WHAT I BELIEVE
by Leo Tolstoy
Now it has grown clear to me that Christ’s law is truly His law, and not the mixed Law of Moses and Christ. The claim of His doctrine distinctly repudiates the claim of the Mosaic Law; and, consequently, instead of the obscurity, diffuseness, and inconsistency that I had previously found in the gospels, they now combine to form an indissoluble whole; and the basis, or central maxim, of the entire doctrine is expressed in the simple, clear, and perfectly intelligible five commandments of Christ (Matt. 5:21-48), which I had hitherto failed to apprehend.
Mention is made in all the gospels of the ‘commandments of Christ,’ and their fulfillment is enjoined. All theologians speak of the commandments of Christ, but I never knew what these commandments were.
I supposed the commandment of Christ to be the exhortation to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves. I did not see that this could not be the commandment of Christ, seeing that it was a commandment given to the ancient Hebrews (see Deuteronomy and Leviticus). On reading the words, ‘Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19),’ I thought they referred to the Mosaic Law. It never occurred to me that the new commandments of Christ were clearly and distinctly expressed in verses 21-48 of the fifth chapter of St. Matthew. Nor did I notice that by the words, ‘You have heard that is has been said…but I say to you,’ Christ gives us new and most definite commandments; annexed to the five quotations of the Mosaic Law (reckoning the two quotations that refer to adultery as one), we find five new and definite commandments of Christ.
I had often heard about the Beatitudes, and had met with the enumeration and explanation of them in the course of the religious instruction given to me in my youth; but I never heard a word about the commandments of Christ. To my great surprise I had to discover them.
I shall now point out what led me to the discovery. In Matt. 5:21-26, we read, ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not kill; and whoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Exodus 20:23) But I say to you, that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, raca, shall be in danger of the judgment; but whoever shall say, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell-fire. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you; leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest at any time the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall by no means come out from there until you have paid the last kopeck.’
On a clear comprehension of the doctrine of ‘non-resistance,’ it seemed to me that the text quoted above must have the same application to life as that doctrine. I had formerly considered these words as meaning that we were to avoid all anger against a fellow-creature, that we were never to use abusive language, and that we were to live at peace with all, not excepting any; but there stood a clause in the text which excluded all possibility of thus understanding it. It is said, ‘whoever is angry with his brother without a cause,’ and the idea of unconditional peace is annulled by the last, italicized words. They puzzled me. I sought for a solution of my doubts in theological commentaries; but to my surprise I found that the interpretation of the Fathers of the Church were especially directed toward defining the cases in which anger may be excused and cannot be excused. Laying particular stress on the words ‘without a cause,’ commentators tell us the meaning of the text is that we are never to wound a man’s feelings causelessly, nor use abusive language; but add that anger is not always unjust, and in support of that opinion they cite instances of the anger of the apostles and the saints.
I was obliged to acknowledge that, though contrary to the whole spirit of the gospel, the interpretation of the Fathers, by which anger is accounted justifiable when, to use their own expression, it is ‘ to the glory of God,’ was consistent, being based on the words ‘without a cause,’ which we find in verse 22. This clause entirely altered the sense of the saying.
Do not be angry without a cause. Christ exhorts us to forgive all, to forgive without end; Christ Himself forgave, and when led away to be crucified, reproved Peter for defending Him against Malchus; and yet it would seem that Peter had good cause for anger. And the same Christ exhorts all men not to be angry without a cause, thus justifying anger if there is a reason for it, if it is not causeless! Isn’t it as if Christ, who came to preach peace to all simple-minded men, had, on second thoughts, added the words ‘without a cause’ to show that this precept did not apply to all cases indiscriminately – that anger might sometimes be justifiable? Commentators tell us that anger may be justifiable. ‘But,’ I said to myself, ‘can any man be a fit judge of the reasonableness of his anger? Never yet have I seen an angry man who did not consider himself perfectly just in his anger. Each thinks his anger both lawful and necessary.’ The words ‘without a cause’ seemed entirely to destroy the meaning of the text. But they were in the gospel, and I could not set them aside. And yet it came to much the same as if, to the saying ‘Love your neighbor,’ were added the words ‘your neighbor who pleases you.’
The words ‘without a cause’ destroyed the significance of the whole text for me. Verses 23 and 24, in which we read that before praying we must be at peace with him who has something against us, which would have had a direct, obligatory sense without the words ‘without a cause,’ now acquired a conditional meaning.
It seemed to me that Christ must have meant to forbid all anger, all ill-will, and in order to suppress it, had enjoined each person, before he brings his gift to the altar – i.e., before he draws near to God – to think upon whether there is any man who is angry with him. And if there is someone, he must be reconciled to him first, and then he may bring his gift to the altar or pray. It seemed thus to me, but, according to all commentaries, the sense of the passage was conditional.
In all commentaries we are told that we must try to be at peace with all men; but if that is impossible, on account of the perversity of our adversary, we must be at peace with him in mind, in our thoughts, and then his enmity will be no barrier to our prayer. Moreover, the words that declare that whoever shall say ‘raca,’ or ‘you fool,’ commits a great sin, always seemed most strange and unintelligible to me. If the words forbid abusive language, why are such weak epithets chosen, which can hardly be reckoned terms of abuse? And why was there so awful a threat against one who might, perhaps inadvertently, use as inoffensive a word as raca – i.e., a worthless fellow? This seemed incomprehensible to me.
I felt sure that there was the same misunderstanding here as I had found in the words ‘do not judge.’ I felt sure that a simple, definite, and highly important commandment, which all have it in their power to fulfill, had been perverted, as in the preceding instance, into something almost incomprehensible. I felt sure that Christ had not used the words, ‘be reconciled to your brother,’ in the sense now given to them by our commentators: ‘be reconciled to your brother in mind.’
