The Kingdom Within
While Granville Waldgrave tossed and turned, sick to death and seeing nightmares after the attack on Sevastopol, a boy his age saw the same nightmares on the other side of the line. His name was Lev Tolstoy and he was sick too.
Like Granville, Lev grew up among the wealthy and privileged. Born on Yasnaya Polyana, an estate not far from Tula, his earliest memories were of strolling the park-like grounds with long-skirted governesses while serfs at work among the gardens lifted their caps when he spoke to them in passing. He learned to swim and ride horses. But no amount of wealth could keep his family together.
Lev’s mother died when he was two, and his father, Nikolai Tolstoy, seven years later. The aunt responsible for him died when he was thirteen and he moved to Kazan.
In Kazan on the Volga both Lev and his life changed. His brothers introduced him, as a young teenager, to what they knew of manhood: wine, women, and gambling. At sixteen he entered the university, got bad grades, and was soon taking treatment for venereal disease. After three years he dropped out, moved in with friends at Moscow and took to partying and seeing gypsies night after night. “I am living like a beast,” he wrote in his diary and disgust at his own behaviour finally drove him into the army.
In 1851 Lev joined his older brother Nikolai, fighting Muslims with Russian troops in the Caucasus. The mountain fighting was tough--ambushes and quick attacks. In one struggle Lev narrowly escaped capture. In another, a flying grenade whizzed past his ear. After three years he found himself at Sevastopol, surrounded by “blood, suffering, and death,” and sick of war.
Money and Power
Nothing struck Lev as a greater tragedy than the lives of the soldiers around him. He saw their simple sincerity. They wanted to be good and have friends. They did heroic things one for another. But wars--and the politicians who plan but do not fight them--he came to see as unspeakably unheroic and evil.
Stories Lev wrote of the fighting at Sevastopol got accepted in a St. Petersburg paper and struck a responsive chord throughout Russia. He wrote more. Literary societies competed to gain him as a member. But he did not need nor want their acceptance. In 1857 he travelled through Germany, England, and France. In Paris he saw an opponent of the state on a guillotine. No sooner did the blade drop and the head fall into a bucket than something else fell into place in his life:
Money and power are the devils of the human race.
A Horse Story
On his return to Russia Lev wrote Kholstomer, a story written from the viewpoint of a highly principled horse comparing his situation to that of the ridiculous humans who depended on him. He also wrote a few other stories before turning his back on wickedness in high places and settling down to live among the Russian farm workers he had always known and loved at Yasnaya Polyana.1
Lev began a school for the farm workers’ children. The joy he discovered among them--little boys and girls, curious, eagerly discussing great things, dressed in linen shirts, full skirts and brightly flowered head scarves like their parents--was mutual. They loved him for a teacher and he wrote simple attractive textbooks for them.
In his early thirties Lev met Sofya, the daughter of Heinrich Behrs, a Moscow doctor. When she was eighteen and he thirty-four they married and began to rebuild the old house at Yasnaya Polyana. (A man to whom Lev had lost a high-staked game of cards in his youth, had carried most of it away, piece by piece.) Then he dug into farming. Soil and crop management fascinated him and the Tolstoy estate, with what became its ninety-six acres of vegetable gardens and orchards, began to produce like never before. Lev kept bees and experimented with fruit trees while Sofya bore him thirteen children (eight of whom reached maturity) in fifteen years.
The story might have ended here, had not Lev’s urge to serve his fellow Russians through “irresistable education” driven him to write Voyna i mir (War and Peace) the novel that became one of the two or three most famous in world literature.
It took Lev seven years to write it. But after its publication he became a famous and wealthy man. Immediately after this, he wrote Anna Karenina.
With their older children needing to study, and--in Sofya’s estimation--needing to meet the right people in the right kind of society, the Tolstoys moved to Moscow in 1881. They moved with their servants and staff into a small estate on the outskirts of the city, but Lev was not happy. From their new house he heard factory whistles ca!lling shifts of bleary-eyed, shuffling multitudes--mothers and children among them--to work at bad hours. While the wealthy frisked about Moscow in furs and perfumed gowns, snuggling up in dimly lit theatres or feasting and dancing in lavish homes, the poor worked. And earned little.
Posing as a census-taker, Lev began to tramp the back streets of Moscow taking notes on how people lived. He found many sick and some who had not eaten for days. Everywhere he found filth, drunkenness, corruption (including child prostitution) and despair. His frustration and guilt--worsened by coming back every night to his own comfortable home--resulted in another book: What then shall we do?
