I’ve been insistent – to a tiresome degree I’m sure – that American Christians are to resist the destructive and divisive ideology of our incoming president. It’s been heartening to hear others make this case from their own vantage points. Yet, because of my Christian orientation, I’m convinced that there’s a profoundly unglamorous posture that must characterize any Christian resistance to our next president. I was reminded of this as I’ve begun reading St. Augustine’s City of God.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote his massive book during the years of Rome’s slow demise before the relentless barbarian invaders. He wrote at a unique religious moment: Christianity had been acceptable for a few generations but the old, pagan, practices were still recalled and occasionally practiced within the empire. All of this led to accusations that Rome’s weakened state could be traced to the spurned pagan gods. Perhaps, the understandably anxious logic went, Christianity was at fault for the incessant attacks and porous borders.
Augustine’s massive book was, in large part, a response to the crumbling empire and the critics it fostered. Early on, as he defends Christianity, he acknowledges a reasonable question about the suffering of believers.
What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances?
Augustine admits that any observer would notice that Christians were not exempt from the suffering provoked by the invasions. It seemed that their faith in Christ hadn’t kept them from suffering alongside their fellow, pagan, citizens. He then responds with a theological rationale that I think should be held high by those of us who see opportunities for resistance and, possibly, suffering in the days ahead.
First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account… So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners. (Book 1, chapter 9.)
When reflecting on the sufferings experienced by Christians, Augustine says, basically, of course we suffer because we also sin. God’s judgment on sin, as advanced through “such terrible disasters” as the empire was currently undergoing, was bound to be felt by Christians along with their neighbors. Though he is quick to show the difference between the sins of Christians and those of the pagans – faith in Christ secures the faithful’s eternal security – he also shows that, by our very nature, Christians can expect to experience the same suffering as our neighbors. It’s the reason for our suffering that is important to Augustine: “they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills.” This sobering knowledge, that our sin demands judgment, is what makes the Christian respond to suffering and calamity with humility, knowing that we have no high moral ground from which to judge.
This humility, born from a scathing appraisal of our sinfulness and complicity in the world’s suffering, is what must distinguish Christian resistance in the coming days. Our opposition to rhetoric and policies which damage and destroy will be flavored with a chastened view of our limited capacity along with a tangible sense of personal lament for how we’ve benefitted from and contributed to the world that gave rise to the president-elect.
None of this means we won’t resist when we see our neighbors threatened. Humility requires a quiet spirit but it can coexist nicely with loud resistance when necessary. In his own way, long-winded and brilliant, this is what Augustine was doing in his own anxious days as the established order came crumbling down. We’ll need to do the same in the days ahead: resist with courage, with one repentant eye always on our own sin and another on the redemptive move of God who alone is this world’s judge and savior.