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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Political Puzzle Pieces

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Augustine’s most significant writing on political theology is a large volume entitled The City of God. Its importance in Christian political reflection cannot be overstated. In fact, it has been suggested that all Christian political reflection since is merely a footnote to The City of God. In it, Augustine distinguishes between two cities, the city of God, that Kingdom where Christ now and ultimately will forever rule, and the earthly city which, in his day was the Roman Empire. The earthly city is seen in every kingdom or nation of this age, including the United States of America, but more on that later. The purpose of the work is to defend the city of God, which was being blamed for Rome’s demise, as we learned last week. Yet as part of his defense, Augustine considers the earthly city, its present state, and the relation the earthly city has to the City of God [1]. In the first book of The City of God, we encounter two principles, two puzzle pieces that fit together to help us reimagine political engagement.

The very start of the work seems strange to our ears. As Americans, we have not faced such a violent invasion of our capital and witnessed the indiscriminate slaughter of our leaders and our citizens in battle on our own shores, though 9/11 came close to it. The same vulnerability and fear we felt in that moment was racking the Roman Empire of Augustine’s day and, as we saw last week, Christians were blamed for the catastrophe. Augustine, in defending the city of God, claims that Rome faced lower rates of destruction because of the Christian presence. While Troy, the city the first Romans were allegedly descended from, was completely destroyed [2], portions of Rome were left in tact and many citizens left alive within the city because the armies rising against Rome did not touch the Christian churches and spared every person inside of them [3]. The Christian church was the one place in the city of Rome which remained untouched, even when its government and military collapsed. While we have not seen the Christian church perform the exact same role in American society, namely alleviate the destructive forces of an invasion, we here meet a key principle of Augustine’s work we will flesh out as we go on: the Christian church does have something to contribute to the good of the society in which it presently lives that makes it a better place.

Yet the Christians did not get through the sack of Rome unscathed. Those not present in Christian spaces were killed just like any other citizen of Rome. Soldiers raped not only the women of the city, but even those women who were consecrated virgins in the church. Augustine says to such persons “If the mind maintains the intention through which even the body deserved to be sanctified, then the violence of another’s lust does not take away the body’s sanctity” [4]. On first read, it sounds as if he is saying, “Sure you were raped, but they didn’t change what’s in your heart. You weren’t violated, so don’t worry about it.” Such a statement would be cruel, dismissive, and insensitive. Yet Augustine is actually showing pastoral sensitivity to these women who fear, because of what happened to them, they had violated their promises to God. Augustine’s response is to say, “A violent injustice was committed against you and it is not your fault. Despite the evil that has been done to you, you remain holy and precious to God” [5]. Again, Augustine’s argument feels unfamiliar to us since consecrated virgins are less prevalent in our Protestant churches and we do not experience the violence of invaders in our capital city. But we again encounter a key principle of Augustine’s thought: citizens of the city of God, Christians, cannot ultimately be harmed by the earthly city because God’s rule is above them all and He ultimately redeems and sets right every injustice committed in the earthly city, culminated in the final resurrection. In the meantime, these harms can be used by Christians to correct their own errors and strengthen their faith, to better prepare them for the glory of the city of God when all will be set right [6].

At the start of our journey with Augustine down the campaign trail, we encounter two key theological principles: first, the Christian church is able to contribute to the good of the earthly city. Second, the violence of the earthly city cannot ultimately harm Christians. These two political puzzle pieces fit neatly together and will be fleshed out in more detail as we continue down the road with Augustine. But for now, at this point in our journey, they provide two pieces of food for thought as we consider our voting. First, our vote can be used for the good of the society in which we live. So how can we use our vote to provide good for our society? Second, and perhaps more importantly for Christians to consider at this point, our vote is not cast out of fear. A large portion of Christian political discourse today stems out of fear of what will happen to us because of certain policies or candidates. Will we be persecuted? Will we loose our religious freedom? While such questions are valid and worth asking, particularly in light of the freedoms guaranteed in the American Constitution and legal code, we do not act and vote out of a sense of fear. Augustine reminds us that even if these do happen, our lives are ultimately in God’s hands and no political agenda or persecution can ultimately hurt us. Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” [7]. We vote seeking the good of our society, not out of fear for ourselves.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 3-4.

[2] Ibid. p. 3.

[3] Ibid. pp. 4-8.

[4] Ibid. p. 9

[5] Ibid. pp. 8-9.

[6] Ibid. p. 7

[7] Matthew 5:10 NRSV

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