Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy's religious manifesto: The Kingdom of God is within you

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in traditional peasant clothing

Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is within you is both astonishing and enlightening in many ways. Few are the books that can move me to the degree that Tolstoy's book did. I mean it in both senses of the word, that it touched me by unearthing a number of feelings, desires, dreams and nightmares, but it also transported me, inspiring me to take initiatives and actions. One of those inspired actions would be my decision to write about this excellent book.

I first stumbled upon Tolstoy at the tender and tumultuous age of fifteen. An avid reader then, I took on the major project of reading his monumental War and Peace. At that time, questions on life and death were budding in my mind. In fact, I was hoping to live long enough to finish those 1500+ pages in front of me.

Although I fell in love with the characters (and I can still see them in my mind's eye and have an affinity with them even more than a quarter century later), I was often then - and most likely still - exasperated by the various elaborate digressions of its Russian author.

I remember one lengthy passage about bees that drove me mad, but I dared not skip a single line of this master storyteller. In a way, he is the Terrence Malick of literature, or rather, not to be anachronistic, it ought to be the other way around. Anyhow, I was given lectures on biology and history in the frames of a fictional narrative. 

A decade after reading War and Peace, I read - and was very impressed with - Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy controlled and restrained his tendency to be wordy and wrote a much better and more concise work, though it still spans hundreds of pages.

For years I had the intention of reading his nonfiction book The Kingdom of God is within you, but for one reason or another it remained on the back-burner for years to come. I had heard and read about Tolstoy becoming a type of prophet or mystical figure towards the later years of his life, and I had become aware that this particular piece of writing, especially the notions surrounding non-violent resistance towards violence, had influenced great thinkers, and shakers and movers of history, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Tolstoy has been described in many terms but few do him and his views full justice. His views are radical, yes, but this word has particular negative connotations regardless of its direction or political spectrum. He is also called an anarchist, a revolutionary, a liberal, a communist etc, but his actual views are much more complex. Most importantly, I think this work is timeless and can and should - for the most part at least - be applied to our modern times.

Let us start off with Tolstoy's religious views. Ironically, some intellectuals may be turned off by its title as it sounds as if it were a Christian propaganda piece. It is and it is not, but for the most part it attacks religions, in particular Christian institutions, with a venom that will make any traditional pastor's or priest's head spin. 

Religious people, or rather those who claim they embrace religion, will be bitterly disappointed, whereas those with a spiritual bone or two in them might find their calling here, that is if they get past the first barrier of actually picking up and reading this book despite its Christian title.

Finally, I found somebody who shares my view on religion and Christianity and explains it with much more skill than I ever could. The focus remains on Jesus Christ who was not only an exceptional being but who put the seeds of love and change in our hearts. Unfortunately, the authorities, i.e. the (not so holy) church took his teachings and turned them upside down and inside out to suit their own quest for power.

What the religious authorities wanted was to use the “convenient” parts of Christ's teachings. So far, Tolstoy may be even on par with Nietzsche's own view of Christianity. The church assumed control over the salvation of souls and became self-proclaimed ambassadors of God. They created a hierarchy and hence a gaping distance between themselves and the common people.

Historically, this could be done as only few in the elite were literate. So most people would get the watered down, revised, edited and censured version of Christianity. Various inconvenient or unconducive passages were conveniently glossed over or overlooked. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of god is within you? Does that not make the whole charade surrounding the church superfluous?

Tolstoy also remarks that if the church ought to play such a large role in Christianity, why did Jesus not give specific instructions regarding its set-up and functions. We mainly have a vague insinuation to his disciple about a rock. And did Jesus not attack those who claimed to know the truth, i.e. the very same priests and did he not say that those buildings shall be destroyed? It seems that Jesus was against not only empty rituals but the whole foundation of a church operating in the name of God, a church that, even in his own times, was more interested in money-lending and profiteering than spiritual growth and enlightenment.

And last, but most importantly, does Jesus not tell us to turn the other cheek? Does he not condemn any type of violence and replace it with love and forgiveness? Does he not forbid us to hurt others? Then how can the church defend its recorded history of bloody torture and slaughter of millions and millions under the banner of Crusades, religious wars, witch hunts and heresies?

In fact, killing a fellow being is as unchristian as can be. And yet, it is continuously done in the name of God, and many believers turn a blind eye towards it, or worse, defend it. Tolstoy claims that the church definitely turned away from the teachings of Jesus when it allied itself with the emperors to gain wealth and power.

Throughout history, the ruling men were seen as chosen by God. Evidently, the church played a major role in this perception by endorsing their chosen candidate. In return, the governing elite ensured the propagation of the religious views and protection of the religious institutions. This was hundreds of years of brainwashing in the making.

By not choosing to live like Christ, but merely by inventing stories and effectively lies on things hardly even mentioned in the Bible itself, such as Original Sin, the Immaculate Conception, or the Holy Trinity, and by insisting on a number of carefully selected rituals, the church not only took over control over people's lives, but diminished their capabilities and powers.

