[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Capital Punishment
and Christianity

by Leo Tolstoy

Two days ago I received the following letter from a student of the St. Petersburg University:

Respected Leo Nicolayevich,

I am sending you an article by that appeared in the Novoe Vremya of December 18th and earnestly beg you to say what you think of it, and especially of Christ’s words.  Does he indeed assert that “he who speaks evil of his father and mother” is worthy of Capital Punishment?  …

This is the article that was sent:

To protest against Capital Punishment is a very easy, pleasant, and profitable undertaking.  From my childhood I have always thought that the State could very well dispense with Capital Punishment, that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” expresses an authoritative law binding upon all mankind, and that Capital Punishment is directly contrary to the Christian system.

But the revolution that Russia has so recently passed through, and the dreadful increase of crime in France at a period when Capital Punishment was practically allowed to fall into disuse, have compelled many (in these two countries with widely different political organizations) to waver in their opposition to Capital Punishment.  To me, the subject now appears much more complicated and uncertain than it formerly did in its apparent simplicity and clarity.

The first doubt that arises in one’s mind is whether the State, by its refusal to execute criminals, thereby condemns to death the casual victims of various crimes.  In other words, does the State, by exonerating admittedly culpable individuals condemn an incomparably greater number of manifestly innocent people to death?

But this advocacy of Capital Punishment contradicts our religious ideas…  One has to analyze this also.  How is the stern Law of Moses, so full of the penalty of death, to be reconciled with the general commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”?  It is perfectly obvious that this commandment refers to private relations between citizens while safeguarding the State monopoly of the Hebrew theocracy, exactly in the same way as the law presently forbids private individuals to construct railways, thereby demonstrating the prerogative of the State to fulfill this function itself.

But the rigid Law of Moses evolved into the mild religion of Christ.  It is the custom to believe that a simple reference to the Gospels is quite sufficient to triumphantly refute the very possibility of Capital Punishment.  However, in the Gospels at one only place, Mark 7:9-13, Capital Punishment is mentioned and approved:

“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God), then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.  Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Here we see that Christ describes the law with its consequence of Capital Punishment as “God’s word” and contrasts this law with the tradition that annuls its application in certain cases.  What was the attitude of Christ towards judicial errors or unjust sentences?  He had in view those believers whom death should not inspire with that panic fear, which is so natural in the case of those who repudiate life beyond the tomb.  Consequently, he bade them not to be afraid of “those who kill one’s body.”

The right over human life is a horrible right.  Whenever the State allows it to become inoperative, it is taken advantage of by unscrupulous persons and used without restraint or fear.

I could not believe my eyes.  I could not believe this report, so I looked up the December 18th issue of Novoe Vremya and re-read the article.  It was indeed so.  All this was not a dream.  I was awake.

In a large widely circulated Conservative newspaper, which professedly claims to support the Christian religion, this dreadful sacrilege, this mockery, this raillery at Christ’s teaching and its complete repudiation is disseminated throughout Russia with an air of importance, seriousness, and authority.

On the same day I wrote to the student who had sent me the article and also to its author.  To the student I wrote the following:

No fanatic has, until now, taken upon himself to justify Capital Punishment by the words of Jesus.  Such a justification would be artificial, silly, and unconscientious.  Only one inference could be drawn from such an interpretation of the so-called Sacred writings: that there is nothing more harmful for the understanding of the teaching of Jesus, and at the same time more pernicious for true religion and true morality, than to attribute infallibility to the letter of the Scriptures.  There are no greater absurdities, infamies, and cruelties than those which have been and are founded on this letter of the Scriptures.

As to the article, it can be answered only by one word – Shame – which I have written to its author.

The position of the men of our world, and especially of our Russian people at the present moment, is a dreadful one.  Every day the most atrocious and barefaced crimes and murders are being enacted in cold blood and with apparent self-satisfaction, as if the perpetrators – those who regard themselves and are so regarded by the unenlightened masses as the rulers of the people – were doing something necessary and lawful.  But above all, owing to the insolent cynicism with which these crimes are committed, the last remnants of any kind of faith in a law of God, binding upon men, are being destroyed.

I know that those people associated with our false system of government who commit those crimes called executions will not hear my cries and entreaties because they do not wish to.  Nevertheless, I shall not cease to shout and implore about this same thing until the last moment of my life, of which so little remains.  I will continue until these very people, whom I accuse of these evil doings, prevent me from indicting them by doing with me what they do with others who are unpleasant to them, and of late more and more often with my friends who circulate my books.  I cannot be silent, for I am placed in an exceptional position by my age, my accidentally inflated reputation, or some other unknown and incomprehensible circumstances.  It seems that I alone can speak and be heard, of all those people who live in Russia with gagged mouths.  If I did not raise my voice in protest and condemnation, I would by my silence acquiesce in and approve of those atrocities which are committed ever more and more boldly by those unfortunate and erring people who call and deem themselves rulers.  And now I am once more writing about the relation of the men of our pseudo-Christian world, especially of the so-called Educated Class, towards Capital Punishment.

