The Law of Love and the Law of Violence by Leo Tolstoy; translated by Mary Koutouzov Tolstoy (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2010; originally published in 1948. 128 pp)
Leo Tolstoy is a late nineteenth century Russian novelist known best for War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In his youth, Tolstoy studied law at Kazan University. Tolstoy gained massive wealth from his fictional writing, and as a result, developed into a social reformer and Christian anarchist in his later years. Tolstoy died in 1910.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” represents the most influential document from my undergraduate years. Read in conjunction with an ethics class, King’s words resonated in ways I had previously never felt. Penning the words behind iron bars, King urged his disciples to stand against injustice through non-violent resistance. He claimed people ought to speak against immoral laws and perhaps even break those laws in order to illustrate injustice. But, he argued, people must break those laws nonviolently, and must also accept the consequences of the laws they’ve broken. To fight evil with evil is to lose the principles you fight for.
King’s principles of nonviolent resistance trace back to the famed Mahatma Gandhi. Even though Gandhi receives justified attention for his philosophies of non-violent civil disobedience, his views trace back to the writing of Leo Tolstoy. Similar to tracing modern guitar players to the nimble fingers of blues musician Lead Belly, I am intrigued to trace the roots of an idea to its source.
Christian Anarchy: Love Instead of Violence
With The Law of Love and the Law of Violence, Tolstoy promotes a society where love replaces violence. To be clear, Tolstoy views violence as an all-encompassing word. Violence certainly means bloodshed, but it also refers to any source of conflict occurring by force. Tolstoy observes a world specialized in violence:
“The mistake of all political doctrines, from the most conservative to the most advanced, which has brought men to their present lamentable condition, is the same: to keep men in society by the aid of violence so as to make them accept the present social organization and the rule of conduct that it imposes” (18).
For Tolstoy, no part of society escapes the rot of selfishness. Whether the Church, the marketplace, or government, society seeks violence to approve the way of life.
The law of violence has governed society for centuries, according to Tolstoy. Historically, humanity never ventures far from yet another war. Interestingly, Tolstoy points to the printing press as the foundation for a potentially pivotal change in society. He writes,
“In proportion as education has spread, as printing has replaced writing, the Scriptures have become more accessible. Men cannot help but perceive the striking contradiction between the order of existing things upheld by the Church, and the evangelistic doctrine that it acknowledges as being holy. Read and understood as it is, the Scriptures appear to be a frank and explicit denial of both the State and the Church” (26).
Finding accessibility to the written Word, the individual congregant uncovers alternative doctrines to the established Church. With the rise of Protestantism comes competing claims to the truth of Scripture. Because the Church no longer carries the exclusive right to biblical interpretation, the theological foundations for absolute love found in Scripture become known to the masses.
By properly understanding Scripture, Christians can challenge the status quo. Where violence surrounded Christian doctrine in the institution of the Church, the Gospel urges Christians to reconsider.
“The Christian doctrine, the real significance of which we are grasping more and more, teaches that man’s mission is to manifest ever better and better the Rule of all; and it is love that proves the presence of this Rule in us” (32).
Love: The Basis for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience
Tolstoy purports if love becomes the singular governing rule, the relationship with society must fundamentally change. No longer can we operate businesses under mendacious principles; no longer can we seek warfare as a mode of justice; no longer can we seek change in light of injustice by replacing violence with violence.
Therefore, a Christian guided by love seeks to right injustice through non-violent means. Recognizing the consequences of non-violent disobedience, a Christian will gladly accept the injustice of jail time for the sake of exposing violence in the system.
Does such an example work? It is hard to say. Jesus willingly accepted the injustice of the Cross and the gospel found completion in the resurrection. The work of Martin Luther King resonates deeply in the American psyche. Yet, many Christians adhere to the long-standing tradition of just war theory. As for me, I align with King, Gandhi, and Tolstoy. Fight violence with love and courageously accept the consequences. If you are interested in non-violent disobedience as an ethical stance, I suggest reading The Law of Love and the Law of Violence.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Share your thoughts below.