Words We Do Not Want To Hear

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by Jeff Snyder

Now, in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, when the President is preparing for a mighty war, when over 80 percent of Americans support him and want blood, whether in the name of retribution or justice, now is the time to repeat the words we do not want to hear.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . .

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

~ Matthew 5: 38-39; 43-45.

This is all you need to know if you want to do what is right in this situation. We should not wage war on terrorists or the Taliban, nor try to bring them to justice. We should, however, pray for them and do good to them.

In the 1800's a small number of men, including the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, spent a large part of their lives working out the implications of this teaching and trying to spread the word to their fellow man. Much of this good work might have been lost or buried in oblivion but for the efforts of one of them, Leo Tolstoy, who gathered it together in making his own case, still available in the much ignored, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894).

According to Tolstoy, the meaning of Christ's command to "resist not evil" is plain enough: it is wrong to use force or violence to oppose evil. Since Christ's command is unconditional, there are no exceptions. Not for a "just" war, not for retribution, not for justice, not even for self-defense at the time of the assault. Further, the clear implication is also that it is wrong to participate in any enterprise that employs force or violence against our fellow man (even if only to oppose evil). Christ's command thus renders government illegitimate. The Christian who follows Christ' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, then, will not be a soldier, or participate in any of the institutions of government, the courts or elections, and will not have any recourse to the authorities, the police or the law.

Christ's teaching forever severs the question of what is good or evil, just or unjust, from the question of the use of force, and pronounces the latter wrong and evil under all circumstances. Regardless of what is right, good or just, it is wrong, always, to use force or violence to establish, uphold, vindicate or maintain the right, the good or the just, and it is wrong to use force to punish or "reform" the wicked.

Instead, the Christian "resists not." As Tolstoy notes, "To submit means to prefer suffering to using force. And to prefer suffering to using force means to be good, or at least less wicked than those who do unto others what they would not like themselves."1

Tolstoy musters many arguments to demonstrate that Christ's teaching is the only true and lasting foundation of peace and brotherhood among men, and to explain why violence cannot eliminate evil, but only beget more violence. One of his more powerful arguments concerns the impossibility of settling disputes by recourse to violence when there is no universally accepted, unquestioned criterion for distinguishing good from evil. In the absence of such criterion, the men who are the objects of our violence do not perceive or accept their acts as evil and do not experience the violence directed at them as just punishment for their deeds, but simply as unjust violence and a fresh insult that, in turn, prompts them to respond in kind. Thus, we can expect that a counterattack upon the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and those who harbor them will kindle greater hatred in the Muslim world against us.

Tolstoy was no pie-eyed idealist blind to the nature of man. Although he quotes other advocates of non-resistance who argue on prudential grounds that refraining from the use violence is, in the long run, a safer course than using violence to suppress evil, since it gives least occasion for the creation of ill-will, he did not maintain that those who adhered to Christ's command would soon cease being the object of oppression or violence, or would be but rarely the objects of such acts.

Indeed, Tolstoy spends much effort addressing one of the strongest criticisms of non-resistance, namely, that without government, the wicked will oppress the good. It requires a strong disposition to follow Tolstoy here for, to his everlasting credit, he does not endeavor to support Christ's teaching by prudential appeals to man's rational self-interest through promises that adhering to Christ's teaching will soon make life easy or better for men, nor pretend that eliminating government will end man's inhumanity to man.

The champions of government assert that without it the wicked will oppress and outrage the good, and that the power of the government enables the good to resist the wicked.

But in this assertion the champions of the existing order of things take for granted the proposition they want to prove. When they say that except for the government the bad would oppress the good, they take it for granted that the good are those who are the present time are in possession of power, and the bad are those who are in subjection to it. But this is just what wants proving.

The good cannot seize power, nor retain it; to do this men must love power. And love of power is inconsistent with goodness; but quite consistent with the very opposite qualities — pride, cunning, cruelty.

Without the aggrandizement of self and the abasement of others, without hypocrisies and deceptions, without prisons, fortresses, executions, and murders, no power can come into existence or be maintained. . . . .

. . . ruling means using force, and using force means doing to him to whom force is used, what he does not like and what he who uses the force would certainly not like done to himself. Consequently ruling means doing to others what we would not they should do unto us, that is, doing wrong.2

Since the good, by definition, cannot and will not wield power, "The wicked will always dominate the good, and will always oppress them."3 Moreover, in holding up the specter of imagined future dangers of violence and oppression by others, those who claim we need the government's protection ignore or discount the magnitude of the actual existing violence and oppression already practiced by their own government against its own people and others. Tolstoy concludes that government's ceasing to exist and to provide its "protection" may result in a change in the men who subject the good to oppression and violence, but will not, ultimately, change the overall lot of the good. Thus, good men who see the true nature of their government and its actions cannot be terrorized by specters of the harm that will befall them in government's absence, because they realize that they already are, ever have been and ever will be oppressed and exploited by the wicked. A change in this state of affairs will come about only after most men have learned, through generations of bitter and futile experience, the inability of violence to put an end to evil, and to accept the truth of Christ's counsel.

Tolstoy also takes strong issue, based on the evidence provided by history, with the belief that it is possible to subdue a nation, or improve it, with violence: "And indeed how could nations be subjugated by violence who are led to by their whole education, their traditions, and even their religion to see the loftiest virtue in warring with their oppressors and fighting for freedom? . . . To exterminate such nations . . . by violence is possible, and indeed is done, but to subdue them is impossible."4

Much of Tolstoy's energy in Kingdom of God is directed at answering those who claim that Christ's teaching cannot mean what it plainly says, or that it is too idealistic for men, because it does not agree with how men want to live, or would require too great a change in "the existing order of things." Curiously, although Tolstoy was apparently unaware of his work, the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, often dealt with this characteristic response to God's unconditional commands.

