Turn the other cheek? Are you serious?

Leo Tolstoy is perhaps the ultimate example of the late-in-life nihilist-turned-idealist. He is best known for his mid-life fiction, most notably War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He was early on somewhat of a determinist and nihilist but late in life began a study of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and came away a determined Christian, with significant misgivings regarding the Russian orthodox church specifically and organized religion and government generally. He wrote his thoughts in two books that were significantly suppressed by the Russian Church and the Czarist government.


Tolstoy’s main argument is that believing and proclaiming Christians don’t really believe Christ’s words…at least not in deed. Using the Sermon on the Mount, he argues for a doctrine of “non-resistance of evil.” Starting in St. Matthew 5:38…

38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 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.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
44 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;
45 That ye 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.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

The question is, does Christ really mean that we are to turn the other cheek (not retaliate or defend ourselves with violence), that we are to not sue others (or even argue with them when they sue us), and that we are not to resist evil (submit completely without violence to the evil actions that others would put upon us)? Is this what Christ means? Is He serious about it?
Some may argue that sure, that’s the ideal, but Christ really doesn’t expect us to do it. But then these same people would argue that He completely expects us to be able to not fornicate or kill or steal or covet. Does Christ expect perfection? C.S. Lewis states: “The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command.”

As long as we justify that which is difficult by saying it’s idealistic, we will fall short of making any lasting changes in the world.

A few quotes from Tolstoy regarding this issue:

“All of us, when reflecting on the destiny of man, have been struck with terror at the sufferings and evils which our human criminal laws have brought into our lives–evils both for those who judge and for those who are judged…No man of feeling has escaped the impression of horror and doubt concerning “good” produced by the recital, if not the sight, of men executing their fellow-men by rods, the guillotine, or the gallows.”

Many of us have lost this sensibility because we see false death and suffering so much on TV and in movies and video games that perhaps we don’t feel that horror and doubt Tolstoy expresses.

He argues (quite convincingly) that the word “condemn” used in the Greek and “judge” imply a legal damning or using the civil and criminal court system and states that Christ’s injunction against judging and condemning and pulling the mote out really means that we shouldn’t take anyone to court in order to right wrongs.

“In the Gospels, every word of which we esteem sacred, it is said clearly and distinctly, “You have the criminal law–a tooth for a tooth; and I give you a new one–resist not the evil man. Fulfill this commandment all of you, return not evil for evil; always do good to all; forgive all.”

“And farther on we read, “Judge not;” then, in order to render all doubt impossible as to the meaning of His words, Christ adds, “condemn not to punishment by the courts of law.” My heart says clearly, distinctly, “Do not execute.” Science says, “Do not execute; the more you execute, the more evil there will be.” Reason says, “Do not execute; you cannot put a stop to evil by evil.”

“Now I understood what Christ meant when He said, “Ye have hear that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. And I say unto you, Resist not evil.” Christ means, “You have been taught to consider it right and rational to protect yourselves against evil by violence, to pluck out an eye for an eye, to institute courts of law for the punishment of criminals, to have a police, an army, to defend you against the attacks of an enemy; but I say to you, do no violence to any man, take no part in violence, never do evil to any man, not even to those whom you call your enemies.”

“I now understood that, in this doctrine of non-resistance, Christ not only tells us what the natural result of following His doctrine will be, but by placing this same doctrine in opposition to the Mosaic law, the Roman law, and the various codes of the present time, He clearly shows that it ought to be the basis of our social existence, and should deliver us from the evil we have brought upon ourselves. He says, ‘You think to amend evil by your laws, but they only aggravate it. There is one way by which you can put a stop to evil; it is by indiscriminately returning good for evil. You have tried the other law for thousands of years; now try Mine, which is the very reverse.’”

“Each of us gives the doctrine of Christ an interpretation of his own, but it is never the direct and simple one which flows out of His words. We have grounded the conduct of our lives on a principle which He rejects; we do not choose to understand His teaching in its simple and direct sense. Those who call themselves ‘believers’ believe that Christ-God, the second person of the Trinity, made Himself man in order to set us an example how to live, and they strictly fulfill the most complicated duties, such as preparing for the sacraments, building churches, sending out missionaries, naming pastors for parochial administration, etc.; they only forget one trifling circumstance–to do as He tells them…Nobody ever tries to fulfill His teaching. Nor is that all. Instead of making any effort to follow His commandments, both believers and unbelievers decide beforehand that to do so is impossible.”

