Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There were a lot of attributes of primitive Christianity that produced consternation and dismay among its onlookers. This includes the early church’s insistence upon kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness. Those early followers of Christ recognized that these virtues were incontrovertibly part of the message of God’s kingdom, to a degree that has been forgotten in the modern western church. We modern western Christians, at our very best, would be uncertain if and why they should choose tenderheart over Braveheart. In our workaday existence we would often prefer the excitement and adventures of a brutal, concupiscent, and deceitful gigolo rather than a tale that promotes kindness or tenderheartedness.
American popular culture has one foot firmly planted in the church of North America, and it has desensitized followers of Christ to gratuitous violence and the harsh mistreatment of others. There are perhaps still some plots and scenes in TV or movies that would cause believers to flinch or blanch, but typically violence and cruelty produce kudos and applause. Biblically conservative Christians in America are often known for their participation in the “culture wars.” It is sin of incalculable significance that these modern “culture warriors” have neglected the weightier matters of Christian virtues, such as kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness (e.g., Hos. 2:14; 11:8; Eph. 4:31-32; 5:29; 1 Pet. 3:8; Matt. 11:29; Gal. 5:23; Eph. 4:2, 31-32; Phil. 4:5; 1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:25; 1 Pet. 3:4, 8, 15-16; NRSV).
|Flavian Colosseum in Rome, with moon.
Wikimedia, Creative Commons.
When we 21st century Christians in the democratic West muse and ruminate about the contrast between the Christian virtues of kindness and tenderheartedness and the rule of brute force in Rome, it would be a mistake to imagine that brute force was only on display in the capital of Rome or in places like the famous Flavian Colosseum in Rome.
A few decades ago an important Latin inscription was discovered in a town in southern Italy. For our purposes the importance of this 1st century AD inscription is the casual way in which it described extreme violence and execution. It talked about the prerogatives of slave owners to summarily crucify their male or female slaves, what supplies the provider of crucifixions had to bring to the event, and the details of dragging the bloody corpse through the city to the place of disposal. This Roman inscription was not found at the Colosseum in Rome, or in the graveyard of ancient gladiators, or the dumpsite for bodies of nefarious criminals. In prosaic words this stone revealed some of the most brutal and inhumane treatment of another human being imaginable; this display could occur in a normal day’s activities. In what many have regarded as an advanced civilization, the men and women and boys and girls of Rome were sated and jaded with scenes of brutality, bloody flesh, and excoriated corpses.
Both believers and non-believers recognized that the Pax Romana was neither established nor held together by ideals such as tenderheartedness and kindness. These early Christians knew, nevertheless, that such ideals and virtues had been spoken and lived out by Jesus, the ruler of God’s kingdom. Such teaching flowed from the pens of Apostles, and from the lips of early Christian prophets, teachers, and martyrs. Most importantly, the followers of the Lamb in John’s congregations knew that Jesus himself had been slain, without retaliation or resistance, and that the followers of the Lamb should not resist either: “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10, NIV).
Take a survey of your own life and values and those in the culture surrounding you. When given the opportunity [and it will be given to you daily] , do you take your stand with the kingdom values of kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness or do you prefer their antonyms?