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Tolstoy, Christian Anarchist: A Stonewall Essay

Tolstoy in his boots. (Prokudin-Gorsky)

This weekend in New York and Chicago, millions of Lesbians and Gay men, Bisexuals and Transgenders are gathering for parties. We call it Pride Day. It’s the 41st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, the first time Gay people fought back spontaneously against their oppression.

I’ve long stopped attending such events, but a seminarian is marching for me this year in Manhattan, along with lots of other folks from the Diocese of New York. Go Esteban!

If past experience holds, these Episcopalians will be welcomed by many in the crowd, looked upon with puzzled bemusement by others, and ignored by some. Christians in a Gay Pride Parade? Liberal Christians, Transgender Christians? Why?

But I think Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist and Christian anarchist, would be okay with Esteban and his Bi girl buddies, plus people in dog collars and a bishop or two in pointy hats.

I’ve been drawn to Tolstoy for awhile now, though I’ve never actually read him until today. So here’s the background. Everyone’s heard of War and Peace, but mostly because it’s a great big thick book; he wrote it. It’s a masterwork, with 550 characters or thereabouts. It arose out of his own experience as a soldier. But he wrote many other great works too, including The Kingdom of God Is Within Us, which directly influenced Mahatma Gandhi (they were friends), whose work was studied by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredibly successful civil rights movement sparked a new round of feminism and gave birth to GLBT Pride.

It’s strange to think of this, but there are only Six Degrees of Separation between me and Tolstoy. I don’t just mean spiritually, I mean knowing someone, who knew someone, who knew someone; Josh and Tolstoy, wow!

I’ve liked him ever since I first heard what’s perhaps his most famous quotation, “All happy families are alike.” I think it’s true (because they treat each other with warm regard), and part of my job is to write about a fictional happy family, the Kesslers of Indiana.

Still, I’m no more inclined to plow through War and Peace than you are. Maybe I’ll get to it in heaven because I’m not going to in this life. I’m sure they’ve got a great big library up there, and God knows we’ll have plenty of time on our hands. It’s not a bad way to think of heaven, actually; we’ll get to read all the stuff we missed the first time because “Sex and the City” was coming on.

So until I read the magnum opus by and by, I find it useful to study who Tolstoy was; biographical information and some of his thinking.

(Today the Washington Post, in a tossaway piece of trivia I’m not linking to, tells us that one of Leo’s descendants is an 80-year-old man living in a public housing project in D.C. on $275 a month in Social Security, having lost his share of the great man’s money by playing the ponies. “I coulda been a millionaire,” he claims. But you’re not, Bub.)

Leo was born a count on a big estate in Russia; it’s now a museum, manor house and everything, still kept up the way he had it with 20,000 books in his library.

He wasn’t the first-born, but he inherited it anyway, and found himself a very rich man with quantities of serfs (peasants, slaves) attached to the estate. He found this a moral dilemma, and oh, how right he was.

Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

By attached to the estate, I mean this; Russian serfdom wasn’t like African-American slavery in the United States. There were parallels, but it wasn’t the same; these serfs were white. They lived in hovels down the road and worked in the fields; they had to, it was their only source of bread and water. They might have left, but they didn’t have anywhere else to go (and a complex of laws tied them there). Feudalism was a major cause of the Russian Revolution, but that was later. Official emancipation of the serfs came in 1861, but there weren’t any jobs to go to; how was a person to eat? Everyone was born into the System—including Leo.

He didn’t like it. He was an intelligent and sensitive fellow, and he spent the rest of his life trying various schemes (starting schools, giving away his money) to make things more equitable. Sometimes he worked in his fields right next to the farmworkers.

But at some point it becomes a little ridiculous to be getting down and dirty when you’re a well-bred count, with a big library and white tablecloths and the cousin-in-law of everybody who runs the whole country; the serfs loved him, they could see into his heart, but they didn’t want him digging out potatoes. So he tried other methods, including one that was so hare-brained it finally killed him. He got this idea that he should become an itinerant mendicant, a traveling beggar like Francis of Assisi. His wife and kids were horrified, he hadn’t been in the best of health. Still, one day he set out for the train station to start his journey; he was going to seek God among the people. The man was 82 years old; he promptly caught pneumonia and keeled over on the train tracks, which was as bad as J.P. Morgan flinging himself naked off a platform at Grand Central Station.

Thousands lined the streets when he died; he was internationally renowned, the pride of Russia. He was also excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for his anarchic but highly theological beliefs as expressed in The Kingdom of God Is Within Us, the book that so changed Gandhi and MLK.

Tolstoy anticipated the science-vs.-faith, atheist-vs.-believer debates we see aggressively mounted today by Christopher Hitchens and others; I never pay attention to them, I don’t find they have anything new to say, nor that they’re particularly persuasive, as if I should listen closely because they’ve thought of something I haven’t. Sorry, fellas, you bore me, and Tolstoy saw you coming a century ago.