Reconciled in mind! What can that mean? I thought that Christ meant exactly what He expressed in the words of the prophet, ‘I will have mercy’ – i.e., love to all men – ‘and not sacrifice.’ And therefore, if you wish to find favor in God’s sight, before repeating your morning and evening prayer, or before attending public worship, reflect whether anyone is angry with you; and if such a one can be found, go and be reconciled to him first, and then you may come and pray. Let your reconciliation no be ‘in mind’ only. I saw that the interpretation, which destroyed the direct and clear meaning of the text, was based on the words ‘without a cause.’ Their omission would render the whole perfectly clear; but the canonical gospel, in which stand the words ‘without a cause,’ and all commentaries upon it, were contrary to my interpretation.
Had I chosen arbitrarily to alter the sense of this passage, I might have done so with any other text as well; and might not other interpreters have done so too? All the difficulty lay in one little clause. If this clause were removed, all would be clear. So I endeavored to find some philological explanation of the words that should not destroy the sense of the text.
On consulting the dictionary, I saw the Greek word is ειχη, and that it likewise means ‘purposelessly, thoughtlessly.’ I again read the text over attentively, to see if any other meaning could be given to it, but found that the clause was evidently correct. I consulted the Greek dictionary, and the meaning given to the word was the same. I consulted the context, but the word is only used once in the gospels: in the passage in question. We find it several times in the epistles. In the first epistle to the Corinthians (15:2) it is used in the same sense. Therefore, there seemed to be no other possible rendering of the text, and I found myself obliged to believe that Christ said, ‘Do not be angry without a cause.’ I must confess that, to believe in Christ’s having uttered so indefinite a saying – which admits of an interpretation that reduces it to a mere nothing – seemed to me equivalent to an entire renunciation of the gospel itself. A last hope was left to me: was this clause to be found in all the transcripts of the gospel? I examined various translations. I looked in Griesbach’s edition of the gospels, in which he enumerates all the transcripts in which a similar expression is used; and I found, to my great joy, that there were several references attached to this particular text. I examined them, and found that they referred to the very words, ‘without a cause.’ In the greater number of the transcripts of the gospel, and in the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church, these words are omitted. Thus, the majority understood the text as I do. I then consulted the first transcript of Tischendorf, but the words are not there. The shortest way to solve the problem would have been to look in Luther’s translation of the gospel; but the words are not to be found there either.
The clause, which so entirely destroys the sense of Christ’s doctrine, was an addition made in the fifth century, and it is not to be found in any of the most trustworthy transcripts of the gospel. Someone had inserted the clause, and others had approved of it, and then tried to explain it.
Christ never could have added so monstrous a clause; and the simple, direct meaning of the text, which had first struck me, and must strike others, is the true one.
Nor is this all; for, no sooner did I understand that Christ’s words forbade anger against any person whatever, than the command not to call a fellow-creature ‘raca,’ or ‘you fool,’ struck me in a new light, and I could no longer consider it as being intended to forbid the use of abusive language. The untranslated word raca opened my eyes to the true sense. The word raca means ‘trampled upon, set at naught, made of no account.’ The word rac is a word very generally used, and it signifies ‘excepting,’ ‘only not.’ Raca, therefore, means a man unworthy of the title of man. We find the plural, rakim, used in the Book of Judges (9:4) in the sense of ‘lost.’ So this is the word we are forbidden by Christ to use in speaking of a fellow-creature. In the same manner He forbids our saying ‘you fool,’ words by which we may consider ourselves justified in setting aside our duty toward our neighbor. We give way to anger, wrong others, and allege for our justification that the man who has excited our anger is a lost man or a fool. And these are the epithets that we are forbidden by Christ to apply to any man. He forbids our giving way to anger against our fellow-creatures; He forbids our justifying our anger by calling its object a lost man or a fool.
And now, in the place of an indistinct, indefinite, and insignificant expression, subject to countless arbitrary interpretations, the first simple, clear, and distinct commandment of Christ arose before me, as contained in verses 21-26: ‘Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without a cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.’
And now the second commandment of Christ, which also begins with a reference to the ancient law, grew clear to me also.
Matthew 5:27-32: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14-28) But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell. And if your right hand offends you, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell. It has been said, “Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement.” (Deuteronomy 24:1) But I say to you that whoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever shall marry a divorced woman commits adultery.’
I understood these words to signify that no man must ever admit, even in thought, the possibility of leaving the woman he was first united to for another, a thing that is permitted by the Mosaic Law.
As in His first commandment against anger, we are advised to stifle the feeling in its birth – the advice being further exemplified by the comparison of the man delivered up to the judge – so here Christ says that fornication is the consequence of men and women letting their thoughts dwell on sexual relations; and, to avoid this, we must set aside all that can excite such thoughts; and, when once united to a woman, we must never leave her, under any pretext whatever, because this opens the door to sinful indulgence.
I was struck by the wisdom of the saying. It tends to do away with all the evils resulting from sexual relations. Men and women are to avoid all that can excite sensuality, being fully aware that nothing is more conducive to dissensions in the world than carnal pleasures, and knowing also that the law of nature is that the race should live together in couples, united in bonds that cannot be dissolved.
In the Sermon on the Mount the words, ‘saving for the cause of fornication,’ which had always seemed strange to me, struck me still more forcibly when I saw that they were considered as permitting divorce if the wife had committed adultery.
Besides there being something unworthy in the very way the idea is expressed, and in this strange exception standing side by side with the most important principles that the sermon contained – like a regulation in some code – the exception itself was in direct opposition to the fundamental idea of Christ’s teaching.
I consulted the commentators of the gospels, and all of them (John Chrysostom, page 365), and even theological critics like Reuss, affirm that these words mean that Christ permits divorce if the wife has committed adultery; that in Christ’s prohibition of divorce, in Matthew 19:9, where we read ‘saving for the cause of fornication,’ the words have that meaning. I read the thirty-second verse over and over again, and came to the conclusion that this interpretation of the words was erroneous. In order to verify my opinion, I examined the context, and found, earlier in the chapter 19 of the gospel according to St. Matthew, in Mark 10, in Luke 16, and in the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, a similar declaration of the indissolubility of the marriage tie, without exception of any kind.
