Monday, April 13, 2009

Tolstoy on Non-Violence

I am reading The Kingdom of God Is Within You, in which Leo Tolstoy argues that absolute non-violent resistance is the duty of the Christian. (Tolstoy had a tremendous influence on Ghandi, who in turn influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.) Tolstoy's key passage is Luke 6:27–31:

But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you. (NET)

I have been involved in various conversations about non-violent resistance, and I argue that the command is not absolute. I think that Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek when we are assaulted, but he did not command us to do so when others are assaulted. I typically say, "Turning the other cheek when you are assaulted is non-violent resistance. Turning the other cheek when someone else is assaulted is injustice." God calls us to be concerned about the plight of the poor and helpless. When they are assaulted, we are to rise to their defense.

I was pleased to see that Tolstoy addresses this argument head on in his book. He disagrees with me for the following reasons:
  1. "If every man has the right to have recourse to force in face of a danger threatening another, the question of the use of force is reduced to a question of the definition of danger to another." He cites examples of burning witches because they were a "danger to society."

  2. If Christ meant to limit his command to "not resist an evil person," he would have qualified his statement. He didn't, so we should take it as absolute.

  3. "Apologies for violence used against one's neighbor in defense of another neighbor from greater violence are always untrustworthy, because when force is used against one who has not yet carried out his evil intent, I can never know which would be greater--the evil of my act of violence or the act I want to prevent." He cites the example of shooting a ruffian who is harassing a young girl. Do we really know what the ruffian had planned? Could our response have been worse than the evil he had planned?

So Tolstoy says, (1) we will pervert what it means to be a "danger to others," (2) Christ didn't qualify his command, and (3) we don't know the future, but we have clear instructions about our behavior.

Are you convinced by Tolstoy, or do you see a difference between forgiving those who hurt us and forgiving those who hurt others?

No comments: