If I were forced to take but one book with me on that proverbial trip to a desert island, what would it be? It might just be Augustine’s City of God. I’ve only read it cover to cover once, and that was as a graduate student years ago, but the book, and its simple lesson, is forever on my mind, especially now, when America, the place of my birth, is rapidly transforming itself into a foreign country.
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, wrote the book, Dē cīvitāte Deī contrā pāgānōs, in the early 5th century, shortly after the Visigoths sacked Rome, the eternal city, in 410. Were the Christians to blame for the fall of Rome? Not so, Augustine argued. Rome suffered the fate of all institutions in a world besotted by sin – empires come and go; only the City of God endures.
We are what we love, Augustine wrote. A neo-Platonic view to which he gave a decidedly Christian twist. In a fallen world in which all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the legacy of original sin, we cannot help but to love the wrong thing or things. It is love of the wrong things that is the very essence of sin. And the wages of sin are death, whether it be at Rome or elsewhere.
We are capable of love of the right thing, the very definition of righteousness. But this love, the love of God, is a gift to which we are summoned to respond. Grace abounds, but only so long we turn aside from lesser corrupting loves.
Augustine’s theology of sin, grace and love is profound. It was a sustaining ethos for centuries. Indeed, I mark the City of God as one of the defining books of Western civilization. It was a simple vision capable of uniting disparate people.
But we’ve outgrown these simple truths, or so the story of our times goes.
Religion is a distraction; the love of God an illusion; the church an outmoded hierarchy.
What unites us in the absence of the sort of love grace makes possible?
Self-regard. We all need liberation and recognition now. We cherish diversity for diversity’s sake and foreswear even simple visions of excellence for fear of offending someone. Yet love of difference becomes idolatry absent the love of something greater than ourselves.
I say the source of our present discontent is the product of our loss of a sense of sin, a willful tone-deafness to the need for grace, and the hubris that comes of neglect of the fallibility of all human institutions. We demand perfect, satisfaction, justice – now. We’re a nation of pots challenging the potter – why makest me thus?, we demand satisfaction now, insisting on our own better visions of the good.
Is it any wonder that our politics have become absurd and our institutions stretched to the breaking point?
Identity politics is little more than a species of idolatry. We each select an identifying characteristic and then demand that the world be recast to satisfy us. In the absence of any sense of sin, or of the need for grace, we become avenging deities, each us demanding justice now from others. In the absence of a unifying vision of humanity, each identity becomes a silo, deaf to others.
I’m watching a racial paroxysm sweep the country now with a deep sorrow. One hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery white folks who never owned a slave kneel before black folks who were never enslaved in search of forgiveness. What species of ignorance, of madness, makes this possible?
It is certainly not a claim for justice.
Rather it strikes me as race pandering, As demographics change and Caucasians become a minority, a new majority flexes its muscles. In centuries past did white people enslave people of color and seek to persuade them it was just? Yes. Today, a new majority tries to persuade a new minority that the requirements of distributive justice today requires a recalibration of the meaning of race. Race, you see, is a social construct, a meaningless category, until the checkbooks come out. In the scramble for limited goods and services, a new ethos emerges: If you’re white, you’re not right unless you add to atonement reparations. We can make the world just, right here, right now, you see. Get woke!
Woke? It’s a sick joke.
Augustine knew it. Making yesterday’s slave today’s master simply repeats the endless cycle of despair that the City of Man always produces. Love of the wrong things never satisfies for long.
Forgive me if I don’t leap to the barricades to swear fealty to the new lords and ladies of the realm. Black lives don’t matter any more than do brown, white or yellow lives. Telling me to check my privilege is just another way of telling me you want something from me. Why not just be honest about it? Why try to persuade me that your version of history entitles you to what you think I have?
None of this ends well.
The City of God is a long book. It takes a long time to read it and to absorb the lessons of human frailty and failure than Augustine records from the classical world. The hope for a better world, the City of God, remains unredeemed. But what saved us from ourselves for centuries was the suspicions that our frailties defined us, and that, as sinners, we all stood in need of grace.
Today’s angry social justice warriors have the answers. Now! They are angry. Now! They want justice. Now!
New barbarians are at the gates. It’s 410 all over again. We've become the new Rome.