“The Grand Inquisitor” is a chapter in the book The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It is a story or poem made up by Ivan Karamazov to explain his unbelief in God to his younger brother Alyosha who is a monk. The basic plot is simple: Jesus returns to earth, in sixteenth-century Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus is on the streets ministering to the poor and needy, and healing the sick. An old cardinal known as the Grand Inquisitor orders his guards to seize the Savior, intent on having him burnt the next day in the public square as “the vilest of heretics.”
The old man visits Jesus’ prison cell to accuse him of placing the intolerable burden of absolute freedom on poor, feeble, depraved humanity. It is better to offer people what they want most—the bread of the earth—rather than what they need most, bread from heaven. The terrible truth is that human beings cannot bear the burden of freedom. “There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience,” the Inquisitor explains to Jesus, “but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength.” Thus it is the nature of humanity to surrender liberty to gain security. (Wow, lots of implications here!)
Thus the Inquisitor suggests that it is the Church with its “mystery, miracle, and authority” which can do this best. “Better that you enslave us, but feed us,” is the people’s cry. The Grand Inquisitor understands, as he is sure God does not, just how weak and wretched human beings are and wants to protect them. When the old man finishes his diatribe, Jesus says nothing but leans forward and kisses the old man on the lips. The kiss changes everything. The Inquisitor releases Jesus demanding he never return.
As Ivan finishes his story, he worries that Alyosha will be disturbed by the idea that if there is no God, there are no moral limitations on man’s behavior. But Alyosha leans forward and kisses Ivan on the lips. Ivan, moved, replies that Alyosha has stolen that action from his poem. Ivan and Alyosha leave the restaurant and go their separate ways.
The kiss changes everything. As Terry Eagleton has written in Lamphams Quarterly, “Recalling Zosima’s bow before Dmitri at the monastery in Book 1, the kiss represents an overriding act of love and forgiveness so innate that it can only be expressed wordlessly. On its deepest level, it defies explanation. The power of faith and love, Dostoevsky implies, is rooted in mystery—not simply in the empty and easily digestible idea that God’s will is too complex for people to understand, but in a resonant, active, unanswerable profundity. The kiss cannot overcome a logical argument, but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome the kiss. It represents the triumph of love and faith, on their own terms, over rational skepticism. In having Ivan end his poem on a note of such deep and moving ambiguity, Dostoevsky has his major opponent of religion acknowledge the power of faith, just as Dostoevsky himself, a proponent of faith, has used Ivan to acknowledge the power of doubt. Alyosha’s kiss for Ivan indicates how well the young Alyosha understands the problems of faith and doubt in a world characterized by free will, and just how committed his own will is to the positive goodness of faith.”
For Russians, as for many Eastern Europeans, kissing on the lips (same sex) is more significant than shaking hands. It indicates deep friendship and love. (I remember when a young Russian pastor, whom I was visiting outside of Moscow, kissed me on the lips and my contact lenses nearly popped out.) We are called to give a reason for the hope that is in us, but many people will remain unconvinced by our rational arguments. However, to show the love of Christ is our greatest apologetic in this angry world of confrontation and brokenness. May God be with us as we pass the kiss of Christ on to others today.