This relation has been vividly expressed in this article.  However inept and absurd this article is in itself, it still represents a very definite mockery of all that which has always been, is, and will be sacred to those people who understand Christian teaching in its true sense.

In this article, published in a paper that has hundreds of thousands of readers, it is stated that Jesus not only did not forbid murder, and not only recognized the necessity of Capital Punishment, but also rebuked men for having abolished it.  Is this Christ a manifestation of the God of Love, of that God who is Love?  There are pseudo-Christians who value most only those passages in all the Gospels where it is said that Christ beat the people with a whip in the Temple, and that he asked his disciples whether they possessed swords.  These people not only refrain from protesting when such an article is printed and circulated all over Russia, but they do not even pay any attention to this mockery.  The article is noticed only by those who see in it a new justification of a crime of which they stand in need.

It is true that the article is quite groundless, and even stupid,[1] and my student correspondent naively asks me whether the author’s interpretation is correct.  The Liberal publications, owing to the position of their party, are against Capital Punishment and ought to point out the falsity and stupidity of this article, as they have hitherto done in reviewing the Press.  But I have examined about a dozen papers, and have nowhere found even one word in condemnation of this blasphemy.  Even worse, a Liberal publication edited by professors, not in connection with the author’s article but in alluding to my recent article on the annexation of Bosnia, argues exactly in the same way as the author does, citing in defense of violence, as is always the case, the ejection of cattle from the Temple.

And this article, which implies that Jesus directed rebukes against those who desire to abolish Capital Punishment, is passed over without protest and is evidently approved of both by the Government and the Liberals.

Why, this is dreadful!

Almost at the same time, during the last sitting of the Women’s Congress, the following took place.  One of the women wished to express the painful feeling engendered in herself and the majority of women by the numerous cases of Capital Punishment, but she had scarcely pronounced the words “Capital Punishment” when a police officer carne forward and forbade her to continue to speak about its being wrong to kill each other.

Something similar occurred at the Duma on one of the days immediately following the appearance of this article.  One of the members of the Duma, having heard that thirty-two men in a Russian town were, in one day, condemned to be strangled, found that such a number of people to be strangled at one time was excessive, and felt it incumbent upon himself on this occasion to express his and his comrades indignation.  This protest was made, however strange such a solemn expression of indignation may appear on the part of people professing the law of Christ, against others professing the same law and yet occupied for some years with strangling their fellow-men, but who, in the opinion of those protesting, had desired to strangle too many men at one time.  But what followed?  How did most of the pseudo-representatives of the people receive this expression of indignation?  Why, with wild shrieks, curses, and the same sanctions imposed on the protest against murder made at the Women’s Congress.  The regulations of the Press Censorship impose fines for every attempt at condemnation of Capital Punishment, with the palpable intention of concealing such crimes at all costs.  As is the case with all criminals who are conscious of their guilt, the Government is doing that which every criminal does to silence the witnesses of his crime.

Moreover, we should not forget to identify those who were most active in silencing others who had expressed their indignation against Capital Punishment.  Who were those most incensed against the desire of men to put an end to fratricide?  They were the people who assure themselves and others that they believe in some law established by religious clerics, which they call the Christian law, and in, the name of which they have already committed, do commit, and desire to continue to commit their atrocities with impunity.

In this Christian State, every man upon attaining a certain age must become a soldier ready to kill.  All preparations for murder are encouraged and all kinds of tyranny are allowed.  For example, those who wish to feed and support themselves by working their land are robbed of their land.  Prostitution is sanctioned, drunkenness is organized, and spies are recognized as necessary.  One thing only is prohibited with the greatest care and insistence: the expression of disapproval of murder.

Is it not obvious that those who act thus know who they are, and know that they have not only no religious or moral justification for their activity, but also no rational justification whatever?  They have only one recourse: to retain their position by means of every kind of revolting crime, murder, robbery, various frauds, roguery, and villainy.  This they do with astounding cynicism and audacity.

