[Guest Post] Theologian Thursday: Leo Tolstoy

I'm so excited for this week's Theologian Thursday, because it was put together by none other than my dear boyfriend, Curtis! As I've mentioned before, he just completed his Master's in Religion with an emphasis in Theology, so he's probably more qualified to write these posts than I am! He wrote his thesis about nonviolence and pacifism in the Wesleyan tradition, and is on a mission to make the Church of the Nazarene (and probably the whole church, I suppose) a peace church. Now, on to the good stuff!

 (image from here)
The path that led Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) towards his Christian pacifism and anarchism is certainly fascinating considering the life of pleasure afforded to him in his youth. He came from a family of nobility, but sadly his parents died while Tolstoy was young. He was raised by other members of his family, and attended Kazan University beginning in 1844. But Tolstoy did not seem cut out for the academic life and left school and returned to his hometown. Eventually, Tolstoy, along with his brother, joined the Russian army.

It was during his time of military service that Tolstoy took up writing, and the travels required of his army career exposed him to new experiences that would begin to influence his thinking. One of the more notable experiences is his witness to a public execution in Paris carried out by the state. Tolstoy later met exiled French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, which further shaped Tolstoy’s outlook on politics.

Tolstoy is, perhaps, most recognized for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I find him most fascinating for his theological and philosophical works. Although married with children, Tolstoy was increasingly drawn to ascetic moral writings. The ascetic spiritual path proclaims that holiness is achieved through self-denial. Many later pictures of Tolstoy show him wearing the clothing of peasants as a sign of opposing the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy. Biblically, Tolstoy focused on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. His views on nonviolence were founded upon Jesus’s encouragement of his disciples to turn the other cheek. Therefore, a true Christian would denounce violence and embody a pacifist lifestyle. This belief was also backed by Jesus’s Great Commandment to love God and neighbor. The state, as a body committed to the use of violence, therefore must also be renounced. Tolstoy was strongly anarchist, but made sure to separate himself from those anarchists who sought to advance their agenda through means of violence. Tolstoy’s views were definitely contrary to those of the Church in Russia, and continually faced censorship and opposition. The Church experienced great power and wealth from its close ties to the Russian government, which Tolstoy greatly opposed. For this reason he opposed the idea of the Church along with the state.

What you should read:
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Gender Equality:
I am not familiar enough with all of Tolstoy’s writings to make a sound judgment on his view of gender equality, but his views on nonviolence are applicable to all people regardless of gender. However, I assume that at the root of asceticism its support of chastity might have created negative outlook towards women or any expression of sexuality, but since he was married it seems safe to assume that there was tension in that relationship.
Environmental Sensibility:
Tolstoy extended the Christian command to not kill to all living creatures. As a result, he abstained from eating meat and likened slaughtering houses to battlefields. This universal care for all of God’s creation leads me to believe that Tolstoy would value and care for the world and all that is in it.
Heretical Tendencies:
According to the Church Tolstoy was exposed to in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th century, he was certainly a heretic. The Church continuously sought to censor him, and the Church’s more preferable method of exiling opposition was only abandoned due to his large number of followers.
General Badassery:
Tolstoy witnessed violence during his travels and his time in the military, which caused him to grow wary of the oppression caused by the state and he was disappointed in the Church’s silence regarding the abuse. Tolstoy took it upon himself to write and educate himself on Christian nonviolence and anarchism despite the dangerous threats and consequences of this decision. Not only was Tolstoy at odds with the Church, he distinguished himself from the anarchists that espoused violence. Clearly, Tolstoy was not compelled by seeking a large number of friends, but instead held fast to his convictions regardless of his beliefs’s popularity.

"Christianity in its true sense puts an end to government. So it was understood at its very commencement; it was for that cause that Christ was crucified, So it has always been understood by people who were not under the necessity of justifying a Christian government. Only from the time that the heads of government assumed an external and nominal Christianity, men began to invent all the impossible, cunningly devised theories by means of which Christianity can be reconciled with government. But no honest and serious-minded man of our day can help seeing the incompatibility of true Christianity—the doctrine of meekness, forgiveness of injuries, and love—with government, with its pomp, acts of violence, executions, and wars. The profession of true Christianity not only excludes the possibility of recognizing government, but even destroys its very foundations."

 Thanks, Curtis! You're the bomb and I love you.  Please leave a comment and let us know what you think. Have you read anything by Tolstoy? If this post gets some positive feedback, maybe I can convince Curtis to write guest posts more often! :)