I took a long, weird road to this book. I grew up in Texas with public-service-minded parents of faith. I was a political science major turned public-interest lawyer turned political staffer. Public service, making the world a better place, all of it. In my mind, Jesus’ line about rendering to Caesar what’s Caesar’s meant that, in my democratic context, I had to work the system for good. I navigated the classic political argument of the “problem of dirty hands” with all of that in mind – work in a broken system with integrity and try to be good and do good.
However, after more than a decade of working in politics, the Trump era just broke me. What good could I do in a system in which truth and good had no meaning anymore? I left politics and public service and wasn’t sure where my political home was. Taking public service and faith seriously, though, I kept searching. Eventually, I stumbled across the AnarchoChristian podcast and the related reading list, and since I’m a sucker for anything Russian, I gave Tolstoy’s famous book a go.
Frankly, this book changed my life. Reading it in combination with Soper’s Post-Growth Living and Hirschfeld’s Aquinas and the Market was especially powerful, as my whole paradigm about the state, society, and my role in it changed all at once.
In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy makes the case that any form of state and government derives its power through violence. A Christian cannot support this. Jesus was clear about non-violence. Nor should they – through all of the hundreds of years of trying to gain the world and losing our soul – what have we gained? Are people better off? In Tolstoy’s context, the answer was clearly no. Who benefits from the state? People in power, except that not even they benefit because they lose their souls, well-intentioned or not. Why would it be moral for a state to do what an individual cannot (remember the aforementioned problem of dirty hands)? Why do we delude ourselves into thinking we’re not culpable for our actions, direct or indirect?
Tolstoy makes the argument with passion, sarcasm, and a depth of empathy for all involved parties that I didn’t initially expect. Funnily enough, the first portion of the book reads like a Twitter fight as Tolstoy directly addresses many common contemporary criticisms of his beliefs.
In sum, the book was challenging, life-changing, and unexpectedly hopeful as it helped carve a path forward for me in terms of a meaningful and good social contribution and life. I did give it 4/5 stars just because so much of it was written within a certain context and for a certain audience.