“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” C.S. Lewis

Tolstoy’s Five Commandments of Christ

  1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
  2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
  3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
  4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
  5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48

* * * * * * * * *

Lent Day 16. What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 6 continued

As we approach the conclusion of Chapter 6, Tolstoy has extrapolated the five revolutionary commandments of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount and has realized that not only do we humans fail to follow them but the Church does not even urge us to do so. Instead his Church preached salvation through daily prayer, attending worship, fasting on Fridays, and receiving communion. As far as I can tell, most modern churches don’t really urge their faithful to live their lives this way either. Many denominations tell us that the way to salvation is wholly through faith in Christ. He has done all the work of conquering death and has already redeemed every sin that has ever happened or will happen. So just believe. And read the Bible a lot.

But the message Tolstoy got from his studies is that, while faith is essential to a meaningful life, Christ clearly called His followers to actually do the things he said, as in “If you love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15. So Tolstoy stops to think: What would happen to our world if we did that? Everyone would have to do all five of them because they work as a whole-cloth system. You can’t do four out of five or even four-and-a-half out of five. That’s probably the problem. I notice that as soon as I begin to contemplate living according to these commandments I immediately start wonder if I could maybe get around just one or two of them. But the idea is that breaking one rips the cloth.  But let’s suspend disbelief for just a moment, and imagine what if…..

animals in heavenFirst of all there would be no war. Since we would take no oaths of allegiance we would not be obligated to kill total strangers in the name of patriotism or loyalty to someone else’s cause. And if we did not constantly fan the flames of sexual desire, as prescribed in the second commandment, there would be, theoretically, less hostility, jealousy, quarrels, and heartbreak between individuals.  If a disagreement erupted we’d go back to commandment #1 and make it our first priority to resolve and reconcile the issue.  We would not care about protecting our own stuff and would therefore have no reason to fret and worry over what other people wanted of us. Anyway, everyone would be too busy seeking opportunities to help someone else to be worrying over things like clothing, money, and personal safety.

Says Tolstoy, “The fulfillment of Christ’s commandments will make the lives of men such as each human heart seeks and longs for. All men will be brethren and each will be at peace with each other, and each will be free to enjoy all the blessings of this world during the term of life allotted to him by God. Men will turn their ‘swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’ And on earth will established the Kingdom of God….”

So the only thing standing in the way of peace and happiness for humanity is…..humans. It seems Jesus spelled out exactly how, if we really wanted it, we could make peace and happiness happen for everybody on earth. Then why aren’t we doing it? Is it possible that most of use don’t really want peace and happiness on earth, at least not on those terms? I’m really not sure that can be the case so I think I will read Chapter 7 of What I Believe and see what Mr. Tolstoy has to say about this conundrum. In tomorrow post we’ll see if we can shed any light on the problem.

Lent Day 15: What I Believe, Chapter 6 continued

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

This is arguably the most revered passage in the gospels, and also the most confusing. It seems that Jesus equates perfection with the ability to love everybody indiscriminately. But be as perfect as God? It’s easy to see why the general consensus is that Christ sets a standard that is impossibly high.

Tolstoy says that previously he thought these verses were simply an amplification of the doctrine of non-resistance to evil. But once he discovered new meanings for the previous four commandment statements of Christ he had the feeling that he was going to find a deeper, more definite meaning in these words as well. Even for the newly enlightened Tolstoy, to love an enemy seemed simply impossible – a beautiful thought but unattainable in real life. “It was either too much or it meant nothing.”

The Church commentaries on this verse were especially unhelpful. “They tell us that it is hard to love one’s enemies – the wicked….and, commenting on Christ’s words, they add that though a man cannot love his enemy, yet he may neither wish him evil, nor actually wrong or insure him.” Okay. And yet: “It is persistently instilled into us that is our obligation and duty to denounce evil-doers, i.e., to oppose our enemy; and the various steps are mentioned by which this virtue may be attained; and thus, according to the interpretation given by the Church, the final conclusion is that Christ, without any ostensible reason, quotes the words of Mosaic law incorrectly, and has uttered many beautiful sayings that are, in themselves, useless and impracticable.”

Tolstoy was sure that Christ’s well-known and beloved words, words so central to what it means to be a Christian, could not be meaningless. He must have meant something we could really do. In the statement of the status quo, there are two opposing precepts: “love your neighbor” and “hate your enemy.” So, Tolstoy reasoned, the intended new commandment must have to do with the tension between these two precepts. He decided to find out exactly what, in context of Biblical language, is meant by the words “neighbor” and “enemy.”

The word “neighbor” as used in the gospels, he discovered, always means something like “fellow country-man” – as in one who is a citizen of the same country or perhaps a member of the same ethnic group. “’Enemy’ is almost always used in the sense of not a private but a common enemy – an enemy to your nation (Luke 1:71, Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:43, and elsewhere.)”

