W.H. Auden noted that G.K. Chesterton often punched down, intellectually speaking. ‘Small fry like Dean Inge and the ineffable Bishop Barnes were too easy game for a mind of his caliber.’ Auden defends Chesterton on this; there wasn’t much tougher game around at the time.
It must be admitted, however, that Chesterton had a habit of chasing easy prey. In Heretics there is a moment where it looks like he is going to take on Tolstoy, specifically his claim that it is radically inconsistent with true Christian belief to participate in the workings of the modern State. Christianity commands the repudiation of many of the crucial ingredients of the modern State: the use of violence to protect against violence, the setting up of some people as judges over others, and the practical distinction between citizen and non-citizen. Tolstoy supports this claim with formidable Scriptural evidence and philosophical arguments, in works like My Religion and The Kingdom of God is Within You. But Chesterton dodges these works altogether and directs his polemic instead against an imaginary ‘Tolstoyan’ who, we are told, ‘really believes it to be evil to love one’s country and wicked to strike a blow’.
Since Chesterton invents the character he finds him easy to parody. The Tolstoyan turns up in a pair of sandals, holding a tomato, preaching the virtues of Christian simplicity and a love that transcends country and family. But, Chesterton triumphantly declares, the thought behind this is not simple. Plain-thinking people are, in Chesterton’s view, patriotic Englishmen who love the State and dutifully serve its courts, police, and military. They plainly, jollily, and Englishly embrace the invidious distinctions of citizenship. And so the preacher of simplicity is caught in the act of self-contradiction; he preaches plainness but practices something else — today we might say ‘elitism’.
Tolstoy would have no trouble replying to this, of course. English patriotism might advertise itself as ‘plain’ — that’s all part of the branding. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in fact as wretchedly complex as any other web woven by the Prince of Lies. Take note of the infernal machine created by the tabloid press to sustain its life; the thing doesn’t look simple at all. ‘Plainness’ is a weasel word; for Chesterton it always comes with sentimental nationalism of the sort that Tolstoy’s Jesus railed against.
Tolstoy’s take on Christianity remains problematic for those who want to combine professed faith in it with obedience to the modern State — or even toleration of its continued existence. For the existence of the State depends entirely upon practices that are unequivocally evil according to the teaching of Christ. These are, again, the use of defensive violence, the establishment of tribunals and courts, and a practical division of humanity into citizens and non-citizens — all renounced in the Sermon on the Mount and other Gospel teachings.
Trying to show that Christianity is consistent with absolute State authority was a regular project in the early modern period. In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus Spinoza struggles at one point with Jesus’s injunction: ‘do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (Matthew 10:28). That, plus the example of Jesus’s death, looks a lot like a recommendation to act in defiance of the earthly powers and have no fear of their punishments. It is interesting that Tolstoy uses the same passage as the inscription to The Kingdom of God is Within You.
Spinoza explains this passage as applying only to Jesus’s disciples, not to his followers in general; otherwise it would contradict Solomon’s teaching in the Bible: ‘Fear the Lord, my son, and the king / And do not mix with dissenters’ (Proverbs 24:21).
Tolstoy made an elaborate Scriptural case in My Religion (ch.5) that Jesus’s teaching was intended and declared to overturn the old Hebrew law — not, as careless reading would have it, to ‘fulfil’ that law. Tolstoy would have no problem in saying that Solomon told us to fear the king, but Jesus told us not to listen to Solomon.
Then of course there are passages like Romans 13, in which Paul appears to preach submission to worldly rulers. On the other hand, Tolstoy reads in the same letter an injunction never to serve on any courts or tribunals, nor even to give testimony in one. At the very least a practicing Christian should refuse to give any aid of any sort to the courts, the military, and the police, who can be nothing but Satan’s vicegerents on earth and ought to be declared as such.
More than this there is the matter of the death of Jesus. Is Christian virtue not built upon the imitation of the Christ? And didn’t Jesus prefer a criminal’s death to compromising on his personal principles to fall into line with the State? There are moments in the Gospels where it looks like the defiance of Jesus is said to undermine the whole authority of the earthly powers:
Expunging what is written by hand against us — contrary to us — in ordinances, [Jesus] has removed it, out of the way, nailing it to the cross; Stripping the Archons and Power, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession (Colossians 2:14–15, David Bentley Hart trans).
The ‘Archons and Power’ (‘τὰς ἀρχὰς καὶ τὰς ἐξουσίας’ in the original) is often rendered ‘the principalities and the powers’; in the Vulgate we have ‘expolians principatus et potestates traduxit palam triumphans illos in semet ipso’. Although the State crucifies Jesus, Jesus also crucifies the State, and triumphs over it. The message seems remarkably seditious.
To avoid this seditious reading, Hobbes was driven to a reading of the Passion in which the significance of Jesus’s death is no different from the blood sacrifice of an animal, except in scale:
As the sacrifice of the one goat was a sufficient (because an acceptable) price for the ransom of all Israel, so the death of the Messiah is a sufficient price for the sins of all mankind, because there was no more required (Leviathan, 41.2).
The death of Jesus removes our sins by some kind of ritual magic. Jesus committed no crime or sedition against the State. His death was, from a legal point of view, arbitrary. But this doesn’t matter; the only important thing is that he is killed. It is the blood that saves in the crudest and most literal sense.
Spinoza couldn’t accept this crude and superstitious reading. Perhaps he was influenced by his friend Adriaan Koerbagh (1633–69), who wrote:
[Jesus’s] mere dying did not bring us the least spiritual salvation, nor could it have. Moreover, if his death were an atonement for our sins this would have to be clearly and expressly mentioned in Scripture, but the term atonement or reparation is not even in Scripture (A Light Shining in Dark Places, 3.14).
But nor could Spinoza agree with Koerbagh that the death of Jesus was of no religious significance at all, beyond being an unfortunate indictment of human cruelty. He wrote to Henry Oldenburg that Jesus brings salvation to those who follow the example of his life and death. But he struggles to interpret the example of that death in a way that is neither seditious like Tolstoy’s reading nor superstitious like Hobbes’s reading.
I have more to say on Spinoza, of course. But in this post I wanted to point out how it seems significant that Chesterton, that admirable polemicist, found himself unable to directly address Tolstoy’s argument that Christianity is morally incompatible with the acceptance of State authority. His arguments are in no worse shape than those of Hilaire Belloc for the conclusion that Christianity is morally incompatible with Capitalism. Chesterton agreed with that conclusion; he has no strong counter to the other. ‘Plain thinking’ is of no help here. And, as I discussed elsewhere, how does Chesterton know that his mascot, the ‘plain-thinking Englishman’, isn’t a born revolutionary?