On top of the guilt he felt for his wealth and privilege, Lev felt hopelessly guilty for his personal sins. So dark and stormy had his struggle become at one point that he lived with lingering temptations to suicide. Then his farm workers at Yasnaya Polyana helped him. They said, “If you are unhappy turn to the Lord and stop living for yourself.” Everywhere he heard this among them, the older men making the simple comment, and the young men nodding agreement.
The Lord. Who was he?
Walking through the woods Lev turned to Jesus Christ and experienced his own “resurrection.”
“Joyful waves of life welled up inside me,” he wrote later, “Everything came alive and took on new meaning.”
Along with Christ came a simple understanding: “If one life changes, the world changes with it.”
It was simple but electrifying. Suddenly Lev understood what Christ had done. He did not force anyone or anything to change. He simply changed himself, and untold millions followed.
Pravda (the true way of life) Lev suddenly knew, is within everyone’s reach. No matter how wicked we are, or how bad our situation, we know good and evil. Good is God. It is the Gospel. It is Christ. Living in its constant awareness our lives become transformed.
After his conversion Lev began every day with a walk he called his morning prayer. But his life did not become “pious” like many westerners would have expected. In true Russian fashion he threw himself into the kind of Christianity symbolised in bread and salt.
“Works of charity will not solve the world’s problems,” Lev now believed. “They are comparable to a man sitting on a tired worn-out horse who tries to lighten the beast’s burden by removing a few coins from his pocket when the essential thing is to dismount.” The solution is personal. Every man, every woman must change, one by one. And the change, Lev well knew, would have to start with him. “I take part in crime,” he wrote, “as long as I have extra food and someone else has none.” So he gave his extra food away.
Everyone should do what he can, Lev believed, and depend as little as possible on the labour of others. He divided his day into four parts. Before breakfast he worked hard--shovelling snow, sawing or splitting firewood to carry to the ten stoves in his house, or hauling water to the kitchen in a barrel on a sled. He began to wear peasant clothes (the linen shirt tied with a cord belt, over loose home-made trousers) and took to ploughing with oxen, cutting hay with a scythe or hauling manure at Yasnaya Polyana.
From breakfast to lunch he wrote. From lunch to the evening meal he worked with his hands, sometimes making leather boots. After that he spent time with his family. Sofya played the piano and he played chess with the boys.
Lev stopped drinking and smoking and wrote a tract against both: Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? In a move toward the Spirit Christians, many of whose beliefs and practices he adopted, he stopped drinking coffee (an imported luxury) and became a vegetarian.
Private property, Lev came to feel, was wrong. He fully intended to give Yasnaya Polyana with everything on it to the people who had worked there for generations. But his wife interfered and he ended up deeding the estate to her and the children.2
New Friends and Critics
Among the teachings of Christ, Lev found none more enlightening than his command in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist evil.” Having seen the corruption of war and political violence it made perfect sense to him. He wrote on the subject and in the discussion that ensued he heard not only from Spirit Christians delighted with his new position, but from Mennonites and Quakers as well. He read with great interest a letter from the son of William Lloyd Garrison (the nonresistant anti-slavery prophet of America), the testimony of Petr Chelcicky (forerunner of the Moravian Brethren) and a tract on nonresistance written by a Mennonite minister, Daniel Musser of Pennsylvania. In trips to the Ukraine, Lev made friends with both Spirit Christian and Mennonite colonists. The community of goods among the Dukhobors, the Molokan Pryguny and the Hutterite brothers who had returned to it, fascinated him in particular.
But Lev drew more than friendly response.
Most people who wrote to him, or about him, thought him crazy. Theodore Roosevelt, an American politician, called him a genius “with a complete inability to face facts” and described his writings as “revolting, appealing only to decadents.”
