February 24, 2015: Courts and laws

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.

* * * * * * * * *

Related posts:

Review of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s Resurrection: How Bureaucracy is Incompatible with Love

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