In the gospel according to St. Luke 16:18, we read, ‘Whoever puts away his wife, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is put away from her husband commits adultery.’
In the gospel according to St. Mark 10:4-12, we read, ‘For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the two of them shall be one flesh; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, do not let man put asunder.’ And in the house His disciples asked Him again of the same matter. And He said to them, ‘Whoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, commits adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she commits adultery.’
We find the same teaching in the gospel according to St. Matthew 19:4-8.
In the epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 7:1-12, the statement that depravity may be prevented by husbands and wives never forsaking each other, nor defrauding each other for their rights, is enlarged upon; and it is distinctly said that neither shall the husband in any case forsake his wife for another woman, nor the wife leave her husband for another man.
Thus we see that, according to the gospels of Mark and Luke and the epistle of Paul, divorce is wholly forbidden. According to the interpretation that husband and wife are one flesh, joined together by God, which we find repeated in two of the gospels, divorce is forbidden. According to the sense of the whole doctrine of Christ, who exhorts us to forgive all, not excluding the wife who has gone astray, it is forbidden. According to the sense of the whole text, which clearly points out that a man’s leaving his wife brings depravity into the world, it is forbidden.
From where, then, is the conclusion drawn that a wife who has committed adultery may be divorced, and on what is it grounded? It is grounded on the very words of Matthew 5:32, which had so strangely struck me. It is alleged that these words prove that Christ permits divorce if the wife has committed adultery; and they are also repeated in the nineteenth chapter in numerous transcripts of the gospel, and by many of the Fathers of the Church, instead of the words, ‘except it be for fornication.’
I read the words over and over again, and it was long before I could understand them. I saw that there was probably something incorrect in the translation and interpretation, but could not for some time make out what it was. That there was a mistake was obvious. Placing his commandment in opposition to that of the Mosaic Law, which says that if a man hates his wife he may put her away, giving her a writing of divorcement, Christ says, ‘But I say to you, that whoever puts away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery.’ There is no opposition in these words, and no mention made of the possibility or impossibility of divorce. We are only told that he who puts away his wife causes her to commit adultery. And then comes a clause that excepts the wife guilty of adultery. This exception is altogether strange and unexpected; it is indeed absurd, as it destroys even the dubious sense of the words. It is stated that the putting away of a wife causes her to commit adultery, and then the husband is exhorted to put away his wife if she is guilty of adultery; as if the wife who was guilty of adultery would not commit adultery!
Moreover, on a closer examination of the text, I saw that it was even grammatically incorrect. It is said, ‘Whoever puts away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery,’ or, if we translate the word παρεψτος literally, ‘besides fornication, causes her to commit adultery.’ The words refer to the husband who causes his wife to commit adultery by putting her away. Then why is the clause ‘cause of fornication’ inserted? If it were said that the husband who puts away his wife, besides being guilty of fornication, commits adultery, the sentence would be grammatically correct. But as the text stands, the noun ‘husband’ has one predicate – ‘causes her,’ etc. – and how does the phrase ‘saving for the cause of fornication’ refer to it? ‘Cannot cause her to commit adultery, saving for the cause of adultery?’ Even if the words ‘wife’ or ‘her’ were added, which is not the case, the words could have no reference to the predicate ‘causes her.’ According to the accepted interpretation, these words are considered as referring to the predicate ‘puts away,’ but the verb ‘puts away’ is not the predicate of the principal sentence, for that is ‘causes her to commit adultery.’ Therefore, for what purpose are the words ‘saving for (or besides) the cause of fornication’ inserted? Whether the wife is guilty of adultery or not, by putting her away the husband causes her to commit that sin.
The sentence would have a meaning if in the place of the word ‘fornication’ we found the words ‘lasciviousness,’ ‘debauchery,’ or some similar word expressing, not an action, but a quality or a state.
‘Doesn’t it mean,’ I said to myself, ‘that he who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery, and is besides guilty of debauchery himself?’ (For if a man divorces his wife, it is in order to take to himself some other woman.) If the word used in the text is found to mean ‘debauchery,’ then the sense will be clear.
And again, as in the preceding instances, the text confirmed my surmise in a manner that left no room for doubt. What first struck me on reading the text was that the word πορνεια, which is, in all translations except the English, rendered as ‘adultery’ in the same way as μοιχασθαι, is, in reality, quite another word. Perhaps the two words are synonymous, or are used in the gospel in the same sense, I thought. So I referred both to the common dictionary and to the evangelical glossaries, and found that the word πορνεια, which is equivalent to the Hebrew ‘zono’ the Latin ‘fornicatio,’ the German ‘Hurerei,’ the Russian ‘распугсгво’ (lewdness), has its own definite meaning, and in no dictionary is it considered as signifying adultery; ‘adultère,’ ‘Ehebruch,’ as it has been translated by Luther. It properly implies a depraved state or disposition, and not an action, and cannot therefore be translated by the word ‘adultery.’ Moreover, I saw that the word ‘adultery’ is always expressed in the gospel, and even in the above-named verses, by another word, μοιχεω. And no sooner had I corrected this evidently intentional perversion of the text than I saw that the sense given to the context of the nineteenth chapter, and by our commentators, was altogether impossible; I saw that there could be no doubt about the word πορνεια referring only to the husband.
Every Greek scholar will construe the passage thus: Παρεχτος (besides) λογου (the matter) πορνειας (of lewdness) ποιει (causes) αυτην (her) μοιχασθαι (to commit adultery). Therefore, the text stands word for word thus: ‘He who divorces his wife, besides the sin of lewdness, causes her to commit adultery.’