In the Old Testament the word enemy “when used in the singular, always implies a national enemy.” “Christ speaks of the Mosaic regulations concerning a national enemy. He combines in a single expression ‘to hate, to wrong an enemy,’ all the various precepts dispersed through the scriptures by which the Hebrews are enjoined to oppress, kill, and destroy other nations.”

There is personal love and there is another kind of love for our community, school, nation, or football team. Tolstoy is sure that in the verses above Jesus is talking about love for a nation you belong to or other group identity. The opposing team or hostile country is enemy. We use the term enemy in this sense all the time. Jesus is telling all who would like to follow his teaching to cease making this distinction. This teaching is connected with Commandment #3 (see my previous post) because taking oaths of allegiance puts us in position in which it becomes very difficult not to harm our enemies when our country decides to go to war.

British soldiers in trench during World War I. From UK Telegraph.

British soldiers in trench during World War I. From UK Telegraph.

“Instead of an indistinct and indefinite philosophy, I discovered a clear, definite precept, which all have it in their power to fulfill. To make no distinction between one’s own and other nations, and so to avoid the natural results of this distinctions, such as being at enmity with other nations, going to war, taking part in war, arming for war, etc., and  to treat all men, whatever nations they belong to, as do our fellow-countrymen, was the requirement of Christ.” All this was so simple and clear that I was surprised I had not understood it at once.”

Tolstoy re-states the fifth commandment of Christ like this:

“Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.”

I feel like this is a little incomplete; it doesn’t quite get at all Jesus was saying. I know Tolstoy was going for brevity. But I figure if Tolstoy can restate scripture I guess I can give it a try too. We are all equal in the eyes of God right? My try:

“Do not consider people from other countries your enemies, even those who hate and persecute you.  See every person as worthy of love just as your Father in heaven does. God knows some are evil and some are good, and still loves and sustains them all. Anyone can love people who share their interests but I call you to live by a higher standard. I call you to love as God loves so that you may truly be his children and share in His inheritance of eternal life.”

Lent Day 14, What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 6

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1877. Located at Museum of National History of Frederiksborg Castle

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1877. Located at Museum of National History of Frederiksborg Castle

Chapter 6 of What I Believe made me wish once again that I could read Greek. Because in this chapter Tolstoy does some deep diving into translations and interpretations of some key verses in the Sermon on the Mount. He believes this is where Christ clearly states five new commandments, each of which takes a key principle from old Mosaic law and changes its meaning in a radical way. These are the verses that begin with “You have heard….but I tell you….”

In understanding the true meaning of these verses Tolstoy finds it necessary to scrupulously examine subtle changes in the Church’s translations from the Greek scriptures. In doing so he is able to clear up some of the most confusing statements in the Gospels. Once he penetrated the web of “intentional perversions of the text” and identified the errors in Church doctrine, Tolstoy felt he understood the true meaning of each of the commandments and he found them to be in perfect harmony with the whole teaching of Christ.

Speaking of Matthew 5:32, the verse about divorce, Tolstoy says: “And once more I received a confirmation of the truth that the meaning of Christ’s doctrine is simple and clear. His commandments are definite, and of highest practical importance; but the interpretations given to us, based on a desire to justify existing evils, have so obscured His doctrine that we can with difficulty fathom its meanings.”

One begins to see why the Eastern Orthodox Church excommunicated him. Of course by the time they fired him he had already quit. In this chapter Tolstoy goes on the slam the Church in even more emphatic ways; if you are interested I would encourage you to read that part yourself.

Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ

  1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
  2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
  3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
  4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
  5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48


* * * * * * * * *

All of these verses, according to Tolstoy, were either twisted or ignored by Church leaders and teachers throughout the centuries. He provides detailed reasoning and evidence from his research for his version of each commandment. I find myself  prone to think his reasoning is correct, but if anyone reads this book and this chapter I would love to hear your thoughts.

The fifth commandment is an especially radical departure from the traditional interpretation of these verses. Part of Tolstoy’s reasoning is based on some deep research into the Biblical meanings of the words “neighbor” and “enemy.” If we were to actually take these words seriously there would be some dramatic implications for the way we humans conduct, um, war and peace. So I think tomorrow I will spend some time taking a closer look at the reasons for Tolstoy’s interpretation of the famous “love your enemy” verses from the Sermon on the Mount.

Lent Day 13: What I Believe, Chapter 5 continued

"Johnchrysostom". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johnchrysostom.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Johnchrysostom.jpg

“John Chrysostom”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the course of his criticism of long-established Church doctrine Tolstoy takes on a commentator named John Chrysostom. As a rank amateur in early Christian scholarship I had to Google to find out who John Chrysostom was. It turns out he was an early Church father who lived from 349 to 407 and served as Archbishop of Constantinople. Okay I guess those are credentials enough to pay attention to what he has to say.

