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My world for the next few months is all things Tolstoy. I’m onto an important linkage between Tolstoy and Bonhoeffer but I’ll not spell all that out here. Hopefully some of my findings will make their way into a book I’m writing called: Tolstoy’s Novel Idea: Obey The Sermon on the Mount.
Obey the Sermon on the Mount. What a novel idea, huh?
Here’s a crash course to give the basics needed to explain this fascinating Fresco which is my interest in this post.
Tolstoy was a famous and successful nineteenth century Russian novelist who wrote what is considered the greatest novel ever written, War & Peace. That would be what I’m calling First Tolstoy – his literary writings. Second Tolstoy is my designation for the second half of his prolific life– his religious writings; mostly a call to obey the Sermon on the Mount. He was anything but orthodox and rejected significant dogma we’d think is orthodox, and he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s more complicated than that but simply put, he believed the Church had become a great hindrance to the Gospel and was full of superstition, paganism and idolatry. Tolstoy was a reformer who had no interest to reform the Church. The Church was too far gone. Best to go back to the plain meaning of the teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount.
Tolstoy died in 1910. However this Fresco was sanctioned (27 years earlier) by the Orthodox Church in 1883, the year Tolstoy published his first book on obeying the Sermon on the Mount (My Religion – What I Believe).
Gotta love the Church /S.
Tolstoy was deemed a “madman.” If Tolstoy was mad for his adherence to Jesus’ teaching, what would that make Jesus? What a paradox that literal obedience to the teaching of Christ is still considered crazy radical even in Christian circles today.
Good theology is essential when bad things go down. So, to start with some theological preciseness, the question in the title would be better phrased: Is Scott Westerhuis hell-bound? The reason for that clarification is because it isn’t until after the Great White Throne Judgment that the books are opened and each one judged. It is then both Death and Hades are gathered up and together thrown into the Eternal Lake of Fire (aka Hell). The temporary abode for the unredeemed dead is Hades, not Hell. So no, no one is presently burning in hell.
The question was posed yesterday on Facebook by a seasoned journalist friend in South Dakota who, since last September, has been covering the horrible unfoldings in Platte, South Dakota. He took some criticism for even posting the question. Understandably this is still a very tender topic in our small home state.
Scott Westerhuis was husband and father of four, an active member of First Reformed Church and an involved member of a close knit small town community. Made aware he was soon to be in serious trouble for plundering a million dollars from a fund set up to help young Native Americans, late that night he took his shotgun and killed his wife and their four children all in their beds, and then set fire to their house and taking his own life.
For the benefit of others in our state, here were my contributions in the midst of a most interesting string of comments to the question.
Me: One doesn’t spend eternity separated from God for anything they did or didn’t do. The way you end up there is rejecting what Jesus did to make possible eternity with God.
A reply to me: Can someone profess Jesus is their Lord and Savior and then commit multiple murders? Were they lying when they made the profession or did they change their mind? Or did they not even think about it? (a subconscious decision)
Me: People profess Jesus as Lord and then commit adultery or break any of the other Ten Commandments. Our various traditions differ a bit on whether some sin is worse than other sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said if we are angry it’s the same as murder. A lawyer friend in Sioux Falls who has/is defended some of those facing the death penalty in South Dakota told me once that every murderer he’s ever met felt justified from their vantage point at that time to do what they did, and he and I agree that includes the State when we kill killers. We do what they do and then have our rationalisations for it. Psychologically suicide and killing occur in when we aren’t thinking clearly and rationally. Killing is irrational. Unless a person decidedly rejects Christ and then kills, I’m not sure we can say they go to hell– at least not for killing. I’m grateful I’m not judged according to the worse thing I’ve done. The Gospel is about what Jesus did, not about what we’ve done. Did he do enough on the Cross to pay the price for all our sin or do we need to add to his finished work by doing more right and less wrong? Reject him and we are on our own to stand before God on our own good merit.
This is pure speculation: perhaps this guy dearly loved his family and couldn’t imagine life without them or imagine ruining their lives and shaming them all so horribly with his crimes and to spare them that greater pain, in a colossal act of misguided mercy, and moment of irrational panic- hardly thinking clearly about anything – believing in Christ and heaven- reasoned to himself that they could all go together and be together and that God would understand.
