Augustine 2020: Can Christians Participate in Politics?
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
In today’s post, we will consider an important question: Is Christianity compatible with politics? We have not asked this question directly, though our exploration of The City of God has hinted at the answer. We will be exploring two letters in which Augustine directly addresses this question, both of which were written shortly before he began composing The City of God. As we answer this question, keep in mind all we have said about the limits of the earthly city, its failings, and its condemnation. Augustine will not, today, contradict those points.
In the first letter, he addresses an elderly pagan man named Nectarius. A riot had recently occurred in Calama, near Augustine’s city of Hippo. During the riot, several Christian clerics had been attacked and Christian property was destroyed. Nectarius wrote to Augustine, asking him to intervene on behalf of the perpetrators to mitigate their sentence . In his response, Augustine brilliantly addresses our central question. “Were you a citizen [of the heavenly city], you would think that there is no boundary or limit to caring for the small portion of that city making its journey on this earth. Paying in advance the duties owed to a better city, the result would be that much greater for you. You would be about to find endless joy in the eternal peace of that city, having set for yourself in your labors in this life, no limit to caring for it” . It is clear from this short quote that, in Augustine’s mind, Christians can engage in politics as representatives of the heavenly city and can serve the earthly city on behalf of that greater city. However, this does not rule out what Augustine has previously said: the earthly city will always be just that, an earthly city. It will not be transformed into the heavenly city by Christian efforts. But those Christian efforts can improve the earthly city.
Augustine then argues to Nectarius that Christians are, in fact, better citizens than the pagans Nectarius was defending. “Consider whether you would prefer that your country bloom with piety or impunity, with correct morals or bold outrages” . Augustine is not arguing that Christians are simply better people than those who are not. He argues that Christianity possessed a superior moral code to the paganism of his day. Christianity emphasized the duty of loving their neighbors, chastity, generosity, and the worship of the Creator rather than domination, promiscuity, and greed . Christianity is serious about forming faithful disciples in virtue in light of the Kingdom of God. The virtues formed in Christians prepare them to be good citizens here in the earthly city as well as the city of God. When we take our Christian duty to love God and neighbor seriously, we will be good citizens.
Augustine writes his second letter to Marcellinus, “a Christian Roman official” in the city of Carthage . He wrote to Augustine, asking for help addressing pagan officials’ objections to Christianity. One of their arguments was that Christianity was incompatible with political rule . Augustine begins to address this argument with a response similar to the one he sent to Nectarius. Christian morality prepares Christians to be good citizens. Here, he focused on the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” . Augustine argues that evil happens when individuals and societies love created things too much. For example, when we love money more than anything else, we will become greedy and have no qualms taking advantage of others, defrauding customers, exploiting creation for our gain, and oppressing the poor. But Christians are called to love faith and justice above all things. When a Christian is wronged, the Christian does not love the “temporal conveniences” so much that he or she desires revenge, but instead demonstrates to others how to love faith and justice over all else . Christians reject the desire for revenge simply because we entrust judgment to God. Christians wait with patience for God to judge the evil committed against them, just as Jesus forgave those representatives of the earthly city who crucified Him .
We should not take Augustine to mean, however, that Christians are passive and silent in the face of injustice. Christians do not respond out of hatred, fear, or a desire for retaliation. Yet Christians do call out injustice out of love for their neighbors, both for the victim and for the perpetrator, who we wish to see repent. Augustine cites the examples of Jesus and Paul who questioned rulers prepared to unjustly order them beaten . The difference is in the motivation. It is rooted in love for the other and not a personal desire for revenge or retaliation.
At the end of these letters, we would be remiss if we thought Christians were simply better people than everyone else. Elsewhere in his writings, Augustine is a sharp critic of pride. The Christian’s virtue stems not from him or herself, but from Christ. “Thanks be to the Lord our God who sent us extraordinary help against these evils. What if we were without the cross of Christ most prominently and firmly fixed in such a great rock of authority, making us stead as we cling firmly to it, so that we are not swept away and sucked into the enormous whirlpool of this world by those advising and propelling us toward evil? Where would the river of this dreadful wickedness not carry us? Who would not be covered over? Into what depths would I not have plunged us?” . The Christian is focused on the heavenly city, seeking the goodness and love of Christ. As we seek Him and are formed in His image, we will also become better citizens of our earthly cities and will be able to contribute to their good. Augustine’s argument in these two letters can best be summarized in the words of C. S. Lewis: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither” .
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 202.
 Ibid. p. 203.
 Ibid. p. 204.
 Ibid. p. 3
 Ibid. p. 202
 Matthew 5:39-41 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 207.
 Ibid. See Romans 12:19-21 and Luke 23:34
 See John 19:23 and Acts 2:3-5.
 Augustine, p. 211.
 C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (London, UK: Collins, 2012), p. 112.