The Kingdom of God is within You
Christianity not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Extensive Commentary: John Cowan
This is the real Tolstoy, the one who wrote War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and many others. He was a later-in-life convert to Christianity. In reading Jesus he identified “non-violence” as the key message. (He was aided in this by Quakers.) This book, The Kingdom of God is within You, an exploration of the state of non-violence is quite different than the novels in tone. No romance, no shimmering beauty, no poetry here. Here we have the existential facts as he sees them and the situation is grim although the possibility is glorious. He is hopeful. But that was a century ago. I think the statistics say that violence in the world is less, but there sure is enough.
Take the subtitle seriously. He is not calling us to a kneeler in the Cathedral; he despises the Cathedral for its distortion of the message of Jesus. His battle cry is that we are called to non-violent lives and following that call will change the world at the same time as we become fully alive after vomiting the bile from our own violent belly. Hidden under the violence lies a seed of beauty, calm, wisdom needed by the world from forever to now, and for forever then again.
Somebody gave a wandering lawyer this book and India was lost to the British. A black preacher in the segregated south read about this lawyer’s strategy, “An Experiment in Truth,” and using that experiment the Civil Rights movement became the most powerful such force in our history. The preacher, Martin Luther King, said that Gandhi, the lawyer had provided this movement, “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” Gandhi carried this book with him everywhere, even reread it in prison. And Tolstoy had learned from Jesus the doctrine of non-violence.
I appreciated The Kingdom of God is within You first for its alerting me to the dominance of violence in my own life. Subtle violence but clear once I understood that simply standing within the boundaries of accepted conduct in this society left ample opportunity to be violent. (The witticism, the snide comment, the confidence violated, the clever but specious argument, the anger intended to frighten others into silence, attacking the stereotype instead of confronting the person, dropping secrets that might or might not be true, the raised voice.) Tolstoy alerted me to the fact that the internal peace I seek will not be found as long as traces of my violence exist. I call the violence: “The worm in my belly.”
Second, I appreciated this book for alerting me to the dominance of violence as the strategy for advancing any agenda in the world around me. War is violence and so is name calling. Policies that ignore the needs of the minority are violence. Tactics that subvert the will of the people are violence. Blocking others from speaking with shouting and placards is violence. Jokes about the characteristics of others in order to demean them into impotence are violent. Lying is violence.
I no longer watch the late night comics pillory Trump; it’s watching a comic commit spiritual suicide for laughs, fame and money and prompting other humans to behave like automatons, ignoring the gift of consciousness, or even intelligence, in favor of the audience cue card. The comic grows the worm in his belly. And fosters the worm in mine.
So called non-violent action that causes suffering to the innocent is violent, no matter the justice of the cause it presumes to be forwarding. Why are these actions wrong?
The lesser reason first. They are ineffective. After the momentary victory, if there is such, the loser waits in anger for the opportunity to strike back. Last year you were the majority by one vote, next year you are the minority by one vote. Next year you will be bit by the snake you created this year. This is not just in politics; it is everywhere.
The second reason for avoiding violence is the new condition of the actor. The actor has violated his or her own deepest nature. He or she is fostering the worm in the belly that will prevent the sprouting of the peaceful seed.
There is an old story, a little shopworn by much use, but still quite instructive. The Dali Lama was debriefing an elderly monk who had been recently released from years in a Chinese prison. He told the Dali Lama that he had been very frightened the entire time. The Dali Lama asked him if he had been afraid that he would be tortured, or that he would be killed. “Nothing as small as that,” he said. “I was afraid I would hate them! And if I hate them, then who am I?”
“Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called the children of God” was not a promise for the after life but an assurance of an immediate effect. The worm dies, the seed lives. You become a child of God.
I admit I am bringing Tolstoy up-to-date. His specific targets by the beginning of the twentieth century were beginning as all things do to morph into today’s. I am giving you todays. Or mine.
Tolstoy was angry at a Church that preached Jesus’ message, while acting otherwise. Now that particular aspect of his anger would be directed at people who claim to be non-violent while they are very violent indeed. Not only do they present a false message but in the process they destroy the message of non-violence as taught by King, Gandhi, Tolstoy and Jesus. Some even declare themselves the next and improved step in nonviolence. They have improved on King and Gandhi by frightening the establishment into action. Or so they say. Or so they think. Remember the snake.
The strategy of the non-violent heroes of the tradition I belong to, (I used to think it the Quaker tradition,) was to act out the truth no matter the law. So King had black people sitting in the whites’ only section because despite the law any person should be able to sit anywhere in a public restaurant. The experiment with truth was to act out the truth, be punished for it, send a dramatic message as to what is the truth, and display the inhumanity of those preventing the truth from happening. The compassionate viewer would be moved by the truth to allow all races to sit in all public places. This strategy worked for Doctor King. The Mahatma formed this strategy and changed India. Tolstoy provided a base. Jesus was the beginning of the thread. A Friend of mine told me that in his protest trips to The School of Americas the organizers would send home anyone who said as much as a foul word to a guard. The strategy was still in force.
Calling sitting in the middle of a freeway “nonviolent” similar to the nonviolence of King and Gandhi is quite a stretch. Would a sane viewer be moved by compassion to allow all people to sit in the middle of freeways? Is people blocking freeway a right? Of course that is not what the organizer hopes to foster. He or she or they hope that this will force some action that they want to happen in some other place. We will block the freeway and you will find the policeman who shot the black man guilty.
NATO defines terrorism as “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.”
Tolstoy writes well. No surprise that, but I was expecting a poetic style, instead it is small words, short sentences, concise paragraphs, clarity. On the down side, it gets to be a bit of a rant. In the Forward the suggestion is made that you read the last chapter first. Martin Green, the author of the Forward is clear about what he is asking. He hopes that when you tire of the rant and start flipping pages you already have learned the kernel of the message. For that read the last chapter first.
This book is a seed that when planted in the flow of history bore much fruit. And if planted in you may again bear some fruit. It’s working for me. From time to time over the last weeks it has projected a bold and flagrant sign across my consciousness.