Election years tend to drive some Christians crazy. This year promises to be especially tumultuous.
The world seems not more sinful in 2016 but more obviously precarious. Many note that this year feels different, as though what faces us isn’t just the possibility of culture wars but of even existential collapse. The question isn’t just which vision for America is best but rather whether democratic self-government is still possible. Many American Christians foresee an election year in which what confronts us isn’t so much choosing the lesser of two evils as much as facing a political culture in which both sides have chosen evil. That’s why I would argue that this is a good year for American Christians to revisit Augustine’s City of God.
I say this not because I believe the American order is about to go the way of the Roman Empire. That’s certainly possible, of course. Still, despite the disorder and decadence around us, I retain more optimism about the resilience of American democratic institutions than do even many of my friends and allies. I think City of God is especially relevant now because it can remind us who we are, and where we’re going.
To be sure, the book is not light reading, even in its abridged versions. It takes a panoramic view of all human history from the vantage point of both heaven and earth. That’s no small task. The complexity and ambition of the book could cause us to ignore it. But that would be a mistake.
Different Sort of Reign
City of God is essentially a defense of Christianity from the prosperity gospel. Rome believed its piety—a cult of devotion to a pantheon of gods—protected its place in the world. Pagans could now say Rome’s fall was the result of Christianity. This strange new religion took the empire away from her traditional gods, and the result was calamity. The second implication, though, is one Christians could be tempted to believe. If Rome—the most powerful empire in world history—could fall, then how can we trust something that seems exponentially more fragile? In other words, what hope is there for the church?
Augustine attacks both pagan and Christian prosperity theologies with eschatology—a vision of the city of God as a pilgrim community formed by a distinct set of affections. Roman paganism didn’t protect the empire; it fueled the forces that ultimately tore it down. At the same time, Christianity couldn’t be responsible for the temporal overthrow of the order because the gospel points us to a different sort of reign. Exchanging pagan gods for a Christian one will not a conversion make, if the goals are the same: to achieve temporal prosperity and security.
How many times have we seen Christianity used in recent years in precisely the same way the polytheists of ancient Rome used their cultic devotion? Who can forget the television evangelists telling us, as the embers of the fallen Twin Towers still smoldered, that the September 11 attacks were God’s judgments on America for specific sins? How often do we hear the promises of God to his people in the Old Testament applied to America, as though Christian “revival” is the key to economic flourishing and military victory for the United States? And how often do we hear of the vanquishing of “judgmental” and “puritanical” religion as the key to getting America on the right side of history?
Augustine would have nothing of these cynical utopianisms, and neither should we.
At the same time, City of God calls the people of Christ toward confidence. We need what Augustine calls the “ordered harmony” of the temporal order. He doesn’t celebrate the rise of the barbarians, nor does he shrug off the instability and terror around him. The city of God, while she sojourns as a pilgrim band in this present age, is concerned with earthly peace and flourishing. But we have a longer view in mind—one that encompasses the entire cosmos in the joining of heaven to earth in the kingdom of Christ.
Election years tend to incite fevered reactions because it seems as though everything is at stake. There’s much at stake, to be sure, but we should put it in a trillion-year perspective that can allow us not to panic. No one and nothing will take our country away from us—if we define correctly what we mean ultimately when we say “country” and what we mean when we say “us.” Our temptation to fear and rage should remind us that we should be seeking to cultivate the sort of love that binds us to our ultimate tribe and calls us to our ultimate home.
This year will be tumultuous, perhaps more than any before in American history. Some will read Rules for Radicals to make sense of it. Others will read The Art of the Deal. As Christians, our library should be richer and wiser. Let’s revisit City of God.