When people hear the name Leo Tolstoy, they almost always think of his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But, Tolstoy wasn’t just a novelist; he was a theologian, too. His interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount led him to Christian Anarchy and pacifism and his writings on nonviolent resistance influenced Gandhi and MLK. Unfortunately, in a big picture way, he missed the point of what Jesus was all about.
In Pamphlets. Translated From the Russian, Tolstoy said “And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.” God knows you couldn’t accuse him of that as he tried often enough. But, it never took. Tolstoy was born into the Russian aristocracy and lived an incredibly dissolute early life filled with gambling, mistresses and an illegitimate son. After a stint in the army and a couple of trips around Europe, he gave up the wild life of his youth and tried to follow the teachings of Jesus. But, his every attempt failed and he was tortured by his inability to measure up to the standard set by Christ. It seems to me that Leo was caught in the same trap many of us have found ourselves in: he thought you had to change in order to follow Jesus instead of following Jesus and letting that change you.
My experience is nothing like Tolstoy’s. Oh, there are dark corners, but mine are filled with more mundane things than mistresses and illegitimate children. My “dissolute” period was informed as much by an intense dislike of all things religious as it was a desire to indulge in sins of the flesh. And, when I came back to God, I wasn’t wracked with guilt whenever I didn’t measure up; the truth is, for a long time, I didn’t pay much attention to whether I met any standard of behavior at all. Instead of focusing on what I was doing, I was more concerned with how the others were getting it wrong.
At best, I paid lip service to what Jesus taught. Still a staunch conservative, I opposed all government assistance on the grounds that it took away people’s drive to do for themselves. I opposed health care reform because I thought it was socialized medicine. Now, I’m not saying that people who believe this way aren’t following Christ, I’m saying that I wasn’t because I was woefully in the dark about the conditions poor and needy people deal with every day and I made no attempt to change that.
But, one thing I did do was study. I read the Bible, books about the Bible, books about faith, and about social and economic justice. I met smart people who exposed me to other ways of thinking, other ways of living. And, little by little, I began to change. I started to see the message of Jesus in an entirely different light; one that shows me the Gospel is about a good life for everyone, right here and right now and not just about me and what happens after I die.
More so than most, Tolstoy had an insight into the broken condition of humanity. But, like all too many of us, the idea of grace completely escaped him. He never understood that you don’t change to follow Jesus, you follow Jesus and he changes you. And, that is good news. Good news, indeed.