What I Believe/ III.


WHAT I BELIEVE (1886) by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Constantine Popoff.

Chapter 3



To affirm that the Christian doctrine refers only to personal salvation and has no bearing upon state affairs is a great error. To say so is but to assert an audacious, groundless, most evident untruth, which a moment's serious reflection suffices to destroy. 'Well,' I say to myself, 'I will not resist evil; as a private man, I will let myself be struck; but what am I to do if an enemy invades my native land, or other nations oppress it? I am called upon to take part in a struggle against evil — to go and kill.' The question immediately arises: which will be serving God, and which will be serving 'toga'? To go, or not to go? Suppose I am a peasant. I am chosen as the senior member of my village, as judge, as juryman. I am bound to take an oath, to judge, and to punish. Fellow-creature, what am I to do? I have again to choose between the law of God and the law of man. Or let us say I am a monk and live in a monastery; the neighboring peasants have taken possession of the hay we had mown for our own use. I am sent to take part in a struggle against evil — to prosecute these men. I have again to choose between the laws of God and the laws of man. None of us can evade the demand for such a decision. To say nothing of the class of society that I belong to — military men, judges, administrators, whose whole lives are passed in resisting evil — there is not a single private individual, be he ever so insignificant, who has not had to choose between serving God by fulfilling His commandments, or serving the 'toga' in the government institutions of his country. Our private lives are interwoven with the organization of the state, and the latter requires unchristian duties of us, contrary to the commandments of Christ. At the present time, the military service, which is obligatory on all, and the participation of each, as jurymen, in the courts of law, place this dilemma with striking clarity before all. Each man is called upon to take up an instrument of murder — a gun, a sword — even if he does not kill a fellow-creature; he loads the gun and sharpens the sword, i.e., he is ready to commit murder. Each citizen is called upon to enter the courts of law, to take part in judging and punishing his fellow-creature; i.e., each must renounce the doctrine of Christ that teaches us not to resist evil.

The grenadier's question:  the gospel or the military code, the law of God or the law of man?  It still stands before all of us, as it did in the time of Samuel.  It stood before Christ and His disciples.  It now stands before all those who wish to be Christians; it stood before me.

The doctrine of Christ, which teaches love, humility, and self-denial, had always attracted me. But I found a contrary law, both in the history of the past and in the present organization of our lives — a law repugnant to my heart, my conscience, and my reason, but one that flattered my animal instincts. I knew that if I accepted the doctrine of Christ, I should be forsaken, miserable, persecuted, and sorrowing, as Christ tells us His followers will be. I knew that if I accepted that law of man, I should have the approbation of my fellow-men; I should be at peace and in safety; all possible sophisms would be at hand to quiet my conscience and I should 'laugh and be merry,' as Christ says. I felt this, and therefore I avoided a closer examination of the law of Christ, and tried to comprehend it in a way that should not prevent my still leading my animal life. But, finding that impossible, I desisted from all attempts at comprehension.

This led me into a state of mental obscurity, which now seems surprising to me. For instance, let me recall my former interpretation of the words, 'Do not judge, and you shall not be judged' (Matt. 7:1). 'Do not judge, and you shall not be judged; do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned' (Luke 6:37). The court of law of which I was a member, and which guarded my property and my personal safety, seemed to me so unquestionably sacred that it never came into my mind that the words 'do not condemn' could have any higher meaning than that we were not to speak evil of our fellow-men[3]. The idea never occurred to me that these words could have any reference to courts of law, district courts, criminal courts, assizes, courts of peace, etc. When I at last took in the real meaning of the words 'do not resist evil,' the question arose in my mind, 'What would Christ's opinion be of all these courts of law?' And seeing clearly that He would reject them, I asked myself, 'Do these words mean that we are not only never to speak ill of our brethren, but that we are not to condemn them to punishment by our human institutions of justice?'

