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Leo Tolstoy and Non-violent Resistance

Note: This is originally posted on Feb. 16, 2011 in my FB account.

This month the world watched in admiration when the Egyptian people overthrew Mubarak, their dictator for thirty years. The relatively non-violent “people power” revolution was preceded by a similar, albeit at a smaller scale, revolution in neighboring Tunisia. If President Obama continues to play his card right, the United States will reap the benefit that comes with the spread of democracy across the Arab world with its gentle prodding and guidance. Young pro-American Arabs will likely thrive and make radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood less relevant and therefore less influential – a much better achievement than forcing our way to create a democracy as we did in Iraq. To rephrase the Master Card commercial: “The cost of creating a democracy in Iraq – thousands of American soldiers in body bags, tens of billions in US dollars and counting. The cost of creating a democracy in Egypt – PRICELESS.”

A similar political wind swept the Eastern bloc of communist regimes in Europe over twenty years ago that led to the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. A few years back, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and similar “color” revolutions also brought down unpopular regimes. All these are achieved through non-violent resistance. In 1986, the people power movement in the Philippines ended Marcos’ iron rule for over two decades with minimal fatalities. Here in the United States we remember Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement of the sixties. King and other non-violent resistance leaders like him ( Nelson Mandela is a good example) were influenced by the original non-violent resistance advocate, Mahatma Gandhi of India. Yet few people realize that Gandhi himself was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian author of such classic novels as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In fact, the two were in constant communication up until Tolstoy’s death.

In 1894, he published a book titled “The Kingdom of God Is Within You, the culmination of Tolstoy’s years of Christian thinking.  In it he argued that the mainstream Christian churches were the ones who deviated from Jesus’ teachings and are the real heretics. When Jesus says to turn the other cheek, Tolstoy asserted that he means simply that and rejected the interpretations of church scholars who attempted to limit its scope, writing: “How can you kill people, when it is written in God’s commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’?” His interpretation of the sacred books may be controversial but it is interesting to note that the origin of non-violent resistance has a religious, Christian in fact, undertone. Tolstoy “advocated non-violence as a solution to nationalist woes and as a means for seeing the hypocrisy of the church.” The next time you pick up a copy of War and Peace, it is well to remember that the guy who wrote it was the same guy who influenced Gandhi, MLK, Mandela and others like them who, instead of waging a bloody war to topple a bad leader or government, took the “road less traveled” that make all the difference.

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