February 22, 2015: The astounding truth: He really meant it when he said we should resist not evil
Lent Day 5:
I may have a title for my Lent 2015 series: Forty Days of Tolstoy. It may take me the whole 40 days to get through the astounding What I Believe and the other Tolstoy writings I want to examine. I don’t know where exactly where this will go but I am entertained, challenged, and fascinated so I am just going with it.
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So Tolstoy comes to the realization that despite all kinds of theological and worldly rationalization, the words “Resist not evil” (in Matthew 5:39) actually mean exactly what they say: that those who desire to be followers of Christ are not to resist evil. Theologians back then tried every possible way to get around this instruction from the mouth of Christ and we are still trying to get around it now. But there it is and Tolstoy says it is the very core of the faith. It’s not that Jesus wanted his followers to suffer. It’s just that the road to salvation or the Kingdom of Heaven or just Truth if you like, is love and it cannot involve doing evil to other people, even if they do evil to you. Other people are not living according the law of love. You are.
Due to the nature of humans and the kinds of social structures we have constructed for ourselves, when you live without resisting evil, you can naturally expect to experience some unpleasant things such as persecution, being reviled, and violence against your property or person. I love Tolstoy’s little illustration to help explain the principle: Think of a father whose son is going on a long journey. The father does not want the son to suffer, but tells his son that, due to the weather and the nature of the journey, he may encounter hardships such as cold and hunger and not to be discouraged if he does. The destination will be worth any discomfort he experiences along the way.
Tolstoy found that the theme of non-resistance is the thread that ties all the Gospel stories together, culminating in Christ’s personal example of practicing non-resistance to evil and love toward His enemies. All of the original apostles finally “got it” and lived the rest of their lives according to this principle. Most of them died as martyrs.
“As soon as I understood the exact meaning of these simple words, all that had appeared confused to me in the doctrine of Christ grew intelligible; what had seemed contradictory now became consistent, and what I had deemed superfluous became indispensable. All united in one whole, on part fitting into and supporting the other, like pieces of a broken statue put together in their proper places.”
Tolstoy ends Chapter 1 with this statement: “We may bring forward, as an objection, the difficulty of always obeying such a law; we may even say, as unbelievers do, that it is a foolish doctrine, that Christ was a dreamer, an idealist who gave precepts that are impossible to follow. But, whatever our objections may be, we cannot deny that Christ expresses His meaning most clearly and distinctly.”
In other words, whatever you believe about Christ and however difficult you think it would be to practice non-resistance, Tolstoy had no doubt that He meant what He said. Of course this does not mean you can’t ignore the teaching. Most people, including Christians, do just that. I myself am hoping to find in this book something comforting, something that make the whole idea palatable – or at least doable. I believe Tolstoy made some major changes in his life once he understood the Gospels in this way, but I am still in Chapter 1.
Tomorrow I will begin looking at Chapter 2, which deals with Tolstoy’s shocking realizations about the nature of the world he lived in: its government, its military, its courts, it laws, its values. I suspect most people, including me, will not find this subject matter comfortable.