Tolstoy’s Three Kisses provide a useful and challenging, if somewhat disturbing, way of exploring honestly what we do to our friends and those we love. One text which has nothing directly to do with kissing but which sums up one aspect of the Christian faith is the one that talks about slaves, sons and heirs (Galatians 4:7) which alongside Tolstoy’s Three Kisses invites us to reflect on the extent to which we are better at turning our friends and relations into slaves whereas the gospel suggests what we ought to be doing is turning our slaves into sons.
Tolstoy’s principal character (thought by some to be a reflection of himself) is a Russian Prince, Nekhlyudov, who as a young man in the days before the Revolution, seduces a servant girl in the home of his aunts when he is visiting. Years later he sits on the jury at the trial of a prostitute and in the course of the proceedings realises that it is the same girl.
Sensing that he is partly responsible for the state she is in, and that her sentence is unjust, he sets out to save her from further suffering, humiliation and exile to Siberia by offering to marry her. When she rejects him he decides nevertheless to stay with her, and the story is mainly of his journey to Siberia, his frequently frustrated attempts to get her sentence quashed and to take her as his wife.
In the course of the story he kisses her three times. First, when he visits his aunts as an innocent young boy and the two of them play together in the garden. It is the kiss of innocence — not without feeling but harmless, spontaneous and momentary. Second, when he returns years later, by which time they have both grown older, and he gives her the very formal Russian kiss on both cheeks. Third, when he returns from the roughness of the army and ‘life with the boys’ for a short visit over Easter, finds her a very attractive young woman, kisses her roughly on the neck, pursues her to her bedroom, kisses her rapturously and, in spite of her protests, takes everything else he wants.
In those three kisses we may see see the sad story of too many human relationships. Kiss number one is the first encounter — innocent interest and genuine attraction. Kiss number two is the formality — custom and tradition. Kiss number three is the kiss of self-satisfaction and exploitation.
It is possible for a marriage — on the surface quite a successful marriage over many years — to go through the whole gamut of relationships. It begins with a straightforward mutual attraction which two people have for each other. Each in a way is an heir, inheriting from the other something which they find lacking in themselves. In due course it becomes enshrined in marriage — a formal relationship where there is a job to do, a mortgage to be paid and children to be cared for. And in too many cases it then easily passes into a stage where something somewhere has tipped the scales so that in the end one is quietly living off the other. An heir who wanted to become a son (or a daughter) has become a slave.
It occurs in many relationships between parents and children, where it begins with the thrill of a baby and childhood, becomes formal after the turbulence of adolescence for most of the adult years, but then very easily becomes exploitative, sometimes because parents feel they have a right to grand-children and sometimes because they make excessive demands of their children in old age.
It is not uncommon between friends, partnerships and other relationships — what begins with a genuine feeling becomes formal with the passage of time and is always in danger of developing into a master and servant relationship. We start as heirs, we become children and we are in danger of becoming slaves.
Nor is it only in personal relationships. We may like to think that all those early explorers, travellers and missionaries who faced all kinds of hardship and turmoil when they first went to India, Africa and South America all began with a genuine interest in the foreigner, a commitment to love and a desire to help, and in many cases they undoubtedly did. Then came the day when faith, the economy, trade, government and the judicial system all became formalised in an infinite number of buildings, institutions, treaties, agreements, visits and exchanges. to the point where one half of the world was exploiting the other half as never before. Rape and seduction are the only words you can use to describe it and even the attempts of the last 50 years to do things differently by means of overseas trade and development projects run the risk of becoming yet another cover-up and an assuaging of guilt for how things really are.
This is Nekhlyudov continually pursuing Katusha all the way to Siberia, not because he wants to seduce her any more, and only indirectly because he wants to marry her, but because deep down he knows he has wronged her and wants to put it right. What he wants now is the fourth kiss of a really and truly loving relationship, and she denies it to him to the end.
Why? Why cannot this woman who has been so dreadfully wronged, and who doesn’t have any ill-will against him, accept his confession, grant him forgiveness and enter into that loving relationship which would seem to offer such benefits to her? She has two reasons.