Frederic William Farrar, dean of Canterbury and author of The Life of Christ (a best seller through thirty editions) wrote that he did not think it necessary to “forsake all the ordinary conditions of life and take up the position of a common laborer” to follow Christ. To that he added:
With few and rare exceptions all Christians from the days of the Apostles down to our own, have come to the firm conclusion that it was the object of Christ to lay down great eternal principles, but not to disturb the bases and revolutionise the institutions of human society that rest on divine sanctions as well as on inevitable conditions. Were it my object to prove how untenable is the doctrine of community of goods taught by Count Tolstoy . . . something that can only be interpreted on historical principles in accordance to the whole method of the teaching of Jesus, it would require an ampler canvas than I have here at my disposal.3
“What a pity,” remarked Lev Tolstoy on reading this, “that Mr. Farrar’s canvas was not more ample!” In reply he wrote:
Without exception the criticisms of educated Christians are like this. Apparently they understand the danger of their position. Their only escape lies in the hope of overawing people with their church authority, the antiquity of their tradition, or the sanctity of their office. Using these they try to draw people away from reading the Gospels for themselves and forming their own conclusions. They can do this quite successfully, for how would it occur to anyone that what has been repeated from century to century with such earnestness and solemnity by so many important church officials is all a big lie, all an evil deception on their part to hang on to the money they must have to live luxuriously on the necks of other men. Yet it is a deception, and such a poor one, that the only way of keeping it up consists in overawing people by their earnest and conscientious words.4
Robert G. Ingersoll, another important American, dismissed Lev Tolstoy’s newest books with the comment: “Christ’s teaching is of no use to us anymore. It is incompatible with our industrial age.”
To this Lev replied:
Robert Ingersoll has expressed with perfect directness and simplicity how refined and cultured people now look at Christ’s teachings. They consider the existence of this industrial age a sacred fact that should not and cannot be changed. It is just as though drunkards when advised how they could be brought to habits of sobriety should answer that the advice is incompatible with their habit of taking alcohol.
With the ever increasing circulation of his books, hundreds of people from all over the world came to see Lev Tolstoy. The extension table in their dining room, even though it seated fifty, could not always accommodate the guests. And some like Vladimir Chertkov--son of Yelena Chertkova and brother to Mikhail, the sick boy whose testimony brought many to Christ in St. Petersburg--actually moved in with the Tolstoys.
Vladimir Chertkov became one of Lev Tolstoy’s closest disciples and his secretary. He was also a friend to Ivan and Fyodor who on a trip to the Caucasus visited Yasnaya Polyana together.
Mushrooms and a Manuscript
Ivan Prokhanov described his visit:
In Tula we hired a cab to take us to Yasnaya Polyana. Among the trees on the estate grounds we first saw the white house and a group of ladies playing lawn tennis. Then we saw an old man with rough features, gray hair and a beard, walking toward the veranda. On his head he had a large white cap. He was dressed in a linen shirt, grey trousers and rough boots, looking like a gardener. But we recognized him as Count Tolstoy. He carried a walking stick and was eating a piece of dry bread.
When the Count saw us he came to meet us, and we introduced ourselves to him. He wondered from which school we came and asked us: “Would you like to walk with me on a trail through the woods?” Of course we eagerly agreed and explained our reason for coming: “We want to be Christ’s disciples and would like to hear what you say about following him.”
After our conversation Count Tolstoy asked us whether we preferred to go with him to look for mushrooms or to read the manuscript of his new book, Tsarstvo bozhiye vnutri vas (The Kingdom of God is Within You). We preferred to see the manuscript so he climbed through a window into his room, got his copy, gave it to us, and went to the woods with a basket to gather mushrooms.
In the manuscript Ivan and Fyodor came face to face at once with the reason why people stop short of walking with Christ.
People do not walk with Christ, Lev Tolstoy explained, because they convince themselves they are what they ought to be. A greedy man, a great landowner, “sends some soup and stockings by his wife or children to a few old widows” and convinces himself he is generous. The man who grows rich from the labour of the poor convinces himself he is doing it for their good. The church leader whose ego and control grows more oppressive by the day convinces himself he defends the truth. The rebel steals and lies convinces himself he does so for the sake of justice. Lev wrote:
We have come to where we are because of our disunity. Our disunity comes from not following the truth that is one, but falsehoods that are many. The only way to bring us all together is to all come to the truth. The more sincerely we struggle for the truth the closer we come to inner unity.
But how can we find unity in the truth or even come close to it, if we fear to come out in the open with the truth we already know--if we say there is no need to do so, and keep on pretending to regard as truth what we know is false?
If today’s hypocrisy will continue, if men do not profess the truth they know, but continue to feign belief in what they do not believe and venerate what they do not respect, their condition will remain the same, or even grow worse.
People stop short of following Christ because they fear the unknown. Lev Tolstoy shared an account from a friend:
A doctor, a psychiatrist, told me how one summer day when he left the asylum the lunatics accompanied him to the street door. “Come for a walk in town with me,” the doctor suggested to them. The lunatics agreed, and a small band followed him. But the further they walked down the street where healthy people moved freely about, the more timid they became, and pressed closer and closer to him, making it hard for !him to walk. Before long they began to beg the doctor to take them back to the asylum, to their meaningless but customary way of life, to their keepers, to blows, strait jackets, and solitary cells.
This is how men of today huddle in terror and draw back to their irrational manner of life, their factories, law courts, prisons, executions, and wars, when Christ calls them to liberty, to the free and sensible life of the coming age.
To shrink back from following Christ because we do not know where he will take us, Lev Tolstoy said, is as logical as an explorer refusing to enter new territory for lack of a detailed map.
A Cup Already Full
People do not walk with Christ because they think they are already “Christian” and know all about the Gospel. Lev wrote:
Even in these days when the Gospel has penetrated the darkest corners, Christ’s teaching is not understood in its true, simple, and direct sense. This would be inexplicable if there were not several causes to account for it.
One of these causes is that believers and unbelievers alike are firmly persuaded that they have understood Christ’s teaching a long time, that they understand it so completely, beyond doubt, and conclusively that it can have no other significnace than the one they have given it. They believe this because their false interpretations and misunderstandings of the Gospel have been around for such a long time. Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup that is already full.
“We all sense the great difference between how things are and how they ought to be,” Lev Tolstoy wrote, “but everything is set up to keep things going the way they do.” Society operates on a great law of inertia. People keep doing what is wrong even though they know it is wrong, because they all believe change would bring trouble. That is why ordinary people, when they hear Christ’s words, think not how to obey them but how to get around them.
To portray the “social inertia” he saw, Lev Tolstoy described a group of soldiers on a train from Moscow to Ryazan.
A nobleman had decided to cut down a patch of woods, but his peasants refused to help him. Their crops had failed and they were starving. On top of that it was fall and they depended on this patch of woods for their winter’s heating supply. The nobleman, with high connections in St. Petersburg, had called for troops. Now they came--and Lev Tolstoy happened to meet their train at the Tula station. He wrote:
The train I saw on the 9th of September going with soldiers, guns, cartridges, and rods, to confirm the rich landowner’s possession of the woods he had taken from the starving peasants (the woods they needed badly and he did not need at all) was striking proof of how men can do things directly opposed to their principles and their conscience without perceiving it.
The special train consisted of one first-class car for the governor, the officials, and officers, and several luggage cars crammed full of soldiers. The latter, smart young fellows in their clean new uniforms, stood about in groups or sat swinging their legs in the wide open doorways of the luggage cars. Some were smoking, nudging each other, joking, grinning, and laughing. Others were munching sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks with an air of dignity. Some of them ran along the platform to drink water from a tub, and when they met the officers they slackened their pace, made their stupid gesture of salutation, raising their hands to their heads with serious faces as though they were doing something of the greatest importance. They kept their eyes on them till they had passed, then set off running still! more merrily, stamping their heels on the platform, laughing and chattering after the manner of healthy, good-natured young fellows, travelling in lively company.
They were going to assist at the murder of their fathers or grandfathers just as if going on a party of pleasure, or at any rate on some quite ordinary business.
At the same time Lev Tolstoy observed the soldiers, he saw their authorities:
The governor sat at a table eating something while he chatted tranquilly about the weather with some acquaintances he had met, and on all sides officers bustling noisily about in red uniforms trimmed with gold. One sat finishing his bottle of beer. Another stood at the buffet eating a cake and brushing the crumbs off his uniform before he threw his money down with a self-confident air. Another sauntered before the carriages of our train, staring at the faces of the women.
All these men on their way to murder or to torture the famishing and defenseless ones who provide them their sustenance had the air of men who knew very well that they were doing their duty, and some were even proud, they “gloried” in their work.
How can this be?
All these people are within half an hour of reaching the place where, in order to provide a wealthy young man with three thousand rubles stolen from a whole community of famishing peasants, they may be forced to commit the most horrible acts one can conceive, to murder or torture innocent people, their brothers. And they see the place and time approaching with untroubled serenity.
How can this be?
I know all these men. If I don’t know them personally, I know their characters pretty nearly, their past, and their way of thinking. They certainly all have mothers, some of them wives and children. They are certainly for the most part good, kind, even tender-hearted fellows, who hate every sort of cruelty, not to speak of murder. Many of them would not kill or hurt an animal. Moreover they are all professed Christians and regard violence directed against the defenseless as base and disgraceful.
