The Personalist Project

I came across this week (I can't remember where) someone making a point in passing—as if it were a matter of plain fact—that "passive aggression" is basically the same thing as "non-violent resistance."

It took me aback. I see these two things as radically opposed, with "passive aggression" being vicious, while non-violent resistance is virtuous.

I have the same experience when I hear people speaking as if lust is a synonym for conjugal desire. Conjugal desire and lust are both about sex, but that's where the similarity ends. Morally speaking, they are opposites. Conjugal love is a self-giving desire for union with another person; lust is a self-centered urge to use another.  Conjugal love wants "to have and to hold", while lust wants "to take and to toss."  Love is beautiful and good; lust is ugly and evil.

The difference I see between passive aggression and non-violent resistance is similar. Passive aggression is a way that a powerless person lashes out at her oppressor. A wife who's mad at her husband won't talk to him, or a bitter employee leaves a colleague to twist in the wind. We hurt someone we resent, while avoiding responsibiity. "I didn't do anything." It's childish, mean and base.

Non-violent resistance is radically different. Like passive aggression, it's all about powerlessness, but it is an eminently responsible way of dealing with that condition. By it, we realize our personal dignity in a particularly noble way.

I've mentioned more than once how increasingly I am understanding the Fall in terms of its having unleashed and established in the world "the master/slave hermeneutic," which, ever since, menaces all human relations. Every human person is called "to make a sincere gift of himself" in love, but our fallen tendency is to use others, and/or to allow ourselves to be used by others.

Both domination and slavishness are beneath our dignity and calling as persons. Both tendencies have to be resisted and overcome in our effort to bring about "the civilization of love", in which human life flourishes. We must not use others for our own selfish purposes; nor must we allow others to use us for their purposes.

Non-violent resistance, as I understand it, is a conscientious and responsible way of overcoming the latter tendency. It is a refusal to collaborate in another person's mistreatment of me (or us). Rather than lashing out, or returning evil for evil, we say, "It's not okay for you to treat me like that. I won't cooperate." Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus is a classic example. Gandhi's refusal to yield to white men on the sidewalk is another. This refusal to cooperate with wrong is an eminently personal and moral act. It is concerned with the good—my own good and the good of the one who is doing me wrong.

Christians should absolutely condemn and eschew passive aggression; we should champion and practice non-violent resistance.

Two important caveats:

1) Outwardly, these two things can look very much alike. Just as a kiss might be either an act of love or an act of lust, a given act of "non-cooperation" could be animated either by secret aggression or self-giving courage. You can't necessarily tell from the outside which is which. It's another reason we should refrain from judging others, lest we do an injustice. I have more than once been accused of passive aggression, when, in truth, my conscious motivation was simply to say no to abuse. (The misjudgment happens very easily when the abuser is unaware of or in denial about being abusive.)

2) While these two things are radically distinguishable in the abstract, human motivations are famously mixed in the concrete. As St. Therese of Lisieux once said, "Even my best good acts are infected with impurity." A husband's desire for his wife may not be entirely free from lust. Likewise, a person who means to be engaging in "non-violent resistance," may in actual fact be partly motivated by passive aggression. More reason to refrain from judging others, while we work at purifying ourselves.

I'd be interested to hear what others think on this subject.

Comments (2)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jan 6, 2013 7:42pm


I offer some general responses to your points that 1) it's important for the purity of our motives to keep distinct what can easily be confused; and that 2) On your second caveat: it is a challenge  to maintain purity of motives when we must act.

I read that St. Bernard was tempted not to preach for fear that at bottom he was preaching primarily to satisfy his vanity. He resolved the crisis by saying:

"Satan, I did not start preaching to please you. I will not stop preaching to please you."

A second thought :  My understanding is that those who engage in civil disobedience.(I'm thinking of people like the Berrigans), would be careful to precede their actions by several days of prayer and fasting precisly so that unworthy motives such as self-righteousness and hatred of one's opponent not poision one's endeavors.I am reminded of Lewis's distinction between being right and being righteous.

I think that ultimately being pure in our motives is a grace and as such is God's work.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jan 7, 2013 9:23am

Thanks, Rhett. I agree.  I like St. Bernard's point in particular.  The fact that our motives may not yet be perfectly pure, doesn't mean we should refrain from doing what seems to us right.

In fact, I think it's often only in and through acting that our real motives are revealed.

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