How Tolstoy Would Judge Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions goes after DACA kids


America is very understandably focusing on the actions of Donald Trump as he heightens the chances of nuclear conflagration with North Korea, but there are plenty of other Trump officials and Republican legislators who are threatening metaphorical blow-ups. As I listen to Tolstoy’s magnificent final novel Resurrection, I think of Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, who wants to deport the DACA kids, ramp up the failed war on drugs, increase prison sentences (at the same time that he owns stock in private prisons), crack down on legalized marijuana, and undo restrictions on police brutality.

Not one to mince words, Tolstoy would regard Sessions as a self-satisfied and corrupt perpetrator of evil.

Tolstoy’s protagonist, a nobleman named Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, finds himself fighting for prison reform after witnessing a gross miscarriage of justice. Like Sessions, Nekhlyudov is a Christian, but unlike the attorney general he takes his Christianity seriously. Drawing on the Book of Matthew, he has harsh words for people like Sessions:

The thought that seemed strange at first and paradoxical or even to be only a joke, being confirmed more and more often by life’s experience, suddenly appeared as the simplest, truest certainty. In this way the idea that the only certain means of salvation from the terrible evil from which men were suffering was that they should always acknowledge themselves to be sinning against God, and therefore unable to punish or correct others, because they were dear to Him. It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails and the quiet self-satisfaction of the perpetrators of this evil were the consequences of men trying to do what was impossible; trying to correct evil while being evil themselves; vicious men were trying to correct other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means, and the only consequence of all this was that the needs and the cupidity of some men induced them to take up this so-called punishment and correction as a profession, and have themselves become utterly corrupt, and go on unceasingly depraving those whom they torment. Now he saw clearly what all the terrors he had seen came from, and what ought to be done to put a stop to them. The answer he could not find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was that we should forgive always an infinite number of times because there are no men who have not sinned themselves, and therefore none can punish or correct others.

And what of genuine evildoers? Tolstoy points out that our punishments don’t prevent crime. “Pity and love,” not law and order, sustain society:

For many centuries people who were considered criminals have been tortured. Well, and have they ceased to exist? No; their numbers have been increased not alone by the criminals corrupted by punishment but also by those lawful criminals, the judges, procurers, magistrates and jailers, who judge and punish men. Nekhludoff now understood that society and order in general exist not because of these lawful criminals who judge and punish others, but because in spite of men being thus depraved, they still pity and love one another.

Tolstoy’s final comments in Resurrection have to do with serving the greater good. Citing Luke’s parable of the wicked husbandmen (20:9-19), he describes public duties as a sacred trust. The duty of our elected and appointed officials should be to the people, not to themselves. Only by honoring that duty can people be truly happy:

The husbandman imagined that the vineyard in which they were sent to work for their master was their own, that all that was in was made for them, and that their business was to enjoy life in this vineyard, forgetting the Master and killing all those who reminded them of his existence. “Are we do not doing the same,” Nekhludoff thought, “when we imagine ourselves to be masters of our lives, and that life is given us for enjoyment? This evidently is an incongruity. We were sent here by some one’s will and for some reason. And we have concluded that we live only for our own joy, and of course we feel unhappy as laborers do when not fulfilling their Master’s orders. The Master’s will is expressed in these commandments. If men will only fulfill these laws, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth, and men will receive the greatest good that they can attain to.

Our previous president understood this. On his first day on the job, President Obama announced,

Public service is a privilege. It’s not about advantaging yourself. It’s not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It’s not about advancing an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization. Public service is simply and absolutely about advancing the interests of Americans.

There are legitimate debates, of course, about what advances the interests of Americans. We can all agree, however, that corrupt husbandmen who think they own the vineyard should not be running things.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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