Lev Tolstoy felt deeply the tragedy of well-meaning people caught in wrong situations not of their own making. But he also recognised that everyone, finally, is responsible for what he does:
A man cannot be placed against his will in a situation opposed to his conscience. . . . If you find yourself in such a position it is not because anyone has forced you into it, but because you wish it.
For this reason, if what you do disagrees with what you believe and your heart tells you, you must ask yourself--if you keep on doing it and justifying yourself--whether you are doing what you ought to do.
Multitudes do not walk with Christ simply because no one has made a start in doing so. Everyone waits on everyone else and thinking everything must be done together. About this, Lev wrote:
The idea is promoted that men should not walk on their own legs where they want and ought to go, but that a kind of floor under their feet will be moved somehow, so that on it they can reach where they ought to go without using their legs. For this reason all their efforts ought to be directed, not to going so far as their strength allows in the direction they ought to go, but to standing still and constructing such a floor. . . .
Men in their present condition are like a swarm of bees hanging in a cluster from a branch. The position of bees on the branch is temporary, and must inevitably be changed. They must start off and find themselves a habitation. Every one of the bees knows this, and desires to change her own and the others’ position, but no one of them can do it until the rest of them do it. They cannot all start o!ff at once, because one hangs on to another and hinders her from separating from the swarm. Therefore they just continue to hang.
It would seem that the bees could never escape from their position, just as it seems that worldly men, caught in the toils of their wrong conception of life, can never escape. And there would be no escape for the bees, if every one of them was not a living, separate creature, endowed with wings of its own. Similarly there would be no escape for men, if every one of us were not a living being capable of seeing life like Christ saw it.
If no bee tried to fly, no others would stir themselves, and the swarm would never move. In the same way if no man tried (without waiting for other people) to live like Christ told us to live, humanity would never change. But only let one bee spread her wings, start off, and fly away, and after her another, and another, and the clinging, inert cluster becomes a freely flying swarm of bees. In the same way, let one man look at life as Christ taught him to see it, and after him let another and another do the same, and the spell of wickedness upon them will be broken.
Men seem to think that to set the whole world free like this takes too long and they must find some other way to set everyone free at once. That is as if the bees who wanted to fly away would think it took too long to wait for all the swarm to start one by one, and as if they thought they had to find some way for every bee to spread her wings at the same time and fly at once to where the whole swarm wanted to go. But that is not possible. Until a first, a second, a third, a hundredth bee spreads her wings and flies on its own accord, the swarm will not take off and find a new life. Till every man makes the teaching of Christ his own and begins to live in accord with it, there can be no solution of the problem of human life, and no discovery of a better way.
After discovering the Sermon on the Mount, Lev rejected violence. He came to see that mob action and coercion lead to violence, and that all three are wicked.
Good people mistreat one another simply because “everyone else does it,” he wrote. No one remembers who started it and no one takes it upon himself to stop it. “Social wickedness is like a wicker basket, all woven together. One cannot tell where anything starts or anything ends. We all know it is made of individual reeds but we cannot tell where they come from nor where they go.” Because of this, Lev concluded, societies as a whole become guilty for the violence and injustice they tolerate. “Even the bystanders are guilty for not saying anything.”
Wickedness, Lev came to see, is tightly bound to submission. Men, too cowardly to act on what they believe and know, find societies just as cowardly and irresponsible to submit to. They hope submission will make up for their lack of moral sincerity.
At the same time, authorities out to advance themselves at the expense of the helpless, wickedly appeal to religious sentiment to get what they want. “Submitting to us,” they tell the people, “is submitting to God. If we all work together (that is, if you do as we say) everyone will be the better for it.” But that is a lie. Submission itself can be the basest wickedness and sooner or later, someone must rise to challenge it.
“What drives us to the false conclusion that the existing order is unchanging and that we must therefore support it,” Lev asked, “when it is so obvious that the only thing making it unchanging is our continual support?” He fervently hoped that more individuals would soon dare to disobey false authorities to walk with Christ. “Finally conscience does speak and it must speak. Surely some soldier will be the first one to drop his gun and say, “I will not shoot!” Referring again to the soldiers on the way to Ryazan, he wrote:
It is true, they have all passed through that terrible, skilful education, elaborated through centuries, that kills all initiative in a man. They are so trained to mechanical obedience that at the word of command: “Fire! All the line! Fire!” and so on, their guns will rise of themselves and the habitual movements will be performed. But “Fire!” now does not mean shooting into the sand like in military school. It means firing on their broken-down, exploited fathers and brothers whom they see in the crowd, with women and children shouting and waving their arms. Here they are--one with his scanty beard and patched coat and plaited shoes of reed, just like the father left at home in Kazan or Tambov province, one with gray beard and bent back, leaning on a staff like the old grandfather, one a young fellow in boots and a red shirt, just as he was himself a year ago--he, the soldier who must fire upon him. There, too, a woman in reed shoes and panyova (kerchief), like his mother left at home.
