Christianity uniquely believes in the power of love and forgiveness to free captive sinners from the bonds of sin and death. Consequently the law (quid-pro-quo justice, conditional love, and punishment) does not fix the problem, but only makes matters worse. But is not the law necessary sometimes? Aren’t there times when justice must be served? For Tolstoy, the answer must be an unequivocal NO! In “The Forged Coupon” – the last novella he ever wrote- Tolstoy challenges the basic assumption that there is a realm of God’s creation where the power of grace is excluded and justice, punishment, and law are needed to restrain evil in the world. Grace must “work” in every situation or else there is no real hope for the future of the world.
The first half of the book begins with a father who refuses to grant his son an advance on his allowance to pay a debt. The son forges a coupon (interest bond) to pay his friend what he owes. This simple indiscretion sets in motion a series of escalating evils that seems to have no end. Those who are wronged seek revenge. Those who steal are imprisoned. Those who are imprisoned become murders. Family men become vagabonds and merchants become crooks. Each character acts in accordance with what’s best for them while each wrongdoing is met with the just penalty for that transgression. In all cases, the use of justice hinders the miserable offender and makes matters worse. This is a picture of the world without love. A place where evil escalates without abatement to the ruin of everyone involved.
In the midst of this world that is falling apart at the seams Tolstoy introduces Mariya Semenovna, an older widow with a small yearly pension. She begins what amounts to a reversal of the evil and misfortune of the first half of the book. Mariya lives a simple life of love for her neighbors. She gives jobs to the lame, food to the poor and shelter to the sojourner. Her tireless service is never repaid with either gratitude or compensation, yet she continues to live solely for the benefit of others. When asked why she lives so selflessly for others, Mariya simply pointed to the Gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount. But the climax of the book happens when Mariya meets the serial killer Stepan. He steals from her and she does not fight him, but submits herself to his trespass. With her last breath, she forgives Stepan and pities how wretched he had become. After the murder, Stepan becomes overwhelmingly sleepy and cannot fully flee from the crime scene. On the third day he rises up from the ditch he fell in and immediately confesses to the closest police officer. He has become a shell of his former self. He began to preach the faith of the one he had killed.
The second half of the book is marked by the spread of the teachings of Jesus and the reversal of the evils perpetuated in the first half of the book. God is not distant from the world, but is to be found within the horizontal interactions of individuals, enabling them to love and serve. Stepan becomes an evangelist to his fellow inmates. He readily accepts the punishment of death, but when this act converts the local executioner, the region is unable to carryout capital punishments. A former thief is released from prison and now gives all of what he has to the shop owner who had previously cheated him. When a rich landowner is killed, the Christian wife refuses to press charges and demands the release of the murderer. In the end, the boy who originally forged the coupon reconciled with his unyielding father. In each case the individual is shown grace in the midst of their unworthiness and are told of Jesus’ teaching. Where death had previously conquered, now love is the only remedy.
For Tolstoy, the world is in constant battle between the wages of sin and the greater power of love. The law is not necessary to keep the world from spinning off its axis- its existence is a given. Instead it is the law itself that pushes the world toward destruction. It is the grace of God moving people in love for service of one another that holds destruction at bay. Love works in every instance to eclipse the power of sin. In short, love makes the world go round.