We find exactly the same in the nineteenth chapter. No sooner is the incorrect translation of the word πορνεια amended, as well as that of the preposition επι, which has been translated ‘for’; no sooner is the word ‘lewdness’ placed instead of ‘adultery,’ and the preposition ‘by’ instead of ‘for’; than it grows perfectly clear that the words ει μη επι πορνεια can have no reference to the wife. And as the words παρεχτος λογου πορνειας can have no other meaning that ‘besides the sin of lewdness of the husband,’ so the words ει μη επι πορνεια, which we find in the nineteenth chapter, can have no reference to anything except the lewdness of the husband. It is said, ει μη επι πορνεια, which, being translated literally, is, ‘if not by lewdness,’ ‘if not out of lewdness.’ And thus the meaning is clear that Christ in this passage refutes the notion of the Pharisees that a man who put away his wife, not out of lewdness, but in order to live matrimonially with another woman, did not commit adultery; Christ says that the repudiation of a wife, even if it is not done out of lewdness, but in order to be joined in bonds of matrimony to another woman, is adultery. And thus the sense is simple, clear, perfectly consistent with the whole doctrine, and both logically and grammatically correct.
It was with the greatest difficulty that I at last discovered this clear and simple meaning of the words themselves, and their harmony with the whole doctrine of Christ. And, in truth, read the words in the German or French versions, where it is said, ‘pour cause d’infidélité,’ or ‘à moins que cela ne soit pour cause d’infidélité,’ and you will hardly be able to guess that the text has quite another meaning. The word παρεχτος, which according to all dictionaries means ‘excepté,’ ‘ausgenommen,’ is translated in the French by a whole sentence, ‘à moins que cela ne soit.’ The word πορνεια is translated ‘infidélité,’ ‘Ehebruch,’ ‘adultery.’ And on this intentional perversion of the text is based an interpretation that destroys the moral, religious, grammatical, and logical sense of Christ’s words.
And once more I received a confirmation of the truth that the meaning of Christ’s doctrine is simple and clear. His commandments are definite, and of the highest practical importance; but the interpretations given to us, based on a desire to justify existing evils, have so obscured His doctrine that we can with difficulty fathom its meaning. I felt convinced that had the gospel been found half burnt or half obliterated, it would have been easier to discover its true meaning than it is now; that it has suffered from such unconscientious interpretations, which have purposely concealed or distorted its true sense. In this last instance the special object of justifying the divorce of some Ivan the Terrible, which thus led to the misrepresentation of the Christian doctrine of matrimony, is more obvious than in the preceding cases to which reference has been made.
No sooner are all these interpretations thrown aside than vagueness and mistiness fade away, and the second commandment of Christ rises plainly before us: ‘Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife, and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and a woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.’
Immediately after the second commandment we find a new reference to the ancient law, and the third commandment is given. Matthew 5:33-37: ‘Again, you have heard that it has been said to the people long ago, you shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord your oaths (Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 23:21). But I say to you, do not swear at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your word be yes, yes, or no, no; for whatever is more than these comes from evil.’
In my former readings of the gospel this text had always puzzled me. Not by its obscurity, as the text referring to divorce did; nor by its inconsistency with other passages, as did the text that forbids anger only if it is ‘without a cause’; nor, again, by the difficulty of fulfilling the commandment, like the text that enjoins our letting ourselves be struck. It puzzled me, on the contrary, by its evident clarity and simplicity. Side by side with precepts, the depth and importance of which filled me with awe, I found an apparently useless, insignificant precept, very easy of fulfillment, and comparatively unimportant in its bearing upon myself or upon others. I had never sworn by Jerusalem, or by God, or by anything; and had never found any difficulty in abstaining from doing so; besides, it seemed to me that my swearing or not swearing could be of no importance to anyone. And longing to find some explanation of a precept that puzzled me by its simplicity, I consulted the commentaries on the gospel. This once they helped me.
Commentators see in these words a confirmation of the third commandment of Moses, not to swear by God’s name. They say that Christ, like Moses, forbids our taking God’s name in vain. But they add besides that this precept given to us by Christ is not always obligatory, and that in no case does it refer to the oath of allegiance to the existing powers, which every citizen is obliged to take. They choose out texts from Holy Scripture, not with the purpose of confirming the direct meaning of Christ’s precept, but in order to prove that it is possible and even necessary to leave it unfulfilled.
It is affirmed that Christ Himself sanctioned the taking of an oath in courts of law by His answer, ‘You have said,’ to the High Priest’s words, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God.’ It is likewise affirmed that the apostle Paul called upon God to bear witness to the truth of his words, and that this was obviously an oath. It is affirmed that the Mosaic Law enjoined oaths, and that Christ did not abrogate them, and only set useless, pharisaically hypocritical oaths aside.
And when I saw the meaning and the true object of the interpretation, it grew clear to me that Christ’s law against swearing was not as insignificant and easy of fulfillment as I had thought before I had come to regard the ‘oath of allegiance’ as one of those that are forbidden by Christ.
And I said to myself, ‘Doesn’t it mean that the oath, which is so carefully fenced round by the Church commentaries, is also forbidden? Don’t Christ’s words oppose the very oath without which the division of men into separate governments would be an impossibility – the oath without which a military class would be impossible?’ Soldiers are those who act by violence and they call themselves ‘sworn men’ (присяга). Had I asked the grenadier I mentioned in a preceding chapter how he solved the problem of the inconsistency between the gospel and the military code, he would have answered that he had taken an oath, i.e., sworn upon the gospel. All the military men I ever asked answered thus. Oaths are so essential in upholding the awful evils brought about by war and violence that in France, where Christ’s doctrine is entirely set aside, the oath of allegiance remains in full force. Indeed, had Christ not said, ‘Do not swear at all,’ He ought to have said so. He came to destroy evil, and how great is the evil brought about in the world by the taking of oaths! Perhaps some may urge that this was an imperceptible evil in Christ’s time. No assumption can be more gratuitous. Epictetus and Seneca enjoined all men to take no oaths. In the laws of Manou the same precept may be found. Why should I say that Christ did not see this evil, when He speaks of it so definitely and so forcibly?