True worship of God consists quite simply in doing God's will.

But this sort of worship was never to man's taste. That which in all generations men have been busied about, that in which theological learning originated, becomes many, many disciplines, widens out to interminable prolixity, that upon which and for which thousands of priests and professors live . . . is the contrivance of another sort of divine worship, which consists in . . . having one's own will, but doing it in such a way that the name of God, the invocation of God, is brought into conjunction with it, whereby man thinks he is assured against being ungodly — whereas, alas, precisely this is the most aggravated sort of ungodliness.

An example. A man is inclined to want to support himself by killing people. Now he sees from God's Word that this is not permissible, that God's will is, u2018Thou shalt not kill.' u2018All right,' he thinks, u2018 but that sort of worship doesn't suit me, neither would I be an ungodly man.' What does he do then? He gets hold of a priest who in God's name blesses the dagger. Yes, that's something different.5

Kierkegaard characterized man's unbelieving or unwilling response to an unconditional demand of the Divine as man's "sensibleness." It is a reaction that many who staunchly adhere to the Bill of Rights will readily recognize. For example, scarcely is the command, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" uttered, before learned law professors and judges hasten to assure us that the words, despite their unconditional and categorical form, do not prevent the state from enacting "reasonable regulations" in the interest of public safety. All sensibleness consists in this refusal to accept God's unconditioned command as the binding ideal that distinguishes right from wrong, to build maneuvering room into it so that we can still think well of ourselves while pursuing our own will. According to Kierkegaard, it is human sensibleness that believes that

To require the unconditioned of human beings is basically madness, a ludicrous exaggeration that, like all extremes, as any sensible person easily sees, takes revenge by producing an effect the very opposite of what it aims at. All human wisdom consists in this glorious and golden principle: to a certain degree, there is a limit, or in this u2018both-and,' and u2018also'; the unconditioned is madness. The mark of mature earnestness is precisely this: it insists that the requirement shall be of such a nature that a person can with pleasure and satisfaction amply meet it though steady effort. Obviously, what none of has done none of us, of course, can do; and if none of us can do it, then the requirement must be changed according to what we have shown we can do by having done it — more cannot be required. Therefore, we insist on a Christianity that can be brought into harmony with all the rest of our life, corresponding to the change that has occurred in the human race through increasing enlightenment and culture. . . .

Who will deny that the world has changed! For the better? Well, that remains a question. . . . But it is eternally certain that nothing so offends sensibleness as the unconditioned, and . . . the immediately obvious mark of this is that sensibleness will never unconditionally acknowledge any requirement but continually claims itself to be the one that declares what kind of requirement is to be made.6

If you are like me, it is sensibleness you will feel welling up within you when you read Christ's words to "resist not evil." It is sensibleness that will question whether they really mean what they seem to say, that will hasten to assure you that there are, there must be, just causes for which violence and resistance are righteous, that will not be willing to accept that we cannot avenge our murdered citizens, or bring the men responsible to justice, believing that somewhere, somehow, there must be maneuvering room in Christ's command to love one's enemies sufficient to kill them.

It is sensibleness that renders Tolstoy's work an obscure volume relegated to the status of a curiosity penned by a great novelist who should have stuck to writing fiction. People do not try to answer his arguments. They are just sensibly ignored. When the Massachusetts preacher, Adin Ballou, died in 1890, after spending fifty years of his life writing about and preaching non-resistance based on Christ's teaching, his obituary in the Religio-Philosophical Journal made no mention of this his life's work. Sensible, surely, for why malign the man by pointing out how much of his life was spent in foolishness, and why disturb readers by raising concerns over what can only be an improper interpretation of the meaning of Christ's command?

Similarly, you are not likely to hear Matthew 5 : 38-45 preached this, the next or any other weekend soon, though if the Christian religion were supposed to have relevance to men's lives, it would appear to be timely.

For those who can accept and have the courage to pursue it, however, the standard has been laid down. While we may admit (I admit) that we do not (I do not) feel Christian love for our enemies, we can at least partially act as required: we can refuse to go to war; we can refuse to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. And if we cannot quite bring ourselves to heed Christ's counsel in full, perhaps we can at least take George Washington's advice to avoid foreign entanglements, bring our troops home from across the globe, stop selling arms to foreign nations and cease meddling in foreign affairs. Not, be it noted, because we hope or believe that we will thereby gain release from further terrorist assaults. Those who destroyed the World Trade Center hate us, and it is possible that nothing we can do will change that, and that they will not stop until they exhaust themselves in their hate. If it is to be done, it must be done only because it is the right thing to do. And this would be a good start: to not go to war.

There is one other consideration that ought compel those of us who believe in God to give this matter the thought it deserves. That is the knowledge that, although God is longsuffering and of great mercy, He by no means clears the guilty, but visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and the children's children, unto the third and fourth generation.7 President Bush is warning us that this war will not be over soon. But I wonder how far his vision extends.

  1. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), translated by Constance Garnett, Nebraska University Press, ©1984, at p. 243.
  2. Ibid, at pp. 241 — 242.
  3. Ibid, at p. 244.
  4. Ibid, at 259.
  5. Soren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon "Christendom" (1854-1855), translated by Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, © 1944, tenth printing, 1991, p. 219.
  6. Soren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination and Judge For Yourself!, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, © 1990, pp. 154 — 155.
  7. Exodus 34 : 7; Numbers 14 : 18.

September 21, 2001

Jeff Snyder [send him mail] is an attorney who works in mid-town Manhattan. His website is www.nationofcowards.net.

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