Bread, Freedom, or a Kiss: Dostoyevsky / Grand Inquisitor


What is Freedom?

In what does freedom consist? And must our survival be assured, our material needs satisfied, before freedom can be enjoyed?

In the Grand Inquisitor episode of his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky provides an answer to this age-old question in the form of a symbol: a kiss.  Though the material and spiritual realms may be at odds, the two may be reconciled by the kiss of love.

The kiss symbolizes a radical spirituality. In the gospels, Jesus Christ refuses to be a king or political ruler, who provides for the people. Instead, for Dostoyevsky, Jesus Christ  brings each of us alive by the kiss of love. Once we are liberated by this kiss to love, then we may provide for one another on our own, for the ultimate benefit, no doubt, of the social order.

[Here is the audio book version: Audio Book: Grand Inquisitor. Here is the full text of the episode: Text Grand Inquisitor Episode and here: Grand Inquisitor.]

Ivan’s Challenge

In the Grand Inquisitor episode, Ivan (one of the Karamazov brothers) claims that if Jesus were to return to earth, he would be arrested by the Church and prosecuted by the Inquisition. In the gospels, Jesus refuses the temptation by Satan. Satan tempts Jesus to turn stone into bread.

The masses, Ivan says, require a political ruler who will give people bread to eat. Since Jesus has the ability to multiply loaves of bread at will — as the Son of God –it is his duty to turn stones to bread and to feed all of the hungry and deprived people, who suffer on earth.  If Jesus preaches freedom without providing people with bread, then the freedom that he advises is ephemeral, impalpable, transient, impotent. Freedom lacks utility and substance when economic conditions are unstable.  

Regarding Jesus’s claim to provide the bread of heaven rather than earthly bread, Ivan urges: “And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly?” 

Ivan’s question is alive in our own day: How may we live in freedom if our basic needs are not supplied? Shouldn’t bread for our stomachs come first and our needs be satisfied,  before freedom of the spirit can be claimed and genuinely embodied? And ought we to work, first of all, for political reform to improve economic conditions for all rather than taking flight from material realities through spirituality? 

Satan’s Temptation

Ivan refers in the Grand Inquisitor episode to Satan’s temptation in the gospels.  In the temptation scenes in the Gospels, Satan offers Jesus the chance to prove his abilities as the Son of God by turning stones into bread. Jesus refuses the temptation with a retort that man lives not by bread alone but by every word of God. Obedience to God’s Word sustains life and should be  and sho since the Word of God is the very source, cause, and dynamism of life.

In Dostoyevsky’s episode, the character Ivan (who speaks for the Grand Inquisitor) argues that the ability to feed the multitudes by bread is the basis for both political and religious authority. Human beings require to have their stomachs filled. Where one aches in hunger, freedom will count as whatever thing may appease one’s appetites and guarantee one’s survival. Thus, if Jesus had wanted a popular following, he should rightly have accepted the Devil’s suggestion, to turn stones into bread.

Christ’s Solution: The Kiss

The response of Christ to Ivan’s challenge, in this episode, is to offer a kiss. This respons mirrors that  Aloysha (Ivan’s brother), who is a disciple ofChrist, and it echoes a scene earlier in the book. In the earlier scene the monk Zosima bows to their brother Demitri. Similarly, Jesus responds with a kiss.

The kiss acknowledges the intrinsic dignity of the individual. This kiss reverses the kiss of Judas from the Gospels. Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, kisses Jesus to reveal his identity to the arresting party. Judas trades Jesus away for money. Judas has argued that the perfume, which Mary squanders by anointing the feet of Jesus, ought to be sold and donated to the poor. Judas puts material needs above the intrinsic dignity of life itself. Mary, by contrast, lavishes love upon Jesus by making free use of perfume to anoint Jesus’s feet in honor of his role as savior.

Christ’s kiss in Dostoyevsky’s story does the opposite of Judas’s betrayal. Like Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet in the Gospel, so Christ’s kiss affirms that each human being   is beloved. Our beloved stature before God, not bread alone, gives us our freedom.

Freedom: The Kiss Reconciles Heaven and Earth

The kiss reconciles heaven and earth. On earth, we need food and bread. In heaven, our freedom is assured. The two realms, heaven and earth, can be discrepant. Love — the kiss — reconciles them. Through love, we know our own worthiness. If we focus on politics or economics without a spiritual basis (through love), then governments are likely to become corrupt.  On the basis of love, however, we may create a social order which generously provides for all sufficient material resources.

The person who kisses a friend or stranger, simply for love of life, and to love for its own sake, will also relate to the political and economic order in a charitable and self-sacrificing way, for love of others. Christ is not a king who provides for the people. Rather Christ makes each of us come alive so that we love and live in freedom. Then, we may provide for ourselves, securing  bread not stone, the bread of life (love), not the stone of greed and materialism.


Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss