The final words of Book Two of St. Augustine’s Confessions could easily be a epigraph for our times: “I turned myself into a famished land I had to live in.” I’ve all but given up watching the news on television: In a matter of months, our public life has been reduced to farce. We are parched; starved of sense.
Consider this week’s drama pitting Chicago’s Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, versus President Donald Trump. The mayor sits atop the failed state of Chicago, a city ravaged by gun violence. She blames everyone but herself or the city’s residents for the violence. The president, by contrast, wants to show the city. He’ll send federal forces to assist local law enforcement.
It won’t be much of a civil war if the choices are the bug-eyed mayor of the Windy City versus the day-glow president.
We descend into chaos, a broader legitimation crisis percolating from coast to coast. We’re a famished land, all right.
Yes, a global pandemic sweeps the nation. Yes, a consequent economic slowdown has everyone on edge. Yes, this is a season of presidential politics where, as is too often the case, truth gives way to exaggeration.
We’re 100 days from the 2020 elections, and, I suspect, before that day comes, things will get even crazier.
But 2020, just half over, has become a year of historic folly. We’ll recover, in time. At least I hope we will. That’s why I keep reading Augustine. I want to escape the illness that comes of cherishing rotten pears.
Book Two is about boyhood, and ordinary sin, about the love of the wrong things and the transitory glee we get from forgetting our true vocation, which, Augustine reminds us, is the love of God.
Augustine recounts his boyhood theft, with others, of pears from a neighbor’s vineyard. Why the theft? The pears were nothing special. They ate some, and threw the rest away, using some to feed swine. Augustine was 15. He would not have stolen the fruit if he were alone; there was an appeal, a seduction, to doing it with others.
As sin goes, the theft of pears isn’t all that interesting. Indeed, it’s a quotidian sort of event. I recall as an adolescent a similar adventure in Detroit, when several of us wandered an alley on the city’s East Side and took delight in shaking a plum tree whose branches overhung the alley. I can still recall laughing to the point of exhaustion as the older homeowner howled at us in rage, and came hobbling toward us as we ran. We all know the guilty pleasure of shadenfreude.
Why is that? What pleasure comes of cruelty?
I suspect Augustine focused on the incident with pears because it was so ordinary. Sin needn’t be dramatic to be ubiquitous. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul wrote. Augustine is writing for everyman.
Love of the world is natural. We inhabit a place of swirling passion; indeed, the proximate cause of our lives is the passionate embrace of lovers. Passion fills the soul, for a time, and becomes the center, the hub, of all we can see. But passion is not an end itself. The seven deadly sins are really little more than a passionate misdirection: Greed, lust, anger, pride – to name but four – all come of placing the created thing, ourselves and our appetites, at the center of creation. Thus the revolt of the pot, complaining to the potter, why makes me thus?
“[S]in,” Augustine writes, “is committed when an unchecked leaning toward … the lowest order of things, causes a desertion of the better and highest, namely you, God our Master, and your truth and your law.”
A vainglorious jackass wrote me a note this week. “How’s the view from the wrong side of history?” Thus did pride inflame the writer. What crime would he not feel justified in order to serve the god of history? Let’s tear down the work of generations, cancel a culture that is the imperfect work of sinners struggling with the material at hand, and let’s erect a new god, a new behemoth, around which we can prance.
History is littered with broken idols. Wars and violence are the common lot of humankind for the simple reason that every effort to break the confining wheel of history is destined to fail. We are summoned, each of us, to moments greater than ourselves. Routinely, we fail.
Who shall deliver us from the inevitable death and destruction that comes of glorifying the wrong things?
“Who understands his own misconduct?” Augustine writes. In this season of social justice warriors, I dare ask who truly understands the misconduct of others? “[W]ho on earth is there who, taking account of his weakness, dares ascribe his purity and harmlessness to his own strength?,” Augustine asks again.
I see marchers chanting, “No Justice. No peace.” “Whose streets? Our streets.”
I fear a self-righteous mob as much as I do a virus or any other thing on earth. There will be a backlash. “Your justice? No peace.” “Whose streets? My streets,” the counterclaims will arise. It ends in exhaustion.
“To your grace I give the credit, and to your mercy, that you’ve melted my sins like ice,” Augustine writes. “Who is there who can instruct me, unless it’s the one who shines a light in my heart and makes its shadows known?”
Augustine’s gift, the genius that is reflected in the act of grace that inspired him to write, is to insist that in every heart there are shadows. That’s the legacy of original sin. I get all that, even as I struggle to recognize and accept such grace as I can experience.
Like you, I am flawed. I laugh at the wrong things and covet things not my own. I am easily moved to rage and to ridicule. In the hysteria-inspired times in which we now live, a pandemic narrowing all of our horizons, I look out at the world in fear. My fear makes me a lesser man. I look at the political and social divide in our country now with a heavy and aching heart, knowing that if, in the end, sides must be chosen, I’ll chose one. Yet knowing, too, that any choice is the wrong choice. Such is the weight of imperfection.
The genius of American politics was its acquaintance with sin and imperfection. We have a system of government with checks and balances, the separation of powers, the fragmenting effects of federalism. The Bill of Rights protects us against paroxysms of rage.
Are these institutions strong enough to withstand the current storm, a storm which, in my view, will only intensify in the months to come?
I don’t know. I worry that we’ll all dive after the pears in our midst, that no one will stop to experience gift of grace at once ever-present and invisible.
I worry that will ravage ourselves and come to regret the famished land we are creating for ourselves. We're becoming violent, as would be expected in this fallen world: “The brutality of power wishes to be feared, but who should be feared but God alone?”