Good people in society concoct all sorts of justifications for killing to save themselves and others.
I’ll wrap up here with some Gospel basics: Salvation is not genetic or hereditary any more than marriage is– your grandparents being married doesn’t mean you are– your parents being Christians doesn’t automatically make you one– a individual choice to receive what Jesus did for you appropriates salvation to an individual. Salvation is not by ritual or ceremony. Salvation is not by addition– doing more right. It is not by subtraction– doing less wrong. It is not second hand– not mediated by anyone other than Jesus. Salvation is not by comparison– we are less bad than those people down the street – those gays or Muslims or compared to that guy on death-row. It is not universal– you can decidedly reject what Jesus did for you and many do. He doesn’t force people to spend eternity with him when they make it clear they don’t want him part of their lives here. Salvation is not by showing up to church. It can’t be bought or sold. Salvation is not by sincerity. The 9/11 hi-jackers were sincere, sincerely wrong. You get the idea. And, by the way, our loving God doesn’t send anyone to hell. Hell-bound people chose that course themselves by rejecting the only way God set forth for salvation. If all religious paths were viable options, he wouldn’t have sent his only Son to die on a Cross to atone for our sin. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
As hard as it is to accept, I’m doubtful Westerhuis is hell-bound. The reason is because salvation isn’t based on what he did. It is based on what Jesus did. From what I can tell, he was a believing Christian. And yes we aren’t to judge or try to read hearts, but people in my line of work get asked these hard questions– and usually people like me have 2-3 days max to think of something to say at a funeral. It’s not a time to give false assurances. It’s a time to be clear about how it is that Jesus defeats death for us all. God has an amazing way to bring life from death and draw out good from bad. The possibility of salvation for Scott Westerhuis will hopefully result in the assurance of salvation of many others.
Retraction and Correction – Page 228
Please strike over and disregard the entirety of the second full paragraph on page 228 of my Sermon on the Mount book. It is rubbish I wrote in 2003. This book was written over of a couple decades and there are several places where I’d say things differently today. However, the issue I correct here is so central at the very the summit of the mount it cannot stand uncorrected. There is no section of the Bible like here at the summit of the mount (enemy love) where corporately, Christians contort themselves more to get out from underneath its demands. Here we come to the second of the two main issues of interpretation with regard to the Sermon on the Mount. The first being, is it liveable? Is it an obtainable standard? The entire thesis of this book is absolutely, it is liveable and obtainable. The second issue then becomes who is it for, an individual believer or also for Christian’s corporately, including nations seeking to adhere to Judeo-Christian values? If you want a more developed article on non-retaliation go to my essay: Love as a Foreign Policy: September 11 and Turning the Other Cheek (pdf alert, 11,000 words). One of the first questions I get on this is; what about self-defence, what about defending the nation?? This article is about retaliation and to whom the non-retaliation commandment applies. If that is not kept in mind one will misunderstand and misrepresent my argument. The following constitutes the corrections I wish to make in place of the disregarded paragraph.
Christians quickly hide behind Romans 13 arguing God gives governments the power of the sword. Romans 13 does say just that, except the passage does not say God agrees with and sanctions every pagan governments decided use of the sword. And most certainly, Paul was not telling Christians that they are justified to forsake the path of mercy and love if and when they one day assume positions of power. Why then are so many Christians today defending the values of pagan Romans and the ethics of Nero? Perhaps it should be the case that governments in the Christian sectors of the world are based more on the ethics of Jesus rather than on the ethics of Nero. It is remarkable how much weight Christians throughout the centuries have given to this eisegesis of Romans 13:4. Somehow it outweighs fifty verses from Jesus on showing mercy and love.
Retreating to a bifurcated interpretation of “turn the other cheek,” in that it applies to Christians interpersonally but not to Christians corporately and politically, is to entirely miss all that the Apostle Paul underscored in the chapter immediately before Romans 13, chapter twelve. Chapter 12 of Romans reads much like the Sermon on the Mount; “Love must be sincere… Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Those were Paul’s instructions immediately prior to his Romans 13 statement on Christians living submissively under pagan governments (whom God has delegated the power of the sword). There is no caveat that they do not apply to the Christian later, if and when they find themselves in positions of power and political authority.