Apparently back in the 300s there was a faction that was saying that Jesus rejected Mosaic (eye for an eye) law and Chrysostom wrote this commentary to “correct” this interpretation:

“On examining the ancient law that enjoins us to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the objection is raised, ‘How can He who speaks of thus be righteous? What answer can we give? Why, that it is, on the contrary, the test token of God’s love toward man. It was not that we should really take and eye for an eye that He gave us this law, but that we should avoid wronging others for fear of suffering the same at their hands.”

Chrysostom says that this law of retribution is no more cruel than the commandment that forbids murder or the one that forbids adultery. To argue against such commandments would be mad! “You call God cruel because He has enjoined taking an eye for an eye; but I say that many would have had a greater right to call Him cruel, as you do, had He not given this commandment.”  Chrysostom goes on to make several excellent points in favor of the old law:

  • Without fear of punishment the wicked would run wild. Removing that fear would be like arming them with fearlessness. “Wouldn’t all be overthrown; wouldn’t houses, marketplaces, cities, lands, seas, and the whole universe be full of iniquity?”
  • Even with the laws we have, the fear of punishment barely keeps evil restrained, so what would it be like if removed the barrier of our law?
  • “Cruelty does not lie in leaving the wicked free to act as they please, but in letting the innocent man suffer without defending him.”
  • God is wise and just. By His “eye for an eye” commandment God retrains evil by binding the minds of the wicked by fear.

So basically Chrysostom makes a really good argument in favor of maintaining law and order, but what he does not do is make any substantial case that Jesus in any way taught that is was okay to judge, condemn, and punish. Therefore, Tolstoy says, he misses the whole point. We already know there are good sound reasons for the world’s systems of maintaining law and order. That’s why we have them. The point is that Jesus message was that these systems, no matter old and entrenched, no matter how righteous and effective we think they are, are in fact, not the way of truth.

Tolstoy supposed the Old Testament system of law makes sense if God were the one meting out the consequences. The problem is that both the criminals and the law enforcers and judges are men. Chrysostom divides humans into categories that Jesus does not support: some good or innocent and others bad or criminal. But he does not say how we humans, with our flawed perception and incomplete understanding, are supposed to be able to decide who is good and who is evil. How do we know that the ones thrown into prison are not morally better than the law enforcers who turn the lock? One of the main teachings of Jesus is that we should not make these distinctions between human beings, but should love all without discrimination.

Obviously this seems like a hard road to travel – to fling aside our whole system of law and punishment and trust God to sort it out. If it were easy the early Christians would have persisted in trying to do it. Instead they drifted back to the perceived safety of the old law and tried to make it look like Jesus supported it too. When you see those videos of men in their black ISIS costumes beheading defenseless hostages it’s really hard not to think of some people as more evil than others. But there is brainwashing. Children can be raised to believe certain things, their minds can be warped, and their sensitivity to violence can be dulled. Perhaps any of us, were we raised in the same environment with the same education and experiences, would have been willing to do the same thing. Maybe not, but we don’t know that it’s not possible.

Anyway, Tolstoy makes the point that you can make all the arguments you want in favor of the value of force, violence, judgment, and retraining evil, but if you want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, there is going to be inconsistency in your life and you may experience some mental dissonance. Okay Tolstoy doesn’t say anything about mental dissonance. That’s just me. But he does say that you are going to find yourself professing to believe one thing and living as if you believe the opposite.

I have heard a lot of people accuse Christians of being hypocrites. If we go with Tolstoy’s reading of the Gospels it becomes easy to see why it is hard to be a Christian who is not a hypocrite. But if we are not quite prepared to cast off the world, live off the grid, and be persecuted, what is the alternative? Of course you can give up the whole idea of following Christ, writing it off as an impossible ideal. People do this a lot. But embracing the world’s system wholly with all its fear and competition, having to claw your way to power by playing by the rules of the world, accumulating as many material goods as you can before you die, seems a recipe for existential emptiness and in the end you die, having lived entirely for things you cannot take with you. Maybe it’s better to at least try to follow Christ’s teaching even at the risk of being a hypocrite.

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr which is a novel about people surviving the horrors of the Second World War (review coming shortly). It reminds me that the Nazis fully embraced a system based on worldly power, physical strength, hating and killing their enemies, and the elevation of some people at the expense of everyone else.

