The Kingdom of God Is Within You

Leo Tolstoy

Book cover

Three stars means “liked it,” and I did like it, but this book was definitely a disappointment. I had been tracing nonviolent Christian thought back through a few works, from Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” through King’s “Strength to Love” and Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj,” and I was excited to read the thoughts of the great Leo Tolstoy, who had been a direct inspiration for Gandhi.

Unfortunately, KG was a dry and mostly uninspiring work, with none of the power that graces the writing of Yoder or King. It is essentially Tolstoy’s articulation of why nonviolent resistance should be paramount for Christians. Yet Tolstoy, despite his obvious approval of the teachings of Jesus, comes across as quite non-religious–a doubting Thomas Jefferson who would strike all reference to Jesus’ divinity, if he could, and consider him only as “a great teacher.” This, I think, is the drain that robs the book of power.

To argue for Jesus’ teaching without recognizing Jesus’ divinity, Tolstoy is forced into the awkward position of arguing that the way of nonviolent resistance is a rational optimum that should be adopted by any thinking man, Christian or otherwise, because of its obvious superiority to the pro-violence logic of the world-as-it-is. The problem is, there is not much empirical evidence supporting this (and particularly there was not at the time Tolstoy was writing, pre-Gandhi and pre-King). I think that adopting non-violence must require a great deal of religious faith that it is truly the right thing to do and consistent with the Kingdom of God (I say probably because I cannot claim to have adopted it myself, given that I still pay taxes to the U.S. government). King (along with Jesus, I’d say) is more rhetorically powerful because he faces head-on the fact that being non-violent is very likely to cause you immense hardship and, if you achieve any success in it, is very likely to lead to your death. Tolstoy loses my trust by trying to deny this reality.

This brings me to another criticism of Tolstoy’s book, which is that it is completely individualist. He is highly critical of all Christian churches (and I would imagine all organized religion), and focuses his entire argument on what an individual ought to do on the strength of his own conviction. This approach has merit in that it denies excuses based on collective action problems, but again it is weak because it does not take seriously the extreme hardship involved in adopting a way of life that is in direct opposition to the logic of the world. I can only see this being successful in the context of a strong community of believers supporting one another and coming together for regular spiritual renewal.

I also see Tolstoy’s single-minded focus on individualistic nonviolence as a narcissistic vision of Christianity, focused excessively on essentially legalistic individual purification. By focusing so strongly on this one aspect of Christianity, he neglects other parts, and gives the impression that if only you’ll refuse to serve in the army and refuse to pay your taxes, you’ve checked the box and are a certifiably successful Christian–no matter how you live your life in any other way. I’m not sure that Tolstoy meant it to come across this way, but it does.

Tolstoy’s arguments in general come across as a bit dated. Writing in Russia at the end of the 19th century, he talks at length of the horrors of forced conscription, blatant exploitation and regular physical torture of peasants. I do not want to argue at all that modern society has solved the problems that are at the root of Tolstoy’s critique, but it does a much better job of papering them over or making them appear less egregious. If Tolstoy were writing today, I think his argument would have to look much different. Perhaps this is part of why I find King much more compelling than him.

At the end of the day, though, I feel mostly convinced by the argument (advanced by Tolstoy as well as others such as Jacques Ellul) that Christianity is fundamentally anarchistic. This does not mean that Christianity actively works toward the abolition of governments, but rather that it is simply inconsistent with pre-committing to allegiance to any earthly power–even, I would emphasize, if this power were a nominally Christian theocracy. It’s like Orwell’s rules for writing: The state may have rules that seem broadly consistent with Christianity, but one must always be prepared to “break any of these rules before doing something barbarous.”

(Note that my feeling convinced by this argument is not the same as my conforming my life to it. The fact remains that I am simultaneously quite horrified at the idea of not paying my taxes.)

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars