For Earth to Become a Paradise
The Brothers Karamazov is considered to be one of the greatest novels of all time. Written by Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) in 1880, this novel still captivates the imagination of people worldwide. The story revolves around widower Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov and his sons Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, and a valet, Smerdykov. However, another important character in this novel, Fr. Zosima, attracts our attention.
Zosima was an arrogant young officer in the army who lived a life without moral restraints. When he found out his girlfriend had a rival lover, Zosima challenged him for a duel. However, because he beat up his servant out of rage on the previous day of the duel, he felt guilty about it and decided to amend his life. Accordingly, he allowed his opponent to shoot first at the duel and then threw his gun away.
However, his opponent did not fire at Zosima. Zosima begged forgiveness for insulting him and announced his intention to join a monastery for leading an ascetic life. Over the years, he became known as a living saint, and many people sought him for spiritual guidance and consolation. Alyosha, who became a novice in the monastery, was among those who hang on to every word of Fr. Zosima.
Guilty Before Everyone
During his spiritual discourses, Fr. Zosima used to talk about the idea of ‘responsibility to all for all.’ He learned of this principle initially from his older brother, Markel, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 17. Markel was a rebel and refused to believe in God until he had a radical conversion before his death. At that time, Zosima overheard a conversation between his mother and Markel. Markel said, “And I shall also tell you, dear mother, that each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all … you must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything.”
What Markel was saying is, we are one, and hence we are responsible for the sins of each other. In other words, my sin is not mine alone; it is also yours; your sin is not yours alone, it is also mine. This was the conclusion Zosima had arrived at after listening to the words of his brother. Markel had the great insight not only about human solidarity but also about the unity of all creation. Markel says, “Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too…Yes, there was such a glory of God all about me: birds, trees, meadows, sky; only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.”
Because of our human solidarity Fr. Zosima believed that we are responsible for each other. If we are responsible for each other, he argued, we are also responsible for the sins of others. Hence, he saw himself as guilty of the sins of others. Fr. Zosima says, “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see that is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”
Why does Fr. Zosima believe that we are responsible for the sins of others? He says, “You are guilty, for you could have been a light to the wicked, even like the only sinless One, but you were not.” The implication is, our lack of being a good example for others and being a bad example in many ways might have caused the sins of others. “You pass by a little child,“he says, “you pass by, spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenseless heart. You don’t know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him, and it may grow, and all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself a careful, actively benevolent love.”
When Fr. Zosima argues that we are responsible for the sins of others, we may frown at this notion saying it is outrageous. However, the novelist uses other characters in this novel to reinforce this idea of Zosima. For example, Ivan first appears in the novel as an atheist who argues that since God does not exist, there is no need to adhere to any moral principles. Tragically, Ivan’s negative influence on valet Smerdyakove prompted him to kill his master Faydor for money.
Kingdom of Heaven
Later Smerdyakov says to Ivan, “I am not the real murderer, though I did kill him. You are the rightful murderer. … That was quite right what you taught me, for you talked a lot to me about that. For if there is no everlasting God, there is no such thing as virtue, and there is no need of it.” It was only then Ivan realized how he was responsible for the murder of his father. Immediately he repented about it and prepared himself to give testimony in court to save his brother Dmitri who was wrongly accused of the murder.
Let us now come back to the thought process of Fr. Zosima. According to him, it is only when we acknowledge and accept our responsibility for one another and act accordingly, the Kingdom of Heaven or Paradise will become a reality here on earth. As Fr. Zosima convincingly argues, our human solidarity makes us responsible to all for everything, including their sins and total wellbeing. When we begin to shoulder this universal responsibility, paradise will become a reality on earth.