Augustine's City of God
On August 24, 410 A.D., the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome. For the people of late antiquity, August 24 was even more traumatic than September 11 was for us. Rome, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known, was plundered by barbarians, people Rome regarded as uncouth and inferior.
In North Africa, these events prompted a Christian bishop to start writing about the lessons Christians should take away from the destruction of Rome. The result was a book that is every bit as relevant for our day as it was for his: The City of God by St. Augustine of Hippo.
In response to critics who blamed Rome's demise on the fact that she abandoned the pagan gods and turned to Christ, Augustine introduced readers to two cities: the "City of God" and the "City of Man." The City of Man is shaped by the love of self, even to the contempt of God, and the City of God is shaped by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.
In describing the two cities, Augustine reiterated Jesus' teaching that while Christians live in the City of Man, they do not belong to the City of Man. Their presence in the earthly city is like that of strangers sojourning in a foreign country. We are to enjoy the blessings the City of Man has to offer, including its rights, its protection, and its preservation of order, but we are always ready to move on. The City of Man is not our true home. No, our true home is in the City of God. And it is to that city that we owe our affections and our ultimate loyalty.
While this sounds like a recipe for withdrawal, it is anything but that. Augustine taught that, just as we are to enjoy the blessings of the City of Man, we must assume the obligations of citizenship. As he put it, "Caesar looks for his own likeness, give it to him." Only, instead of fulfilling these obligations out of compulsion and fear, the Christian does so out of obedience to God and love of neighbor. Being a good citizen means doing our civic duty and, of course, voting.
As we enter this election season, the struggle for our culture's soul has simultaneously produced passivity and defeatism in some evangelical quarters and a shrill triumphalism in others. Neither response, as Augustine teaches, is the proper Christian response.
We can never retreat into our sanctuaries and neglect our civic responsibility to help set the moral tone of our culture. Leaving your neighbor in ignorance of his folly is inconsistent with the command to love him, and so political and cultural engagement are required for faithful believers. We are, I like to put it, to bring the influence of the City of God into the City of Man, working for justice and righteousness.
At the same time, if we controlled every legislative, executive, and judiciary branch, we still could not transform the City of Man into the City of God. That's why talk about making this a "Christian nation" is wrong-headed and needlessly scares our neighbors.
Over the next few days, I'll be discussing what it means to be a Christian and a citizen in contemporary America: the temptations, pitfalls, and opportunities. Getting this right starts with the paradox Augustine taught: The best citizens of the City of Man are those who remember that their true citizenship is in the City of God.
St. Augustine, The City of God (Doubleday, 1958 edition).Os Guinness, "No King but Jesus," sermon at The Falls Church in Virginia, 4 July 2004.