Barbarians at the Gate

January 13, 2021

The nation is in shock. Tyranny, corruption, and violence stalk the halls where justice and wisdom had seemed to be at home. The highest virtues are cast aside in a scramble for power. The memories of past leaders, flawed but decent, seem more and more appealing.

We are of course talking about Rome in 410 CE. What else? Less than a century after the conversion of Constantine, as Christians were enjoying the new privileges of recognition and influence in the formerly-persecuting Roman Empire, the civic and political structures on which they had pinned their hopes for liberty, peace, and prosperity were overwhelmed by alien forces when Alaric and his Visigoths sacked the city. The promise of this new project, a state and even an Empire ruled in the name of Christian values, was under threat; in fact, it turned out to be fatally broken. While Rome recovered briefly from its desecration, the western Roman Empire would never really be great again.

As the United States draws breath after its own brush with anarchy and an unprecedented threat to its key institutions and their symbols, faith leaders are properly joining the chorus of protest and dismay. Yet there are deeper questions to be asked, even and especially by those of us who regard the doing of justice and working for peace as fundamental to the witness of the Gospel. If this is not yet America’s end - and pray that it not be - that end will come. Will we have anything to say about justice and truth then?

The ancient Roman version of the crisis was not just political but theological. Many Christians and their thought leaders - like the famous bishop and historian Eusebius - had thrown their allegiance so strongly behind the political and theological project, inaugurated by the Emperor Constantine, that they had no tools to deal with either an empire or a Church that did not have the other to interpret it. God’s providence had surely called this new Christian empire into being, and so the work of the Church in the social realm was solely now to support, or chide, or cajole the nation into fulfilling its potential.

The most important legacy for Christianity from this ancient civic disaster and its attendant theological mistakes was a chastened sense about tying its own self-understanding either to its own privilege, or to its partnerships with specific political projects. And the prophet of this charged moment was Augustine of Hippo, who wrote his greatest work, The City of God, in direct response to that disaster, and in doing so forged the most profound Christian theology of politics and of history – one, however, which is often neglected, especially when the Christians or their supposed allies again have the upper hand.

Augustine told a story of two cities, or rather or two peoples or states, whose lives overlapped and which might seem indistinguishable in the present, but which were fundamentally and ultimately different. Christians are outwardly citizens of one but more deeply members of the other, and hence pilgrims who seek the good of their present social and political community but do not mistake it for their real allegiance:

 …this heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.

History itself was no guide, Augustine said, at least prior to its unseen future end, to the deepest truths about values or divine truth. Sometimes the righteous ruled, and other times the wicked did, but the work of living justly went on. Nor was this pursuit of virtue purely a personal or narrowly communal task, but a public one. In the uncertainty of the present age, people of faith must work for the “earthly peace,” yet understand how different it might be in essence from the structures and institutions of the worldly city.

At this modern moment, Christian witness to justice, inclusion, and sustainability are needed more than ever. However, the question arises of how closely we - or others who share our hopes for the earthly peace - can afford to identify these things with the national institutions whose success we also so badly want. 

America’s greatest achievements and values deserve celebration, and attacks on them deserve condemnation; yet for most of its history, most adult Americans have not been enfranchised, and even now a few Americans reap most of the benefits of American prosperity. Labelling white supremacy as a terror threat ignores its long and continued reign. Like any other society this one is both charmed and flawed, and its myths need to be viewed with caution.

Justice, peace, and sustainability require national and local expression, but they cannot be fulfilled merely locally or nationally. A city that lives in peace by protecting itself from want and unrest beyond is not truly at peace. A nation that wins its prosperity at the expense of others can only play at effecting justice within its own borders. 

The deepest problem for Christians in America now, no less of progressive stripe than of conservative, is how to pursue a vision of justice and peace when its articulation of these values have become so deeply beholden to the American vision itself. As commentators recently strewed the language of “desecration” and “sacrilege” around as a mob invaded the Capitol, they expressed eloquently if unwittingly the depth of American civil religion. If people of faith do not balk at these identifications, it is time they started doing so.

We need not refuse what is good about America to distance ourselves from these different gods. We should indeed defend the best of American tradition and institutions, but not because America is a new Rome or a new Jerusalem; rather we do so because the heavenly city always requires its members to seek the earthly peace, even via imperfect institutions and communities. What can be celebrated about American virtue comes from its virtue, not from its geography. What must be lamented about American history is not protected by tradition.

It is not, then, the time to disengage from courageous public witness or bold civic action. Yet it is time to consider the difference between acting on these wherever we find ourselves, as strangers and sojourners, and defending the institutions and symbols of America, or of any other nation-state, for their own sake. For as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews said long before Augustine, but inspiring him, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”