Lent Day 12, What I Believe, Chapter 5 continued

“Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, not one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled.” Matthew 5:17-19

The Sermon on the Mount, part of St. Matthew's Church altarpiece in Copenhagen by Danish artist Henrik Olrik,

The Sermon on the Mount, part of St. Matthew’s Church altarpiece in Copenhagen by Danish artist Henrik Olrik,

Yesterday I wrote about a seeming inconsistency between Christ’s overall message of forgiveness, love, and non-resistance to evil and the Church’s teaching that He totally affirms the written Mosaic law in all its complicated, precise, and brutal detail. Versions of this problem constantly come up in our modern discussions about issues such as gay rights. As in, “Well the Bible also says you can’t eat shellfish.”  Tolstoy says that after much study and deep thought, the whole inconsistency problem was solved when he realized the Church’s interpretation of Matthew 5:17-19 is wrong, that when Jesus said “not one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled” He was referring to the eternal law and not the written law.

Tolstoy does say at one point in the book that it was a big obstacle for him to go against the weight of Church teaching. For 1600 or so years all these wise commentators had written and justified a certain interpretation of these verses, and who was Tolstoy to come along and say they were all wrong? But he was convinced they were wrong, very wrong, and not only that, he detected a willful purposefulness in creating a Jesus who upholds the written law.

In Matthew 5:17-19 Tolstoy notices that Jesus does not say “the law and the prophets” as he does in other passages where He is clearly denouncing the written law, but says rather “the law or the prophets.” This is different. As Tolstoy studies various old translations of the scripture he notices that the conjunction was switched back and forth between “or” and “and” several times before the “or” version was finally accepted into the canon. Even though the “correct” version was accepted into to canon, the Church commentators continued promote the incorrect interpretation – that Jesus affirms Mosaic law. Therefore is it okay for Christians to judge and punish people for crimes.

Tolstoy’s idea that Jesus is talking about the eternal law and not the written law is supported by the very next verse, Matthew 5:20, which reads, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, was of course, based entirely on their precise observance of the written law in all its details. Whether a Pharisee loved or despised his neighbor, whether he looked at anyone is lust, or whether he held grudges, had no effect on his righteousness score. Because the usual erroneous interpretation of Matthew 5:17-19 is deeply engraved in the minds of so many people, Tolstoy restates it like this:

“I have not come to destroy the eternal law, for the fulfillment of which your books and prophecies are written; but I have come to teach you how to fulfill that eternal law. I do not speak of the law that your teachers, the Pharisees, call the law of God, but of the eternal law, which is less liable to change than heaven and earth.”

In case the reader does not really buy Tolstoy’s hair-splitting explanation, he points out that Christ says the same thing in the Gospel according to Luke in a way that cannot be misinterpreted. Speaking to some Pharisees, Jesus says:

“You are those who justify themselves before men; but God knows your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among me is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presses into it.”

Here the eternal law and the written law are placed in unmistakable opposition. Tolstoy goes on to expound upon the meanings of the word for law in Greek, Hebrew, and Russian, but I will let you read that part for yourself.  The upshot is that Tolstoy is absolutely convinced that Jesus never intended to affirm Mosaic, written, or human law in any form, but to replace it.

However, Tolstoy says, Jesus does acknowledge wherever possible that the Torah, or old law, does contain elements of eternal truth, especially when he quotes the prophets such as Isaiah. “Christ could not confirm the whole law, neither could He completely deny the law that says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ not the prophets in whose words He often clothes His thought.” Jesus was not working in a vacuum. He was working within a certain tradition, in a certain language, a certain culture, and He spoke to the people in stories and symbols to which they could relate.

But Church teachers and commentators, especially those in the 5th century, latched onto Christ’s partial support for elements of Mosaic law and ran with it. Tolstoy implies that it was in their interests cover up true implications of Christ’s teaching. “No effort is made to solve the only question that is of essential importance to every believer: how these two contradictory laws, referring to life, can to united into one.”

Tomorrow: I think I’ll be writing about the practical application of non-resistance to evil.

Lent Day 11: What I Believe, Chapter 5

In Chapter 5 Tolstoy splits hairs over the Church’s 1600-year-old interpretation of pivotal point in Christian doctrine: Jesus support or non-support of the written Hebrew law. But the little point he disputes is one on which the entire history of the world balances and, it might be argued, its destiny depends.

The Torah

The Torah

Tolstoy examines the two meanings of the word “law” as it is used in the Gospels. In Tolstoy’s new found understanding, Jesus is calling people to abandon the existing law, as expressed in the Hebrew scripture, and embrace the higher law of God. The law of God is not new, is in fact eternal, and is hinted at and alluded to in the old scriptures, but it is not the law that humans have, hitherto, ever followed.

The old – or Mosaic law – is based on retribution for wrongs and protecting our rights (“i.e., “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth”). This very human-based approach to organizing societal order is the root of our criminal code and our systems of law enforcement and methods of punishment. The law of God, which Jesus was teaching, is based on a completely different foundation. Rather than being built on a foundation of fear of punishment, this law is built on a foundation of love, non-violence, and putting the needs of others before self.