He says, ‘I say to you, do not swear at all.’ The saying is as clear, as simple, and as indubitable as the words, ‘do not judge, do not condemn,’ and it gives as little scope for false interpretation, the less so because the words ‘Let your communication be yes, yes, or no, no; for whatever is more than these comes from evil,’ are added.
Now if Christ by this teaching exhorts us always to fulfill the will of God, how dare a man swear to obey the will of another man? The will of God may not always coincide with the will of man. Christ tells us so in this very text. He says (verse 36), ‘Do not swear by your head, for not only your head but every hair on it is subject to the will of God.’ We find the same thing taught in the epistle of James, who says (chapter 5, verse 12), ‘But above all things, my brethren, do not swear, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no be no, lest you fall into condemnation.’ The apostle tells us why we are not to swear. Though the taking of an oath may be no sin in itself, he who swears falls into condemnation, and therefore shall no man swear. Can any language be clearer than the words of Christ and of this apostle?
But my ideas on this point were in so confused a state that for some time I went on asking myself, with surprise, ‘Does the precept really mean this? How is it that all swear by the gospel? It cannot be.’
But I had read the commentaries on the gospel, and saw that what I deemed impossible had, nevertheless, been done. The same remark has to be made in reference to this as to the texts, ‘Do not judge,’ ‘Do not give way to anger,’ ‘Never break the union of husband and wife.’ We have set up our own institutions; we love them, and choose to consider them sacred. Christ, whom we acknowledge to be God, comes, and He says that our rules of life are bad. We acknowledge Him to be God, yet we do not choose to set our rules of life aside. What is left then for us to do? When, by inserting the words ‘without a cause,’ we turn the commandment against anger into a meaningless sentence; when, like crafty lawyers, we interpret the sense of the commandment in a manner that gives it a contrary meaning to that designed by Him who spoke it, as we do if, instead of prohibiting altogether the putting away of a wife, we declare divorce to be lawful and just, we put our institutions in the place of truth. But if it is impossible to interpret the words otherwise than as I have indicated, in the treatment of the precepts ‘Do not judge,’ ‘Do not condemn,’ ‘Do not swear at all,’ then we boldly act in direct opposition to Christ’s doctrine, while asserting that we strictly fulfill it, if we cleave to traditional interpretations.
The chief obstacle to our understanding that the gospel wholly forbids our taking an oath is that the so-called Christian teachers boldly insist upon men’s taking oaths upon the gospel; and in this acting contrary to the gospel. How can it come into the head of a man who is made to take an oath on the gospel, or the crucifix, that that crucifix is sacred for the very reason that He who forbade our swearing was crucified upon it? He who takes the oath perhaps kisses the very passage that so clearly and definitely says, ‘Do not swear at all.’
But such boldness no longer confounded me. I clearly saw that in the fifth chapter, verses 33-37, lay the third definite and practicable commandment of Christ, which may be stated: ‘Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.’
After this third commandment stands a fourth reference to the Mosaic Law, and then the fourth commandment is presented. Matthew 5:38-42: ‘You have heard that it has been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist evil; but whoever shall strike you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue you at law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. And whoever shall compel you to go a mile, go two miles with him. Give to him who asks you, and from him who would borrow from you do not turn away.’
I have already spoken of the direct meaning of these words, and of our having no foundation whatever for interpreting them otherwise. The various commentaries upon them, from John Chrysostom to the present time, are truly surprising. We all admire the words, and each one tries to find some profound hidden meaning in them; but we usually fail to see that they mean exactly what they express. Ecclesiastical commentators, unmindful of the authority of Him who they acknowledge as God, unhesitatingly limit the meaning of His words. They say, ‘It is clearly understood that the precepts of long-suffering non-retaliation, being especially directed against the vindictiveness of the Hebrews, do not exclude either the right of setting limits to the progress of evil by the punishment of evil-doers, or private, individual endeavors to uphold the inviolability of truth, to amend the wicked, or to deprive evil-doers of the possibility of injuring others; the divine commandments of the Savior would otherwise be reduced to mere words, and would lead only to the progress of evil and the repression of virtue. The Christian’s love should be like God’s love; but since God’s love limits and punishes evil only in proportion as it is more or less necessary for the glory of God or the salvation of our brethren, so is it the duty of those in authority to limit the progress of evil by punishments’ (Exposition of the Gospel, by the Archim. Michael, based on the Commentaries of the Fathers of the Church).
Neither do learned and free-thinking Christians scruple to correct the sense of Christ’s words. They affirm that His sayings are sublime, but impracticable; that the application of the precept of non-resistance would destroy the whole organization of life, which we have set up so well; such is the opinion of Renan, Strauss, and other free-thinking commentators.
Yet if we treat the words of Christ in the same way that we do the words of any man who may chance to speak to us, i.e., if we suppose that He says what He means, all profound interpretations will became unnecessary. Christ says, ‘I find that the way you have regulated your lives is both foolish and bad. I propose another way.’ And then He gives us His precepts in verses 38-42. Doesn’t it seem right that, before correcting these words, they should at least be understood? And this is just what none of us choose to do. We decide beforehand that the present organization of our lives, which His words tend to destroy, is the sacred law of mankind.
I had not considered our way of living as either good or sacred, and therefore I came to understand this commandment before I did the others. And when I understood these words exactly in the sense in which they were uttered, I was struck by their truth, clarity, and force. Christ says, ‘You think to destroy evil by evil. That is irrational. In order that there should be no evil, do no evil.’ And then, after enumerating all that is evil in our social adjustments, Christ exhorts us to act otherwise.
