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Leo Tolstoy: Love Your Enemies
Return good for evil, resist not evil, forgive everyone
Today we delve into a moment where the personal and political collide: Leo Tolstoy1 writing to the Emperor of Russia, urging forgiveness over vengeance after the murder of his father. To choose mercy in the face of personal loss, feels like holding a heavy stone, contemplating whether to drop it or throw it. I wonder how I'd navigate such waters.
Emperor Alexander III,
Your situation is terrifying and for that reason alone Christ's teaching is necessary in order to guide us in those fearful moments of temptation which fall to the lot of men.
To your lot has fallen the most terrifying of temptations. But however terrible it is, Christ's teaching overcomes it, and all the snares of temptation which encompass you will vanish like dust for a man who fulfills the will of God.
Matt. 5,43: Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies...do good to them that hate you—that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.
Matt. 5,38: Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye shall not resist evil.
Matt 18,20: I say not unto thee, until 7 times: but, until 70 times 7. Do not hate your enemy, but do good to him, do not resist evil, do not cease to forgive.
This is said to man and any man can fulfil it.
And no considerations, whether the Tsar's or the state's, may break these commandments.
Matt. 5, 19: Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matt. 7,24: Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And everyone hearing...
I know how far the world in which we live is from those divine truths which are expressed in the teaching of Christ, and which live in our hearts—but the truth is the truth, and it lives in our hearts and calls forth our admiration and the desire to draw near to it.
I know that I, an insignificant, worthless man whose temptations are 1,000 times weaker than those which have fallen on you, have given in not to truth and goodness, but to temptation, and that it is impertinent and mad of me, having done evil to man, to require of you a spiritual strength which has no precedent; to require that you, the Russian Tsar, under pressure from all who surround you, and being a loving son, should after a murder forgive the murderers and return them good for evil; but I cannot help wishing this, nor can I help seeing that your every step in the direction of forgiveness is a step towards good; or that every step in the direction of punishment is a step towards evil.
And so, just as in quiet moments when I experience no temptation, I hope and wish with all my heart and soul to choose the path of love and goodness for myself, so I now wish it for you, and cannot help hoping that you will strive to be as perfect as your father is in heaven and to do the greatest thing in the world and overcome temptation; that you, the Tsar, will set the world the greatest example of the fulfillment of Christ's teaching—that you will return good for evil.
Return good for evil, resist not evil, forgive everyone.
This and this alone needs to be done; this is the will of God. Whether one has or does not have the strength to do this is another question. But we must wish for this alone, we must strive towards this alone, we must consider this alone to be good and must know that all considerations to the contrary are temptations and seductions—all considerations to the contrary, all are groundless, unsound and unenlightened.2
Leo Tolstoy was a Russian novelist and thinker, best known for epic works like "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina." But there's more to him than just his literary genius. In his 50s, Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis that led him to a deep conversion to Christianity. This wasn't the mainstream faith, though; it was a radical interpretation that emphasized the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. This shift wasn't just theoretical; it changed how he lived, how he wrote, and how he interacted with the world, including penning influential essays on nonviolence and social justice. His later works and ideas would go on to influence figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Tolstoy, Leo. Tolstoy's Letters: Volume 2: 1880-1910, selected, edited, translated by R.F. Christian. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.
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