Augustine 2020: The Spiritual Political Struggle
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Augustine’s argument in Book VII of The City of God is even more foreign to us than that of Book VI. In it, Augustine argues against a scholar named Varro who offered an interpretation of the Roman gods as personifications of parts of nature . The thrust of Augustine’s overall argument here is one of the most difficult to apply to our current context. We will focus our attention on several interesting comments he makes and see how we can use them to interpret our own day.
“The truly poor are the greedy, always needy and craving. However much wealth they are able to possess and however great its abundance, they are not able not to crave” . Greed remains a strong force in our society and extends to our political process. The influence of money in our political process is no secret from super PACs to corporate lobbyists. During campaigns, candidates accuse their opponents of being “bought and paid for” by special interests. Our policies too often favor the production of wealth over human life, those most in need, and the well-being of our environment.
Yet greed is not merely the purview of politicians and corporations. The economy is a strong motivating factor for voters, particularly the way economic policies affect our own pockets. I am certainly not immune. As a recent college graduate, I am interested in student loan policies and am quick to support the approach best for me without investigating the impact it could have on others. However, I think there is a difference between looking at how to steward our financial resources and fulfilling our greed. And that difference is more subtle than we often realize. It is good to support economic policies that enable us to best provide for and care for our families. At the same time, it is easy to deceive ourselves into believing our motivations are pure when they are, in fact, marred by greed. When we as Christians vote, each of us needs to take time to seriously pray and reflect on our motivations: am I voting for economic policies that are good for my neighbor  and allow me to better steward the resources God has provided for me or am I merely interested in increasing my own wealth? What would a society look like if Christians learned contentment with what we have, learned to be generous with the resources God has given us and rejected our own temptations to greed?
In his day, Augustine was not interested in identifying a particular god with the human desire for wealth . Instead, he names the Roman gods so involved in Roman political life as demons . Satan and the demons have a particular interest in the kingdoms of this world. The devil offered the nations to Jesus in exchange for Jesus’ worship during the wilderness temptation . Jesus called Him “the ruler of this world” . When we talk about the political sphere, we are not talking about neural territory, but an occupied war-zone. We see evil in the greed we have already talked about, but also in racism, a disregard for life, the brutalization of our planet, in war, and in the disdain we show to those who disagree with our politics. We have already said America lacks true justice in areas of his public life and, in those instances, we witness evil. I want to be bold and clear: we see the demonic all over our politics. But I also want to be careful in saying that. I have heard Christians too often identify one political party with the demonic, the one they already disagree with, and the other, the one they already agree with, with justice. No political party, no politician, no policy agenda has the monopoly on virtue or vice. Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” . As Christians, our struggle is not Republicans vs. Democrats, police vs. black life, healthcare vs. the economy, or any list of competing political parties and special interests. Our struggle is against the temptation to get what we want at all costs at the cost of human life, of God’s good creation, of communities that look different from us or make up a different tax bracket, to increase our own bottom line.
Yet in this struggle, there is a clear winner. Augustine reminds us “We worship that God who established for the natures created by him the first principles and the ends of their existing and moving” . We worship the God who created everything. But not only that, we worship the God who “did not simply abandon us, but sent us his Word, who is his only Son…so that, through Christ’s taking on flesh and being born and suffering for us…be cleansed by that singular sacrifice for all sins, and, overcoming all obstacles through the diffusion of his love in our hearts by his Spirit, come into eternal rest and into the indescribable sweetness of the contemplation of himself” . While Jesus called the devil “the ruler of this world”, He also said, “he has no power over me” . As we engage in politics in the earthly city, Christians actively resist the sin that so easily entangles , but we do so as citizens of the city of God, whose King has already defeated the evil of this age. An essential component of political engagement, of supporting justice, is resisting evil and standing against policies in line with the evil that corrupts and degrades God’s good creation (more on that in the weeks to come), but we do so knowing the victory does not depend on our effort. We engage in resisting evil resting confidently in the victory Jesus has already won against evil.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 52.
 Ibid. p. 53.
 Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Political Puzzle Pieces” June 30, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-political-puzzle-pieces.
 Augustine, p. 53.
 Ibid. p. 56.
 Luke 4:5-6.
 John 14:30 NRSV.
 Ephesians 6:12.
 Augustine, p. 54.
 Ibid. pp. 55-56.
 John 14:30.
 Hebrews 12:1.