People are astonished that life is full of every kind of horror and evil.  But how can it be otherwise?  Life can be imperfect in a society in which the conditions of life lag behind the ideal indicated by faith, or in which faith itself is accompanied by a certain amount of vagueness and distortion.  But how can life be, I will not say moral, but to some degree decent, in a society in which there is no faith and no conception of the meaning of life or of the guidance for conduct flowing from this meaning?  In China, India, and Japan, amongst those peoples which we, imagining ourselves Christian, regard as savage, a more or less rational life may be realized.  They may not possess so many gramophones, cinemas, automobiles, toilet embellishments, airplanes, thirty-story skyscrapers, or mountains of printed paper as we do. On the other hand, they have a religious-moral law and a guidance for conduct flowing from it, which the majority regard as binding upon themselves.  Whereas we, so-called Christians, have many unnecessary and perniciously silly things of which we are proud, but lack that one thing without which human life is not life, but animal existence.  We have no higher law, recognized by all, that might explain the meaning of human life and of the practical guidance flowing from it.

This is such an extraordinary thing!  Precisely because of the sublimity, the verity, and the adaptability to life of Christian teaching, those who have accepted it have remained without any religious teaching whatever.

Christian teaching was accepted by people living in societies united only by compulsion and threats of every kind of punishment for those who might not wish to submit to the existing coercion.  Therefore, it is understandable that the essence of Christian teaching, which proposed the substitution of love for violence (this alone is the essence of Christian teaching), could not be accepted.  This essence had to be not only carefully concealed, but also concealed in such a way that Christian teaching itself, repudiating all violence, should be made the justification, support, and confirmation of all violence.

This undertaking, at first sight seemingly impossible, was indeed realized.  The teaching of love, infinite pardon, and returning good for evil was not only combined with, but became the justification of, the existence of armies, wars, patriotism, law courts, prisons, executions, landed property, and every kind of violence.  A vast number of theologians and scientists exerted themselves at this very difficult task, and it was accomplished.  Instead of the simple, clear, Christian teaching of love, responding to the demands of the soul of every man, there arose, equally in Roman Catholicism, Greek-Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, a complex, cunningly devised combination of theological and scientific sophisms.  They had pompous, ritual, and senseless dogmas, void of any inner substance, but attained the double purpose that the ruling classes had in view: that of concealing the true meaning of Christianity, and that of giving the people, instead of Christianity, something that imitated it. 

Eventually, both purposes were completely attained.  People did not see the true meaning of Christianity and blindly believed in the invented faith – in the Church, the pope, dogmas, sacraments, redemption, relics, icons, and the Bible – and, content with this idolatrous, coarse faith, they obediently submitted to the ruling classes.  So it went on for a long time, but with the development of enlightenment, this artificial faith became less acceptable to the people.  At last they saw it in all its emptiness and inner contradictions and began to free themselves more and more from it.  Freeing themselves from the Church faith, people also freed themselves from Christianity, which had been so cunningly interwoven with the Church faith that, freeing themselves from Churchianity, they necessarily freed themselves from Christianity in its true meaning.  And it came to pass that the great majority of the Christian world, especially the so-called cultured classes, having freed themselves from the falsehood of ecclesiastical faith, remained in a position most unnatural for man: without any faith, without any explanation of the meaning of life, and without any consequent general guidance for their conduct arising from it.

The most of the propertied classes of the Christian world are now placed in exactly such a position, and especially in Russia.  The majority of these classes, like the revolutionaries and government representatives, wish to lead the people and imagine they are so doing, but they really believe in nothing and recognize no other understanding of life except coarse animal egotism and vanity.  The difference between the two groups is only that the revolutionaries recognize their unbelief, and even boast of it, whereas the government officials pride themselves on a belief in that in which it is no longer possible to believe.

The absence of any kind of faith, both among those who strive against the government and those who constitute the government, is manifest in the most varied forms, and particularly so at the present time in the attitude of our cultured society to Capital Punishment.

In the Duma, deputies protest against Capital Punishment, but they do so, not in the name of any religious or moral principles, but merely because it is being ever less frequently applied in progressive countries, and because the repudiation of Capital Punishment is an important trump card against the opposing party.  One would think the simplest, most natural and irresistible objection to Capital Punishment would be the religious one, which asserts that Capital Punishment is incompatible with that Christianity which is professed even by the advocates of Capital Punishment.  But Liberals cannot avail themselves of this consideration, firstly because they themselves do not recognize any religion and regard all religion as the remnants of unenlightenment and superstition, and secondly because they vaguely feel that true Christianity must oppose all violence, whereas they recognize the necessity of violence just as the opposing party does, although for directly opposite purposes. 