In fact, the most important rituals of life were being ordained by the church: birth through baptism, marriage, the birth of one's own children, and death. There was – and is – no repose from the grasps of the church. Our life is controlled, managed and overseen by the religious authorities.

Indeed, they have found out our innermost secrets through confessions. This is where you share your intimate thoughts and desires with a complete stranger who with a few words of reassurance sends us back into the world again, a free but psychologically binding and limiting form of psychotherapy. Since the priest is the intermediary of Christ, we have done our duty by merely exposing ourselves, and now we are all forgiven through his magical incantations; he is putting in a good word with God on our behalf.

The protestants rebelled against the power of the priests, but they replaced it with an even more submissive and counterproductive ordeal. The issue of faith now made it easier for the individual to communicate with God, while the religious institutions were stripped of their pompousness and magnificence.

But it turned out that faith was something that you either possess or you do not, or you are given it by the Holy Ghost or not, and hence if He does not visit you, you might just not be chosen to enter this selective membership club. Also, your sins will all be forgiven, if only you believe. So you may serve in the army and kill others, but as long as you have faith, you will be cleansed of the blood staining your hands.

This lack of accountability has led people to ignore not only their own hideous actions, but also those of others. Official authorities simply must know better because they have strong faith, which we as commoners lack. But also, there is no particular need to improve the self or the world since faith, not love, is all you need.

But Christ – alongside Tolstoy - asks much more from his true believers. First of all, we must have only one master. You cannot swear allegiance both to God and the state, for example. Second, you shall not, under any circumstance resort to violence. That is, you shall refuse to serve in the military.

Tolstoy claims, and this is before two World Wars and atomic bombs, that the states are buffing up their army and weapons to gain control over others. They do so claiming that they want to protect us from other nations. But it is a vicious cycle. The more armies they build, the more other nations need to to keep up and be on par. This can only have dangerous consequences.

So, as a result, one should not add fuel to the fire and refrain from any type of service, military or otherwise, that supports this kind of harmful action. This is indeed what certain Christian groups have taken to heart, such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish. They will not use weapons not even for protection or self-defense.

Tolstoy also stresses the fact that our taxes are going towards building weapons of destruction, and we ought to stop paying them. In fact, he goes even further and points out that the rich owe their wealth to the exploitation of the poor, and hence this money comes tainted with sweat, blood, and suffering, apart from reeking of injustice.

In the meantime, the rich are supported by the state and clergy, of course. So if the poor decide to go on a strike, they shall be first warned by the police and then beaten into submission, arrested or even killed by the military. Any person with good conscience should stay away from these official positions that use not only violence but do so to support the status quo of the already powerful and abusive rich.

In fact, people enlist in the army because they either think they have no other option, or they have been hypnotized by their surroundings, such as schools, institutions, and others, what Louis Althusser would later call the Ideological State Apparatus. One of the most prevalent lies, apart from religion of course, is that of patriotism. People are drilled to think that the random piece of land that they inhabit is worth killing and dying for. They are dressed like “clowns” in uniforms and believe that the stripes and medals they will be given for killing their fellow beings has intrinsic value and honor attached to them. Others are told that they could become martyrs in heaven because they are upholding true values of their motherland or religion.

We can see how Tolstoy is in fact against ideas like communism. He says that any type of revolution is not only violent and bloody but it replaces one tyrant with a worse one. The problem is that the state thinks it can enforce beliefs in its people without changing their lifestyle and way of thinking. As if there is a magic formula that can make people good, or worse, as if you can use force alongside its dark brothers, repression and oppression to change people for the better.

But the good news is that we are all moving forward. Tolstoy's view of the truth is that it cannot be achieved all at once, as it happened to the Buddha, for example; it is a long and continuous process in history. Our views have changed and we have come to accept human rights more and more. It was not without its struggles, but there have been major accomplishments in those regards.

Yet we need to continue to accept these values, which are reflected in a true understanding of Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. We need to follow in his steps and refuse violence in our daily lives. In fact, public opinion is changing around the world, and people have a stronger and more robust conscience regarding what is right and wrong.

We have the answers already planted deep within. Now we must act upon them, while this wave of public opinion has forced the governments to become more accountable or transparent in their dealings. In some cases, they had to become more secretive, namely to hide their atrocious behaviors from the public's eyes. It shows a certain fear of public regard so at the very least they have to constantly fear being exposed in their lies and violence.

The ideal would be to live without states and governments. Tolstoy says it is possible. However, most of us, may either disagree or be afraid of the consequences of such a lifestyle. How is it even possible? Who is going to protect us from the bad guys? Will it not turn to complete anarchy and destruction?

Not if we embrace Christianity in its truest sense and if we follow the path lightened by Jesus himself. As a good Christian, we need to share our wealth and must find peace both within and without, in our souls and our surroundings. We must look the truth squarely in the eye and accept our failings and our blessings in equal measure. But perhaps most of all, we should follow the divine voice within us since the kingdom of God is already - and has always been - within us!

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