In the gospel of St. Luke, chapter 6, verses 37-39, these words come immediately after the commandment not to resist evil, and to return good for evil. After the words, 'Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful,' we read, 'Do not judge, and you shall not be judged; do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned.' 'Doesn't it mean that we are not only never to condemn our brother in word — i.e., speak evil of him — but that we are not to institute courts of law for the condemnation of a fellow-creature to punishment?' I said to myself; and no sooner did this question arise, than both my heart and my reason answered in the affirmative.

I know how greatly this way of understanding the words surprises everyone at first. I was surprised, too. To show how far I formerly was from the true interpretation of these words, I may here mention a foolish saying of mine, of which I am now heartily ashamed. Even after having become a believer, and having recognized the divinity of the gospel, I used to say, jokingly, on meeting with a friend who was an attorney or a judge, 'So, you go on judging, and yet isn't it said, "Do not judge, and you shall not be judged"?' I was so firmly convinced that these words had no other meaning than that we were not to speak ill of one another, that I did not see the blasphemy of my own words. So sure was I that the words were not to be taken in a literal sense, that I used them — jokingly — in their true application.

I shall give a circumstantial account of the way in which all my doubts as to the real sense of these words were dispersed, and how it became evident to me that Christ forbids all human institutions of justice, and that He could mean nothing else.

The first point that struck me, when I understood the commandment, 'Do not resist evil,' in its true meaning, was that human courts were not only contrary to this commandment, but in direct opposition to the whole doctrine of Christ, and that therefore He must certainly have forbidden them.

Christ says, 'Do not resist evil.' The sole object of courts of law is — to resist evil. Christ enjoins us to return good for evil. Courts of law return evil for evil. Christ says, 'Make no distinction between the just and the unjust.' Courts of law do nothing else. Christ says, 'Forgive all. Forgive not once, not seven times, but forgive without end.' 'Love your enemies.' 'Do good to those who hate you.' Courts of law do not forgive, but they punish; they do not do good, but evil, to those whom they call the enemies of society. So, the true sense of the doctrine is that Christ forbids all courts of law. 'This cannot be the case,' I said to myself, 'Christ had nothing to do with human courts of law, and never considered them.' But I soon saw that this supposition was impossible. From the day of His birth, Christ had to submit to the jurisdiction of Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the high priests. Indeed, we find that Christ speaks more than once of tribunals as being an evil. He tells His disciples that they will have to be cited before the tribunals, and teaches them how they are to behave in courts of law. He says that He Himself will be condemned, and sets us all an example of the way in which we are to treat the laws of man. There can be no doubt that Christ meant the human courts of law, which were to condemn Him and His disciples; which have always condemned, and still continue to condemn, millions of men. Christ must have seen this evil, for He distinctly points it out. In the case of the adulteress He positively rejects human justice and proves that, on account of each man's own sinful nature, he has no right to judge another. We find the same doctrine repeated several times, as when He says, for instance, that the one who has a beam in his own eye cannot see the mote in his neighbor's eye; and that the blind cannot lead the blind.

'But, perhaps,' I said to myself, 'this applies only to the judgment of the adulteress, and the parable of the mote is only intended to show us the frailty of human nature in general.  Christ does not intend to forbid our having recourse to human justice for our protection against evil men.'  But I saw that this would not hold true either.

In the Sermon on the Mount, addressed to all men, He says, 'And if anyone sues you at the law for your coat, let him have your cloak also.'  Therefore He forbids our going to law.

But perhaps this applies only to the relations between private individuals and public courts of law. Perhaps Christ does not deny justice itself, and admits in Christian societies the existence of persons chosen for the purpose of administering justice. I see that this hypothesis is likewise inadmissible. In His prayer Christ enjoins all men, without any exception, to forgive as they hope to be forgiven. We find the same precept repeated many times. Each man must forgive his brother when he prays, and before bringing his gift. How, then, can a man judge and condemn another when, according to the faith he professes, he is bound to forgive? Thus I see that, according to the doctrine of Christ, a judge who condemns his fellow-creature to death is no Christian.

