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    How to Resist Evil

    The question of nonresistance to evil requires an answer from every thinking person.

    By Leo Tolstoy

    February 2, 2022
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    • Al Owski

      Years ago, I read “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” at a time when I was becoming disillusioned with the church and its uncritical acceptance of state violence. I read Tolstoy’s words about the plain, simple, and direct teachings of Christ and realized I had not ever heard one sermon preached from Matthew 5. It didn’t take long before the flags on the platform and the military color guard in the church on national holidays became abhorrent to me. I began to see the church so intertwined with empire, she could not stand apart and be a prophetic witness. But now I am on the outside looking in.

    From The Gospel in Tolstoy


    Tolstoy, a military veteran who had seen action as a Russian officer fighting in the Caucasus, later became an ardent advocate of nonviolent resistance. In this selection from an essay that influenced Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., he gives his reasons: the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth.

    People are astonished that every year there are sixty thousand cases of suicide in Europe, and those only the recognized and recorded cases – and excluding Russia and Turkey; but one ought rather to be surprised that there are so few. Every person of the present day, if we go deep enough into the contradiction between his conscience and his life, is in a state of despair.

    Not to speak of all the other contradictions between modern life and the conscience, the permanently armed condition of Europe together with its profession of Christianity is alone enough to drive anyone to despair, to doubt of the sanity of humankind, and to terminate an existence in this senseless and brutal world. This contradiction, which is a quintessence of all the other contradictions, is so terrible that to live and to take part in it is only possible if one does not think of it – if one is able to forget it.

    What! All of us, Christians, not only profess to love one another, but do actually live one common life; we whose social existence beats with one common pulse – we aid one another, learn from one another, draw ever closer to one another to our mutual happiness, and find in this closeness the whole meaning of life! – and tomorrow some crazy ruler will say some stupidity, and another will answer in the same spirit, and then I must go expose myself to being murdered, and murder people – who have done me no harm – and more than that, whom I love. And this is not a remote contingency, but the very thing we are all preparing for, which is not only probable, but an inevitable certainty.

    To recognize this clearly is enough to drive people out of their senses or to make them shoot themselves. And this is just what does happen, and especially often in the military. People need only come to themselves for an instant to be impelled inevitably to such an end.

    huge wave washing over a lighthouse

    Photograph by Marcus Woodbridge

    And this is the only explanation of the dreadful intensity with which people of modern times strive to stupefy themselves, with spirits, tobacco, opium, cards, reading newspapers, traveling, and all kinds of spectacles and amusements. These pursuits are followed up as an important, serious business. And indeed they are a serious business. If there were no external means of dulling their sensibilities, half of humankind would shoot themselves without delay, for to live in opposition to one’s reason is the most intolerable condition. And that is the condition of all people of the present day. All people of the modern world exist in a state of continual and flagrant antagonism between their conscience and their way of life. This antagonism is apparent in economic as well as political life. But most striking of all is the contradiction between the Christian law of the brotherhood of all people existing in the conscience and the necessity under which all men are placed by compulsory military service of being prepared for hatred and murder – of being at the same time a Christian and a gladiator.

    Just as in a wicker basket all the ends are so hidden away that it is hard to find them, in the state organization the responsibility for the crimes committed is so hidden away that people will commit the most atrocious acts without seeing their responsibility for them.

    In ancient times tyrants got credit for the crimes they committed, but in our day the most atrocious infamies, inconceivable under the Neros, are perpetrated and no one gets blamed for them.

    One set of people have suggested, another set have proposed, a third have reported, a fourth have decided, a fifth have confirmed, a sixth have given the order, and a seventh set have carried it out. They hang, they flog to death women, old men, and innocent people, as was done recently among us in Russia at the Yuzovsky factory, and is always being done everywhere in Europe and America in the struggle with the anarchists and all other rebels against the existing order; they shoot and hang people by hundreds and thousands, or massacre millions in war, or break their hearts in solitary confinement, and ruin their souls in the corruption of a soldier’s life, and no one is responsible.

    At the bottom of the social scale soldiers, armed with guns, pistols, and sabers, injure and murder people, and compel people through these means to enter the army, and are absolutely convinced that the responsibility for the actions rests solely on the officers who command them.

    At the top of the scale – the tsars, presidents, ministers, and parliaments decree these tortures and murders and military conscription, and are fully convinced that since they are either placed in authority by the grace of God or by the society they govern, which demands such decrees from them, they cannot be held responsible.

    Between these two extremes are the intermediary personages who superintend the murders and other acts of violence, and are fully convinced that the responsibility is taken off their shoulders partly by their superiors who have given the order, partly by the fact that such orders are expected from them by all who are at the bottom of the scale.

    The authority who gives the orders and the authority who executes them at the two extreme ends of the state organization, meet together like the two ends of a ring; they support and rest on one another and enclose all that lies within the ring.

    Without the conviction that there is a person or persons who will take the whole responsibility of his acts, not one soldier would ever lift a hand to commit a murder or other deed of violence. Without the conviction that it is expected by the whole people, not a single king, emperor, president, or parliament would order murders or acts of violence. Without the conviction that there are persons of a higher grade who will take the responsibility, and people of a lower grade who require such acts for their welfare, not one of the intermediate class would superintend such deeds.

    Christianity is at once a doctrine of truth and a prophecy. Eighteen centuries ago Christianity revealed to people the truth in which they ought to live, and at the same time foretold what human life would become if they would not live by it but continued to live by their previous principles, and what it would become if they accepted the Christian doctrine and carried it out in their lives.

    Laying down in the Sermon on the Mount the principles by which to guide people’s lives, Christ said:

    Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:24–27)

    And now after eighteen centuries the prophecy has been fulfilled. Not having followed Christ’s teaching generally and its application to social life in nonresistance to evil, we have been brought in spite of ourselves to the inevitable destruction foretold by Christ for those who do not fulfill his teaching.

    People often think the question of nonresistance to evil by force is a theoretical one, which can be neglected. Yet this question is presented by life itself to all people, and calls for some answer from every thinking person. Ever since Christianity has been outwardly professed, this question is for people in their social life like the question which presents itself to a traveler when the road on which he has been journeying divides into two branches. He must go on and he cannot say: I will not think about it, but will go on just as I did before. There was one road, now there are two, and he must make his choice.

    In the same way, since Christ’s teaching has been known by people they cannot say: I will live as before and will not decide the question of resistance or nonresistance to evil by force. At every new struggle that arises one must inevitably decide; am I, or am I not, to resist by force what I regard as evil.


    From The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), as quoted in The Gospel in Tolstoy.

    Contributed By painting of Leo Tolstoy Leo Tolstoy

    Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) has been hailed by other literary giants as one of the world’s greatest writers. He is best known for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

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