The fourth commandment, I have said, was the one that I understood first, and it opened up to me the true meaning of all the rest. The fourth clear, simple commandment, which it is within the power of all to obey, says, ‘Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes you, bear it; if anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.’
And after this fourth commandment stands a fifth reference to the Mosaic Law, and the fifth commandment. Matthew 5:43-48: ‘You have heard that it has been said, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy (Leviticus 19:17-18).” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the publicans do the same? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Don’t even the heathens do so? Therefore be perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.’
I had formerly considered these words as explaining, amplifying, and giving more emphasis to, even exaggerating, the doctrine of non-resistance. But having already found the simple, definite, and applicable sense of each of the preceding texts, which begin with a reference to the ancient law, I had a sense that I should find some fresh meaning here also. I had observed that a commandment was annexed to each reference to the ancient law, and that each verse of the commandment had its own significance, and could not be turned aside; and I was sure that would prove to be the fact here also. The last words that we repeated in the gospel according to St. Luke say that, as God makes no distinction between men, but pours down His blessings upon all, so should we be like our Father in heaven and make no distinction between men; not acting as the heathen do, but loving all men, and doing good to all. These words were very clear; they seemed to me an explanation and commendation to some clearly defined precept, but what that precept precisely was I could not for a long time make out. ‘Love one’s enemy.’ That was impossible. It was one of those beautiful utterances that cannot be considered otherwise than as presenting an unattainable moral ideal. It was either too much or it meant nothing. We may avoid wronging our enemy, but to love him is impossible. Christ cannot have commanded what we cannot fulfill. Moreover, the very first words in reference to the ancient law, ‘It has been said, Hate your enemy,’ were dubious. In the preceding passages Christ quotes the exact, authentic words of the Mosaic Law; but in this one He cites words that were never used. He seems to knowingly make a false statement about the ancient law.
The various commentaries on the gospel, which I consulted, helped me no more than they had done in my former doubts. All commentators acknowledge that the words ‘hate your enemy’ do not stand in the Mosaic Law; but by none of them is there any explanation of the incorrect quotation given. They tell us that it is hard to love one’s enemies – the wicked – and, commenting on Christ’s words, they add that though a man cannot love his enemy, yet he may neither wish him evil, nor actually wrong or injure him. It is persistently instilled into us that it is our obligation and duty to denounce evil-doers, i.e., to oppose our enemy; and the various steps are mentioned by which this virtue may be attained; and thus, according to the interpretation given by the Church, the final conclusion is that Christ, without any ostensible reason, quotes the words of the Mosaic Law incorrectly, and has uttered many beautiful sayings that are, in themselves, useless and impracticable.
It seemed to me that this could not be a true statement of the case. I felt sure that there was as clear and definite a sense in these words as I had found in the first four commandments. In order to comprehend the real meaning of the text, I endeavored, first of all, to take in the sense of the incorrect reference to the Mosaic Law, ‘You have been told, hate your enemy.’ It is not without some distinct purpose that, before giving each of His own precepts, Christ quotes the words of the old law, ‘You shall not kill,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ etc., and places His doctrine in opposition to them. Now, if we do not comprehend what meaning Christ attached to the words He quotes, neither can we comprehend the duty that He enjoins. It seemed to me that the first point it was necessary to make out was for what purpose Christ had cited words that are not found in the Mosaic Law.
Here we find two precepts set in opposition to each other: ‘You have been told, you shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ It is obvious that the basis of the new commandment must be the very difference between these two precepts of the ancient law. In order to see the distinction more clearly, I asked myself, ‘What do the words “neighbor” and “enemy” mean, in the language of the gospel?’ And on consulting the dictionary and other passages of the Bible, I found that the word ‘neighbor’ in the Hebrew language always signifies ‘a Hebrew.’ In the gospel, a similar definition of the word ‘neighbor’ is given in the parable of the Good Samaritan. According to the Hebrew lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbor,’ a Samaritan could not be his neighbor. The same definition of the word ‘neighbor’ is given in the Acts of the Apostles, 7:27. The word ‘neighbor,’ as used in the gospel, signifies a ‘fellow-countryman,’ one who belongs to the same nation. And I hence concluded that the antithesis used by Christ in this passage, when quoting the words of the law, ‘You have been told, you shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy,’ places a ‘fellow-countryman’ in opposition to ‘a stranger.’ I then asked myself what the word ‘enemy’ meant, according to the Hebrews. It is almost always used, in the gospel, in the sense, not of a private, but a common enemy – a national enemy (Luke 1:71, Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:43, and elsewhere). The use of the word ‘enemy’ in the singular number, in the text, ‘hate your enemy,’ made it clear to me that the words referred to a national enemy. The singular expresses an enemy taken in a collective sense. In the Old Testament the word ‘enemy,’ when used in the singular, always implies a national enemy.
No sooner did I comprehend this than my difficulty in understanding how it was that Christ, who always quoted the original words of the law, in this instance inserts the words, ‘You have been told, You shall hate your enemy,’ which are not in the Mosaic Law, was solved. To remove all doubts as to the meaning of the passage, we have only to take the word ‘neighbor’ as meaning a ‘fellow-countryman.’ Christ speaks of the Mosaic regulations concerning a national enemy. He combines in the single expression ‘to hate, to wrong an enemy,’ all the various precepts dispersed through the scriptures by which the Hebrews are enjoined to oppress, kill, and destroy other nations. And He says, ‘You have been told that you shall love your own people, and hate the enemies of your nation; but I say to you, that you love all, without distinction of their nationality.’
