Tolstoy on Christian non-violence | Isaac Aho

Over the past two years Isaac has been one of my favourite people to talk, drink, think and pray alongside. He recently completed an M.A. in Spiritual Formation with the University of the Nations and lives in South Africa with his family gathering people around discipleship and living out the ways of Jesus. Finally, He embodies a life long learner posture which continues to seek after truth, which is why I asked him to share these thoughts on a book He had just read. He previously wrote a post on this blog about the importance of mealtimes in Christian life you can read here. – Liam


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I recently picked up a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within. Reading the book proved to be a disturbing experience and I’m left to wrestle through some of his ideas and subsequent conclusions.

The premise of the book is that Jesus taught us to love all people, never repay evil with evil and to turn the other cheek even in the event of suffering personal violence. Tolstoy has a solidly christological1 hermeneutic. He interprets everything in the Bible based on who God is as revealed in Christ, and everything else written about God, attributed to God, or said to be God must look, act, and sound like Jesus, or it isn’t God.

A second premise Tolstoy expresses is that mankind is moving through stages of growth;

  1. We started out loving ourselves. He calls this the “animal” view of life.
  2. We progress to loving society which would be our nation or tribe. He calls this the “pagan” view.
  3. We will eventually come to love and embrace all mankind. He calls this the “divine” view.

Tolstoy believes that our governments, with the police and standing armies are there for one purpose only; to ensure those with wealth and privilege keep their status. He says the overwhelming source of violence in the world is “preemptive violence”. We do acts of actual violence to stop a potential violence.

I believe Tolstoy reads Ephesians chapter six and sees the “…principalities, powers and rulers of spiritual wickedness in high places” not as airy demons floating around causing mischief, but rather our structures, governments and institutions, that allow people to collectively cause massive damage and evil to others. Tolstoy explains how this becomes possible with this illustration: When I swear my allegiance to government or king and join an armed force, I feel justified in anything I do because I am “following orders”.

The responsibility gets passed off as I abdicate my responsibility to my commanding officer, who in turn passes it off as well. On the ground, I am allowed to shoot, kill, injure and abuse with impunity. Because my individual act is self defence, or in the defence of my country. I don’t feel the weight of my actions, even if I was to violently suppress my own countrymen.

Tolstoy says;

“How can men allow that murder is permissible while they preach principles of morality, and how can they allow of the existence in their midst of a military organisation of physical force which is a constant menace to public security? — It is only allowed by the upper classes, who profit by this organisation, because their privileges are maintained by it — The upper classes allow it, and the lower classes carry it into effect in spite of their consciousness of the Immorality of the deeds of violence, the more readily because through the arrangements of the government the moral responsibility for such deeds is divided among a great number of participants in it, and everyone throws the responsibility on someone else—moreover, the sense of moral responsibility is lost through the delusion of Inequality, and the consequent Intoxication of power on the part of superiors, and servility.”

Tolstoy also writes that in the time of Constantine the church joined the government along with their motivations. He says;

“Historically, Helchitsky attributes the degeneration of Christianity to the times of Constantine the Great, whom he, Pope Sylvester admitted into the Christian Church with all his heathen morals and life. Constantine, in his turn, endowed the Pope with worldly riches and power. From that time forward these two ruling powers were constantly aiding one another to strive for nothing but outward glory. Divines and ecclesiastical dignitaries began to concern themselves only about subduing the whole world to their authority, incited men against one another to murder and plunder, and in creed and life reduced Christianity to a nullity.”

Tolstoy would call anybody who professes to follow Jesus to practice the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil by force”. He acknowledges there will be martyrs but this is what Jesus taught, lived, (and died) but ultimately and inevitably, a peaceful world would emerge.

These are just a few of the ideas that Tolstoy writes about that are disturbing in the implication of how I should be living if they are true. If my privilege is obtained and maintained by threat or actual violence how do I live justly as one with privilege?

In very recent memory, I could hear the shots and taste the tear gas that floated across the valley as a people group desperate for justice in their community violently protested and were met with a greater violence to contain them. I would have to admit a certain security I felt in the fact that the people between me and those protesting had the “bigger guns.” This would prove Tolstoy correct as to why I would tolerate these standing armies. I will admit I like to buy my food at prices I could never produce for myself, and never question how this is possible and who is paying the difference. I like living in a home that would take me a lifetime to create if I used only my own labor, and not question how it came to be built.

I guess my conscience is comfortable with this arrangement because I assumed it was free market principles that made it so and everybody was choosing their lot.

What if it is only maintained because the guns on my side are bigger? I have to ask myself – where Jesus would be standing? I am afraid if Tolstoy is right, I am on the side of the guns aimed directly at Christ.


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  1. Christ-centred view 

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