I now understood the words of Jesus: "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 resist not evil." Jesus' meaning is: "You have thought that you were acting in a reasonable manner in defending yourself by violence against evil, in tearing out an eye for an eye, by fighting against evil with criminal tribunals, guardians of the peace, armies; but I say unto you, Renounce violence; have nothing to do with violence; do harm to no one, not even to your enemy." I understood now that in saying "Resist not evil," Jesus not only told us what would result from the observance of this rule, but established a new basis for society conformable to his doctrine and opposed to the social basis established by the law of Moses, by Roman law, and by the different codes in force to-day. He formulated a new law whose effect would be to deliver humanity from its self-inflicted woes. His declaration was: "You believe that your laws reform criminals; as a matter of fact, they only make more criminals. There is only one way to suppress evil, and that is to return good for evil, without respect of persons. For thousands of years you have tried the other method; now try mine, try the reverse."
Strange to say, in these later days, I talked with different persons about this commandment of Jesus, "Resist not evil," and rarely found any one to coincide with my opinion! Two classes of men would never, even by implication, admit the literal interpretation of the law. These men were at the extreme poles of the social scale,—they were the conservative Christian patriots who maintained the infallibility of the Church, and the atheistic revolutionists. Neither of these two classes was willing to renounce the right to resist by violence what they regarded as evil. And the wisest and most intelligent among them would not acknowledge the simple and evident truth, that if we once admit the right of any man to resist by violence what he regards as evil, every other man has equally the right to resist by violence what he regards as evil.
Not long ago I had in my hands an interesting correspondence between an orthodox Slavophile and a Christian revolutionist. The one advocated violence as a partisan of a war for the relief of brother Slavs in bondage; the other, as a partisan of revolution, in the name of our brothers the oppressed Russian peasantry. Both invoked violence, and each based himself upon the doctrine of Jesus. The doctrine of Jesus is understood in a hundred different ways; but never, unhappily, in the simple and direct way which harmonizes with the inevitable meaning of Jesus' words.
Our entire social fabric is founded upon principles that Jesus reproved; we do not wish to understand his doctrine in its simple and direct acceptation, and yet we assure ourselves and others that we follow his doctrine, or else that his doctrine is not expedient for us. Believers profess that Christ as God, the second person of the Trinity, descended upon earth to teach men by his example how to live; they go through the most elaborate ceremonies for the consummation of the sacraments, the building of temples, the sending out of missionaries, the establishment of priesthoods, for parochial administration, for the performance of rituals; but they forget one little detail,—the practice of the commandments of Jesus. Unbelievers endeavor in every possible way to organize their existence independent of the doctrine of Jesus, they having decided a priori that this doctrine is of no account. But to endeavor to put his teachings in practice, this each refuses to do; and the worst of it is, that without any attempt to put them in practice, both believers and unbelievers decide a priori that it is impossible.
Jesus said, simply and clearly, that the law of resistance to evil by violence, which has been made the basis of society, is false, and contrary to man's nature; and he gave another basis, that of non-resistance to evil, a law which, according to his doctrine, would deliver man from wrong. "You believe" (he says in substance) "that your laws, which resort to violence, correct evil; not at all; they only augment it. For thousands of years you have tried to destroy evil by evil, and you have not destroyed it; you have only augmented it. Do as I command you, follow my example, and you will know that my doctrine is true." Not only in words, but by his acts, by his death, did Jesus propound his doctrine, "Resist not evil."
Believers listen to all this. They hear it in their churches, persuaded that the words are divine; they worship Jesus as God, and then they say: "All this is admirable, but it is impossible; as society is now organized, it would derange our whole existence, and we should be obliged to give up the customs that are so dear to us. We believe it all, but only in this sense: That it is the ideal toward which humanity ought to move; the ideal which is to be attained by prayer, and by believing in the sacraments, in the redemption, and in the resurrection of the dead."
The others, the unbelievers, the free-thinkers who comment on the doctrine of Jesus, the historians of religions, the Strausses, the Renans,—completely imbued with the teachings of the Church, which says that the doctrine of Jesus accords with difficulty with our conceptions of life,—tell us very seriously that the doctrine of Jesus is the doctrine of a visionary, the consolation of feeble minds; that it was all very well preached in the fishermen's huts by Galilee; but that for us it is only the sweet dream of one whom Renan calls the "charmant docteur."
