Posted by: CS | January 28, 2013

Jesus, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Guns

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

… do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Matthew 5-7 (New International Version)

Leo Tolstoy held that government, of its nature, is always corrupt and oppressive, using its power to tax, conscript, fine or otherwise punish to impel citizens to participate in actions totally at odds with the principles of decency and honor that the state claims to uphold.

Tolstoy illustrated his argument by reference to the hypocrisy of the Russian state, headed by a supposedly Christian autocrat, deploying with the full support of the Christian Orthodox Church millions of men and untold wealth in the murderous pursuit of imperial aggrandizement.

But, Tolstoy argued, the evil of state tyranny can be defeated by the practical application of the Sermon on the Mount.

What importance, one might think, can one attach to such an incident as some dozens of crazy fellows, as people will call them, refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the government, refusing to pay taxes, to take part in law proceedings or in military service?
These people are punished and exiled to a distance, and life goes on in its old way. One might think there was no importance in such incidents; but yet, it is just those incidents, more than anything else, that will undermine the power of the state and prepare the way for the freedom of men. 

And the power of the Russian state was undermined, if due less to the passive resistance of Tolstoyans than to the onslaught of the German Army. But its collapse did not “prepare the way for the freedom of men,” it led rather to an even more absolute autocracy, headed by men who despised Christianity, held Tolstoy’s ideas in contempt and proceeded readily to the slaughter of tens of millions of their own citizens.

Which leads one to reflect on the  beliefs of Mohandas Gandhi, whose nationalist campaign of non-violent opposition to British Imperial rule in India was directly inspired by Tolstoy‘s understanding of of Christianity. Unlike Tolstoy’s Russian followers, who had little impact on Russia’s Tzarist regime and were mostly shot or imprisoned by the Soviet state, the efforts of Gandhi and his followers culminated in the attainment of Indian independence under a popularly elected goverment, which raises two questions:

What was the difference between British India and Communist Russia that accounted for the vastly different results achieved in the two countries by those committed to non-violent opposition to an oppressive state? And what moral and practical lessons should one draw from this difference in outcome?

One difference, it would seem, is that Christian principles are more likely to prevail if exercised against oppression by those who are at least nominally Christian and who, however degraded their Christianity, at least understand the point being made by their opponents. And indeed, during the interwar years, as the British establishment formed the intention to quit India, the British were remarkably susceptible to moral arguments against war and imperialism, desperate as all political parties were to avoid a repetition of the carnage of World War 1. In contrast, the Russian revolution was led by psychopaths with an utter loathing of the old Russian regime and a ruthless determination to stamp out any opposition to their will.

That circumstances alter cases, and that moral suasion does not trump all evil was firmly believed by Gandhi, who was by no means unconditionally committed to pacifism. During the Boer War, Gandhi served the British forces in the only capacity that an Indian in South Africa could, as a member of an ambulance unit.  And during the First World War Gandhi encouraged Indians to volunteer for military service, contending that by helping Britain, India would come to be seen as a powerful  independent nation and an ally of England’s rather than a subordinate entity.

Confirming that his adherence to Tolstoy’s Christian ideals was purely tactical, Gandhi wrote:

I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.

Which leaves one to wonder how Jesus and Tolstoy would have viewed the events of the Twentieth Century, for the correct understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is not altogether clear. To say “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” is by no means the same as saying “anyone who is angry with a Joseph Stalin, an Idi Amin or some other monster, will be subject to judgment.”

To show forbearance and love to ones brothers and sisters, or to members of ones community or tribe, must often if not always be the best policy since the kindness and generosity will surely be remembered and at some time reciprocated. But forbearance and love of a homicidal psychopath intent on one’s destruction seems not only different but, well, crazy.

Jesus it is true, went to his death deliberately, calmly and with forgiveness of those who had condemned him, which was entirely consistent with his teaching. Yet did he do so under a misapprehension? That is one interpretation of those heart-breaking words, cried in a loud voice in the agony of crucifixion: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

As for Tolstoy, who served valiantly with the Russian army during the Crimean war, who loved hunting, and who was both irascible and impulsive, it is hard to believe that faced with the monstrosity of the Soviet tyranny and Lenin’s ten thousand leather-jacketed Cheka intent on the extermination of all opposition he would not have contemplated resistance with an assault rifle.

To some, these speculations may seem sadly misguided, in which case I would be glad to know what they think.

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