Excerpts from Augustine’s The City of God, taken from New Advent:
Book 18, Chapter 49
“In this wicked world, in these evil days, when the Church measures her future loftiness by her present humility, and is exercised by goading fears, tormenting sorrows, disquieting labors, and dangerous temptations, when she soberly rejoices, rejoicing only in hope, there are many reprobate mingled with the good, and both are gathered together by the gospel as in a drag net; (Matthew 13:47-50) and in this world, as in a sea, both swim enclosed without distinction in the net, until it is brought ashore, when the wicked must be separated from the good, that in the good, as in His temple, God may be all in all.”
Book 18, Chapter 51
“Thus in this world, in these evil days, not only from the time of the bodily presence of Christ and His apostles, but even from that of Abel, whom first his wicked brother slew because he was righteous, (1 John 3:12) and thenceforth even to the end of this world, the Church has gone forward on pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God.”
Quotes in my analysis below of these two brief excerpts come from the translation found in Readings in Christian Thought edited by Hugh T. Kerr.
Augustine of Hippo stands as one of the greatest theologians of all time. His works are still appealed to as an authority in both Roman Catholic and Protestant tradition on numerous and diverse subjects across two-hundred and thirty-two works. From Augustine’s Confessions, we learn of his conversion from paganism to Christianity after living a life of grandiose sinful indulgences in his thirties. Born in 354 AD, he lived through the roughly last fifty years of the Roman Empire’s existence, the first half being a pagan, and the second half being a Christian. Augustine lived roughly another quarter of a century after the fall of Rome in 410 AD. His mother was a Christian and his father was a pagan until his deathbed. This life experience deposits him into an advantageous position of first-hand familiarity with the mind of both the pagan and Christian, in a world where Christianity is the religion of the State and in which it is not. After the fall of Rome, Christians received the blame for the end of the Roman Empire and the calamity and suffering that followed. To comfort Christians, as well as to defend against such blame, Augustine wrote The City of God, drawing from his well-spring of knowledge of the inner workings of both the pagan and Christian worldviews as he wrote, to demonstrate the tension, even battle, between the kingdoms of man that continually rise and fall and the eternal kingdom of God that forever stands.
In the above excerpt from The City of God, Augustine writes with the purpose to remind Christians that the world is not their friend. Despite the appearance of it for a time when Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire, the days are evil, and Augustine argues that this is to the Church’s benefit, because Augustine writes, “through the lowliness she now endures is winning the sublime station she is to have in heaven.” He justifies this position with two key points: a summary of Paul’s words in Romans 5 on the fruit born through suffering and an appeal to the historical suffering of God’s righteous people. Like Paul, Augustine argues that suffering produces a deep-seated joy in the hope to come and a willingness to wait out the evil days until Christ separates his own from the children of the devil. To keep the Church from getting too near sighted, thinking their current plight is unique to them, he reminds them that the apostles and the Church fathers suffered before Constantine made Christianity the religion of the State and that in fact God’s people have always agonized under the oppression of evil men, tracing all the way back to the beginning of man, when righteous Abel was murdered by his wicked brother, Cain. Augustine concludes that as it was in the beginning with Abel, it will continue to be until the end of this age.
Underlying the purpose of his writing to remind his Christian readers that cities of men inevitably fall but God’s city will always remain is the question, “What then shall we do?” With the evidence and reasoning Augustine provided, the answer appears to be nothing but a single answer – what Jesus said to the seven churches of Revelation – “Stand firm until the end.” This single answer is to give the Christian the necessary knowledge to live in sight of better things to come, to not be attached to the world that certainly will end in fire and destruction at Christ’s return – to pull one’s head out of the “now” and to hope in the “not yet” reality of the City of God. There are of course many activities the Christian can be pursuing in this world of woe: loving God, serving one’s neighbor, helping the poor and widowed, comforting those who mourn, being a voice for the voiceless, speaking the Gospel to all in his life, and etc., but the knowledge gleaned from Augustine’s answer is that none of these activities will put an end to suffering. They might lead to a relative life of ease if the work of the Church through the Gospel and the Sacraments wins over the State as what had occurred with Constantine and Rome, but such peace won’t last, because it’s only given when the City of Man adopts the veneer of the City of God.
I thought this small, two paragraph excerpt from The City of God provided great insight for today’s Church in America (potentially the West as a whole, but particularly the American Church). From personal experience, I have heard many, Americans and non-Americans, express the notion that America was founded on Christian values and liberties, going so far to say that America is a “Christian nation.” Many of these same people argue that America has fallen from these traditional Christian values, often times using the term, “Post-Christian,” to describe the nation. I read an article a few years ago by a LC-MS pastor about the shift Christians have experienced in America from being a people of “privilege” due to their religious majority to now being a people “unprivilege.” In many ways, the City of God veneer has stripped away from the City of Man in America, and the Church is now seen as a resistance, a stumbling block to the progress the City of Man wants to make in the realms of sexual identity and activity, abortion on demand, religious syncretism, socialized programs that put more trust and power in the City of Man than in God and the love of one’s neighbor to help out in times of need, and even science because of the common Christian rejection of Darwinian Evolution. Augustine reminds us too – this is nothing new. It’s always been.
In America, we have excesses in material wealth and luxuries in comfort that many in the world cannot even comprehend. Our extravagances can lead us to be attached to this world, to love the City of Man, in a way that others with less wealth might not be tempted to cling. I lived one summer in a Mexican town that had no running water, no washer and dryers, no water heaters, now showers, just outhouses, no pavement, just dirt. It’s common for Americans to come back from such locales and say, “But they were so happy.” That was my experience too. They weren’t so attached to the City of Man, and many of the people I interacted with were members of the City of God. Their hope was in the life to come; not having their best life now. Augustine’s writing was a wake-up call for me; to not grow fat and lazy; hard times will come. His use of Abel being slain by his ungodly brother is what shook me. I have read that historical narrative to be an example of the damaging effects of sin in the world; not the pitting of war between God’s people and the devil’s as Augustine framed it. It reminded me that there is a war between two cities raging on and that I really should adjust and align myself not so much as an American-Christian, seeking to Make America Christian Again, but as a Christian who is a wayfarer in this world of woe, awaiting my Lord to bring me home.