There is no caveat that these divine strategies of responding to hate and hurt with love and responding to evil with good only work on a small scale. My contention here is those who have been faithful and obedient in smaller situations can be entrusted with the same in larger situations. Jesus never differentiated between loving a neighbour and loving a neighbouring nation.** Effectually it is as if we believe Jesus said “These are some strategies that I commend to you for little matters. Honestly, for the more complex conflicts I have nothing for you in terms of heavenly wisdom or strategy so go ahead and ‘do unto them what they’ve do unto you’ and I’m okay with whatever response seems and feels right for you at the time. Not to worry, forgiveness comes easy with me, and grace cheap.”
**Leo Tolstoy settles this centuries-old, unnecessary uncertainty with a simple appeal to the words Jesus used and what they would have meant to his original hearers. “…[N]eighbour in the Hebrew language meant, invariably and exclusively, ‘a Hebrew.’” Considering the lengths he went to describe the thoroughness of his study of these words, that he seems to imply Jesus spoke this originally in Hebrew, not Aramaic, is peculiar. His justification may be it is the same word and meaning as in Luke 10:29 where the “neighbour” is a Samaritan– someone a Hebrew would have clearly not regarded as a neighbour. Finding the same meaning in Acts 7:27, his conclusion is “‘neighbour’ in Gospel language, means a compatriot, a person belonging to the same nationality…. And so the antithesis used by Jesus in the citation, ‘love thy neighbour, hate thine enemy,’ must be in the distinction between the words ‘compatriot’ and ‘foreigner.’” Tolstoy contended his supposition was further confirmed when seeking the Jewish understanding of enemy. “The word enemy is nearly always employed in the Gospels in the sense, not of a personal enemy, but, in general, of a ‘hostile people.’” His citations are Luke 1:71,74; Matthew 22, Mark 12:36 and Luke 20:43. Based on the words Jesus used, Tolstoy’s conclusion is that it is not possible that Jesus intended his teaching to be applicable only on the interpersonal level. [Source: Tolstoy, Leo. My Religion–What I Believe. (Guildford, UK: White Crow Productions Ltd, 2009 reprint of the 1884 text), 72.]
On March 11, 2016, here at the University of Aberdeen, I asked Stanley Hauerwas the question: What should turn the other cheek mean to a Christian President the morning after September 11? What follows is a verbatim transcript of my recording of his answer. Next week I will be publishing an essay entitled: Love as a Foreign Policy: Hauerwas, Elshtain and a Christ-like Response to September 11th. Part of Hauerwas’ comment below appears in my essay but I’m posting his entire statement here so it is out there for others to use. ______________________________________
Steve Hickey: What should turn the other cheek mean to a Christian President the morning after a September 11?
Stanley Hauerwas: And my answer is, how does a Christian ever get elected President of the United States? I mean I would assume that they would have been interrogated about what it means to turn the other cheek before they ever got to be president. And that would have made them– not ready candidates to be understood as people who would be ready to do anything to defend the American people. So the question itself already presupposes a Constantinian form of Christianity that I do not represent.
In terms of September 11, America is a country whose politics is fundamentally determined by September 11th. When September 11th occurred I said “this is the next fifty years and maybe longer than that” because Americans are determined to find a way to get out of life alive. And we think that if we have the strongest military that will be able to provide that result. And of course, it’s just bullshit.
And this would be kind of a Niebuhrian point…. One of the tensions within the American society is the disconnect between the morality necessary to sustain a serious military and the ethos of the American people. What was the fundamental thing that George Bush said a day after September 11?… what is the moral response of the American people to September 11th? “[Go out and] Shop.” So now you have the American military, which is an honour society, defending a social order whose deepest moral commitment is shopping. How do you do that?
And so those are the deeper questions I think that occur about how Christianity relates to American politics. Reinhold Niebuhr, his thought was committed to trying to figure out what it would look like if as a matter of fact America had a Christian Secretary of State and the primary implication is they have to be planning out how to kill as few as possible and that means you need to be smart in terms of how you act out of American self-interests. Niebuhr never called into question whether a Christian could be a Secretary of State. He wanted that.