Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Kingdom of God Is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mysitical Teaching But as a New Concept of Life / Leo Tolstoy -- Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961

Leo Tolstoy's reputation as a novelist much overshadows his reputation as an author of non-fiction, but a great deal of his literary output is non-fictional. He was particularly concerned in the later stages of his career to express his views on religion and non-violence. His two most important works in this regard are My Religion also known as What I Believe and The Kingdom of God Is Within You. What he attacks in Kingdom gives ample reason for understanding why his views have been dismissed.

The work begins with an exposition of what Tolstoy thought was the central philosophy of Christ, expressed in Mathew 5:39, "I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (KJV). From this, Tolstoy constructs the moral philosophy of "non-resistance to evil:" a radical rejection of violence in all of its forms. Not only does this imperative proscribe serving in the army, it rejects serving as a police officer, and enacting punishments of any kind.

Tolstoy recognizes that all governments depend upon the threat of punishment and so consequently, he rejects government. Equally, he criticizes revolutionists inspired by a sense of justice to commit acts of violence, but he saves his deepest scorn for leaders of the Christian churches, who he sees as distorting and rejecting true Christianity. As worldly powers, Christian churches have made accommodations with secular powers and even vigorously endorsed various forms of violence at least since Constantine. His criticisms go beyond established institutions and their leaders as Tolstoy hold accountable upper and middle class individuals who accept the benefits of violent economic, social, and political arrangements.

With the depth and breadth of his critique, it is no wonder that his books were banned by Czarist Russia, and that he found no meaningful support from other governments, revolutionary socialist parties, the Christian church, or many people in the literate classes. His reputation as a "crank" was all but assured by his uncompromising attachment to the principle of non-violence.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to find fault with the basic thrust of his arguments. If we are to understand the message of Christ to be of historical significance, it must depart from the political and moral compromises that putatively Christian institutions have made. Such institutions could have engaged in exactly the same behavior as they have while embracing any number of secular ideologies, and had Christ's message been consistent with these actions and arguments, his contribution to the history of moral ideas would not be noteworthy.

If there is a weakness in Tolstoy's critique of law and punishment, it lies in his failure to recognize the possibility that self-imposed laws can be legitimately enforced by self-imposed punishments. A truly democratic society may adopt rules for behavior and employ punishments to guard against the weakness of will that characterizes us all, though one might argue that each person must willingly accept the legitimacy of the governing institution.

In defense of Tolstoy's critique of even ostensibly democratic governments, one can point out that no actual government is born of institutions that can confer truly democratic legitimacy, certainly not the U.S. government with its plutocratic electoral system. Consequently, the legitimate use of violence by a government can only occur under hypothetical circumstances.

Tolstoy's moral demands are strict, but they establish an ideal that deserves the deepest respect.

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