Pacifism, The Roman Christ, And Social Justice
There is currently scholarship which calls the existence of Jesus into question. A public proponent of the controversial theory is Joseph Atwill, author of Ceasar’s Messiah, published in 2005. It is a theory, like its opposite, and in this article I am not pressing that it is definitely true. My interest is in how the pacifism of characters such as the Buddha and Jesus has affected social justice campaigns, and what it would mean if pacifism were implanted into the social ethics of the masses by the powerful.
God has always been based in faith, but before now religious skeptics were expected to accept the existence of historical characters who could have been the basis for Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha. Moses did not want us to think about, covet, his wife. Jesus and the Buddha wanted us to be nice to our oppressors. And Mohammed… was actually a pretty hardcore warlord but I am sure there is some manipulative method to his teachings.
The Jesus-deniers’ claim that the Romans created a pacifistic savior who preaches about behaving in this life to reach a world of joy and peace after death in order to better subjugate their oppressed minorities. On reflection, this is a far more rational claim than that preached from the pulpit. However, it has already changed the world. The question that interests me is, “What does this say about the practice of nonviolence?”
Today, we know from the research of Erica Chenoweth and over a century of nonviolent activism, we live in a world where a social movement in the West is undermined by any instance of violence or property damage from its partisans. In her book/thesis, Why Civil Resistance Works, Chenoweth argued that nonviolence is effective for toppling Dictators because broad participation increases a campaign’s chance of succeeding due to several factors related to how violence is alienating and increases risk. Any campaign between 1960 and 2006 that mobilized 3.5% of the country’s population succeeded, all of the campaigns at this threshold were also nonviolent. In the USA that would mean that the sustained, nonviolent rebellion of around 11 million Americans would be required to topple our own version of dictatorship, inverted totalitarianism.
Two millennia ago the Romans feared insurgencies from the Jewish populations within their Empire and society. According to Atwill, the pacifism of Christ was created by Rome to counter Judaeic sects who awaited a warrior-Messiah and regularly fought the Romans. The first Judean rebellion against their Roman oppressors was chronicled by Flavius Josephus, a historian, in around 75 AD. He wrote the account two years after the failed-rebellion ended. There were two more rebellions by the people of Judea against the Roman Empire. The Kitos War happened between 115-17 CE, and the Bar Kokhba revolt lasted from 132-6 CE.
On Atwill’s blog, in a counter-rebuttal to another Christian scholar, he stated that, “The purpose for the Gospels was not to pacify Palestinian Jews. Josephus recorded the political purpose behind the religion, which was to slow down the missionary activity of the Judean zealots to Greek speaking diaspora living outside of Judea (see Jewish Wars, Preface, 2, 5).” Now, I read parts 2-5 of the Preface of Josephus’ Jewish Wars and have no idea what he is talking about. But it is translated, ancient history and me not catching the point does not mean it is not there. Check it out at this link.
What are the implications if it is true that our modern understanding of the proper way to rebel was given to us by a Roman Empire attempting to stifle rebellion? We live in a world of immense injustice and apathy. We have laws but they primarily apply to people in the developed world and people with wealth. We have dying ecosystems being poisoned by industrial capitalism. And we know that we need to fight this system. Social change scholarship tells us that peaceful protest is the only form of protest that stands a chance at creating lasting change and I am not going to argue with history. Tiny percentages of the world have been fighting, often against each other, to address social inequality and other catastrophes-in-waiting for centuries. Perhaps, if Atwill’s theories about Jesus and the Roman Emperor are correct, the Romans actually implanted rebellious cadres with the perfect tool to fight their battles for justice and equality. Optimistically, the platitude one could take from this would be, the masters made us slaves by instilling us with nonviolent acceptance as a response to their oppression. It took us almost 2000 years to weaponize said nonviolence to bring them down.