Since the New Testament scriptures continually refer the law this and the law that, it is easy for humans to misunderstand, and even to purposefully misinterpret Jesus’ message to mean what it does not mean: that He came not to abolish the old law but to confirm it. This little point, whether Jesus meant to confirm or abolish the old law, makes a rather essential difference in what it means to be a Christian, and how we ought to live if we want to live lives of genuine truth and meaning .

Tolstoy focuses on the key verses in this controversy: Matthew 5:17-19. These verses, he says, always bothered him. I’m glad to know I am not the only one. The passage reads, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, not one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled.”

Well the Church, meaning nearly all denominations, have jumped all over those words and proclaimed them as proof that Jesus was all for the Mosaic (as written) law. But wait just a minute! says Tolstoy. Does is not give you pause that Jesus, who is all about forgiveness of sin, who stopped the stoning of a woman, who broke the rules of the Sabbath, who tells people to take the moat out their own eye before judging the specks in other peoples’ eyes, should suddenly be okay with all the bizarre and harsh laws of the Old Testament: stoning, killing disobedient children, poking out eyes, etc.? Something, says Tolstoy, is wrong with this picture.

Can we resolve this disturbing inconsistency? Tolstoy says yes. Once we see this verse in its correct interpretation, once we identify the error, the puzzle pieces fall will into place and the inconsistency will disappear. Next: Tolstoy explains the error.


Lent, Day 10: Still in Chapter 4 of What I Believe

Are the teachings of Jesus a dream or a fantasy? An impossible ideal? Sweet but meaningless blather? Let’s take a look at what Tolstoy has to say about these popular opinions. Tolstoy says, “Every doctrine is a dream for those who are in error.” But why would you execute someone for talking about a crazy dream? Because Jesus teachings, dream or not, were somehow a threat to power.

In the first few generations after the crucifixion and resurrection, the teachings of Jesus began to catch on. Small communities grew all over the Roman world and the Christians lived according to His teachings, which they understood in their correct sense, as best they could. Once the faith grew and became accepted by the authorities, suddenly the teachings about non-violence and not judging, were no longer palatable and had to be reinterpreted. “….there are many among us who say, as I did myself formerly, that this doctrine of Christ is chimerical [fantastical] because it is incompatible with the nature of man.”

Here are a few things people like to say are incompatible with human nature:
• Turning the other cheek when struck
• Giving up property so someone else might be less poor
• Working for others instead of oneself
• Not worrying about self-protection or protection of family and property.

“….in other words it is the nature of man to struggle for life. Learned lawyers prove scientifically that the most sacred duty of man is to protect his rights – i.e., to struggle.” Well yes Mr. Tolstoy. If my life, family, or property is threatened I instinctively want to defend what is mine. When I see one of those stories in the news where an 80-year-old woman whips out a pistol and shoots the home invader who intended to do her harm I applaud. Are you telling me, Mr. Tolstoy, that Jesus has a problem with that?

Stop, says Tolstoy, and try looking at things from a different angle:

“We need only for one moment to cast aside that the present organization of our lives, as established by man, is the best and most sacred, and then the argument that the teaching of Christ is incompatible with human nature immediately turns against the arguer. Who will deny that it is repugnant and harrowing to a man’s feelings to torture or kill, not only a man, but also even a dog, o hen, or a calf?….And yet our lives are so organized that for one individual to obtain any advantage if life another must suffer, which is against human nature. No judge will undertake to strangle with his own hands the man whom he has condemned to death. No magistrate will himself drag a peasant from his weeping family in order to shut him up in prison. Not a single general, not a single soldier, would kill hundreds of Turks or Germans, and devastate their villages – no, not one on them would consent to would a single man, were it not in obedience to discipline and the oath of allegiance.”

Illustration for Tolstoy's novel Resurrection by Fritz Eichenberg

Illustration for Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection by Fritz Eichenberg

To tell the truth I don’t think this is Tolstoy’s strongest argument. Personally I do find killing and torturing dogs, hens, and calves repugnant and therefore I do not eat meat. However, I find myself in an extreme minority on that score. I have had many a carnivore proudly inform me that he would gladly gut his own game. As for judges and magistrates I think it is true the bureaucracy shields most officials from the consequences of their decisions, but someone has to do the dirty work. There do seem to be plenty of people walking around who don’t have a problem with personally strangling, beheading, harassing, torturing, or throwing people into prison. But I do agree with Tolstoy that bureaucracy magnifies our capacity to do harm to others on a large scale.