He was a man of deep faith, but that excommunication tells you something important; he didn’t think the Church got it right either. He felt the Church, with its Creeds and authoritarianism, obscured the truth of Jesus instead of revealing it.

Now that’s worth looking at.

He was suspicious of the supernatural and miraculous, while I’m a supernaturalist. I wasn’t when I was in my teens but I am now.

Tolstoy goes too far at one point, making a claim that isn’t true, but his reasoning is impeccable. He wonders why “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” needs miracles to accompany it, when it’s objectively true on its own.

He sees the Church as an oppressive force, and as Gay people we do too. I mean, ya even gotta keep an eye on them Episkiepale-yuns, even though they’re getting publicly crucified for welcoming us—or, as Tolstoy would say, helping create the Kingdom of God on earth for us, which they certainly are doing.

He wants to know where the Kingdom of God is for his serfs.

Thus it was from the earliest times, and so it went on, constantly increasing, till it reached in our day the logical climax of the dogmas of transubstantiation and the infallibility of the Pope, or of the bishops, or of Scripture, and of requiring a blind faith rendered incomprehensible and utterly meaningless, not in God, but in Christ, not in a doctrine, but in a person, as in Catholicism, or in persons, as in Greek Orthodoxy, or in a book, as in Protestantism. The more widely Christianity was diffused, and the greater the number of people unprepared for it who were brought under its sway, the less it was understood, the more absolutely was its infallibility insisted on, and the less possible it became to understand the true meaning of the doctrine. In the times of Constantine the whole interpretation of the doctrine had been already reduced to a RÉSUMÉ–supported by the temporal authority– of the disputes that had taken place in the Council–to a creed which reckoned off–I believe in so and so, and so and so, and so and so to the end–to one holy, Apostolic Church, which means the infallibility of those persons who call themselves the Church. So that it all amounts to a man no longer believing in God nor Christ, as they are revealed to him, but believing in what the Church orders him to believe in.

It’s powerful writing, and he’d get a million “Amens!” for it tomorrow on Christopher Street.

Have another slice of pizza:

And so, too, from the earliest times of Christianity there were men who began to assert on their own authority that the meaning they attribute to the doctrine is the only true one, and as proof bring forward supernatural occurrences in support of the correctness of their interpretation.

LGBT Christians say “Amen” to that too. (Emphasis added.)

But here, a little earlier in the chapter, is where I think Tolstoy goes wrong. He’s dealing with the great circumcision controversy that so divided the Church in the Book of Acts.

The very fact of this question being raised showed that those who discussed it did not understand the teaching of Christ, who rejected all outward observances–ablutions, purifications, fasts, and sabbaths.

That last is plainly not so; Jesus went to Temple all the time. He attended all the major religious festivals in Jerusalem. He went down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John; if that isn’t an ablution and purification, Leo, what is?

Jesus then did his own baptizing for awhile. And he didn’t even start preaching until after a 40-day fast.

Thus Tolstoy not only reasons inaccurately, he undermines the Sacraments. If the Last Supper wasn’t an “outward observance,” what the hell was it, Leo? “Whenever you eat this,” meaning in the future, “do this in remembrance of me.”

I don’t blame the Orthodox Church for giving him up. But let’s not stop there either.

He questioned, then undermined the institution of the Church and had every right to; the Church was part and parcel of the System, it got rich off it.

He was right to reject the institutions of the society he found himself born into. What was he supposed to do with all those serfs? Why was he supposed to profit from their work?

His main error was conceiving of spiritual Christianity as an individual thing rather than something born and nurtured in community. The Kingdom of God Is indeed Within You, but that’s less than half the story. Tolstoy passionately wanted to create the Kingdom of God on earth as Christ told us to, where “the lion lies down with the lamb and the people make war no more,” but that takes all of us. His own efforts, noble and holy though they were, didn’t destroy serfdom or feed everyone. The acts of one person, no matter how rich he is, cannot bring the Kingdom of God to this planet because a soup kitchen can’t be a one-man show. Somebody’s got to cook and clean and greet and serve and listen and raise money and publicize and… it takes a Church.

These are the very things Episcopalians are doing in 109 dioceses in 14 countries, including a lot of volunteers who are Trans, Bi, Lezzie, Gay and Straight. Let’s have a party!

