Over the course of my dissertation, I did a fair amount of reading in the great church figure, Augustine. In his famous work, The City of God Against the Pagans (Book 19, Chapter 17), Augustine reflects on what brings peace between the City of God and City of Man and how the City of God understands itself living amid the City of Man. Augustine writes:
Thus the things necessary for this mortal life are used by both kinds of men and families alike, but each has its own peculiar and widely different aim in using them. The earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life. The heavenly city, or rather the part of it which sojourns on earth and lives by faith, makes use of this peace only because it must, until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away. Consequently, so long as it lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city, though it has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as the earnest of it, it makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered; and thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is a harmony between them in regard to what belongs to it.
Participating in political life
In this first paragraph, Augustine says that the purpose of political order in a fallen world is for there to be earthly peace through just laws. He goes on to say that Christians, as citizens of earthly political orders, are to obey these laws as well. In the sense that Christians are to likewise contribute to the good through following just laws, Christians and non-Christians can share in a common life together. What Augustine is saying is that Christians should be active participants in earthly political communities.
Pointing toward redemption
But below, Augustine notices a contrast. He says that the fallen political order is bound to get it wrong on matters of religion, because the world is torn asunder by hatred and strife. The fallen world is incapable of pointing itself toward its ultimate end—redemption in Christ. Yet, even though there’s an antithesis between the City of God and the City of Man, Augustine says that the City of God should make use of the laws of the City of Man in order to point the City of Man toward its ultimate end—redemption in Christ. While the City of God is going to find itself bombarded by assault and persecution, Augustine insists that the City of Man, by being faithful to its calling, is actually serving society by pointing it toward Christ.
. . . it has come to pass that the two cities could not have common laws of religion, and that the heavenly city has been compelled in this matter to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions, except in so far as the minds of their enemies have been alarmed by the multitude of the Christians and quelled by the manifest protection of God accorded to them. This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God. When we shall have reached that peace, this mortal life shall give place to one that is eternal, and our body shall be no more this animal body which by its corruption weighs down the soul, but a spiritual body feeling no want, and in all its members subjected to the will. In its pilgrim state the heavenly city possesses this peace by faith; and by this faith it lives righteously when it refers to the attainment of that peace every good action towards God and man; for the life of the city is a social life.
Learning from Augustine
As Christians in America celebrate July 4, what lessons can we learn from Augustine in how we understand our citizenship and love of country?
Loving God more than country
Augustine helps us to love our country the way it is supposed to be loved biblically. As Christians, we inhabit a world, and it is a world whose commitments and loves may at times overlap with the values and ethics of the Kingdom, but at root, the forces behind each city and each participant are at cosmic odds. Christians must understand this. It helps us calibrate a posture of grateful, yet critical distance. Augustine helps us understand that we as Christians can love our country, but we must understand what forces drive it, and what separates it from the Kingdom of God. Augustine is concerned with us loving our God more than our country.
Seeking the good of society
Yet, Augustine calls the Christian to active participation in his or her social order. We seek the earthly peace of our society as the Prophet Jeremiah reminds us (Jer. 29), and Christians should take advantage of whatever tranquility is present in a society that we might shepherd such tranquility for the furtherance of the gospel. This means Christians are among the most attentive, engaged citizens. We know we have a stake in the laws that our land passes. We know that the nation-state cannot direct man toward his or her religious end, but it can organize human society in the direction of morality and flourishing. We obey laws to every extent that they do not violate the conscience. At the same time, a critical posture helps us understand that there are times of necessary dissent—that patriotism to the Kingdom of God might look unpatriotic to the kingdom of man.
Embracing a diverse society
Augustine helps us understand that society is differentiated, pluralistic, and full of people who are different. Notice, though, that Augustine says this is expected, and Christians cannot expect to override or overwhelm this diversity with its own hegemony or dominance. We are not able to take control of the social order and thoroughly Christianize it (and we possibly do great harm when we think we really can). We speak, preach, testify, witness, and vote. But we do with a mind toward humble participation in the larger creational order.
As Augustine writes, “not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.” Augustine believes a modicum of peace is achievable even amid great diversity, and Christians do not complain about not being in charge. We welcome our place in society toward a view of our ministry to it.
Why, ultimately, though do Christians care about fallen society? Why do we not jettison responsibility for seeing righteousness manifested? Even as pilgrims, we are to love our society and our neighbor in hopes that we might direct our society and our neighbor toward their ultimate end in God:
In its pilgrim state the heavenly city possesses this peace by faith; and by this faith it lives righteously when it refers to the attainment of that peace every good action towards God and man; for the life of the city is a social life.
On this July 4, be an American, be a Christian American even. But recognize that the former ought to be more defining than the latter. And for participation as both, exercise responsibility and gratitude.