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

Where do you stand? Is violence ever admissible? Is the law of love too extreme? Do you agree with Tolstoy’s biblical interpretation?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
Affiliate Links:
Powell’s Indie BoundAmazon



6 Comments Leave a comment
  • Robb

    How would a Christian anarchist non-violently oppose the Holocaust?

    • Donovan Richards

      Good question, Robb. Truthfully a proponent of non-violent disobedience would oppose the Holocaust by making the biggest fuss possible about the injustice occurring and then willingly accept whatever consequence of such disobedience.

      I know many Christians found the Nazis to be an exception to the rule of love, but to remain true to the philosophy, one must not fight violence with violence.

      Do you find such a response unsettling?

    • Robb

      I am very rarely a proponent of following principles with no exceptions. It seems like Christian anarchism would cling to their principles of non-violence even when through “inaction”, the innocent would be harmed.

      Perhaps it is a straw man, but if a Christian anarchist saw a woman in the process of being attacked/raped/murdered on the street, would he take the time to resort to non-violent means (likely ineffective in such a rapidly developing scenario) or would he do anything in his power to react to protect the innocent, including resorting to violence?

      To me it seems the same if a Christian anarchist observed the gas chambers he would be compelled to do anything in his means to stop the violence against the innocent and to stop short in any way would make him complicit in their murder.

    • Robb

      I think I also sympathize more with Bonhoeffer who obviously was very favorable to non-violent means, yet he wrestled deeply with whether those means were always justified and if in some extreme circumstances it would be better to violate those principles. In the end, of course, he decided to try to assassinate Hitler taking full responsibility for his guilt as a murderer of one man but believing it far better than the murder of millions.

      To me, Bonhoeffer's struggle with one's principles is more noble than holding fast to an ideal with no exceptions and not thinking fully through all the consequences.

    • Donovan Richards

      Robb, I think at this point in the discussion, it is important to separate my views from a staunch non-violence advocate.

      First, a person in favor of non-violence in your “rape case” would use any means necessary outside of violence to stop the act. Whether s/he is successful in the attempt isn't as important as maintaining principles.

      It's the same principle as the famous Utilitarian objection which tells the story of a person who meets a tribe chieftain about to execute 20 people. As a gift to you, the chieftain suggests that you can kill one person instead of him killing 20.

      What would be your response? Many ethicists argue against killing one person even if it means the death of 20 because you are only in control of your own actions. To you, the question is kill one person or none at all.

      Likewise in the “rape case”, you are not responsible for another person's perverse actions; you ought to make as big a fuss about the injustice as possible, but the success or failure of your attempt does not equal partaking in the crime.

      Second, I agree completely with your point of not adhering to principles with no exceptions. We live in a gray world and anyone can conjure a scenario against a universal ethical statement.

      We can split the popular ethical models into three categories: deontological, virtue-based, and consequentialism.

      Deontology focuses on principle-based living. If you can develop the right rules, you will be ethical. Virtue-based ethics centers on the character. If you foster the proper character traits, you will be ethical. And finally, consequentialism outlines the consequences of an action, the ends justify the means.

      If you follow any one of those positions, you'll run into troubling scenarios. Yet, if you take all three of them in unity, you focus on principles, character, and outcomes.

      Thus, while I really like the principles of non-violent resistance, these principles must be situated within a worldview that understands the importance of principles, character, and outcomes.

    • Robb

      Everything you said is very good.

      The one quibble I would say is to me the example of the street attack is vastly different from the Utilitarian objection. With the former, it is a question of violence against a person who has already demonstrated violence against an innocent in order to prevent further violence against the innocent.

      With the latter, it is a question of committing violence against the innocent or none at all.

Leave a Comment