“Cruelty is only exercised (thanks to our complicated social machinery) when it can be so divided among a number that none shall bear the sole responsibility, or recognize how unnatural all cruelty is. some make laws, others apply them; others again, drill their fellow-creatures into habits of discipline – i.e., of senseless passive obedience; and these same disciplined men, in their turn, do violence to others – killing without knowing why or wherefore. But let a man even for a moment shake off in thought this net of worldly institutions that so ensnares him, and he will see what is really incompatible with his nature.”

A key to Tolstoy’s vision is that idea that bureaucracy is the engine of evil because it shields us from individual responsibility and prevents us from seeing the truth about how we should live. In his time and place it was clear and visible that the rules of society were greatly skewed in favor of the upper classes, who lived off the labor of the much larger peasant class. He himself witnessed plenty of peasants being disciplined and executed publicly. In the United States and other western nations this sort of thing is not as visible, but to the extent that our clothing, food, and luxury items come to us at the cost of near slave labor somewhere far away, it is not such a different scenario. I have read that the working condition in Chinese iPhone factories are so horrible that workers have committed suicide. I want to believe that they have improved working conditions since then. I want to believe that most of the workers are happy and would be worse off if they did not have those factory jobs. Because I want to keep my iPhone.

I have to ask myself some uncomfortable questions: If something is wrong for one person to do, does it become right if a whole community does it together? Is killing a man okay if the there is a chain of laws and procedures that occur before ending his life? Is it okay to benefit from someone else’s misery if there is a chain of events and lots of miles between me and the miserable person? Can you think of anything we are willing to do in the name of the collective through the mechanisms of bureaucracy that we would not choose to do as individuals?

Lent Day 9, still in Chapter 4 of Tolstoy’s What I Believe

There is nothing like a well-timed snow day. I have been craving some daylight hours to catch up on my writing and God and His universe have contrived to give me that gift. I cannot drive my car on the unplowed roads so I am not tempted to run to the grocery store and then spend three hours browsing the shops. I cannot telecommute because the office network is down. Nothing to do today but my own work. I suppose I could go play in the snow, but really, I’d rather sit here with my coffee wearing my big 100 percent wool reindeer sweater and write about Tolstoy. I did take a few minutes to doodle on a Post-it:

snow day postit2


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So I am still in Chapter 4 of What I Believe, enjoying Tolstoy’s vigorous challenge to the status quo conception of human nature. This status quo argument is one I’ve heard repeated all my life: that it is natural and necessary for humans to be violent (or to have our lives and property protected by violence) because that’s just the way it is. It’s natural because all creatures do violence to other creatures in order to live. Tolstoy implies that perhaps that view of life is not completely objective, that maybe we have a vested interest in believing it. I hope you will bear with me as I spend some quality time with this amazing book. There is so much here to love.

For centuries, probably since around the 200-something, the religion of Christ has attempted to merge Christ’s teachings with our entrenched human systems: church, government, culture, science, the arts, etc. Wherever the words of Christ did not fit neatly into the box, we cut them off or squeezed and molded them into a shape we could stuff into the parameters of our established framework. We cannot seem to comprehend that Jesus did not mean for His message to be adapted to the systems we already have. He meant his instructions, by means of His followers, to topple our violence-based system down to the last brick and build a new one based on the love-based eternal law of God. At least this is what Tolstoy sees it. And I must acknowledge that once I read his insights, it becomes hard for me to avoid seeing it as well, like those hidden pattern pictures in The Magic Eye book series. Once you see the pattern you can never not see it.

Tolstoy points out that Jesus was not alone in his negative assessment of human institutions: “Not only Christ’s words but those of all the Hebrew prophets, of John the Baptist, and of all the truly wise men who have lived, have referred to this same church, this same government, culture, civilization, etc., calling them evils and the causes of men’s perdition.” Okay. And yet we persist in thinking our systems, which are based on force and violence, are to eventually save us and make life on earth wonderful. The belief that we are working our way toward that state of wonderfulness is called being progressive. We continue operating according to the delusion that violence is a necessary part of civilization and is also an essential part of human nature. Tolstoy illustrates this point with a parable:

“For instance, suppose an architect were to say to the owner of a hours, ‘Your house is in a bad state; it must be wholly rebuilt,’ and were then to go on giving all the necessary details about the kinds of beams that would be required, how they were cut, and where placed. If the owner were to turn a deaf ear to the architect’s words about the ruinous condition of the house and the necessity for its being rebuilt, and were only to listen with feigned interest to the secondary details concerning the proposed repairs, the architect’s counsels would evidently appears but so much useless talk; and if the owner happened to feel no great respect for the builder, he would call his advice foolish. This is exactly what occurs with the teachings of Christ.”

old house

Old House, Great Dismal Swamp, Suffolk VA. Photo by Aaron Apple, Jan. 2015.

