Friday, December 3, 2010

Centenary of the death of Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi's teacher

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Occupying a central place in the living room of my house is a stunning picture by a Polish painter showing Tolstoy (1828-1910) embraced by the Christ crowned with thorns. He is dressed like a Russian peasant and seems exhausted, as if symbolizing all humankind finally reaching the infinite embrace of peace after millions of years of painfully climbing the path of evolution. It was a gift I received from then President of the UN General Assembly Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a great devotee of the father of modern pacifism. November 20 marked the centenary of his death in 1910. Tolstoy deserves to be remembered not only as one of the greatest writers of humanity for his novels War and Peace (1868) and Anna Karenina (1875), among many others -- 90 volumes -- but primarily as one of the minds most committed to the poor and peace, being considered the father of modern pacifism.
We theologians are particularly interested in the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, written after a terrible spiritual crisis when he was 50 years old (1878). He visited philosophers, theologians and scholars and no one satisfied him. Then he plunged into the world of the poor. There he discovered a living faith, "that gave them a chance to live." Tolstoy considered this book the most important of all he had written. He regarded his famous novels, as he confessed in his Diary on 10/28/1895, as "the chattering of street vendors to attract customers with the aim of selling them something very different later." He took three years to complete it (1890-1893). In Brazil, it was published in 1994 by Editora Rosa dos Tempos (now Record), with a beautiful introduction by Friar Clodovis Boff, but unfortunately it is out of print. In Spanish, it was published by Editorial Kairos this year, 2010. [Translator's note: The Kingdom of God Is Within You is available in English through Watchmaker Publishing, 2010]

The Kingdom of God Is Within You, quickly translated into several languages, had an enormous impact, generating acclaim and strong rejection. But its biggest influence was the one it had on Gandhi. It also submerged him in a deep spiritual crisis, because he still believed in violence as a solution to social problems when he read the book in 1894. It caused an abyssal stir in him: "Reading the book cured me and made me a staunch follower of ahimsa (nonviolence)." He distributed the book among friends and took it to prison in 1908 to meditate on it. The apostle of "active nonviolence" had Leo Tolstoy for a teacher. The latter was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church and the book was banned by the Tsarist regime.

What is the central thesis of the book? These words of Christ: "Do not resist evil" (Mt 5:39). Its meaning is: "Do not resist evil with evil." Or do not answer violence with violence. It is not crossing your arms, but responding to violence with nonviolent action -- with kindness, gentleness, and love. To put it another way: "not returning evil, no retaliation, no counter-attacks, no revenge." These true attitudes have intrinsic invincible strength as Gandhi taught. For the Russian prophet, such a precept was not restricted to Christianity. It translates the secret and profound logic of the human spirit, which is love. It touches on the sacred that is within each person. Hence the title of the book: The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

Gandhi translated Tolstoyan nonviolence into non-cooperation, civil disobedience and active repudiation of all servility. Both he and Tolstoy knew that power is fed by acceptance, blind obedience and submission. Since both the State and the Church demand such subservience, he discredits them forcefully. These are institutions that take away freedom, an inalienable and defining attribute of human beings. In the frontispiece of the book we read this phrase of St. Paul: "Do not become slaves to human beings" (1 Cor 7:23).

For Tolstoy, Christianity is less a doctrine to be accepted than a practice to be lived out. It is looking ahead and not behind. Looking backward, it seems that it failed, but looking forward, it is a force not yet fully experienced. And it is urgent to put it into practice. Tolstoy prophetically sensed the eruption of violent wars, as in fact occurred. The house is burning and there's no time to ask if it is necessary to leave or not.

Tolstoy has a message for the present since the big powers continue to believe in the violence of war to solve political problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. But other times will come. When the chick is no longer able to stay in the egg, it breaks the shell with its beak and is born. So, a new era of nonviolence and peace must be born.

Photo: Leo Tolstoy the Russian Novelist Embracing Jesus, by Jan Styka.

1 comment:

  1. I think that Gandhi as young man, may have been tempted to use violence because he saw the oppression of the British over the humble Indians and also he saw that they looked strong and militarily, he also was tempted to become a meat eater because of the same reasons, the British ate meet and were dominant and powerful.
    About this conclusion of the writer: “When the chick is no longer able to stay in the egg, it breaks the shell with its beak and is born. So, a new era of nonviolence and peace must be born. “

    Wishful thinking, sorry to say. There is a current in Christianity and also in the so called esoteric esplanade, that from different avenues of knowledge and premises , come to the same conclusion, that there will be a period of terrible upheaval in the planet followed later by centuries of peace and brotherhood, because mankind will have overcome the lower nature and impulses to do evil and to do warfare against each other, but to me this is just a beautiful dream. The first may be true, a period of great upheaval may come, but the second affirmation, peace and universal brother hood? Well I think that if Earth becomes a wide spread field of war and destruction, what may follow later may be a world that’ll look more like Mad Max’s world than a paradise.
    Ages pass, ages to come, the world will know good and evil as always has been and will be.
    I really hope that I am wrong.