Lastly:

“He [Christ] says, ‘You think to eradicate evil by your human laws of violence; they only increase it. During thousands and thousands of years you have tried to annihilate evil by evil, and you have not annihilated it; you have but increased it. Follow the teaching I give you by word and deed, and you will prove its practical power.’”

So what do I think about all of this? Is Tolstoy spot on with this non-resistance of evil stuff? It’s really only been implemented politically one time in the modern era and resulted the independence of India and laid the foundation for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. I think that the only way that peace will reign on the earth is when a critical mass of human beings are willing to actually implement the simple teachings of Jesus Christ fully. As long as we ignore the difficult injunctions and instead take the easy road of violence, war and retaliation and vengeance, we will reap what we sow.

11 Replies to “Turn the other cheek? Are you serious?”

  1. I totally agree with the principle behind Tolstoy’s comments. But the problem isn’t really in this principle. It’s in the principle of perfection. In order for individuals to feel like they can actually accept the “Resist not evil” doctrine, they have to be completely comfortable with their spirituality. And not just with their level of spirituality, they have to understand the atonement and be truly comfortable with the path they are on.

    I think that is a rarity in our society… even within the Church.

    “Resist not evil” implies accepting whatever happens. And that could mean death. Most people still have not accepted the reality of their death. Nor have they accepted the reality of the sweetness of death. Sure, they will say that they don’t fear death, but I think a majority of those that say that publicly certainly do fear death. If they claim that publicly, then there are other issues.

    And then theirs always the mentality of needing to “teach people a lesson.” Which I think is the real reason this principle doesn’t work. Even in simple matters people always want to teach others the lesson. They can’t leave it up to the Lord to teach them.

    In summary, I agree with the principle and Tolstoy’s commentary (for the most part), but as a realist (talking to the ultimate idealist) I don’t see this happening until the millennium. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it individually, but in politics and government… not going to happen.

  2. The problem is that we hide behind other definitions of Christianity contradict the teachings of Christ, not only in our lives, but in our politics and government. Look at the conservative movement. How many are really willing (those who believe in Christ) to turn the other cheek in their own lives?

    And you are probably right that the change won’t happen; but if we are not willing to apply the principles of Christ, we must be willing to suffer the consequences.

    Are these principles applicable to dealing with radical Islam? I think that it is the only real solution. Otherwise, the violence will just continue to breed more violence and cause more suffering, want, hunger, etc.

  3. Reluctant,

    I understand where you are coming from with the argument about perfection, but the point is that one needn’t wait for perfection in order to implement any of the teachings of Christ. It’s a matter of emphasis more than perception of perfection. Is it easier to keep the law of Chastity or the law of consecration? It depends on what is emphasized. We all have our weaknesses that Christ’s grace can make strong, but in the meantime, we have to decide to be obedient. Why is it theoretically easier to keep the law of Chastity than to “turn the other cheek” and “resist not evil?” It is because that is what has been emphasized over the past 2000 years because not resisting evil is inconsistent with the politicization of Christianity. Leaders couldn’t emphasize non-resistance of violence and gain political power. Hence as soon a Constantine saddled up with the Christians and Augustine (and others) agreed to alter the creeds (either consciously on not), the emphasis on the doctrine of non-resistance of evil was not only put on the back burner, it almost became a heresy because it wasn’t consistent with the church’s political ambitions.

  4. Interesting comment about Constantine. I’ve never thought of that before.

    I still am not sure if politicians can take that stance though. When lives are at stake, the leader can’t sacrifice lives of people that don’t feel that way. Doesn’t he have a responsibility to protect the citizens.

    I realize that there should be more of an emphasis on peaceful solutions, but that doesn’t always work out. I suppose it’s possible that the emphasis is enough.

  5. But a leader can draft young men into an army who don’t want to fight and die??? Seems like the leader can sacrifice some lives that don’t feel that violence solves the problems, but can’t sacrifice the lives of those who want to fight back??? It just seems inconsistent to me. It’s a perfect example of justifying the violence. If a leader truly wants to protect the citizens, she may chose to not resist evil, a path that in the future generations would truly provide safety and peace.