One is that Nekhlyudov has simply no awareness of the damage he has done. From the moment of that seductive encounter he has done something to Katusha which is utterly irreversible — he has fundamentally changed her attitude to men. Through that experience she has come to believe that that was all men were, that it was all they were interested in, and that they were all alike. She therefore never saw any men who were different because the only men who ever caught her eyes were like that. It is not of necessity a condition which cannot be healed, but it can only be healed if Nekhlyudov is prepared to show that he aware of it, and there is not the slightest hint throughout the story that, repentant though he is, he really understands the damage he has done. The offence of exploitation is not just the offence of the bully, who can then get out of it by saying ‘sorry’ and producing a bunch of flowers. The offence of exploitation is the damage it does to the other.
And the second reason is that Katusha knows only too well what is going on in his mind. He wants to marry her, not even now because he loves her but because he is worried by her, by how he has treated her, by the guilt that consumes him, and to this Katusha has a very simple answer. She says in effect, ‘you exploited me once and set me on the road to ruin — you are not going to use me again in order to work off your debt or to assuage your guilt’.
Read it from the viewpoint of Katusha. Until the day he turns up at his aunts’ house she may have been a servant (even a slave) but as a person she was free. She is an heir — to purity, to all that is best about being a young woman and nobody has a right to take it away from her. When he returned a few years later and kissed her formally she was still free. A daughter of the house could hardly have been more free. But after that third kiss the world had turned round. She was a slave. And she would be a slave for the rest of her life.
The gospel message is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Not in marriage, nor in a family. Not between friends nor between nations. Heirs to freedom and purity don’t have to be reduced to the level of sons and daughters, never mind servants and slaves. Paul, on the contrary, says slaves can be raised to the level not simply of sons and daughters but heirs. But where does it happen? Take two places.
First, in the gospels. In a day when Judaism had drawn a line between the saints and the sinners and therefore when it was judicious to choose your friends with care, Jesus showed a readiness to associate with anyone and everyone. So he is not disturbed when a woman who is a sinner comes up, anoints his feet with ointment, kisses them rapturously and then dries them with her hair. In a day when Judaism had drawn a line between the priests and the people, and in the words of Jesus, the priests were placing on people burdens grievous to be borne, Jesus was concerned only to take the burdens away.
In that moment he cuts through the religious red tape which is taking away people’s freedom and turning sons and daughters who ought to be heirs into slaves. And in a day when Judaism was drawing a line between what you did wrong and how you put it right Jesus compelled people to look squarely at the price of wrong-doing, who was having to pay that price and with what results. He looks at the women, the Samaritans, the disabled, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the demented, the needy and the helpless and when he sees what society has done to them he makes it abundantly clear whom he loves and whose side he is on. And the irony is that this man who would refuse to give anyone a kiss that was not a genuine expression of love becomes himself the victim of an exploitative kiss on the night of his betrayal. And the son who has spent all his life enabling slaves to become and heirs finally finds himself a slave.
And the difference between Nekhlyudov (who is so much like the rest of us) and Jesus (who is so different), is that one is a son who becomes a slave to redeem himself and the other is a Son who becomes a slave to redeem others.
Secondly, focusing on any individual today may be invidious because there is a touch of slave, son and heir in us all, but Nelson Mandela has some claim to attention. Criticised for wearing ‘unpresidential shirts’ he doesn’t care a toss. His shirts are an expression of the person he is and a sign of his freedom.
His autobiography demonstrates how there is no doubt that he was a true son of South Africa, heir to everything his tribe could offer. One day, as to Katusha, there came to his house a handsome prince in the form of a visitor from the chief. His father was an adviser to the Chief and whereas Mandela had grown up to live in the village and run barefoot with the other boys he was now to be given the privilege at the age of twelve of going to live with the Chief to be groomed for his future work — education, Oxbridge, Harvard and all that.
Here was the door of opportunity — heir to all that was good — and Mandela accepted it and became one of the few black lawyers in South Africa. But he was never seduced by it and all his efforts were for his fellow-slaves whom he wanted also to become heirs. For them he burned the midnight oil as he worked all day on their problems and then had to handle his own in the small hours. For them that he sacrificed so much that he valued in his immediate family circle, balancing his professional commitments with his work as a politician and for the ANC. For them he spent 27 long years in prison, including Robben Island.
The first kiss of affection for his country was so natural and meaningful. The second, of formal education and training, was the most natural thing in the world for a man in his position. But, as with Jesus, the third kiss of seduction was the one thing he resisted. To the end he would be what he fundamentally was — the man for others. And that is why he didn’t care what they said about his shirts.
The choice is ours. We can turn heirs and sons into slaves. and live with the guilt of it for the rest of our lives. Or we can turn slaves into sons and heirs, and share in the ministry of Jesus.