This was originally posted by the author at The Idealist.
Leo Tolstoy is perhaps the ultimate example of the late-in-life nihilist-turned-idealist. He is best known for his mid-life fiction, most notably War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He was early on somewhat of a determinist and nihilist but late in life began a study of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and came away a determined Christian, with significant misgivings regarding the Russian orthodox church specifically and organized religion and government generally. He wrote his thoughts in two books that were significantly suppressed by the Russian Church and the Czarist government.
Tolstoy’s main argument is that believing and proclaiming Christians don’t really believe Christ’s words…at least not in deed. Using the Sermon on the Mount, he argues for a doctrine of “non-resistance of evil.” Starting in St. Matthew 5:38…
38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 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.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
44 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;
45 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.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
The question is, does Christ really mean that we are to turn the other cheek (not retaliate or defend ourselves with violence), that we are to not sue others (or even argue with them when they sue us), and that we are not to resist evil (submit completely without violence to the evil actions that others would put upon us)? Is this what Christ means? Is He serious about it?
Some may argue that sure, that’s the ideal, but Christ really doesn’t expect us to do it. But then these same people would argue that He completely expects us to be able to not fornicate or kill or steal or covet. Does Christ expect perfection? C.S. Lewis states: “The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command.”
As long as we justify that which is difficult by saying it’s idealistic, we will fall short of making any lasting changes in the world.
A few quotes from Tolstoy regarding this issue:
“All of us, when reflecting on the destiny of man, have been struck with terror at the sufferings and evils which our human criminal laws have brought into our lives–evils both for those who judge and for those who are judged…No man of feeling has escaped the impression of horror and doubt concerning “good” produced by the recital, if not the sight, of men executing their fellow-men by rods, the guillotine, or the gallows.”
Many of us have lost this sensibility because we see false death and suffering so much on TV and in movies and video games that perhaps we don’t feel that horror and doubt Tolstoy expresses.
He argues (quite convincingly) that the word “condemn” used in the Greek and “judge” imply a legal damning or using the civil and criminal court system and states that Christ’s injunction against judging and condemning and pulling the mote out really means that we shouldn’t take anyone to court in order to right wrongs.
“In the Gospels, every word of which we esteem sacred, it is said clearly and distinctly, “You have the criminal law–a tooth for a tooth; and I give you a new one–resist not the evil man. Fulfill this commandment all of you, return not evil for evil; always do good to all; forgive all.”
“And farther on we read, “Judge not;” then, in order to render all doubt impossible as to the meaning of His words, Christ adds, “condemn not to punishment by the courts of law.” My heart says clearly, distinctly, “Do not execute.” Science says, “Do not execute; the more you execute, the more evil there will be.” Reason says, “Do not execute; you cannot put a stop to evil by evil.”
“Now I understood what Christ meant when He said, “Ye have hear that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. And I say unto you, Resist not evil.” Christ means, “You have been taught to consider it right and rational to protect yourselves against evil by violence, to pluck out an eye for an eye, to institute courts of law for the punishment of criminals, to have a police, an army, to defend you against the attacks of an enemy; but I say to you, do no violence to any man, take no part in violence, never do evil to any man, not even to those whom you call your enemies.”
“I now understood that, in this doctrine of non-resistance, Christ not only tells us what the natural result of following His doctrine will be, but by placing this same doctrine in opposition to the Mosaic law, the Roman law, and the various codes of the present time, He clearly shows that it ought to be the basis of our social existence, and should deliver us from the evil we have brought upon ourselves. He says, ‘You think to amend evil by your laws, but they only aggravate it. There is one way by which you can put a stop to evil; it is by indiscriminately returning good for evil. You have tried the other law for thousands of years; now try Mine, which is the very reverse.’”
“Each of us gives the doctrine of Christ an interpretation of his own, but it is never the direct and simple one which flows out of His words. We have grounded the conduct of our lives on a principle which He rejects; we do not choose to understand His teaching in its simple and direct sense. Those who call themselves ‘believers’ believe that Christ-God, the second person of the Trinity, made Himself man in order to set us an example how to live, and they strictly fulfill the most complicated duties, such as preparing for the sacraments, building churches, sending out missionaries, naming pastors for parochial administration, etc.; they only forget one trifling circumstance–to do as He tells them…Nobody ever tries to fulfill His teaching. Nor is that all. Instead of making any effort to follow His commandments, both believers and unbelievers decide beforehand that to do so is impossible.”
“He [Christ] says, ‘You think to eradicate evil by your human laws of violence; they only increase it. During thousands and thousands of years you have tried to annihilate evil by evil, and you have not annihilated it; you have but increased it. Follow the teaching I give you by word and deed, and you will prove its practical power.’”
So what do I think about all of this? Is Tolstoy spot on with this non-resistance of evil stuff? It’s really only been implemented politically one time in the modern era and resulted the independence of India and laid the foundation for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. I think that the only way that peace will reign on the earth is when a critical mass of human beings are willing to actually implement the simple teachings of Jesus Christ fully. As long as we ignore the difficult injunctions and instead take the easy road of violence, war and retaliation and vengeance, we will reap what we sow.