February 23, 2015: Conflict between Christ’s teaching and human institutions

Lent, Day 6

Continuing What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 2:

Tolstoy wondered how in the world he could have reached his fifties without noticing the simple truth that followers of Christ are not to resist evil. “I wondered, not so much at my eyes being opened to the truth at last, but at the strange darkness that had, until then, enveloped my understanding.” After all, from early childhood he had been taught that being a Christian is all about loving your enemies.

What part of “Do not resist evil” had he not understood? Why did he think, even if he was not conscious of the thought, that he did not have to obey these words? “While believing, or at least endeavoring to believe, that He who gave us this commandment was God, how did I come to say I could not obey it in my own strength? If my master were to say to me , ‘Go and cut wood,’ and I were to answer that I could not do it in my own strength, would it not show that either I had no faith in my master’s words , or that I did not choose to obey him?” Tolstoy wonders why he assumed not resisting evil was an impossibility without it ever occurring to him even to try it.

From what I know of Tolstoy’s earlier life, he spent time in the army and he was also involved in duels. In A Confession he says he was always rewarded by societal approval for aggressive, violent, and sexually promiscuous behavior. When his brother Dmitri got religious and decided to devote his life to the Church, he did not receive encouragement from friends and family but instead was teased and ridiculed. It is easy to see how Tolstoy absorbed the message that he was not really expected to live according to the commandments of the God he was supposed to believe in.

“I was taught from my childhood that Christ is God and that His teaching is divine and authoritative; while, on the other hand, I was also told to respect those institutions that, by means of violence, secured my safety from evil; I was taught to honor those institutions as being sacred. I was taught to resist evil; and it was instilled into me that it was humiliating and dishonorable to submit to evil and to suffer from it; and that it was praiseworthy to resist evil.”

For Tolstoy, as for most of us, the message of the world was louder and more immediate than the message of Christ. It is certainly not a bit different now.Most of us hear the message that it is good to vanquish our enemies from numerous oracles of the media: cartoons, comic books, novels, blockbuster movies, TV shows, and the daily news, and expert opinion. Our heroes are those who vanquish the bad guys. To accept the ideal of non-resistance is to turn the world on its head.

Upside Down World. Photo by Aaron Apple, Jan 2015.

Upside Down World. Photo by Aaron Apple, Jan 2015.

We do have our non-violent resistors such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi, but even they were still resisting evil, just using non-violent methods.  I have always admired these people and I also admire the French Resistance movement and that group  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was part of that tried to assassinate Hitler. It does not take me long to think of all kinds of reasons why and circumstances in which non-resistance is not desirable. Can it really be good to stand aside and allow an evil system to overtake a decent society that at least tries to respect individual right? At what point to no resisting evil turn into participating in evil? While I love the idea on non-violence, these sorts of questions make my head spin. It just means I don’t understand everything and have lots to work through.

Anyway, back to Tolstoy. He got all these messages, not only from his society but also from his church “that the teaching of Christ was impracticable and ideal, and that we must, in fact, live contrary to His Doctrine.” These messages were so constant, so consistent with what he could observe about the way the world worked and “coincided so well with all my animal feelings” that Tolstoy lived much of his life unaware that there was any contradiction whatsoever between his religion and his life.

Perhaps most of us are blissfully unaware of this conflict, especially those who are not Christians. But I think a lot of us have noticed that all is not well on planet earth. Our institutions such as government, militaries, corporations, courts of law, prison systems, the media, and even schools seem riddled with corruption. Nothing works the way it is supposed to work on paper. There always seems to be bribery, special favors, theft, and back stabbing going on.

I hate to leave today’s post on a negative note so I will say I am still expecting a ray of light to shine on this picture. I am looking forward to the part where we get to the good news about our lives, future, and purpose. My personal ray of hope is that we are not stuck inside a closed system of corruption, that there is in fact a better way. I just need to find out how to get to that better way and what it might look like when I get there.

Tomorrow I will continue with Tolstoy’s examination of our hallowed institutions and how they conflict with the teachings of Christ. It seems that as if non-resistance to evil were not hard enough, we are also told not to judge or condemn people. Tolstoy has some things to say about how this teaching might relate to our courts of law. I found myself doing a lot of internal protesting throughout this section, but we’ll talk about that tomorrow.

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