But perhaps the connection between the words, 'do not judge, do not condemn,' and those that follow proves that they do not refer to human courts of law? This is likewise false. On the contrary, the connection between these words and those that follow proves clearly that the words 'do not judge' are directed precisely against the institutions of courts of law. According to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the texts, 'Do not judge; do not condemn,' are preceded by the words, 'Do not resist evil, suffer evil, do good to all.' In the gospel according to Matthew the words of the Hebrew criminal law are repeated, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' And after citing the criminal law, Christ says, 'But you are not to act thus; do not resist evil.' Then He goes on to say, 'Do not judge.' So Christ's words refer precisely to our human criminal law, and by the words 'do not judge' He clearly rejects it.

Besides this, we find in St. Luke that He not only says, 'Do not judge,' but also adds, 'and do not condemn.' The latter word, almost synonymous with the former, must have been added with some purpose, and it could have been with no other than that of showing clearly the sense in which the first word is to be taken


Had He wished to say, 'Do not judge your neighbor,' i.e., 'do not speak evil of him,' He would have said so; but He says plainly, 'Do not condemn,' and then adds, 'and you shall not be condemned; forgive, and you shall be forgiven.'

But perhaps Christ's words do not apply to courts of law at all, and I give them an interpretation of my own that is foreign to them.

I tried to discover how the first followers of Christ, His disciples, considered human courts of law, and whether they approved of them.

In chapter 4, verses 11 and 12, the disciple James says, 'Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?'

The word that is translated as 'do not speak evil' is the word καταλαλεω.  Even without consulting the dictionary, it is evident to all that this word can mean nothing but 'to accuse.'  That is the only true meaning of the word, as anyone can find by consulting the dictionary.  The translation of the passage in question is as follows: 'He who speaks evil of his brother speaks evil of the law,' and the question involuntarily arises, 'How so?'  In speaking evil of my brother, I do not speak evil of the law of man.  No; but if I accuse and sit in judgment over my brother, I evidently condemn the doctrine of Christ; i.e., I look upon the doctrine of Christ as insufficient, and thus judge and condemn the law of God.  It clearly follows that I do not fulfill this law, but I myself become a judge. 'A judge,' Christ says, 'is he who can save.'  Then how can I, being unable to save, be a judge and punish?

This whole text speaks of human judgment, and rejects it. The whole of this epistle is penetrated with the same idea. In the same epistle of James (2:1-13) he says, 'My brethren, do not have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, together with a respect of persons. For if there comes into your assembly a man with a gold ring in fine clothes, and there comes in also a poor man in shabby clothes; and you have respect for him who wears the fine clothing, and if you say to him, "Sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "Stand there," or, "Sit here under my footstool," are you not then being partial, and have you not become judges with evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren, hasn't God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which He has promised to those who love Him? But you have despised the poor. Don't rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seat? Don't they blaspheme that worthy name by which you are called? If you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev.19:18), you do well. But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not kill." Now if you commit no adultery, yet if you kill, you have become a transgressor of the law (De.22:22; Le.28:17-25). So speak and act as those who shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he who has shown no mercy shall have judgment without mercy; mercy triumphs over the law.' (The last words, 'mercy triumphs over the law,' have often been translated as, 'Mercy is extolled in judgment,' and are cited as meaning that the existence of human judgment may be admitted, provided that it is merciful.)

James exhorts his brethren to make no difference between men. If you make any difference, then you διαεκρίνετε, become partial, and are like judges with evil thoughts. You judge the beggar as being less worthy than the rich man. On the contrary, the rich man is the less worthy one. It is he who oppresses you and draws you before the judgment seat. If you live according to the law of love and mercy (which James calls the royal law to distinguish it from the other), you do well. But if you have respect of persons, and make a distinction between rich and poor, you are transgressors of the law of mercy. James, bearing in mind the case of the adulteress who was brought before Christ to be stoned, or perhaps speaking of adultery in general, says that he who punishes an adulteress with death is guilty of murder, and transgresses the eternal law, because the same eternal law that forbids adultery also forbids murder. He says, 'And act like men who are judged by the law of liberty; because there is no mercy for him who is himself without mercy, and therefore mercy destroys judgment.'

