February 26, 2015: Is violence natural? Is it necessary?

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

 

* * * * * * * * *

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.

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