Augustine 2020: But Great Robber Bands
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
“Without justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms? The band is itself made up of men, is ruled by the command of a leader, and is held together by a social pact. Plunder is divided in accordance with an agreed-upon law. If this evil increases by the inclusion of dissolute men to the extent that it takes over territory, establishes headquarters, occupies cities, and subdues peoples, it publicly assumes the title of kingdom!” .
Augustine minces no words when describing earthly kingdoms and empires. We have already seen that Augustine does not believe true justice can ever be found in an earthly city . Here, we learn that Augustine does not believe earthly cities are places of justice with a couple of minor flaws. Those flaws, those areas in which earthly cities do not measure to perfect justice compromise the earthly city. He sees them as mere robber bands, plundering with impunity . It is easy to imagine what Augustine would say about America’s early history of colonization . “Now to inflict war on one’s neighbors and then to proceed to others and, out of the sole desire to rule, to conquer and subdue peoples by whom one has not been molested, what else should this be called but grand larceny?” .
Now Augustine is not one to say there is never a cause for war. Later on in this series, we will learn about Augustine’s defense of just war theory. Augustine says “it would be worse if wrongdoers dominated those who are more just” . There are instances of injustice in the earthly city that can only be corrected by the use of force. For this very reason, the Apostle Paul wrote, “if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” . God has entrusted the use of force to the government to address and remedy injustice. Augustine would certainly agree that the world is a better place because America defeated the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and that America should address issues of injustice in the world today in ways that accord with the laws of the land and international law. However, as Christians, we cannot forget, at the same time that we are grateful for the ways America has stood for justice in the world, injustice is present in our midst. As long as the American legal code and practice allow the lives of the unborn and persons of color to be thrown by the wayside, as long as the justice system disproportionately impacts people of color and allows rampant issues of sexism to go unchecked, what is America but a “great robber band” ? And these issues of injustice will remain, despite our best efforts, until the true King comes with perfect justice and establishes the true city.
It is important to remember this, especially in light of our partisan divide. America should be more just than it was before. That is why we as Christians vote for the candidates we believe will rule justly, protest against issues of injustice, and petition for laws that better protect our neighbors. These are essential topics that Christians, as followers of the ultimately just king, Jesus, ought to be concerned with making our society more just on behalf of our neighbors. However, even as we work for more justice, we have to hold our victories and successes with humility. We still have a society that lacks true justice. Even when our preferred candidate wins, we are still “but great robber bands.” Even when the law we petition for passes, we are still “but great robber bands.” Even when the Supreme Court issues a statement that we agree accords with justice, we are still “but great robber bands.” We are allowed to celebrate the ways our earthly city is more just than it was yesterday, but when faced with the justice of Christ, this city still lacks justice. It is “but great robber bands.” Christians who remember this will not be susceptible to the partisan trap. A Christian who recognizes that our best days and our best political efforts still fall short of Christ’s justice will not follow a particular party or candidate hook, line, and sinker, and demonize the other side. We will be able to confess where our own politics fall short.
Augustine concludes Book IV of The City of God with the argument that God gives all kingdoms to both the good and to the evil. He has His reasons that we do not know. However, He is not under any order but His own. As we see injustice in our world, and our country, Christians recognize that God remains in control. True happiness will never exist in electing the right candidates or in fulfilling all the possible reforms. America at its best and at its worst is there to remind us of His Kingdom, of His perfect city. “He gives earthly kingdoms to the good or the evil so that his worshippers, who are still children as regard moral progress, may not desire these gifts from him as something great” . As we continue in this series, we will see, with Augustine, that standing for justice is necessary. In fact, we have already learned that Christians exist in the earthly city for the benefit of the earthly cities we live in . Yet as we vote, as we engage in our societies, we need to hold our positions loosely. We need to recognize that even if we are successful in our efforts, America will still fail in justice. And as we acknowledge our society's injustice, our hope does not rest in attaining more power and enacting every policy reform, but for the coming King who will establish the true city of perfect justice for all.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 30.
 Ibid, p. 21. See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: What to Expect of the Earthly City,” Reimagine Faith, July 16, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-what-to-expect-of-the-earthly-city.
 Augustine, p. 30.
 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.
 Augustine, p. 32.
 Romans 13:4 NRSV
 Augustine, p. 30.
 Ibid. p. 35.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Political Puzzle Pieces,” June 30, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-political-puzzle-pieces.