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A Recipe for Christian Passivism

I've spent a lot of the last few years contemplating the difference between "pacifism" and what I call "passivism" - sometimes dismissively, sometimes appreciatively.

Passivism comes from a plausible reading of the New Testament. It gets used on defense:

"I don't do X because I'm imperfect and it's God's to change."

It also gets used on offense:

"You shouldn't do X because it's God's to change and who do think you are you imperfect person, you hypocrite."

It can bring arguments to a sudden end, as people who've deployed it for offense have frequently also used it for defense, and find criticism of this point personally, well, offensive.

How do you get here? It's not difficult to proof-text, even just from the Sermon on the Mount. Citations are from Matthew, in the King James Version. (I cite the KJV because it's a translation whose creators' biases run largely against my own.) I've bolded verses I've personally heard deployed to criticize other people or to justify inaction.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.(5:5)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (5:7)

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (5:9)

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: (5:11-12)

I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (5:22-26)

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.(5:38-48)

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (6:25)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (6:34-35)

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (7:1-5)

That's a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, much of which repeats in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 17-49). Matthew 22:31 provides the oft-quoted "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

It's not just Jesus' statements, but what he does. He regularly dines with the unjust (tax collectors, or publicans as the KJV calls them), bringing salvation to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) and following up with a parable (19:12-27) about how "unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." (Luke 19:26).

Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, "a man under authority, having soldiers under me" (Matthew 8:9) and says of him, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel" (Matthew 8:10). He defends the woman who took "an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head", in a feisty conversation with his disciples:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,

There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.

But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?

For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.

When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.

For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.

For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests...

See where questioning Jesus about wasted wealth takes you?

When one of the disciples cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, come to take Jesus to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus immediately heals him. (Luke 22:50-51).

In Acts 8:26-40, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, "an eunuch of great authority... who had the charge of all her treasure" without ever stopping to question that authority.

Paul has similar moments. Perhaps the most startling today is Colossians 3:22, "slaves, obey your masters," which the KJV broadens a bit to servants:

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;

The Letter to Titus reinforces that:

Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;

Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9-10)

Another piece from Paul, Romans 13:1-7, is a classic text often used to argue that Christians should obey the civil authority regardless of what it does:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

There are others, but this list is, I think, most of the foundation.

After reading all this, can you still imagine daring to interfere with the workings of the world? (Yes, that's next.)


I do not read any of these passages as teachings of passivity; rather, I see them as commending certain types of behavior — and behavior is activity, not passivity.

Still, I’ll be interested to see where you take this in your next posting.

So you don't think they add up to the conversation described at the top of the article? I agree that there are other options, as I'll discuss. All too frequently I find them used to justify the "if you take action against injustice you're doing too much and a hypocrite besides" line of argument, however.

That's especially true if that "action against injustice" involves anything more strenuous than politely (obsequiously?) asking those committing injustice to cease.

I was just struck again by your claim that "behavior is activity, not passivity". I don't think that's actually true, except in the broad sense that non-behavior is in some way behavior.

Remaining silent in the face of injustice is certainly behavior - but I would also describe it as passive behavior, and the "Passivism" I describe here, along with the verses listed here, are often used to justify or insist upon that behavior. The forgiveness that should always be a part of such conversations is somehow insisted upon at their beginning, stifling the difficult conversations about change and potentially conversion.

No, Simon, I don’t think the passages you quote add up to the conversation described at the top of the article.

And no, I don’t see that any of the passages you quote counsel remaining silent in the face of injustice. Nor do I see that any of the passages you quote require a person to be obsequious. (What do you think I am overlooking?)

This could be an interesting conversation, if we are patient and persistent in it.

I find that... confusing in the face of your response on the Facebook thread that finally propelled me to write this. About half of the citations here line up with the ones you listed, though I left out Paul returning Onesimus to his master because I think that one is easily read in several ways.

It is especially confusing given the "off-putting" original context of that conversation.

(Though perhaps referring to long conversations not available to other readers, not all of which you may have seen as relevant anyway, is too complicated.)

I am not trying to be confusing, Simon!

Yes, I do recognize that you reiterate many of the passages that I cited in my Facebook comment. However, I was not arguing in my Facebook comment that these were cases of Scripture teaching “passivism” (or the word I would prefer to use, passivity).

Nor was I ever endorsing the argument of the article you originally linked to, that the oppressor cannot have forgiveness until we are satisfied that the oppressed has had complete justice.

The point I was trying to make, in my Facebook comment, was simply that in the Christian system, an oppressor can have compassion, grace, and forgiveness before all things have been rectified. The centurion had compassion, grace and forgiveness while still being part of the oppressive Roman occupation army. Philemon had compassion, grace and forgiveness before he had worked things out with his slave Onesimus. Zacchæus had compassion and grace before he declared he would make restitution to those he had robbed.

All these — the centurion, Philemon and Zacchæus — were cases of Jesus and Paul “giving peace a chance”. But giving peace a chance seems something that the author of the article you linked to is not prepared to do.

For this conversation, I think "Passivism" is a more appropriate term. Apart from the clear parallel to Pacifism, I'm less interested here in people actually being passive - which happens for many reasons - than in the systems they use to justify and promote that approach.

You stepped into a Facebook conversation where Passivism had already been deployed, both in that thread and beyond, and put together a more coherent expression of something else - a something else, which, in this context, sounds quite like Passivism.

I'll be curious to see your take on the next few installments, but at least it seems clear that you aren't actually defending this all-too-popular approach.