Shakespeare, Religion, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King

“…and sweet religion makes A rhapsody of words.” Hamlet. A quotation as a starting point to compare the philosophy of Tolstoy and of Martin Luther King“…and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words.”

Hamlet, act 3, scene 4


Say “Tolstoy” and most of us think of “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina” and maybe of some of his short stories. Few, however, would associate Tolstoy with the philosophy of a Christian-anarchist. Though “anarchist”, given the usually negative connotation associated with the term, does not convey at all what Tolstoy had in mind. He merely wanted to correct what is corrupt in the official Christian narrative.

This lesser-known aspect of Tolstoy the philosopher is masterly illustrated in his book, “The Kingdom of God within You”. The title has the ring of a “religious” book, but it isn’t. It is a reasoned, accurate and well documented demonstration of why the Christian official religion, as embodied in the three branches, (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox), represents a complete subversion of the message, teaching and inspiration derived by the Christ entity.

I remembered Tolstoy’s topic book some time ago, while listening to Obama’s remarks on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Along with other similar remarks by Obama, when he shipped 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (!).

Obama said, “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”

which is the classical prelude to a “but”…

“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”

Translation from the Orwellianese.  King and Gandhi had great “moral force”, but did not know the world as it is.  Unlike them, I, Obama, know “the world as it is”.  Which is an extraordinary thing to say, as both King and Gandhi had not only been deeply involved in “the world as it was”, in practical action, but were instrumental in bringing about change.

Or rather – implies Obama – moral principles are fine, as long as they remain principles. The emphasis, however, is not on principles but on “hard truth” – which enables Obama and the establishment to sell the quintessential Orwellian idea that “War is Peace”.

And yet, Martin Luther King Jr. was a headstrong proponent of non-violence. How to reconcile, then, two diametrically opposed positions? New-speak, as usual, comes to the rescue. King’s non-violence was not practical or possible in all circumstances, “but the love he preached, that must be the North Star that guides our journey”.

Translation, non-violence is for the birds and if you don’t agree, simply soothe your feeling by thinking about “journeys”, “guides” and “North Stars”. Say that to the one million plus dead in Iraq, to the prisoners tortured without trial, to the wedding parties destroyed by drones or more recently to the protesters burned alive in Ukraine after the CIA sponsored coup.

In the cited book, Tolstoy analyzes the history and the frame of mind of the oppressors and of the oppressed, and of the mutual intoxication of authority and servility, with particular references to the role of the official churches.

He starts by reminding us of William Lloyd Garrison, the famous champion of the emancipation of African Americans and of the proclamation concluding the “Peace Convention”, held in Boston in 1838 by the “Society for the Establishment of Peace among Men”.

There is no space here to cite the complete text, but the proclamation starts as follows: “We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one king and lawgiver, one judge and one ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury…”

Another pre-MLK American champion  of non resistance was Adin Ballou (1803-1890). In a pamphlet entitled, “How many men are necessary to change a crime into a virtue” he says, “One man cannot kill. If he kills a fellow creature, he is a murderer. If two, ten, a hundred men do so, they too are murderers. But a government or a nation may kill as many men as it chooses, and that will not be murder, but a great and noble action. Only gather the people together on a large scale, and a battle of ten thousand men becomes an innocent action. But precisely how many people must there be to make it so? – That is the question…”

Tolstoy also refers to two other books published in 1824 and in 1864 titled, respectively, “On War” and “Non resistance”.

The argument of the two books is that there are people who, without any definite reasoning about it, conclude that the responsibility of government measures rests entirely on those who pass them. And if governments and sovereigns decide what is good or bad for their subjects, the duty of the subjects is merely to obey. (This was the argument that, oddly, was deemed untenable as applied to the Nazis, after WW2).

These contentions, objects Tolstoy, only obscure men’s conscience… “The misdeeds of our rulers become our own if we, knowingly, assist in carrying them out. A man cannot get rid of the responsibility for his own actions, which is clear from the following example. If your commanding officer commands you to kill your neighbor’s child, to kill your father or your mother, would you obey? If you would not obey, the whole argument falls to the ground, for if you can disobey the commanding officer in one case, where do you draw the line up to which command you can obey or not?”

Tolstoy demonstrates that the significance of the Christian message and philosophy is hidden from believers by the church, and from unbelievers by science. From the earlier times of Christianity there were men who began to assert on their own authority that the meaning they attributed to the doctrine is the only true one. And they have brought forward supernatural occurrences in support of the correctness of their interpretation.

The more the understanding of the Christian teaching was obscured, the more the miraculous was introduced into it – overburdening the credulity of the audience and fostering the bigotry that is ever eager for prodigies. The more the miraculous was introduced into it, the more the doctrine strayed into obscurity. The more obscure it became, the more strongly its infallibility had to be asserted, and the less comprehensible the doctrine became.

Thus the process started from the earliest times, increasing constantly, till it reached in our day the logical climax of the religious dogmas – the infallibility of the Pope, or of the bishops, or of Scripture – requiring a blind faith rendered incomprehensible and utterly meaningless. Meaningless because it is faith in a person, as in Catholicism, or in persons, as in Greek orthodoxy, or in the book as in Protestantism.

But nothing like the idea of the church as we know it now, with its sacraments, miracles, and above all its claim to infallibility, is to be found in the original Christian message and in the ideas of the men of that time.

According to Tolstoy, heresy represents an effort to break through the petrified authority of the church. Among the heretics, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Luther, Huss, Savonarola, and a long list of others. And he concludes that, strange as it may seem, the churches have always been, and they cannot be but institutions not only opposed to the teaching of Christianity, but even directly antagonistic to it… Which explains why Voltaire called the church “the infamous” with good reasons. The history of the church is the history of the greatest cruelties and horrors. Therefore, the churches as churches, as bodies which assert their own infallibility, are institutions opposed to Christianity

“The servants of the churches of all denominations, especially of later times, tried to show themselves as champions of progress in Christianity. They make concessions, wish to correct the abuses that have slipped into the church, and maintain that one cannot, on account of these abuses, deny the principle itself of a Christian church, which alone can bind all men together in unity and be a mediator between men and God. But this is a mistake. Not only have churches never bound men together in unity; they have always been one of the principal causes of division between men, of their hatred of one another, of wars, battles, inquisitions, massacres of St. Bartholomew, and so on.”

Apart from any literary parallels, there is a considerable affinity between the philosophies of Martin Luther King and of Tolstoy and between their respective interpretations. Tolstoy was admired for his literary masterpieces, but his philosophy was mostly ignored and dismissed. The very attribution of “anarchy”, as in ‘Christian-anarchist’, suggests a disregard for the law and for its rules. Whereas the opposite is true. Tolstoy only suggests a more rational and factual interpretation of the Christian message.

Martin Luther King is admired for his crusade against racial discrimination – though his other equally powerful messages in politics and social justice have been deftly obscured. But the very philosophy that made his success possible is (was) dismissed by Obama’s skillful circumlocutions, so as to avoid calling King’s philosophy silly or worse. A reality of fact that the further developments of US foreign policy amply support and confirm.

In the play. Hamlet in the dramatic confrontation with his mother the Queen and during which he will slain the poor Polonius who was listening behind a curtain.

Image Source.

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