Now, if I were the owner of that ruinous house, I would have no trouble believing the architect’s expert advice but would feel I could not afford to make the repairs and so would continue living there, hoping and praying the house would stay standing at least for the span of my life. But I would know that pretending it wasn’t so would not prevent the eventual inevitable collapse. I suspect more of us are in that position than Tolstoy quite accounts for. Who knows? Maybe God in His mercy for poor sinners is temporarily upholding our flawed structures. If the world is exists on a foundation of error it does seem like it has been allowed to go on in its error for quite a while now. Calamity after calamity our civilization gets up off the ground, buries its dead, and rebuilds its bombed out cities.

Tolstoy says this: “They call Him God, and then they say, ‘His doctrine is sublime, is the organization of our lives renders its observance impossible; it would change the whole course of our lives, to which we are so used and with which we are so satisfied. Therefore, we believe in this doctrine only as an ideal that mankind must strive after – an ideal that is to be attained by prayer, by believing in the sacraments, in redemption, and in the resurrection of the dead.”

Unbelievers tend to believe Jesus was a sweet silly dreamer whose teachings have no connection whatsoever to the “real” world, except maybe to console the weak-minded masses. An anyway, what could Jesus have known, living way back in those primitive ancient times? He did not have the advantage of all our great philosophical and scientific advances. And yet in Tolstoy’s Russia they were executing people in public, sending them on starvation marches to Siberia by the thousands, and persecuting Jews. In the next century our advanced civilization would dramatically ratchet up our level of violence and brutality, all according to the theory that that force and violence are necessary to civilization and natural to human nature.

Do we really, in our hearts, believe that it is right and natural for human beings to kill, torture, and live well at the expense of others? Is this what we want to believe? Tolstoy does not believe so, even when we do these things as a group or in the name of our government. In tomorrow’s post I will look more at what Tolstoy says is behind this widespread idea that violence is necessary and natural.

Lent, Day 8 – Continuing What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 4

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolia Ge. Public domain.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolia Ge. Public domain.

Christ’s words “Do not resist evil” are simple, clear, and rational. Why then has humanity so consistently refused to take them seriously? Tolstoy says early Christians definitely did take these words seriously but beginning around 313, when Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, the leaders and thinkers of the faith began to adapt Christ’s teaching to the laws of man. In Chapter 4 Tolstoy reviews the ways that people, including Christians, rationalize the continuation systems based on fighting evil with violence, a strategy that has shown itself to be a loser over and over again. History, psychology, and science all give evidence that violence always begets more violence.

Tolstoy summarizes what he sees as the essential message of Christ:

“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.”

He then discusses how, throughout the centuries, people have found every way to contort their mind, avert their eyes, and obscure their terms to avoid taking Christ’s words at face value. He couldn’t possibly have meant what He said about turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and never judging or condemning, and if He did, he must have meant these things in a narrow personal sense: be nice to people and don’t talk ill of them. But surely He did not mean the words in any sense that would affect our systems for controlling people’s behavior: government and courts backed up by the power  of force. Because if Jesus meant that, and if we still want to believe He is God, we’d have to tear up the foundations of human civilization and start all over again. And no one wants to do that, especially those of us who receive the benefits of these systems: comfortable secure homes, nice clothes, freedom from heavy labor, tea, coffee, entertainment, and pastries.

Of course those at the bottom half of the social scale – the ones doing all the sweating and laboring, living closer to the threat of violence, starvation, or incarceration if they don’t sweat and labor enough or if they vie too much from their designated path – are probably going to be a little more receptive to  the idea of a different kind of system. That’s probably one reason Christianity tends to spread rapidly among the poor and oppressed and to fizzle out among the affluent.

tolstoy oppression

Tolstoy tells the reader that he has had opportunities to discuss his insights with many people, and some of them even agree with him. But interestingly, he finds there are two groups who are extremely resistant to the idea of non-resistance and very committed to justice through violence. These were “our Christian conservative patriots, who consider their Church as the true orthodox one, and our revolutionary atheists.” Some people justify violence as a way of helping oppressed people. For example, Tolstoy cites a correspondence between an orthodox Slavophil and a Christian revolutionist: “The former excused the violence of the revolution in the name of his oppressed Slavonian brethren, and the latter vindicated the violence of the revolution in the name of his oppressed brethren, the Russian peasants.”

I find this argument for violence more convincing than any other and worth some serious thought because most of our wars in the 21st century are justified in name of helping those who are being oppressed, conquered, or persecuted.  I suspect most people can support the idea of not sitting by watching a group get ethnically cleansed when we have the power to do something to stop it. It’s just hard to believe it is never right to use violence or condemn some people to prison in order to relieve the suffering of their victims. Nevertheless, says Tolstoy, we cannot even begin to have an honest conversation about Christ’s teaching if we do not even admit that He meant what he said. Even if you are not a believer, you cannot seriously discuss the idea if you assume that historical Jesus meant it as an ideal dream or a sweet fantasy.

