March 2, 2015: Tolstoy takes on a church father

Lent Day 13: What I Believe, Chapter 5 continued

"Johnchrysostom". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“John Chrysostom”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the course of his criticism of long-established Church doctrine Tolstoy takes on a commentator named John Chrysostom. As a rank amateur in early Christian scholarship I had to Google to find out who John Chrysostom was. It turns out he was an early Church father who lived from 349 to 407 and served as Archbishop of Constantinople. Okay I guess those are credentials enough to pay attention to what he has to say.

Apparently back in the 300s there was a faction that was saying that Jesus rejected Mosaic (eye for an eye) law and Chrysostom wrote this commentary to “correct” this interpretation:

“On examining the ancient law that enjoins us to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the objection is raised, ‘How can He who speaks of thus be righteous? What answer can we give? Why, that it is, on the contrary, the test token of God’s love toward man. It was not that we should really take and eye for an eye that He gave us this law, but that we should avoid wronging others for fear of suffering the same at their hands.”

Chrysostom says that this law of retribution is no more cruel than the commandment that forbids murder or the one that forbids adultery. To argue against such commandments would be mad! “You call God cruel because He has enjoined taking an eye for an eye; but I say that many would have had a greater right to call Him cruel, as you do, had He not given this commandment.”  Chrysostom goes on to make several excellent points in favor of the old law:

  • Without fear of punishment the wicked would run wild. Removing that fear would be like arming them with fearlessness. “Wouldn’t all be overthrown; wouldn’t houses, marketplaces, cities, lands, seas, and the whole universe be full of iniquity?”
  • Even with the laws we have, the fear of punishment barely keeps evil restrained, so what would it be like if removed the barrier of our law?
  • “Cruelty does not lie in leaving the wicked free to act as they please, but in letting the innocent man suffer without defending him.”
  • God is wise and just. By His “eye for an eye” commandment God retrains evil by binding the minds of the wicked by fear.

So basically Chrysostom makes a really good argument in favor of maintaining law and order, but what he does not do is make any substantial case that Jesus in any way taught that is was okay to judge, condemn, and punish. Therefore, Tolstoy says, he misses the whole point. We already know there are good sound reasons for the world’s systems of maintaining law and order. That’s why we have them. The point is that Jesus message was that these systems, no matter old and entrenched, no matter how righteous and effective we think they are, are in fact, not the way of truth.

Tolstoy supposed the Old Testament system of law makes sense if God were the one meting out the consequences. The problem is that both the criminals and the law enforcers and judges are men. Chrysostom divides humans into categories that Jesus does not support: some good or innocent and others bad or criminal. But he does not say how we humans, with our flawed perception and incomplete understanding, are supposed to be able to decide who is good and who is evil. How do we know that the ones thrown into prison are not morally better than the law enforcers who turn the lock? One of the main teachings of Jesus is that we should not make these distinctions between human beings, but should love all without discrimination.

Obviously this seems like a hard road to travel – to fling aside our whole system of law and punishment and trust God to sort it out. If it were easy the early Christians would have persisted in trying to do it. Instead they drifted back to the perceived safety of the old law and tried to make it look like Jesus supported it too. When you see those videos of men in their black ISIS costumes beheading defenseless hostages it’s really hard not to think of some people as more evil than others. But there is brainwashing. Children can be raised to believe certain things, their minds can be warped, and their sensitivity to violence can be dulled. Perhaps any of us, were we raised in the same environment with the same education and experiences, would have been willing to do the same thing. Maybe not, but we don’t know that it’s not possible.

Anyway, Tolstoy makes the point that you can make all the arguments you want in favor of the value of force, violence, judgment, and retraining evil, but if you want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, there is going to be inconsistency in your life and you may experience some mental dissonance. Okay Tolstoy doesn’t say anything about mental dissonance. That’s just me. But he does say that you are going to find yourself professing to believe one thing and living as if you believe the opposite.

I have heard a lot of people accuse Christians of being hypocrites. If we go with Tolstoy’s reading of the Gospels it becomes easy to see why it is hard to be a Christian who is not a hypocrite. But if we are not quite prepared to cast off the world, live off the grid, and be persecuted, what is the alternative? Of course you can give up the whole idea of following Christ, writing it off as an impossible ideal. People do this a lot. But embracing the world’s system wholly with all its fear and competition, having to claw your way to power by playing by the rules of the world, accumulating as many material goods as you can before you die, seems a recipe for existential emptiness and in the end you die, having lived entirely for things you cannot take with you. Maybe it’s better to at least try to follow Christ’s teaching even at the risk of being a hypocrite.

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr which is a novel about people surviving the horrors of the Second World War (review coming shortly). It reminds me that the Nazis fully embraced a system based on worldly power, physical strength, hating and killing their enemies, and the elevation of some people at the expense of everyone else.

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