Is it possible they must fire on them? No one knows just what each soldier will do at the last minute. . . .
Christ’s Greatest Opponent: The Church
The success of Christian churches, Lev Tolstoy believed, has not been in bringing Christ to the people. It has been in obscuring Christ:
“Strange as it may seem, churches have always been institutions not only alien in spirit to Christ’s teaching, but even directly antagonistic to it. . . . With good reason have all or almost all so-called sects of Christians recognised the church5 as the scarlet woman foretold in the Apocalypse. With good reason is the history of the church the history of the greatest cruelties and horrors. . . .
Churches are not, as many people suppose, institutions with Christian principles as their basis that have just strayed somewhat from the correct path. As bodies asserting their own infallibility they are institutions opposed to Christianity. Such churches and Christianity not only have nothing in common. They represent two principles fundamentally opposed and antagonistic to one another. One represents pride, violence, self-assertion, stagnation and death, the other, meekness, penitence, humility, progress, and life.
Proud churches that have become Christ’s enemies call the friends of Christ heretics. Lev wrote:
Strange as it may seem to us who have been brought up in the erroneous view of the Church as a Christian institution, and in contempt for heresy, the fact remains that only in what was called heresy has any true movement, that is, true Christianity, existed. And that only as long as those movements did not petrify into the fixed forms of a church as well.
Heresy is the obverse side of the Church. Wherever there is a church, there must be the conception of heresy. A church is a body of men who assert that they are in possession of infallible truth. Heresy is the opinion of the men who do not admit the infallibility of the church’s truth.
Heresy makes its appearance in the church. It is the effort to break through its petrified authority. All striving after a living understanding of Christ’s teaching has been done by heretics. . . . It could not be otherwise.
Not only do churches call true believers heretics. They promote heresy (the heresy of division) themselves. Lev wrote:
While believers were agreed among themselves and the body was one, it had no need to declare itself a church. It was only when believers split into opposing parties, renouncing one another, that it seemed necessary to each party to confirm their own truth by ascribing to themselves infallibility. The conception of one church only arose when there were two sides divided and disputing, who each called the other side heresy, and recognised their own side only as the infallible church.
Not only have churches never bound men together. They have always been one of the principal causes of division between men--of their hatred for one another, of wars, battles, inquisitions, massacres of St. Bartholomew, and so on. And certainly, churches have never served as mediators between men and God. Such mediation is not wanted, and was forbidden by Christ who revealed his teaching directly to every man.
Not the least of the church’s wiles against the Gospel is its maintenance of un-Christ-like traditions. Lev Tolstoy wrote:
Far from revealing Christ, churches obscure him from the sight of man by setting up dead forms in his place. . . . To expect to know what Christ taught by looking at churches who only keep outward forms of Christianity is like expecting a deaf man to know how music sounds from watching the musicians’ movements.”
The Church’s Greatest Opponent: Christ
The Gospel, if left to itself, will undo the church. Lev wrote:
A man has only to buy a Gospel for three kopeks and read its plain words to be thoroughly convinced that the church leaders who call themselves teachers in opposition to Christ’s commands, and dispute among themselves, constitute no kind of authority, and that what the churchmen teach us is not Christianity.
Let the church stop its work of hypnotising the masses and deceiving children, even for the briefest interval of time, and men would begin to understand Christ’s teaching. But this understanding will be the end of the churches and all their influence. For this reason they will not for an instant relax their zeal in hypnotising grown-up people and deceiving children. This is their work: To keep themselves going (and this they believe their religious duty) the churches continue to force misconceptions of Christ’s teaching on men, and do what they can to prevent the majority of people from understanding what he said.
The churches cannot but persecute and refuse to recognise all true understanding of Christ’s words. They try to hide this fact, but in vain, for every step forward in following Christ is a step toward their destruction.
An Incomplete Understanding
“The less men understand what they are talking about,” wrote Lev Tolstoy, “the more confidently and unhesitatingly they pass judgment on it.”
