Published in 1884, ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ is perhaps Tolstoy’s most significant work of non-fiction. Due to the Russian censors, it was first published in Germany, but its dominant idea of non-violence echoed across the international stage throughout the 20th century.
In essence, the book is a defence by Tolstoy of the position on non-violence he adopted in ‘My Religion’; and therefore also an assault on the Orthodox Church. ‘Nowhere,’ says Tolstoy, ‘is there evidence that God or Christ founded anything like what churchmen understand by the Church.’ And in what it now proclaimed, Tolstoy believed the church was wasting its time: ‘The activity of the church consists in forcing, by every means in its power, upon millions Russian people, those antiquated, time-worn beliefs which have lost all significance.’
Freshly informed by Quaker ideals of non-violence; and full of both story telling and rhetoric, here is Tolstoy calling for a change in consciousness in society. He does not accept that ‘this social order, with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies and wars, is necessary to society.’ That which is, is not that which must be.
Rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy’s Christianity is not primarily concerned with worship or salvation, but with a new way of behaving in society – behaviour informed by the pointlessness and sin of violence. Tolstoy tellingly reflects on the army at work – whether in internal repression or in national wars – and asks: ‘How can you kill people when it is written in God’s commandment ‘Thou shall not murder?’
Gandhi was ‘overwhelmed’ by the book, said ‘it left an abiding impression’, and in time, a correspondence started between the two men. The book convinced Gandhi that Hinduism and Christianity were one and the same at their core, and informed his passive resistance first in South Africa and then India; and later, of course, that of Martin Luther King in the USA.
Here is an excerpt from The Kingdom of God is Within You:
[…] nothing has contributed so much to the obscuring of Christian truth in the eyes of the heathen, and hashindered so much the diffusion of Christianity through the world, as the disregard of this command by men calling themselves Christians, and the permission of war and violence to Christians.
“Christ’s teaching, which came to be known to men, not by means of violence and the sword,” they say, “but by means of non−resistance to evil, gentleness, meekness, and peaceableness, can only be diffused through the world by the example of peace, harmony, and love among its followers.”
“A Christian, according to the teaching of God himself, can act only peaceably toward all men, and therefore there can be no authority able to force the Christian to act in opposition to the teaching of God and to the principal virtue of the Christian in his relation with his neighbors.”
“The law of state necessity,” they say, “can force only those to change the law of God who, for the sake of earthly gains, try to reconcile the irreconcilable; but for a Christian who sincerely believes that following Christ’s teaching will give him salvation, such considerations of state can have no force.”