Augustine 2020: Persecution
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Last week, we concluded a brief mini-series on how to understand the nation of Israel in the Old Testament in light of the two cities as we followed Augustine’s survey of the city of God throughout history up to the time of Christ . Augustine now summarizes the history of the earthly cities and compares the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world to the Hebrew prophets . At the end of Book XVIII, we find a brief discussion on persecution and here, Augustine begins to argue against the political theology of some Christians who saw a close relationship between the city of God and the city of Rome .
A theory was circulating through Christian circles at the time that the church would experience ten persecutions, just as there were ten plagues on Egypt, and then a final persecution from the Antichrist, mirroring the destruction of Egypt’s army in the Red Sea. They counted up the persecutions the church had faced and, by the time of Augustine’s day, the church had already faced ten . The theory was that the church would be safe until the coming of the Antichrist. This would seem to be a clever and creative interpretation except for one problem: they had forgotten to count Christ’s crucifixion as head of the Church, the persecutions found in the book of Acts, and quite a few others throughout history which Augustine recounts . If the church was limited to ten persecutions, they had already exceeded that number and, in the intervening centuries, the church has faced many more.
Augustine, instead, states: “Upon considering these and similar events, it does not seem to me to be proper to limit the number of persecutions by which the church ought to be troubled. On the other hand, it is no less rash to affirm that there will be future persecutions by kings in addition to the last persecution, concerning which no Christian has any hesitations” . In American political discourse, Christians are quick to cry out, “persecution”, even over minor inconveniences. American Christians seem to be on edge about persecution and always see it coming around the corner. The primary motivator for so many Christians voting is maintaining their place in this country and preserving religious liberty . I will not say that matters of religious liberty are unimportant or should be ignored by voting. But when the reason for Christian voting is fear of persecution and preserving religious liberty, it is clear we have forgotten Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” .
The editors of our Augustine volume beautifully summarize Augustine’s position: “Augustine refuses to simply identify the welfare of the city of God with its present dominant position within the Roman empire” . Those who did identity the city of God with its position in Rome struggled to make sense of Rome’s collapse. One such figure, Jerome, famously wrote: “If Rome be weak, where shall we look for strength? We may vary his words and say: If Rome be lost, where shall we look for help?” . If persecution comes, if Christians lose religious liberty in America, it does not change our standing in Christ’s Kingdom . Persecution will, in fact, come on the church. Augustine almost says it with a shrug of his shoulders. The Christian response is not fear, but a recognition that we are blessed in God’s Kingdom and the earthly city can never prevail against Christ’s rule. Christians certainly can think about the role of religious liberty as guaranteed by our Constitution when we vote. However, it cannot be our primary concern and it cannot trump our concern for justice on behalf of our neighbors. The Christian attitude towards voting is to love our neighbor, even if that comes at the cost of our own liberties.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “The Nation of Israel,” October 2, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/the-nation-of-israel and “Augustine 2020: The Kings of Israel,” October 6, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-the-kings-of-israel.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 130-137.
 Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Augustine on the Campaign Trail,” Reimagine Faith, June 23, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-augustine-on-the-campaign-trail.
 Augustine, p. 137.
 Ibid. pp. 138-139.
 Ibid. p. 139.
 Katherine Weber, “Franklin Graham Warns Christians Will 'Lose This Country' If They Don't Vote,” February 10, 2016, https://www.christianpost.com/news/franklin-graham-warns-christians-will-lose-this-country-if-they-dont-vote.html.
 Matthew 5:10 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 130.
 Jerome, “The Fate of Rome,” 409AD, http://www.historymuse.net/readings/JeromeFATEOFROME409.htm.
 Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Political Puzzle Pieces,” Reimagine Faith, June 30, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-political-puzzle-pieces.