Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tolstoy's Kingdom of God

Late in life, Tolstoy wrote a number of non-fiction works having to do with spirituality and Christian morality. These books eventually got him excommunicated from the Orthodox Church (in 1901). Probably no single work sums up the beliefs that got him excommunicated better than The Kingdom of God is Within You (available online free, in several formats, here).

What are these radical beliefs? Tolstoy insisted on a literal interpretation of Jesus's moral teachings (the Sermon on the Mount, in particular), specifically Jesus's injunction against the use of violence even in the face of evil. Tolstoy believed that when Jesus said "resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV) he literally meant to practice love even against those who come at you with evil intent. This, of course, has far-reaching consequences; it means no military service, for one thing. Tolstoy was convinced that only through the practice of non-violence can the tide of violence in human affairs be ended.

Tolstoy at work in his study, by
Ilya Efimovich Repin (Илья́ Ефи́мович Ре́пин).
Mohandas Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Tolstoy's writings (he read The Kingdom of God is Within You when it came out in 1894 and again, in South African jails, in the early 1900s). Indeed, Gandhi listed Tolstoy's book, as well as John Ruskin's Unto This Last and the poet Shrimad Rajchandra (Raychandbhai), as the three most important influences in his life. When Gandhi opened an ashram in South Africa to house the families of imprisoned Indian workers, he named it Tolstoy Farm.

The Kingdom of God is Within You is Tolstoy's definitive statement of his understanding of Christian moral teachings. It is a shocking book, even today, for many Christians in that it paints the overwhelming majority of Christians (and Christian leaders) as hypocrites and perverters of God's word. It raises many interesting questions, such as: Who is the "better Christian," one who believes in the virgin birth (and Jesus's resurrection) but doesn't practice non-violence, or one who rejects the miraculous events surrounding Jesus but accepts his moral teachings without modification?

The Kingdom of God is Within You will stir an inner dialog in anyone who reads it. And on that basis alone, I recommend it.