But, this is still a far cry from saying that “mankind” was in a frame to accept non-resistance. To the contrary, no sooner had the empire compromised and elided its enemy(in 324/5 CE), then the Church itself recanted the principle that Rome had most feared.