    Tolstoy would argue that government by its nature is anti-Christian because it is set up to resist evil. I don’t know. Government can preserve order to a degree, but it does so by resisting evil and perhaps worsening the evil it is trying to resist.

    Re: Constantine: The seeds were sown much earlier as the fathers of the Roman church recognized a couple of things. 1) In order to survive, the doctrine had to embrace some of the pagan beliefs of surrounding cultures (see Christmas, Easter, etc.), and 2) In order to survive and flourish, the church had to become a political player. In so doing, it sacrifice the simple teachings of the Sermon on the Mount for the political power plays that dominated Christianity for the next 1800 years.

  6. Sorry, this is a long comment. Yesterday in church I was reading D&C 98 and found the following:
    “14 Therefore, be not afraid of your enemies, for I have decreed in my heart, saith the Lord, that I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant, even unto death, that you may be found worthy.”

    What is the covenant He refers to? It’s enduring to the end through the “proving” grounds, even if that proving kills us. If we abide in the covenant, we’ll be found worthy—but we won’t necessarily be avenged.

    “15 For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me.
    16 Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children;
    17 And again, the hearts of the Jews unto the prophets, and the prophets unto the Jews; lest I come and smite the whole earth with a curse, and all flesh be consumed before me.
    18 Let not your hearts be troubled; for in my Father’s house are many mansions, and I have prepared a place for you; and where my Father and I am, there ye shall be also.”

    This is the reward for abiding in the covenant—it’s not winning the battles in this life.

    “33 And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them.
    34 And if any nation, tongue, or people should proclaim war against them, they should first lift a standard of peace unto that people, nation, or tongue;
    35 And if that people did not accept the offering of peace, neither the second nor the third time, they should bring these testimonies before the Lord;
    36 Then I, the Lord, would give unto them a commandment, and justify them in going out to battle against that nation, tongue, or people.
    37 And I, the Lord, would fight their battles, and their children’s battles, and their children’s children’s, until they had avenged themselves on all their enemies, to the third and fourth generation.”

    This was the doctrine Gidgiddoni was following in 3 Nephi 3:20-21 when he said, “if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands.”

    Christians often cite Christ’s cleansing of the temple as justification for violence. The problems with this logic are 1) Christ is perfect in his judgment and we are not—if we try to do the same without his specific and authoritative permission (as Nephi did), we are breaking assuming omniscience we don’t possess; 2) Christ did not command us to do the same—rather he commanded us in the Sermon on the Mount not to resist evil; 3) if we’re going to chase out the money-changers, they’re located on downtown corners in every city in America, often referred to as payday lenders—they are not unwitting Muslims halfway around the world who adhere to their own faith’s prohibition against charging or paying interest.

    President Kimball said, “In the context of the spirit of forgiveness, one good brother asked me, ‘Yes, that is what ought to be done, but how do you do it? Doesn’t that take a superman?’
    “’Yes,’ I said, ‘but we are commanded to be supermen. Said the Lord, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.) We are gods in embryo, and the Lord demands perfection of us.’’
    “’Yes, the Christ forgave those who injured him, but he was more than human,’ he rejoined.
    “And my answer was: ‘But there are many humans who have found it possible to do this divine thing.’
    “Apparently there are many who, like this good brother, hold the comfortable theory that the forgiving spirit … is more or less the monopoly of scriptural or fictional characters and can hardly be expected of practical people in today’s world. This is not the case.’”
    “[M]en often are unwilling to leave [judgment] to the Lord, fearing perhaps that the Lord might be too merciful, less severe than is proper in the case.”

    I think this is a HUGE part of the reluctance to give peace a chance. Like Dan said, someone has to be “taught a lesson,” and we feel we know enough to do it right. We’re SO wrong.

  7. Dave, if you are going to quote scripture, don’t leave out the part that doesn’t support your case:

    28 And now, verily I say unto you, if that enemy shall escape my vengeance, that he be not brought into judgment before me, then ye shall see to it that ye warn him in my name, that he come no more upon you, neither upon your family, even your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.
    29 And then, if he shall come upon you or your children, or your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, I have delivered thine aenemy into thine hands;
    30 And then if thou wilt spare him, thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness; and also thy children and thy children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.
    31 Nevertheless, thine enemy is in thine hands; and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified; if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him, thine enemy is in thine hands and thou art justified.

    Now, I’m not using these verses as a justification of this war (or any war for that matter). As illustrated in this section, you are greatly rewarded if you are able to “resist not evil.” But if after repeated offenses your enemy is still attacking you, you are justified in defending yourself.

    Just don’t leave out the stuff that doesn’t fit perfectly into your point.

  8. The search for earthly justice will always be an fruitless one. Read Plato’s Republic and Socrates starts out saying that (then Plato inserts his own messed up opinions [my read]). That’s one of Christ’s fundamental points…we can never have justice here and so we’ve got to get past trying to impose justice on others. “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” or in other words “Don’t attempt to impose justice, that the false, imprecise, unjust justice that you use might not be imposed upon you.”

    The question is…are these injunctions applicable in all situations? Christ seems to imply so. And if we apply them in all situations, is there a purpose for government?

  9. Mike,

    Two examples that you left out (among probably hundreds) of people following the ideal. The Amish response to the incident last year – they completely forgot and forgave, to the extent of consoling the offending party’s family and plowing under the schoolhouse to remove it completely. Second, Tibetan Buddhism. Rather than fight the Communist Chinese (other than through token efforts), they have chosen the path of relocating as much as possible to unhostile territory and peaceful publishing of their plight to the world. Apparently there is a small group advocating violent, terroristic actions against the Chinese in Lhasa, but the overwhelming majority seek change through peaceful means, enduring atrocities and forgiving the perpetrators. The Dalai Lama made a comment that brings to mind Betsy ten Boom from The Hiding Place. He has recently asked that Tibet become a Zone of Peace, to take up its traditional role as such in the heart of Asia, commenting that the current Chinese culture is so devoid of spirituality that in order for it to truly return to normality, it will need spiritual guidance … especially for those who have allowed themselves to become so misguided as to perpetrate evils against peaceful individuals. The corresponding segment in The Hiding Place is when Betsy and Corrie are watching a Nazi guard severely beat a retarded woman, and Betsy tells Corrie that what has happened to the guard to bring her to that state is the reason why they need to create a group to help heal the victims of Nazism … they need to help the guards heal, as much as, or more than, the other victims.

    Does a society need to be closed, as in the Amish, or so focused on spirituality in daily life, as each of these groups is, or does it require a view, as in the Buddhists, of reincarnation that ties each individual to every other entity in the world (you may have once been a Muslim or a New Yorker, or both … or a mosquito, for that matter, and may be one again)? What does it take to create a society that will follow the ideal? Is the LDS Church such a society? Does it wish to be so? Is the populace of the church more interested in political power and achievement, or is it simply distracted? I think it may be the latter.

    I have been disappointed to learn first-hand that not many in the LDS Church want to even consider this question … it seems not to even be on the radar. Like you said, Mike, hard lines have been drawn in many areas, and rightfully so, but this seems to be avoided. Sure, there’s the option of fighting back once we’ve exhausted all attempts to try for peace, as Reluctant points out, but do we even try for peace? ‘Pre-emptive’ strikes disavow any attempt to enter into the process. How can this be justified? It leaves me mystified to watch the populace of the church toe this line, or pass the buck … including local and general leaders. Such ‘pre-emptive’ strikes are what led Mormon to quit leading the Nephites, and led to the demise of them as a people. Shouldn’t this be a wake-up call?

  10. Mike,

    As to your question of whether this injunction allows for government at all, you might check out Tupper Saussy’s book Rulers of Evil. Much speculation in there, but he does argue that governments exist only to rule over evildoers, and that those who are free of this distinction, i.e., true Christians, are exempt in some way. He’s probably right.

  11. Dave L.

    Thanks for joining the discussion. I find the example of the Amish to be a fascinating phenomenon that doesn’t have to be limited to closed societies but is likely limited to societies in which power and wealth have no meaning. Once there is power and wealth to be had, forgiveness is incredibly hard to find. There is an overarching sense that someone is trying to take away what is yours and you have to make sure that your version of justice is meted out for every wrong.

    In addition to the two philosophical books mentioned (Tolstoy wrote a couple of others, I am learning) he wrote a novel explaining the concepts entitled Resurrection.

    http://www.amazon.com/Resurrection-Penguin-Classics-Leo-Tolstoy/dp/0140441840/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2/102-8102133-2262504?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1190997670&sr=8-2

    I am planning on posting some of the ideas therein soon.

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