And no sooner had I understood this than the second and chief difficulty, i.e., how the words ‘love your enemies’ were to be understood, was removed. It is impossible to love our personal enemies. But we can love men of another nation as we do those of our own people. I saw clearly that by the words, ‘You have heard that it has been said, love your neighbor, and hate your enemy; but I say to you, Love your enemies,’ Christ asserts that all men are accustomed to consider their fellow-countrymen as their neighbors and men of other nations as their enemies, and this He forbids our doing. He says that, according to the Law of Moses, a distinction was made between him who was a Hebrew and him who was not, but was considered as a national enemy; and then He commands that no such distinction should be made between them. Indeed, in the gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke we find that, immediately after this precept, He says that all are equal before God, that the same sun shines on all, and that the same rain falls upon all. God makes no distinction between men, and does equal good to all; ought not men to do likewise, without recognizing distinctions of nationality?
Thus I again found ample confirmation of the simple and practicable sense of Christ’s words. Instead of an indistinct and indefinite philosophy, I discovered a clear, definite precept, which all have it within their power to fulfill. To make no distinction between one’s own and other nations, and so to avoid the natural results of these distinctions, such as being at enmity with other nations, going to war, taking part in war, arming for war, etc., and to treat all men, whatever nation they belong to, as we do our fellow-countrymen, was the requirement of Christ. All this was so simple and so clear that I was surprised I had not understood it at once.
The hindrance in my way was the same that had prevented my comprehending the prohibition of courts of law and oaths. It is difficult to conceive that the very courts of law, which are inaugurated with Christian prayer, and consecrated by those who regard themselves as the fulfillers of Christ’s law, are incompatible with the Christian faith, and are in direct opposition to Christ’s doctrine. Nor is it easier to conceive that the oath of allegiance, which all men are made to take by the keepers of Christ’s law, is expressly forbidden by that very law. And it is hardest of all to conceive that, to uphold what is considered not only as necessary and natural, but even grand and glorious, as love of one’s native land – its defense, its aggrandizement, war against an enemy, and so on – is not only sinning against the law of Christ, but even abjuring it. We have become so estranged from the doctrine of Christ that this very estrangement is now the chief obstacle to our understanding it. We have turned a deaf ear to His words, and forgotten all He taught us of the life we are to lead; how that we should not kill, nor even bear malice against a fellow-creature; that we should never defend ourselves, but turn our cheeks to be struck; that we should love our neighbor, etc. We have grown so used to calling the men who devote their lives to murder ‘a Christ-loving army’; who put up prayers to Christ for victory over the enemy; whose pride and glory are in murder; and who have raised the symbol of murder, i.e., the sword, into something almost sacred, so that he who is deprived of that symbol is considered as having been disgraced; we have grown so used to all this, I repeat, that it now appears to us that Christ did not forbid war; and that, if He had intended to do so, He would have expressed His meaning more clearly.
We forget that Christ could never have thought it possible that men who believe in His doctrine of humility, love, and universal brotherhood would calmly and consciously institute the murder of their brethren. Christ cannot have supposed it possible, and therefore He could no more have forbidden a Christian to make war, than could a father, while admonishing his son to live honestly, without injuring or defrauding others, exhort him not to cut men’s throats on the high road.
Not one of the apostles, not one of Christ’s disciples, could have supposed it necessary to forbid a Christian’s committing murder, which is misnamed war. See what Origen says in his answer to Celsus, chapter 63.
‘Celsus exhorts you to help the sovereign with all your strength, to take part in his duties, to take up arms for him, to serve under his banner, if necessary to lead out his army to battle. Moreover, we may say, in answer to those who, being ignorant of our faith, require of us the murder of men, that even their high priests do not soil their hands in order that their god may accept their sacrifice. No more do we.’ And concluding by the explanation that Christians do more good by their peaceful lives than soldiers do, Origen says, ‘Thus we fight better than any for the safety of our sovereign. We do not, it is true, serve under his banners, and we should not, even were he to force us to do so.’
It was thus that the first Christians regarded war and thus their teacher spoke when addressing the great men of this world, at the time when hundreds and thousands of martyrs were perishing for the Christian faith.
But in our times the question whether a Christian ought to take part in war never seems to occur to any. Youths brought up according to the Church law, which is called the Christian law, go every autumn, at fixed periods, to the conscription halls, and, with the assistance of their spiritual pastors, there renounce the law of Christ. A short time ago a peasant refused to enter the military service, grounding his refusal on the words of the gospel. The clergy all tried to persuade the man that his view of the matter was erroneous; and as the peasant still believed in Christ’s words, and not in theirs, he was cast into prison, and kept there until he denied Christ. And this takes place although we, Christians, received 1800 years ago a perfectly clear and definite commandment from our God, which said, ‘Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as brethren, and behave toward all men as you do toward your fellow-countrymen; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.’
