This post is a continuation of a reflection on Nikolai Leskov ‘s short story, “Figura.” The previous post is One Self, Many Selves (I). Leskov presents in the story a man, named Figura, of 19th Century Russian nobility and an army officer who is assaulted by one of his soldiers. Figura wrestles with what Christ tells him to do with someone who has struck him on the cheek because he knows what the military will demand of him as an officer and what his social rank requires of him. He decides to follow the teaching of Christ and forgive the soldier who acted not in malice but because he stupidly had gotten drunk while on duty.
What Figura wrestles with internally is a significant part of being a Christian, and yet he is not a Christian alone. Figura is part of a society which is segregated by status as well part of the military which has an established hierarchy. He is part not only of the Church but also of a nation which considers itself to be Christian. His individual decision is thus subject to evaluation by the society around him. Russia and Russian Orthodoxy did not embrace the individualism created by the Western Europe’s Enlightenment of the 18th Century. Figura does not reject society and the military’s right to judge his actions. He accepts that they must, but he decides he also will live according to his conscience and accept the consequences of his own behavior.
Figura’s superiors learn of the event and call him to give account for what happened. They react to Figura’s narrative as if he has become a religious fanatic (which also was common at that point in Russian history). They remind Figura that as nobility and an officer he is obligated to enforce discipline. And though even the Russian army was considered a Christian army, he is told, “You had no right to forgive him!” His commandant forcefully reproaches Figura about forgiving a drunk and disorderly soldier who had assaulted him: “You only yourself to blame, and whoever put such ideas into your head.”
This Figura knows. It is Christ who has put the idea of forgiveness in his head. Christ is to ‘blame’ for forgiveness which his fellow officers see as a weakness. Figura is not blaming Christ, however, but embracing Him.
His commandant reminds him: “A military man must get his Christian principles from his oath of allegiance, and if you weren’t able to make something agree with it you should have gone to get advice from the priest.” We see the many worlds a Christian must live in and the many ‘selfs’ each of has or must have. Figura certainly hasn’t learned his Christianity from the military any more than someone can learn science from the book of Genesis. He does see there is a conflict in values, even if the army is said to serve Russian Orthodoxy. [Which in the very modern world raises the serious theological issues as to how the Russian Orthodox Church can bless nuclear weapons, which it has done. Is the Russian Church getting its Christian principles from the oath of allegiance to the military and to its nation? How could anyone who claims to follow Christ bless weapons of mass destruction? Does the Church really have any justification to do so? Can it really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ blesses such a thing? or has the Church lost its moral compass and simply become a department of state? The questions we face today are the same as Leskov did in the 19th Century.]
We also see in the story a sense that the clergy can by some magical power relieve moral contradictions or prohibitions. The commandant believes that an Orthodox priest can somehow make it OK for an Orthodox Christian to follow the military oath of allegiance over the Scriptures or can somehow soothe the conscience so that one can violate Christ’s teachings because one has made an oath of allegiance to the state. Not only can the priest do this but apparently a Russian Orthodox priest is under obligation to eliminate by some trickery of logic any ethical problems Russian military orders might create for an Orthodox Christian. The priest either is able to absolve anything or use sophistry to declare an evil good. In this way, the Church is not there to uphold Christ’s teaching but rather, more to shore up Christian society and help enforce appearances. The Russian Church as institution in this instance serves the demands of the state – at least it appears Leskov is making this criticism. Well did the Prophet Isaiah proclaim: Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
Figura is told that his fellow officers now refuse to serve with him because they see him as a coward. Others had heard that Figura had tried to keep the assault a secret. They thought he did so only so he could stay in the military with honor since he had been dishonored by a peasant soldier. Figura’s many ‘selfs’ struggle with the opinion of his peers and he finds that to be the worst of all – that they misunderstood his rationale and judged him harshly. He realizes what was really important to himself is that others think well of him – so though he had done something for noble reasons, he felt a dismal failure since others had a low opinion of him. Looking good was better than being good, except Figura knows he can no longer live by that lie.
Figura is called before his general, who is portrayed in the story as almost fanatically Orthodox. The general assumes he understand Figura – that Figura wants to become a monk and that is why he didn’t care about his nobility or rank. But Figura tries to explain, “I had never run across anything in the Gospels about any kind of pride in nobility, but had read only about the pride of Satan which was an offense to God.” Although there is nothing wrong with the General’s ears, he is hard of hearing because he believes he already understands Figura and ignores what Figura tells him. The general is Russian Orthodox to the core and offers ‘friendly’ advice to Figura: “The Bible is dangerous – it’s a worldly book. A person with ascetic principles ought to stay away from it.”
Here we encounter another issue about Christianity which is very pronounced in Orthodoxy. On the one hand Orthodoxy has believed it can ‘baptize’ entire cultures, nations, empires. On the other hand, there is the sense that if you really want to take Christ seriously, you have to withdraw from society (even Orthodox Christian society) and become a monastic. The question is can someone live in society if he or she wants to follow Christ to the full? Even if in the world you personally could live a life of self-denial, taking up the cross and martyrdom, you still have to deal with family, spouse, children, boss, neighbors, employees. Is it possible to live the Gospel and please all of these people as well? Is it possible to live the Gospel and want “the best” for your spouse and children? Orthodoxy has tended to resolve this by upholding monasticism as the only true way to follow Christ. Figura however makes it clear he has no inclination toward monasticism. He believes he can live as a Christian with a personal conscience in the world. For Leskov it appears that he has a Romanticized idea of the individual who can live in the world and yet not be part of it. It is a similar idea that we see in America’s Thomas Jefferson and his romantic ideal of the yeoman farmer – everyone can live an idyllic life given enough land and resources to live independently from all others. It is the ideal upon which limited government is based. Yet even Adam and Eve alone in the vast expanse of Paradise could not live this idyllic life and fell into the self-love of individualism.
In Leskov’s story, the general assumes Figura’s Christian idealism with his rejection of monasticism means Figura has become some kind of non-Orthodox religious nut. However, in the story he is not unsympathetic to Figura as he himself is a religious maximalist and he wants to help him find a position in society. Figura declines his offers. The General tells Figura he has no choice but to dismiss him from the military for his failures. This is exactly what Figura has decided for himself and tells the general as much. There is humorous exchange as the General denies Figura can leave the military by choice and insists that he is ordering Figura to leave and Figura must realize he has no choice but to obey.
At the end of the story, we see Figura wishing to bring his many ‘selfs’ into his one Christian self. “…what I valued most of all was my freedom, the possibility of living by one code and not by several, without arguing, without betraying myself, and without trying to prove anything to anybody if he had not already appeared to him from above.” The realization that his conscience might bring him into disagreement with the Church is a problem in societies in which cultural Christianity predominates. The state tames the church and makes sure the church produces good citizens who obey the dictates of the state. Figura can no longer accept the cognitive dissonance of his mind which is created by being a cultural Christian. He wants to follow Christ and not just follow rules and regulations for appearance sake nor to accept a sophistry which claims the power to declare the good evil and the evil good.
It is this oneness of self which Orthodox spirituality would say is the goal of following Christ. Instead of there being a church self, a family self, a neighborhood self, a racial self, an ethnic self, a work self, or a self with any other loyalties, there would be one self who was consistent in every situation – the self which is united to God and devoted to doing God’s will. Only then can a harmonious symphony emerge within one’s self. Christ says: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13) Leskov’s character realizes he cannot serve God and state because that is serving two masters which Christ said cannot be done. Leskov presents the notion of the individual self who must choose to follow Christ even in a ‘Christian” nation and to accept the cross which this will lay upon him or her.