Can anything be more clear and definite? Every distinction between men is forbidden, every judgment by which we consider the one as good and the other as bad; human justice is distinctly pointed out as being evil; it is clearly shown that judgment sins by punishing for crime, and that all judgment is annihilated by the law of God — mercy.

I read the epistle of Paul the apostle, who had himself suffered from courts of law, and in his first chapter to the Romans he warns them against their vices and errors, and speaks against their courts of law (Ro.1:32).  'Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they who commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in those who do them.'

Romans 2:1-4: 'Therefore you are without excuse, you who judge; for when you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge do the same things. But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who commit such things. And do you think that when you judge those who do such things, and do the same things yourself, that you shall escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?'

The apostle Paul says, while fully aware of the just judgment of God, men act unjustly themselves, and they teach others to do the same; therefore the man who judges another cannot be justified. Such is the opinion I find in the epistles of the apostles in reference to courts of law. We all know that, during the whole course of their lives, human courts of law could never have been considered by them as anything but evil — a trial that was to be endured with firmness and submission to the will of God.

On reviewing the position of the early Christians amidst the heathens, we clearly perceive that men who were themselves persecuted by human courts of law could never have dared openly to forbid them. They could only occasionally allude to them as an evil, the basis of which they could not admit.

I examine the writings of the earliest teachers of Christianity, and I find that they all consider the precept never to use force, never to condemn or execute, as the one that distinguishes their doctrine from all others (Athenagarus, Origen). They only submit to the tortures inflicted upon them by human justice. The martyrs all confessed the same, not only in word, but also in deed.

I find that all true Christians, from the disciples up to the time of Constantine, regarded courts of law as evils that had to be endured with patience; and the possibility of a Christian's taking any part in judging another never occurred to any one of them.

All this convinced me that the words 'do not judge and do not condemn' apply to courts of law; and yet these words are so generally understood as meaning only 'speak no evil of your neighbor,' that courts of law flourish, so boldly and with such assurance, in all Christian states, and are openly upheld by the Church. It was some time before I could feel quite convinced that my interpretation was the right one.

'If all have until now interpreted the words as referring to evil speaking, and have, consequently instituted these courts of law, they must have some good grounds for acting thus,' I said to myself, 'and I must be in the wrong.'

And I turned to the commentaries of the Church. In all of them, from the fifth century to the present day, I found that these words are considered as signifying to condemn in word — i.e., to speak evil of our neighbor. Now if these words are understood as meaning nothing else, doesn't the question immediately arise, 'How can we help judging others?' We must condemn (blame) what is evil? Thus the point on which all comments turn is: what may we condemn, and what may we not condemn? We are told that these words cannot be considered as forbidding the servants of the Church to judge — that the apostles themselves judged (Chrysostom and Theopilactus). We are told that these words of Christ probably applied to the Hebrews, who often used to accuse their neighbors of trifling sins while committing greater ones themselves.

But nowhere is there a word said about our human institutions of courts of law, or of the reference that this precept not to judge might have to them. Does Christ forbid them, or does He approve of them? This question, which arises so naturally in our minds, is left unanswered, as if there could not be the slightest doubt that, when once a Christian has taken his seat in the judgment hall, he has a right, not only to judge his neighbor, but also even to condemn him to death.

I consulted the Greek, Catholic, and Protestant theologians, as well as the works of the Tubingen school, and found that even the most liberal interpreters considered these words as meaning 'not to speak evil of.' Not one of them solves the question why so narrow an interpretation is given, and why they are not considered as prohibiting the institution of courts of law; or why Christ, while forbidding our speaking evil of a fellow-creature — which each of us may often do inadvertently — does not consider as wrong, and does not forbid, the came condemnation when given consciously and accompanied by violence against the condemned man. That the word 'condemn' may apply to judiciary condemnation, from which millions suffer, is not even hinted at. Nor is this all. By means of these very words, 'do not judge and do not condemn,' the form of judiciary condemnation is set altogether apart, and fenced round. Our theological interpretations say that the existence of courts of law in Christian states is necessary, and is not contrary to the law of Christ.