And when I had understood these simple, definite commandments, which admit of no other interpretation, I asked myself, ‘What would the world be if all Christians believed that these commandments must be fulfilled in order to attain happiness, instead of treating them only as commandments that must be sung or read in churches, in order that we may find favor in the eyes of God? What would the world be if people did but as firmly believe in the obligatory character of these commandments as they now do in the necessity of daily prayer; of attending public worship every Sunday; of fasting on Fridays, and receiving communion every year? What would the world be, if all men did but as firmly believe in these commandments as they do in the prescribed rules of the Church?’ And I pictured to myself men and women, in Christian society, living up to these commandments, and instilling the same into new generations; ourselves and our children no longer taught, both by word and deed, that man must maintain his own dignity, must defend his own rights (which cannot be done without humbling or offending others), but, instead, taught that no man has any rights, that none can be superior or inferior to another, that only he who tries to rise above all others is lower and more degraded than others, that there is no feeling more debasing for a man to cherish than that of anger against another, that the seeming insignificance or foolishness of a man can never justify either anger or enmity. Instead of our present social adjustments – from the show-glasses of shops to theatres, novels, and millinery – whose tendency is but to sensuality, I pictured to myself that we, and our children, were taught, by word and deed, that the pleasures of sensational books, theatres, and balls was the basest kind of pleasure; that every action whose aim was the embellishing or showing-off of our persons was base and disgusting. Instead of our present social adjustments, by which it is considered necessary, and even in a sense right, that a young man should ‘sow his wild oats’ before marriage, instead of a life in which separation between husband and wife is regarded as an ordinary thing, instead of the acknowledged necessity for the existence of a class of women who serve to pamper depravity, instead of the permission and authorization of divorce, I pictured to myself that we were taught, both by precept and by example, that a single, unmarried state, for a man in all his virility, was an anomaly and a shame, that a man’s leaving the woman he was united to, or taking another in her place, was not only as unnatural a proceeding as incest, but a cruel and inhuman deed. Instead of our lives being based upon violence, instead of each of us being either chastened himself or chastising others from childhood to old age, I pictured to myself that we were taught, both by precept and by example, that vengeance is but a base instinct; that violence is not only shameful, but deprives man of his true happiness; that the proper joys of life are only those that need no violence to protect them; that it is not he who despoils others, or keeps what is his own out of the hands of others, and makes others serve him, who is the most deserving of respect, but, rather, he who gives most, and who helps others most. Instead of considering it very right and lawful that each man should take an oath, and thus give away the most precious of his possessions, i.e., his whole life into the keeping of another, I pictured to myself that we were taught to regard the intelligent will of man as that ‘holiest of holies’ which no man can ever give away; and that to promise anything with an oath is to renounce one’s own rational self, and is an outrage against all that is most holy in man. I pictured to myself that instead of the enmity toward other nations that is instilled into us under a semblance of patriotism, instead of the praise of murder or war, which we, from our childhood, look upon as a glorious thing, there was instilled into us the dread and scorn of all those diplomatic or military institutions that serve to disunite men; that to admit the existence of states, laws, frontiers, countries, etc., is but a proof of the most brutal ignorance; that to go to war, i.e., to kill men who are complete strangers to us, with out any reason, is the most horrid crime, of which only a lost and depraved man, degraded to the rank of a wild beast, is capable. I pictured to myself that all men believed in this, and I asked myself,’ What would the world be then?’
Formerly I had more than once asked myself what the fulfillment of the doctrine of Christ, as I then understood it, would lead to, and the involuntary answer had been, ‘To nothing at all.’ We shall all go on praying, receiving the Holy Sacrament, believing in our redemption and salvation, in the redemption and salvation of the whole world through Christ, and still this salvation will not be brought about by ourselves; but Christ will come again, in His appointed time, to judge the living and the dead, and then the kingdom of God will be established on earth, independently of the life that we have led. But the doctrine of Christ, as I now understand it, has another signification: the establishing of the kingdom of God on earth depends upon us. The fulfillment of Christ’s doctrine, as expressed in the five commandments, establishes this kingdom of God. The kingdom of God on earth is peace among all men. Peace among men is the highest earthly bliss that man can attain. It was thus that the Hebrew prophets pictured the kingdom of God to themselves. And it is thus that each human heart ever has and ever will picture it.
The substance of the entire doctrine of Christ is the establishing of the kingdom of God on earth, and that brings peace to all men. In the Sermon on the Mount, in His conversation with Nicodemus, in the mission He gave to the disciples, in all His teachings, He speaks of what causes division among men and prevents their living in peace and entering the kingdom of God. All Christ’s parables are definitions of the kingdom of God – they all seek to instill into us that it is only by loving our brethren, and being at peace with them, that we can enter the kingdom. John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ, says that the kingdom of God is at hand, and that Jesus Christ will give it to the world.
Christ says that He brings peace on earth (John 14:27); ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; I give it to you not as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
These five commandments of Christ do indeed give peace to men. The tendency of all the five commandments is to procure peace among men. Let men but believe in the doctrine of Christ, and obey it, and there will be peace on earth; not the peace established by man, which is fleeing and transitory, but general, inviolable, eternal peace.
The first commandment says: Be at peace with all men and do not consider any man as worthless or foolish (Matt. 5:22). If peace has been destroyed, use your utmost endeavors to re-establish it. The service of God is the annihilation of all enmity (Matt. 5:23-24). Let the least disagreement be followed by immediate reconciliation, lest you swerve from the true life. This commandment includes all in itself. But Christ foresees the temptations of the world that destroy peace among men, and gives a second commandment against the seductions of sexual relations that destroy peace: Do not consider carnal beauty to lust after it. Avoid the temptation (Matt. 5:28,30); let each man have one wife, and each woman one husband; and let them never leave each other, under any pretext whatever (Matt. 5:23). Another temptation is the taking of oaths, for it leads men into sin. Know, therefore, that to do so is to sin, and consequently never make any vow (Matt. 5:34,35). The third temptation is to vengeance, which is called human justice. Never take vengeance on any man, nor seek to excuse yourself by saying you have received injury at the hands of another; bear the wrong done to you, and do not return evil for evil (Matt. 5:38,42). The fourth temptation arises from the distinction made between nations, the enmity between races and states. Know that all men are brethren, and sons of the same God, and never destroy peace in the name of national interests (Matt. 5:43,48). Let men leave but one of these commandments unfulfilled, and peace will be destroyed. Let men fulfill all these commandments and the kingdom of peace will be established on earth. These commandments exclude all evil from the relationships of men.
The fulfillment of Christ’s commandments will make the lives of men such as each human heart seeks and longs for. All men will be brethren, each will be at peace with the other, and each will be free to enjoy all the blessings of this world during the term of life allotted to him by God. Men will turn their ‘swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’ And on earth will be established the kingdom of God; the kingdom of peace that was promised by the prophets, which drew nearer with John the Baptist, and which Christ announced in the words of Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are bruised, and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’
The simple and clear commandments of peace, given by Christ, by which all causes of dissension are foreseen and turned aside, reveal the kingdom of God on earth to men. Thus Christ is truly the Messiah.
 The Czar of Russia (1533 – 1584).