February 25, 2015: Avoiding the obvious about nonresistance to evil

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.

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