Everything we understand from the Bible, he believed, is partial. But only true followers of Christ will admit that:
The follower of Christ does not claim for himself nor for any other that he understands Christ’s teaching fully and fulfils all of it. Still less does he claim it for any group of people.
To whatever degree of understanding and perfection the follower of Christ may have come, he always feels his imperfection and strives toward understanding and living out the teachings more completely. To claim that one (or the group to which one belongs) is in possession of the perfect understanding and fulfilment of Christ’s word, is to renounce the spirit of Christ himself.
The easiest way to get around Christ, Lev Tolstoy believed, is to make claims of antiquity and authority. But much authority (for as ancient and well established as it may be) is totally false. He illustrated this with the story of a Molokan boy before a military tribunal:
At a table before the zertzal--the symbol of the Tsar’s authority--in the seat of honour under the life-size portrait of the Tsar, sit dignified old officials, wearing decorations, conversing freely and easily, writing notes, summoning men before them, and giving orders. Here, wearing a cross on his breast, near them, is a prosperous-looking old priest in a silken cassock, with long gray hair flowing onto his cope, before a lectern adorned with a cross and a Gospel bound in gold.
They summon Ivan Petrov. A young man comes in, wretchedly, shabbily dressed, and in terror, the muscles of his face working, his eyes bright and restless, and in a broken voice, hardly above a whisper, he says: “I . . . by Christ’s law . . . as a Christian . . . I cannot.”
“What is he muttering? asks the president, frowning impatiently and raising his eyes from his book to listen.
“Speak louder,” the colonel with shining epaulets shouts at him.
“I . . . I as a Christian . . . ” And at last it appears that the young man refuses to serve in the army because he is a Christian.
“Don’t talk nonsense. Stand to be measured. Doctor, may I trouble you to measure him. He is alright?
“Reverend father, administer the oath to him.”
No one is the least disturbed by what the poor scared young man is muttering. They do not even pay attention to it. “They all mutter something, but we’ve no time to listen to it. We have to enrol so many.”
The recruit tries to say something still: “It’s opposed to the law of Christ.”
“Go along! Go along! We know without your help what is opposed to the law and what’s not, and you soothe his mind, reverend father, soothe him. Next: Vasily Nikitin.”
And they lead the trembling youth away. And it does not strike anyone--the guards, or Vasily Nikitin whom they are bringing in, or any of the spectators of this scene, that these inarticulate words of the young man, suppressed at once by the authorities, contain the truth, and that the loud, solemnly uttered sentences of the calm, self-confident official and the priest are a lie and a deception.
No matter how cruelly false authorities oppress it, Lev Tolstoy believed that as long as some people walked with Christ, conviction for truth would survive. He wrote:
They may subject the follower of Christ to all manner of external violence. They may deprive him of bodily freedom. But they cannot force him, by any danger or threat of harm, to perform an act against his conscience.
They cannot compel him to do this, because the deprivations and sufferings which form such a powerful weapon against other men have not the least power to compel him.
Deprivations and sufferings take from other men the happiness for which they live. But far from disturbing the happiness of the follower of Christ, they only make him more conscious of doing God’s will. . . . Therefore the Christian, who is subject only to inner divine law, not only refuses to obey external laws when they disagree with the divine law of love (as is usually the case with state obligations), he cannot even recognise the duty of obedience to anyone or anything whatever. He cannot recognise the duty of what others call “allegiance.”
For the follower of Christ the oath of allegiance to any government whatever--the act on which men build political states--is to renounce Christ. Everyone renounces Christ who promises unconditional, ongoing, obedience to human laws, made or to be made. The follower of Christ, in contrast, commits himself only to obeying in every circumstance the divine law of love within him.
The follower of Christ not only stops short of promising allegiance to any other man (because he does not know what that allegiance will require of him), he cannot promise to do anything definite at a certain time, or to abstain from doing anything for a certain time. He never knows in advance what Christ’s law of love may suddenly require of him. To obey that high law is the purpose of his being! alive. If he would make any other unconditional commitment to the laws of men he would plainly show that the law in his heart is not the only one in his life.
For a follower of Christ to promise obedience to men, or the laws of men, is just as though a workman bound to one employer would promise to carry out the orders of others. One cannot serve two masters.
The follower of Christ is independent of human authority, because he acknowledges God’s authority alone. His law, revealed by Christ, he recognises in himself, and voluntarily obeys it.