This made me doubt the sincerity of these interpretations, and I applied myself to a closer examination of the translation of the words 'judge' and 'condemn,' which is the thing I ought to have begun with. In the original these words are κρινω and καταδικαζω. The incorrect rendering of the word καταλαλεω in the epistle of James, which is translated as 'do not speak evil,' confirmed my doubts of the correctness of the translation. I consulted the translation of the words κρινω and καταδικαζω in the gospels in various languages, and I found that the word 'to condemn' is translated in the Vulgate and in French by the word condemnare; in Slavonic, ocyждamъ; by Luther, verdammen — to damn, to doom.

The different renderings of these words increased my doubts, and I asked myself what the Greek word κρινω, used in both the above-mentioned gospels, could really mean, and what was the true signification of the word καταδικαζω, which is used by Luke the Evangelist, who wrote, according to the opinion of all able scholars, in good Greek?  If a man, who knew nothing about the gospel and the interpretations given to it were to have this saying placed before him, how would he translate it?

I consulted the common dictionary, and I found that the word κρινω has many different meanings, and among others is very often used in the sense of 'condemning by judgment' — executing — but never in that of 'evil-speaking.'  I consulted the glossary of the New Testament, and I found that this word is often used there in the sense of condemning by judgment.  It is sometimes used as meaning 'to choose,' but never as 'to speak evil of.'  And so I saw that the word κρινω may be rendered in several ways, but that a translation that renders it as 'speaking evil of' is the furthest from the original.

I looked for the word καταδικαζω and added to it the word κρινω, which has several meanings, for the purpose of explaining the sense in which the writer himself takes the first word.  I looked in the common dictionary for the word καταδικαζω and I found that this word never had any other meaning than to 'condemn by judgment' or to 'execute.'  I consulted the glossary of the New Testament, and I found that this word is used in the New Testament four times, and every time in the sense of 'condemn', 'execute.'  I consulted the context, and I found that this word is used in the epistle of James, chapter 5, verse 6, in which it is said, 'You have condemned and killed the just.'  The word 'condemned' is the same word, καταδικαζω, which is used in reference to Christ, who was condemned to death; and in no other way and in no other meaning is this word used, either in the whole New Testament or in any Greek dialect.

What can this mean? What a state of idiocy have I fallen into! All of us, when reflecting on the destiny of man, have been struck with terror at the sufferings and evils that our human criminal laws have brought into our lives — evils both for those who judge and for those who are judged, from the executions of Tshingis-Han in the second half of the 12th century and the revolutions to those of the present day.

No man of feeling has escaped the impression of horror and doubt concerning 'good,' produced by the recital, if not by the sight, of men executing their fellow-men by rods, the guillotine, or the gallows.

In the gospels, every word of which we esteem sacred, it is said clearly and distinctly, 'You have the criminal law — a tooth for a tooth; and I give you a new one — do not resist the evil man. Fulfill this commandment all of you; do not return evil for evil; always do good to all; forgive all.'

And farther on we read, 'Do not judge.' Then, in order to render all doubt impossible as to the meaning of His words, Christ adds, 'do not condemn to punishment by courts of law.' My heart says clearly and distinctly, 'Do not execute.' Science says, 'Do not execute; the more you execute, the more evil there will be.' Reason says, 'Do not execute; you cannot put a stop to evil by evil.' The Word of God, which I believe in, says the same. I used to read the whole doctrine. I read these words, 'Do not judge and you shall not be judged; do not condemn and you shall not be condemned; forgive and you shall be forgiven.' I acknowledged that these were God's words, and I thought they meant that we are not to gossip or slander, and I continued to consider courts of law as Christian institutions, and myself as a judge and a Christian! I was shocked at the grossness of the error I was indulging.


[3] The word οсуждатъ, to condemn, has a two-fold meaning in the Russian language.  It may have the sense of judiciary condemnation, or of 'speaking evil' of our neighbor.  The second is the interpretation generally given to the word by the Orthodox Church.

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