Criticize institutions all you want to. Just don’t fling yourself naked onto the train tracks in Grand Central Station when you’re fucking 82—and honey, you really need help with that hair.++

(Ilya Repin, 1887)

9 Responses

  1. Thank you Josh.


  2. I’m so thankful to have found a pro-gay, somewhat pro-Tolstoy piece of writing. I, too, have recently, through research and personal writing on the civil rights movement, also found the wonderful six degrees of separation to Tolstoy. I’d read and loved The Death of Ivan Ilyich but thought he might be anti-Christian. Little did I know how much of a hard core Christian he indeed is. And for me, someone whose mother became an anti-gay born again Christian after I came out, to find a Christianity I have some respect for is almost unbelievable. Hating and fighting Christianity had previously been my raison d’etre. But now I’m currently reading The Kingdom of God is Within You and feel it simply, complexly needs to reformed. I do however disagree with you that a Tolstoy got it wrong in his condemnation of the church (though I have long had a special place in my heart for Episcopals). Any charity put forth by the church can be put forth by man alone. In fact, anything other than Love is a distraction from the mission statement of Love. I leave you with this (the Tolstoy influence should be obvious):

    There is a higher Christianity.

    As it writhes and rises toward the sun and sheds like so many skins the mess of a million denominations, the judgment, and the evil spirits that have been braided to the Holy — a higher, pure, single Christianity will rise.

    And that Christianity will be Love. True and pure, Love.

    You must return to Love.

  3. Thank you, Heath. Now get yourself to an Episcopal church instead of just admiring us from the outside. The community and its members have a lot to teach us about Love, more than we can learn or do on our own. Everyone there has a little piece of Love inside them, a little perception of Love, a little way of Love, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    The community needs your bit of Love, too; don’t withhold it.

    You don’t have to say the Creed if you don’t want to; you don’t have to do anything. But get to know the people. Find the Love they know, and you will have more Love yourself. Being with them will enable you to be Love more and more.

    And if not, go to the next Episcopal or other church, or the next, until you find the holy community that imperfectly but truly lives the Love you seek and are and have.

    Jesus gathered friends around him, he didn’t just walk alone.

    Thanks for your comment.


  4. Thank you for comment. It’s funny that you mention the Creed as I recently had been staring at the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds side-by-side and, writing further, realized that I had written my version of what is The Heathen Creed, yet surprisingly, of Love. But I will go out to be the people, as you say, and continue in my admiration of Bishop Spong, and all people who Love.

    Love be with you 🙂 .

  5. “with the people….”

  6. I’m very glad you stopped by and have now left two comments. I thought about your first remarks for several minutes afterward. I don’t blame Tolstoy one bit for his disgust with the czarist Orthodox Church (or today with Putin). I myself was completely alienated with the Episcopal Church in the 1970s and ’80s, but since then they have been opening up to LGBT people (and love), to where now the church as a whole is nearly ideal. But this openness isn’t shared in every parish or diocese, so we’re not “there” yet.

    More to the point maybe is this. It is certainly possible to worship God by oneself. Maybe millions of people actually do this. I find, though, that my worshp of God is definitely enhanced by being with others. That matters to me. No, the people in my parish are not my best friends, but I am always glad to be with them. I get more of a sense of “the great transaction” of mutual loving with others than I do when I pray by myself – though my interior prayer life is amazingly intimate. I need those people, whoever they are. I love what we do together. I love that the food pantry my first great mentor started at that church is not only still going 40 years later, but is now the biggest in town. We do feed the hungry, just like Jesus said. I couldn’t do that by myself. And because of my position as the lay “vicar” of that prayer site I mentioned above, with 2.2 million visitors from 200 countries, I get to learn about marvelous works Episcopalians and others are doing all over the country and the world. These folks are a sight to behold! I’m thrilled with them.

    Living as I do in an isolated village, I don’t get the chance to go to church very often. Dailyoffice.org is my lifeline, and clearly other people find it useful too. We chat back and forth, on the blog and on Facebook, and sometimes they write me direct. I’ve gotten to know the most wonderful people this way. So I’d kind of like you to do the same thing if you can, in whatever way is right for you.

    Don’t walk the Way alone, that’s all. We have millions of fine companions walking this Way too, and we can help each other. You should meet them, without signing up for anything you’re not sure about. I meet plenty of Bishop Spong’s friends as we walk together. I don’t sign up for everything he’s ever said or done, and he doesn’t sign up for everything of mine either. But we can and do walk together; it’s fun.

  7. “The great transaction” indeed. I’ve a friend both a Buddhist and Catholic priest, and gay. We were speaking of the Nicene Creeds and my contemplation of them and indeed we agreed that the holy spirit lies in the doing of it, not in fallible words.

    Well, I have been a long time volunteer for many, many years with the local LGBT center here in San Diego but at this point, I have much on my plate, but will of course always see service as a great part of my heart (yet I also love Ayn Rand, lol) and will return to service once I get some things established and squared away.

    How lovely and loving you are to give me such thoughtful feedback. My only faith in God is in Love, mankind and the possibility of God, as much as Love is God. But you help maintain that faith. 🙂

    Thank you 🙂 .

  8. How are you?

  9. Better than ever, Heath, thank you. (Busier than ever, too.) Hope you are well in San Diego.

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