Patriotism, Lev Tolstoy believed, is a terrible farce. It moves men to loyalty to something that does not exist. He wrote:
In countries that have a state religion, they teach children the senseless blasphemies of church catechisms, together with the duty to obey their superiors. In republican states they teach them the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pretended obedience to governing authorities.
Even if we must suffer, it is better to get sent into exile or prison for the cause of common sense and right than to suffer for defending such foolishness and wrong. It is better to run the risk of banishment, prison, or execution, than to choose to live in bondage to the wicked. It is better to suffer for right than to be destroyed by victorious enemies, and stupidly tortured and killed by them in fighting for a cannon, a piece of land of no use to anyone, or for a senseless rag called a banner.
Signs of Spring
Lev Tolstoy’s fascination with coming to life from death (as portrayed in his book Voskresenye, “Resurrection) involved far more than what most Russians thought. He wrote:
There are times when a higher truth, revealed at first to a few persons, gradually gains ground until it has taken hold of such a number of persons that the old public opinion, founded on a lesser order of truth, begins to totter and the new is ready to take its place, but has not yet been firmly established. It is like the spring, this time of transition, when the old order of ideas has not quite broken up !and the new has not quite gained a footing. Men begin to criticize their actions in the light of the new truth, but in the meantime they continue to follow, through inertia and tradition, what once represented the highest point of their understanding.
These men are in an abnormal, wavering condition, feeling the necessity of following the new ideal, yet not bold enough to break with the old established traditions.
Such is the attitude in regard to truth, Lev Tolstoy believed, of most who profess to believe in Christ. But he felt certain that great changes, either for better or worse, would soon come:
No one can stand still when the earth is shaking under his feet. If we do not go forward we must go back. And strange and terrible to say, the cultivated men of our time, the leaders of thought, are in reality drawing society back with their subtle reasonings--not back to paganism even, but to a state of primitive barbarism.
Most people simply have not dared to follow Christ. “Everyone waits on everyone else,” Lev Tolstoy wrote, “but let us accept the truth that surrounds us on every side and forces itself upon us. Let us stop lying and pretending that we do not see this truth and we would find at once that hundreds, thousands, millions of men are in the same position as we--that they see the truth we do, and dread as we do to stand alone in recognising it. Like us they are only waiting for others to recognise it too! !
Only let men cease to be hypocrites and we would see at once that what holds us in bondage, and is represented to us as something stable, necessary, and ordained of God, is already tottering and is only propped up by the falsehood of hypocrisy with which we, and others like us, support it.”
We fear to let go of what we have because we do not know what we will get. We fear to walk with Christ because we do not know where he will take us. But regarding fear, Lev Tolstoy wrote:
If Columbus had thought like this he would never have weighed anchor. It was madness to set out to sea, not knowing the route, on an ocean no one had sailed, to reach a land whose existance was doubtful. But by this madness he discovered a new world.”
The Seed Was The Word
After several hours spent at Yasnaya Polyana, Ivan and Fyodor felt like their heads were spinning. Lev Tolstoy returned with the mushrooms he had picked and they ate together before the boys set out, in evening sunlight streaming through the poplar trees, for Tula. They questioned some of what they had heard and read, but Ivan wrote:
After our conversation with Lev Tolstoy I became more firmly convinced that the salvation of the world is in the simple teaching of Christ--not in parts of his teaching but in his teaching as a whole. I became convinced that salvation is not in the highest and most clever interpretation of what Christ said, but in his teachings themselves. I became convinced that the wonderful content of the Gospel will be understood not by philosophers but as it is revealed to humble childlike hearts by the Holy Spirit--and it struck me as never before that the teachings of Christ cannot be separated from the example of his life as a man.
Thanks to the teaching of Christ as it came through Lev Tolstoy, Russia’s “underground” church became stronger than ever. Communities took shape in out-of-the-way places. Untold numbers began to eat and dress simply, and to work in harmony with God’s creation. The Spirit Christians in particular (both Molokans and Dukhobors), took seriously his call to walk in the way of peace. With Christ, and those among them who got baptised in his name (the Evangelical Christians), they dared withstand every false authority--of church, government, or society--to claim the promise of . . .
1 This name means “lit up clearing in the woods.”
2 Sofya also got legal rights to all the books he had written and began ambitious publishing projects, using the money to maintain a lifestyle Lev no longer supported.
3 Quoted by Lev Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You
4 All citations in this chapter from The Kingdom of God is Within You
5 He used the term “the church” in its Russian-Byzantine sense of referring to the official national religion. Old Believers, Spirit Christians, and other “sects” were not considered part of “the church.”