In 410 AD, Rome was sacked by an army of Visigoths, setting off a crisis — of identity no less than politics — within the Roman Empire. Everything its citizens had believed to be certain and secure now seemed up in the air. It raised big questions about the relationship between God, the Church, traditional religions, and the state that Christian leaders needed to address. Today I’d like to look at the most famous of these Christian responses to this crisis, St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God (Civ. Dei). Whereas the first post in this series “Theology from under the Rubble” looked at the importance of expressing of feelings of grief and loss in a tragedy, today we will see how St. Augustine worked to recast the meaning of the crisis of his day to remind the faithful of where their true certainty and allegiance belonged.
While the actual political importance of the sack of Rome can easily be overblown in our imagination — Rome had not been the capital of the Empire for over a hundred years by that point and the Visigoths were far from an uncouth horde that had come out of nowhere, but were a quasi-assimilated Christian group that had been living within the Empire for decades — there can be no doubt that it was a serious psychological blow to the Empire. Rome was known as “the Eternal City” and had not fallen in over 800 years. It was a symbol of the security and peace the Empire promised. St. Jerome, writing on the opposite end of the Roman world, summed up the mood of the time well: “If Rome can perish, what can be safe?” (Ep. 123, 16). The situation for St. Augustine, living in what is now northeastern Algeria, was quite a bit more immediate; North Africa found itself filled with Italian refugees, and so he now had pastoral responsibility for men and women who had lost everything and were traumatized by the violence they had experienced. Additionally, followers of traditional Roman religions blamed the city’s calamity on the rise of Christianity and the cessation of Roman civic religious rites. This was a serious situation that required a serious response. Augustine took on this responsibility with characteristic thoroughness and The City of God became his magnum opus: twenty-two books of history, political theory, sociology, and theology released over a period of about thirteen years.
So, what did Augustine have to say to his frightened flock and to the world at large? The most basic move he makes is to shake his audience, Christian and pagan alike, out of any complacency or illusions about the nature the world and our place in it. The Roman gods had not protected the city as well as their proponents maintained, as the city’s history was filled with stories of sackings, civil wars, famines and plagues (Civ. Dei 1.2-4; 22.22). And so, the claims that Christianization of the Empire was to blame for the disaster are unfounded. But this doesn’t mean there is room for Christian triumphalism. The sack of Rome and the sufferings of its Christian citizens were a reminder to Christians that even if the Empire was now officially ‘Christian’ this did not make it the same thing as the Kingdom of God. In this world, which he called the saeculum (’age’, ‘generation’), from Adam and Eve’s fall to the return of Christ, we must expect suffering and death (see Civ. Dei 1.8-11). Sudden reversals of fortune, including invasion, loss of wealth, rape, and murder, are to be expected. Even our best programs and systems for limiting sin and suffering are only damage control — they are therapies, not cures (Civ. Dei 18.49; 22.24).
This teaching is a reminder to Christians that this world, no matter how ‘Christian’ it might have become, is not our home, and was a needful counter to the Constantinian mythology promoted by figures like Eusebius, who saw the conversion of the Roman Emperor as the triumph of God in and over the world. Under Eusebius’ view, it could be very easy for Christians to fall into a complacent and false conflation of Empire and the Kingdom of God; in this case, the political instability the sack of Rome represented could seem express a failure of Christianity itself. Augustine (rightly) insists that this is not the case.
It is here that Augustine develops his famous contrast between the two cities, the City of God and the Earthly City, to help the faithful to understand their different commitments in this world. As Gerard O’Daly notes, “The concept of the heavenly city is developed as a foil or contrast to the Roma aeterna [’eternal Rome’] concept. … Augustine’s overriding aim is to disassociate Rome’s historical destiny from that of Christianity, or any religion” (Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide).* The Earthly City belongs properly to this world and is therefore inherently captive to sin — to lust, aggression, greed, and power. No matter how good its intentions, laws, and values may be, it will always be unable to fulfill them because of the fallen state of the world. The City of God by contrast, does not belong to this world (peregrinatur in mundo, Civ. Dei 1.35). Free from sin, it is governed by virtues such as humility, love, and a true concern for the common good. While, a ‘Christian’ Rome may share similarities with or be pointed towards the City of God, it will always remain earthly and therefore be susceptible to all kinds of failures and disasters.