In their opinion, Jesus could not rise to the heights of wisdom and culture attained by our civilization. If he had been on an intellectual level with his modern critics, he never would have uttered his charming nonsense about the birds of the air, the turning of the other cheek, the taking no thought for the morrow. These historical critics judge of the value of Christianity by what they see of it as it now exists. The Christianity of our age and civilization approves of society as it now is, with its prison-cells, its factories, its houses of infamy, its parliaments; but as for the doctrine of Jesus, which is opposed to modern society, it is only empty words. The historical critics see this, and, unlike the so-called believers, having no motives for concealment, submit the doctrine to a careful analysis; they refute it systematically, and prove that Christianity is made up of nothing but chimerical ideas.
It would seem that before deciding upon the doctrine of Jesus, it would be necessary to understand of what it consisted; and to decide whether his doctrine is reasonable or not, it would be well first to realize that he said exactly what he did say. And this is precisely what we do not do, what the Church commentators do not do, what the free-thinkers do not do—and we know very well why. We know perfectly well that the doctrine of Jesus is directed at and denounces all human errors, all tohu, all the empty idols that we try to except from the category of errors, by dubbing them "Church," "State," "Culture," "Science," "Art," "Civilization." But Jesus spoke precisely of all these, of these and all other tohu. Not only Jesus, but all the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, all the true sages of the world denounced the Church and State and culture and civilization of their times as sources of man's perdition.
Imagine an architect who says to a house-owner, "Your house is good for nothing; you must rebuild it," and then describes how the supports are to be cut and fastened. The proprietor turns a deaf ear to the words, "Your house is good for nothing," and only listens respectfully when the architect begins to discuss the arrangement of the rooms. Evidently, in this case, all the subsequent advice of the architect will seem to be impracticable; less respectful proprietors would regard it as nonsensical. But it is precisely in this way that we treat the doctrine of Jesus. I give this illustration for want of a better. I remember now that Jesus in teaching his doctrine made use of the same comparison. "Destroy this temple," he said, "and in three days I will raise it up." It was for this they put him on the cross, and for this they now crucify his doctrine.
The least that can be asked of those who pass judgment upon any doctrine is that they shall judge of it with the same understanding as that with which it was propounded. Jesus understood his doctrine, not as a vague and distant ideal impossible of attainment, not as a collection of fantastic and poetical reveries with which to charm the simple inhabitants on the shores of Galilee; to him his doctrine was a doctrine of action, of acts which should become the salvation of mankind. This he showed in his manner of applying his doctrine. The crucified one who cried out in agony of spirit and died for his doctrine was not a dreamer; he was a man of action. They are not dreamers who have died, and still die, for his doctrine. No; that doctrine is not a chimera!
All doctrine that reveals the truth is chimerical to the blind. We may say, as many people do say (I was of the number), that the doctrine of Jesus is chimerical because it is contrary to human nature. It is against nature, we say, to turn the other cheek when we have been struck, to give all that we possess, to toil not for ourselves but for others. It is natural, we say, for a man to defend his person, his family, his property; that is to say, it is the nature of man to struggle for existence. A learned person has proved scientifically that the most sacred duty of man is to defend his rights, that is, to fight.
But the moment we detach ourselves from the idea that the existing organization established by man is the best, is sacred, the moment we do this, the objection that the doctrine of Jesus is contrary to human nature turns immediately upon him who makes it. No one will deny that not only to kill or torture a man, but to torture a dog, to kill a fowl or a calf, is to inflict suffering reproved by human nature. (I have known of farmers who had ceased to eat meat solely because it had fallen to their lot to slaughter animals.) And yet our existence is so organized that every personal enjoyment is purchased at the price of human suffering contrary to human nature.
We have only to examine closely the complicated mechanism of our institutions that are based upon coercion to realize that coercion and violence are contrary to human nature. The judge who has condemned according to the code, is not willing to hang the criminal with his own hands; no clerk would tear a villager from his weeping family and cast him into prison; the general or the soldier, unless he be hardened by discipline and service, will not undertake to slay a hundred Turks or Germans or destroy a village, would not, if he could help it, kill a single man. Yet all these things are done, thanks to the administrative machinery which divides responsibility for misdeeds in such a way that no one feels them to be contrary to nature.
