Tolstoy wrote this book in 1894 in Russia. This was not a pleasant time to be in Russia. Tolstoy did not like what was going on, and how he did not get thrown in jail for vocalizing his displeasure is beyond me. My wife, who knows such things, tells me it’s because he was already such a celebrity there. The book was banned in Russia and was originally published in Germany.
This book is about Christian Pacifism. Tolstoy believes Christians should all be non-violent and expresses this point in rather heated language, ironically enough! Although he quotes the Sermon on the Mount a lot, he seems to have missed the bit about sin in thought, not just action.
Here are four points from this book, which I will begin with a verse he quotes to make his point:
- “The Kingdom of God is within you”
This is Tolstoy’s main point: we belong to God’s Kingdom, we are that Kingdom, therefore, we don’t need man’s kingdoms. Tolstoy is pretty much an anarchist. He says Christians should resist mandatory military service, taking oaths, voting, and even paying taxes. He sees no point for human governments, as they are merely self-feeding power structures that oppress the masses. I guess I can’t disagree to a certain extent, but God did establish authority on earth that we are to honor and pay taxes to, but he skips those verses. It appears as though he thinks Christians, by obeying God, can reform society and create the actual Kingdom of God. Although a popular view of his time, two massive World Wars ended this doctrine quite soundly.
- “Resist not the evil.”
This phrase is from Luke 17:21. Tolstoy says this verse is the foundation of all Christian pacifists. He gives a brief history of Christian Pacifism, which was interesting, and how all these movements based their beliefs on this verse. I do think this verse gets short-shrift in Christian thinking today. We too quickly want to bomb people and shoot them. I imagine “resist not the evil” actually meant “resist not the evil.” Although Tolstoy might go too far in his application, this verse ought to impact our doctrine to some extent.
- “An eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”
Although this was a law for the Old Covenant, Tolstoy argues that Jesus Christ’s commandment to love your enemy replaces this old law. Therefore, capital punishment and all forms of self-defense are out the window. We are to love, regardless of what someone does to us. We are to do unto others as we would have done unto us. Love fulfills the law. He also repeats “Thou shalt not kill” and thus, there should be no war and no armies. All soldierly killing is against God’s law. Any attempt to sidestep and defend military killing is more evidence of the church’s collusion with temporal powers.
- “Worshipers in spirit and in truth”
Not only is Tolstoy against political authority, he is also against clerical authority. He views the church as being in cahoots with the government–just another power and money hungry institution dumbing down people to do their will rather than God’s. I have sympathy with his point, but once again, he overstates the case and misses many verses that weigh-in on this subject. He has no use for the church, not just the Russian church, which was entwined with the Russian political authority, but all church, no exceptions.
In the end, Tolstoy is one angry man. He does have some legitimate grounds for his anger, but I think he devised an angry philosophy, found six verses that backed it up, and wrote a book. Some of this book reads like a diatribe, which a modern-day editor would have limited extensively.
Tolstoy lived in a rough time and I empathize with him. I do think he’s more right than he is wrong, and I do think he was trying to help, but he’s just too sloppy with his reasoning, too idealistic in his hopes, and too narrow in his usage of Scripture. The deeper irony of the book is that he, as a rich man of influence, can get away with standing up to the government! If he were a peasant, his book never would have been written, let alone published, nor would he have lived! As much as I appreciate his stance against evil, I don’t think it’s rooted in reality, nor in Scripture.
This is the kind of book I’d recommend, except that I fear people would think I totally agree! I don’t! But he does raise valid points we don’t consider enough in our endeavors to follow Christ. For that, I thank him for making me think about it.