Their opponents, on the other hand, regarding themselves as religious people, and professing a pseudo-Christian faith corrected by both clerical and lay commentators, regard Capital Punishment as such an indispensable condition of Christian life that the saving of others from death, which it would seem is binding on every man who is able to do so, appears to such individuals as a kind of heroism.  Thus, while I was concluding this article, there appeared in the papers the announcement that the Russian Czar, as he himself expressed it, “granted life” to these thirty-two condemned men.  This man had the possibility of saving thousands of men condemned to be executed, bud did not do so for several years, and only now, shocked by the simultaneous condemnation of thirty-two men, did so to a small fraction of those who have been killed with his consent.  And this information has inspired among people, calling themselves Christian, not horror and repulsion towards this unfortunate, erring man, but praise and enthusiasm.

Yes, the chief calamity is not in despotism, not in the worthlessness, cruelty, and stupidity of those who are in power, not in the exasperation of the revolutionaries, and not in the poverty of the people, but in only one thing: in the absence of religion on the one side and in the dissimulation and self-deception on the other.

Some – the Liberals – imagine that people can live without religion, and that they themselves have no religion, whereas they have a very one-sided, insignificant, restricted, and vague, not to say silly religion, which they call science.  Others – the Government officials, the guardians of the old order – imagine that they have a religion, whereas they have none whatever, but have only that Church fraud which they are in need of in order not to lose their power over the deceived people.

You are a conservative, you order executions, you participate in them, and you justify them because you have the welfare of society at heart.  And you, the revolutionary, say the same thing, organizing your explosions, assassinations, and expropriations.  But you both err, and only deceive others and yourselves.  In the first place, the organization of life that you have set your hearts upon cannot be infallibly right, for others are equally certain that theirs is the right one.  Secondly, the order of life people desire to institute is never realized; something quite opposite always takes place.  Thirdly, every act of violence, including the kind that you regard as being entitled to, by no means contributes toward, but on the contrary always counteracts, the good order of life.  And fourthly, above all, your vocation in this life, which at any moment may cease, can by no means consist either in preserving the existing order or in the establishment of any kind of social organization.  Instead, it can only lay in the fulfillment of one’s duties as a man before God or before one’s conscience, if you do not recognize God.

And you, a man liable to die at any moment, find nothing better to do than to devote your whole life to the violent and murderous support of your favorite social organization, which is utterly unnecessary for your soul and for the fulfillment of your true destiny.

Therefore, whoever you are – Czar, terrorist, hangman, leader of this or that party, soldier, or professor – whoever you may be, there is only one question before you: which of your duties are the most important, and which of them should you sacrifice for the sake of some other duties?  Should you sacrifice the duties of a member of the State, the duties of your nation, the duties of your revolutionary party, or the duties of man – the duties of a member of the whole of past, present, and future mankind?  Is it proper for you, a rational being, a man, to spend your life, which may cease at any moment, with spite, with irritation and often with despair, in deeds of violence and murder, in the name of a presumably better social organization?  Or, on the contrary, independent of any concern about this or that organization, placing your human dignity above all, is it proper to use your strength in concert with your conscience for acts of righteousness and love, which, completely satisfying you in the present moment, at the same time inevitably also bring all humanity nearer, not to that mythical human welfare which each one defines in his own way, but to that welfare toward which humanity is indubitably and unceasingly striving.

Yes, the situation of present day Christendom is dreadful.  There is only one consolation: it is so dreadful that it cannot last much longer.  People cannot but recognize that eternal truth which, however imperfectly it may be felt, is yet a part of the consciousness of every person: that it is not natural for one to live by violence, threats, or murders, but by love.  Having grasped this truth, people must necessarily change the course of their activities, and this alteration of their objective will of itself, although we know hot how, also change the organization of human life.  Yes, people cannot refrain from doing this, for life can only be altered according to revealed truth.  But truth cannot be changed according to the form of life that pleases us.  That is all the more impossible, because men of the Christian world have been endeavoring to do this for several centuries, and all their efforts to distort the truth, and to continue life along the old lines, are leading only to ever increasing calamities and to a greater and greater elucidation of the truth.

Yásnaya Polyána, January 2, 1909

Transcribed and edited by WWW.NONRESISTANCE.ORG.

Thanks go to Paul Efremov for leading us to this essay.

This transcription is under no copyright protection.  It is our gift to you.

You may freely copy, print, and transmit it, but please do not change or sell it.

And please bring any mistakes to our attention.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

[1]The article does not mention that there is no reference in the ancient law to Capital Punishment, but simply to death, nor does it mention that death is prescribed, not for failure to support one’s parents, but for cursing and speaking ill of them.  The unmistakable meaning of the passage is that Christ, in quoting the words of Moses, evidently speaks only of the duty to revere one’s parents, but by no means says that those evil-doers who are killing people in Russia at the present time are acting righteously.