“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 forget only one trifling circumstance – to do as He tells them. Unbelievers, on the other hand, try to regulate their lives somehow or other, but not in accordance with the law of Christ, feeling convinced beforehand that it is worthless. 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.”

Which brings me to a question. If no one likes what Christ says, if His teaching is so impossible and so threatening to how we like to order our world, if we go to such efforts to ignore His clearest, most obvious instructions, how has Christianity continued for more than 2000 years? Why as He made such an impact on world history? Why are is Christianity still continuing today and growing by leaps and bounds in third world countries? Perhaps there is a power and hope in it so strong that even an incomplete and imperfect understanding of His message of love, forgiveness, and grace can compel minds and change lives.

Tolstoy says that theologians, historians, and other experts have long held that Christ’s teachings about not resisting evil are impossible because they are not in accord with human nature. Is this the truth? Tolstoy does not think so. This is where we will begin tomorrow’s discussion.

Lent, Day 7 – Continuing with reading of What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 3

In Chapter 3 Tolstoy confronts an idea that many people, including me, will find alarming. It is testimony to his elevated status in Russian society that expressing these views did not get Tolstoy sent to Siberia. In short he says that if Christ commands us to “resist not evil” and courts of law exist primarily to resist evil, then Christ forbids courts of law – or at least He forbids His followers to participate in courts of law. Tolstoy himself found this idea alarming and so threatening to his way of life that for a long time he blocked it out of his mind, or as he puts it, lived in “a state of mental obscurity.”

“The court of law of which I was a member, and which guarded my property and my personal safety, seemed to me so unquestionably sacred that it never came into my mind that the words ‘do not condemn’ could have any higher meaning than that we are not to speak evil of our fellow men. The idea never occurred to me that these words could have any reference to courts of law, district courts, criminal courts, assizes, courts of peace, etc. When I at last took in the real meaning of the words ‘do not resist evil,’ the question arose in my mind, ‘What would Christ’s opinion be of all these courts of law?’ And seeing clearly that He would reject them, I asked myself, ‘Do these words mean that are not only never to speak ill of our brethren, but that we are not to condemn them to punishment by our human institutions of justice?”

Tolstoy read through the New Testament with his new insight and found nothing to indicate that Jesus was okay with human justice systems and lots to indicate that he did not approve of them. In particular he cites Luke 6:37-39: “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you. And He spoke a parable to them: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch?’”

I would not deny that our systems of justice are deeply flawed and frequently result in more evil than good. The United States, arguably one of the most just systems in human history, is currently imprisoning 2.3 million people and has the highest incarceration rate in the world (as of October 2013). A protest arises in my mind: what about violent criminals – the type who if you show them love and forgiveness for having murdered someone, will immediately go out and murder someone else? Is it not sort of participating in evil to unleash known psychopaths on your unsuspecting brethren? I am sure the violent offenders are far outnumbered by the nonviolent ones, people imprisoned was simply having crossed some line. We imprison thieves to protect our property and rapists and other violent assaulters need to be imprisoned to protect people’s bodies.

The unsettling thing about Chapter 3 of What I Believe is the idea that it is wrong to have courts of law at all. Taking it just a bit further, it’s the idea that our entire human system of governing our lives is a great big structure built upon sinking ground and if we want to be saved from the final collapse we need to get out of that doomed building. Even if it is only with the clothes on our backs. Christ’s words and the example of his life indicate that all of us must eventually choose to live either by the law of man or the law of God. We cannot live by both because they go in opposite directions: one of them is moving toward destruction and the other toward eternal life.

Matthew 10:34 comes to mind: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” I don’t think that’s a verse we’re likely to see printed on a Christmas card. Since Jesus could not have meant to use the sword to kill bad guys he must have meant to use it to neatly and decisively slice the world’s law from that of God.

Woodcut engraving for Resurrection by Fritz Eichenberg showing women in prison

Woodcut engraving by Fritz Eichenberg for Tolstoy’s last novel Resurrection – showing women in prison

If you want to understand the full magnitude of Tolstoy’s conviction of human justice systems, I recommend his final novel Resurrection, published in 1899. Among other things, this will show you that in his time Russia was an absolute Behemoth of bureaucracy. (And then seven years after his death they tore that system down and erected an even larger more fearsome bureaucratic beast in its place.) Tolstoy wrote this books in the late 1890s when he was really done with writing novels. But he agreed to write one more to raise funds for a persecuted Christian pacifist group called the Doukhobors to emigrate and re-settle in Canada.

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Related posts:

Review of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s Resurrection: How Bureaucracy is Incompatible with Love