Some make the laws, others execute them; some train men by discipline to automatic obedience; and these last, in their turn, become the instruments of coercion, and slay their kind without knowing why or to what end. But let a man disentangle himself for a moment from this complicated network, and he will readily see that coercion is contrary to his nature. Let us abstain from affirming that organized violence, of which we make use to our own profit, is a divine, immutable law, and we shall see clearly which is most in harmony with human nature,—the doctrine of violence or the doctrine of Jesus.
What is the law of nature? Is it to know that my security and that of my family, all my amusements and pleasures, are purchased at the expense of misery, deprivation, and suffering to thousands of human beings—by the terror of the gallows; by the misfortune of thousands stifling within prison walls; by the fear inspired by millions of soldiers and guardians of civilization, torn from their homes and besotted by discipline, to protect our pleasures with loaded revolvers against the possible interference of the famishing? Is it to purchase every fragment of bread that I put in my mouth and the mouths of my children by the numberless privations that are necessary to procure my abundance? Or is it to be certain that my piece of bread only belongs to me when I know that every one else has a share, and that no one starves while I eat?
It is only necessary to understand that, thanks to our social organization, each one of our pleasures, every minute of our cherished tranquility, is obtained by the sufferings and privations of thousands of our fellows—it is only necessary to understand this, to know what is conformable to human nature; not to our animal nature alone, but the animal and spiritual nature which constitutes man. When we once understand the doctrine of Jesus in all its bearings, with all its consequences, we shall be convinced that his doctrine is not contrary to human nature; but that its sole object is to supplant the chimerical law of the struggle against evil by violence—itself the law contrary to human nature and productive of so many evils.
Do you say that the doctrine of Jesus, "Resist not evil," is vain? What, then, are we to think of the lives of those who are not filled with love and compassion for their kind,—of those who make ready for their fellow-men punishment at the stake, by the knout, the wheel, the rack, chains, compulsory labor, the gibbet, dungeons, prisons for women and children, the hecatombs of war, or bring about periodical revolutions; of those who carry these horrors into execution; of those who benefit by these calamities or prepare reprisals,—are not such lives vain?
We need only understand the doctrine of Jesus, to be convinced that existence,—not the reasonable existence which gives happiness to humanity, but the existence men have organized to their own hurt,—that such an existence is a vanity, the most savage and horrible of vanities, a veritable delirium of folly, to which, once reclaimed, we do not again return.
God descended to earth, became incarnate to redeem Adam's sin, and (so we were taught to believe) said many mysterious and mystical things which are difficult to understand, which it is not possible to understand except by the aid of faith and grace—and suddenly the words of God are found to be simple, clear, and reasonable! God said, Do no evil, and evil will cease to exist. Was the revelation from God really so simple—nothing but that? It would seem that every one might understand it, it is so simple!
The prophet Elijah, a fugitive from men, took refuge in a cave, and was told that God would appear to him. There came a great wind that devastated the forest; Elijah thought that the Lord had come, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind came the thunder and the lightning, but God was not there. Then came the earthquake: the earth belched forth fire, the rocks were shattered, the mountain was rent to its foundations; Elijah looked for the Lord, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then, in the calm that followed, a gentle breeze came to the prophet, bearing the freshness of the fields; and Elijah knew that God was there. It is a magnificent illustration of the words, "Resist not evil."
They are very simple, these words; but they are, nevertheless, the expression of a law divine and human. If there has been in history a progressive movement for the suppression of evil, it is due to the men who understood the doctrine of Jesus—who endured evil, and resisted not evil by violence. The advance of humanity towards righteousness is due, not to the tyrants, but to the martyrs. As fire cannot extinguish fire, so evil cannot suppress evil. Good alone, confronting evil and resisting its contagion, can overcome evil. And in the inner world of the human soul, the law is as absolute as it was for the hearers by Galilee, more absolute, more clear, more immutable. Men may turn aside from it, they may hide its truth from others; but the progress of humanity towards righteousness can only be attained in this way. Every step must be guided by the command, "Resist not evil." A disciple of Jesus may say now, with greater assurance than they of Galilee, in spite of misfortunes and threats: "And yet it is not violence, but good, that overcomes evil." If the progress is slow, it is because the doctrine of Jesus (which, through its clearness, simplicity, and wisdom, appeals so inevitably to human nature), because the doctrine of Jesus has been cunningly concealed from the majority of mankind under an entirely different doctrine falsely called by his name.