For Augustine, the greatest evidence for this distinction between the two cities is the very idea of the Empire itself. Whereas the greatest Christian virtues, he believes, are humility and love, Rome’s entire history has been marked by pride and acquisitiveness — what he calls its libido dominandi ‘lust for domination’ (Civ. Dei pref.). As Archbishop Rowan Williams has remarked on this contrast,
Preoccupation with achievement brings in its wake a preoccupation with power and pre-eminence: the whole point of the quest for glory lies in the urge to gain advantage over another. In contrast, the love and longing for goodness which marks the city of God is of its essence a desire which seeks to share its object: tanto eam reperiet ampliorem, quanto amplius ibi potuerit amare consortem – more is gained by the love of those others who share the quest and the goal. (On Augustine)
For citizens of the City of God, our sojourn here in the Earthly City will always be an exercise in faith and humility. This applies to both good times and bad. When things are good in the Earthly City, Christians will struggle living under ‘foreign’ laws, but can still make positive contributions by promoting and embodying virtues such as charity, humility, and peacemaking. This is especially true for those in leadership, which is why Augustine still sees value in the ‘Christian’ Empire even as he refuses it the messianic triumphalism promoted by Eusebius (Civ. Dei 24). In an interesting turn, he even uses the sack of Rome as an example of the value of Christian leadership, arguing that the Visigoths’ Christian commitments had reined in their looting of the city and restrained them from attacking churches and those sheltering within them (Civ. Dei 5.23). But any gains Christians might make in the Earthly City will be hard-won and counter-cultural. And, they can expect more setbacks than successes.
When disasters strike, Christians should understand these reversals as opportunities to grow in faith. For example, Augustine urges those who had been dispossessed in the sack of Rome to see it as an opportunity to relive the early Church’s commitment to poverty and sharing wealth (Civ. Dei 18.54). More shocking to our sensibilities, he applies the same reasoning to things such as famine and even rape.^ Every suffering, no matter how heinous, is an object lesson in virtue. It either points out a sin or provides an opportunity to increase in faith and grace: “When one and the same force falls upon the good and the wicked, the former are purged and purified, but the latter are damned, ruined, and destroyed” (Civ. Dei 1.8).
With all this in mind, how might St. Augustine’s response to the sack of Rome inform our own response to the political uncertainties of our own time? For me the most relevant take-away is how he finds a middle ground between Christian over-identification with the state and disengagement from the state. No matter what country we may call home, no matter how intentionally ‘Christian’ (or anti-Christian) our governments may be, there will always be a fundamental and essential gap between our country and the Kingdom of God. There is therefore absolutely no room for any kind of ‘Christian nationalism’; it’s as much a contradiction in terms as a square circle. While we can — and indeed must — advocate for just laws that promote love and the common good, our countries will only be at best a Kindergartner’s sketch of God’s Kingdom. The ways of this world remain antithetical to the ways of God.
A lot of us, especially in the West, have grown up in peace and security. It’s easy in such a context to grow complacent and simply expect that this is the norm. But it is far from the case, as the political uncertainties of the past five years have demonstrated. St. Augustine’s teaching is a reminder that when there are setbacks — and there have been and will be — we are no less called to the same faithful commitment that we are when things are going well, and that this world is not our true home. A certain detachment without disengagement from the state is necessary.
Where St. Augustine’s understanding may need a bit of massaging in our contemporary context is in how he justifies and understands suffering. There is nothing wrong with the ultimate aim of finding meaning in our sufferings — in fact, I think that’s a necessary part of the experience of working through our traumas and disappointments. Where I think it requires a shift is that it is arrogant and dismissive to assign meaning to someone else’s suffering. Rather than tell people who have lost everything that it’s God teaching them to be less material, or tell raped women they’ve been given a lesson in humility (!), we would do far better simply to walk alongside the suffering as they make their own journeys to finding meaning. “You intended this for evil but God intended it for good” is a powerful expression of faithfulness when it bubbles up from deep within the heart of one who has suffered; but it is quite another thing for those outside the experience to assign it to those who have survived it.
In conclusion, in the face of a shocking political disaster, St. Augustine reminded the faithful — and by extension us today — that this world is not their or our true home. Our true commitments are to God’s Kingdom, not to the kingdoms of this world. And in this world, there will be trouble, disappointments, and even suffering. While these are legitimately awful experiences, we don’t need to let them defeat us. Rather, by finding meaning within them — by meeting God within them — we can keep going in this world, with full confidence of our true citizenship in God’s City. This teaching may not lesson the severity of our troubles in this world, but it does put them in their proper context.
*For more on this, see chapter 1 of Gerard O’Daly’s Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide. Please see the full bibliography for this series for details.
^ For a full discussion of the them of rape in The City of God, see Margaret R. Miles, “From Rape to Resurrection,” in Augustine’s City of God: A Critical Guide.