Augustine 2020: America, the Earthly City
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Book III of Augustine’s monumental work, The City of God, is an essential exploration of themes for the questions of his day but is difficult to make sense of for our own day. In his time, Augustine was writing against Romans who accused the recent disaster of the sack of Rome in 410 on Christians. The argument was that because Rome had turned to Christ and stopped worshiping the ancient gods, the gods had left Rome to her destruction. Augustine counters that this is simply a naive view of Roman history. He recounts story after story of disaster across Rome’s long history. He specifically lists a series of violent civil wars that all happened before the birth of Christ and cannot be blamed on Christianity . It made no sense to blame Christ for the latest disaster since disasters were befalling the Roman Empire before Christ entered history. Even when the Romans were worshiping the ancient gods, they were not coming through for them.
One key feature of Augustine’s argument worth highlighting is a simple question: why should any god, whether that be the God of Christianity or the Roman pantheon, be concerned with Rome’s prosperity? Augustine compares Rome with the city Rome is mythologically descended from, Troy. The city of Troy endured total destruction after an act of adultery instigated the Greeks to wage war against her, leading to Troy’s annihilation. As for Rome, it was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus. At the inception of the city, Romulus murdered his brother Remus and the city went on to its successful expansion. Augustine argues that adultery does not seem a justifiable reason for the gods to abandon Troy and, it again seems unjust that they would be so interested in Rome when the vicious murder of a brother is part of its founding .
I think it is fair to ask a similar question of America, especially in light of descriptions of America as a “Christian nation”: why should God be concerned with our prosperity? We do not have space to walk through all of our history here. It certainly has its high points and has produced a very effective form of government which has provided a lot of good for many people and has frequently stood on the world stage on behalf of justice against brutal regimes. Yet it also has its sharp failings, failings at the forefront of our national dialogue about race relations, failings we have to be honest about. We have considered facets of this history here on this blog. Our history of colonization and slavery , the Civil War , segregation , and our present-day criminal justice system which yields a disproportionately heavy hand on people of color , demonstrate a long track record of our government failing to provide justice and, in fact, committing acts of injustice against people of color, specifically black Americans and Native Americans. At present we are debating how to address these issues and how to best tell our history. Such a task will be long and complicated. Our history is by no means one merely of oppression and evil, but those are present along with our best moments. As we grapple with that history, we have to recognize how to categorize America in Augustine’s two cities: these acts of injustice make clear America is not the city of God, but is an earthly city and belongs to this age that is passing away . We have to recognize America as what it is, an earthly kingdom marked by imperfect justice and injustice alike. It is not God’s city and we cannot expect God to be on the side of our political system with its failings. The prophet Amos spoke to the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, God’s own words: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,…The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it?” .
Yet Augustine gives us a moment of hope as we live in the earthly city. God does not treat earthly cities strictly as they deserve. Instead, Augustine highlights a verse of Scripture : “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” . God does not treat earthly cities as they deserve. He also pours out his goodness. At no point can we say that we deserve our prosperity or that God is blessing us because of what we have done right. The earthly city, including America, is never able to earn God’s goodwill because of the injustice this city continues to perpetuate. But God is gracious and pours out his goodness, even when we do not deserve it.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 28.
 Ibid. pp. 23-24.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Hereditary Heathenism,” September 4, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/09/04/hereditary-heathenism; “Baptizing Colonialism,” Reimagine Faith, September 13, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/09/12/baptizing-colonialism; “Biblical Interpretation Knocking on the Door of the Civil War,” Reimagine Faith, September 27, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/09/26/biblical-interpretation-knocking-on-the-door-of-the-civil-war.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “The Crisis of Providence and the Civil War,” Reimagine Faith, October 1, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/10/01/the-crisis-of-providence-and-the-civil-war.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Niebhur, Prophecy, and Civil Rights,” Reimagine Faith, October 22, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/10/22/niebhur-prophecy-and-civil-rights; “White Theology During the Civil Rights' Movement,” Reimagine Faith, October 29, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/10/29/white-theology-during-the-civil-rights-movement.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “America and Justice,” Reimagine Faith, December 3, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/12/03/america-and-justice and Phil Vischer, “Race in America”. Youtube, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGUwcs9qJXY.
 Augustine, p. 17-21, discussed in blog 3 in this series. See also “The Crumbling of Evangelical Politics,” November 27, 2018, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/2018/11/26/the-crumbling-of-evangelical-politics;
 Amos 8:4, 7-8 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 25.
 Matthew 5:45.