Tolstoy, Orthodoxy and justice


I’ve been watching the excellent BBC series, The History of Christianity on the BBC iPlayer. It’s superb. And some of the most interesting parts of it concern the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Did you know, for instance, that the Russian Cyrillic alphabet was created by the Orthodox Church to evangelise slavic peasantry? There’s a pub-quiz fact for you.

The Orthodox Church has at times been used as a tool of state oppression in Russia and at times stood valiantly against it. I have been reading about the life of a famous literary figure who stood against the church itself — not because he opposed the principles of the Gospel, but because he felt the church, under the Tsars, had betrayed those principles.

The literary figure is Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, and I’ve been reading a book about his reflections on his own unorthodox (in both senses of the word) take on Christianity. It’s called Leo Tolstoy, Spiritual Writings (edited by Charles E Moore) and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Christianity and justice.

Here’s a poignant piece from The Kingdom of God is within You, that I just love:

Are you doing what God has sent you into the world for, and to whom you will soon return? Are you doing what he wills? Are you doing his will, when as a landowner or entrepreneur you rob the poor of the fruits of their toil, basing your life on this plunder of the workers, or when, as a judge or governor, you sentence them to execution, or when as soldiers you prepare for war, killing and plunder?

Even if you are told that all this is necessary for maintaining the existing order, and that greater disasters would ensue if the way things are were destroyed, isn’t it obvious that all this is said by those who profit from the arrangement, while those who suffer from it — and they are ten times as numerous– think to the contrary? And at the bottom of your heart you know yourself that it is not true, that the existing order of things is not how things are supposed to be.

More importantly, even if such a life is necessary, why do you believe it is your duty to maintain it at


the cost of your best feelings? Who has made you the nurse in charge of this sick and moribund system? Not society, nor the state nor anyone. No one has asked you to undertake this. You who fill your position of landowner, businessman, politician, priest or soldier know very well that you occupy the position not because you are so concerned with other people’s happiness but simply to satisfy your own security and well-being. If you did not desire that position, you would not be doing your utmost to retain it.

Try the experiment of ceasing to compromise your conscience in order to retain your position, and you will lose it at once. Think about it.