ST. AUGUSTINE AND THE COLLAPSE OF EMPIRE: ANCIENT WISDOM ON WAR, TERROR, AND CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBILITY

‘The mind shudders when it dwells upon the ruin of the day’, wrote St. Jerome, the great bible translator, in the year of St. Augustine’s death, and twenty years after the fall of Rome to the barbarians. ‘For twenty years or more Roman blood has been flowing ceaselessly on the broad countries between Constantinople and the Julian Alps, where Goths and Huns and the Vandals spread ruin and death. How many Roman nobles have been their prey! How many matrons have fallen victim to their lust! Bishops live in prison, priests and clerics fall by the sword, churches are plundered…. On every side sorrow, on every side lamentation, everywhere the image of death.’

If any time in history matches our own moment of profound geopolitical disorientation, it might be the collapse of the Roman Empire. And if any interpreter of that world can speak to our own, it is surely Augustine. In 430 the Vandals, advancing eastward along the North African coast, laid siege to Hippo Regius where the famous Bishop lay dying. Augustine knew full well the horrors that awaited his flock as the wheat fields beyond the city walls lay dormant and un-harvested. He died before the city fell, but he died knowing that, if they survived starvation, the Christians would face conversion to heresy at pain of death. This was North Africa in a time of terror, the same North Africa that in our time has ‘devolved into a borderless world of gangs, militias, tribes, transnational terrorists, anti-terrorist expeditionary forces, and weak regimes gripped in stasis’. So writes Robert Kaplan in an article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled Augustine’s World: What Late Antiquity says about the 21st century and the Syrian crisis.

As the organizing principle of the known world began to disintegrate around him, St. Augustine wrote The City of God, a great panoptic view of human history, society, and conflict that has perhaps never been equaled in its scope and depth. For those in search of consolation and direction and a realistic grasp of what is possible in a world at war, there could be no better guide than this the greatest of the ancient Christian thinkers. So what did Augustine say?

 I. AUGUSTINIAN SKEPTICISM

‘[T]his is characteristic of the earthly city: to worship a god or gods with whose help it might reign in victory and earthly peace, not from love of caring for others but rather from lust to exercise dominion over others’ (The City of God, XV.7). This is one of Augustine’s most famous expressions of political suspicion. But there are plenty of others. ‘Remove justice, then, and what are kingdoms but large gangs of robbers,’ he asks and goes on to relate a famous story about Alexander the Great. When the king demanded of a captured pirate what he meant by infesting the sea, the man defiantly replied that he meant no more than the king himself in infesting the world. If you own small ship, you are a robber; if a great fleet, you are an emperor, the pirate declared.

Augustine’s point is that we must not equate any political entity or form of government with the Kingdom of God, not even where those governments call themselves Christian. Certainly Augustine has wonderful things to say about those Roman Emperors who professed to have put their faith in Christ, yet he treats them as Roman Emperors all the same. David, by contrast, enters into Augustine’s book not as a king, but as a prophet. It is the duty of the governing authorities to restrain evil, but evil is evil and it marks the city within which it must be confronted. Rome, even converted Rome, is Rome nonetheless and its rulers, even its Christian rulers, operate in the opaque world of tragic necessity.

Furthermore, he argues, empires are vulnerable. Take for instance the revolt of the gladiators. They seized plunder, gained victories, frightened Roman generals, and were defeated only with the greatest difficulty. Was it short lived? What difference does that make? Augustine wonders. ‘What does it matter to those who … died long ago that the Roman empire subsequently grew to such vast proportions?’ (IV/5). Augustine consistently refuses to take the long view. What does it matter to those who are plundered, terrified, tortured, and killed that eventually order is restored somewhere in the world?

Take as an example still within living memory, Antony Beevor’s account, in his book The Fall of Berlin, of how the Red Army, frenzied by Nazi brutality, drove seven million people toward the German capital in the midst of mass murder, destruction, rape, and self-defensive female suicide. Augustine is similarly struggling in the opening books of The City of God to articulate a pastoral response to the rape and suicide of Christian women who have been thrown defenseless and without pity into the maelstrom of war. There is nothing to celebrate either in an empire’s growth or in its collapse.

II. AUGUSTINIAN REALISM

Given Augustine’s hermeneutic of suspicion, the lofty principles of western foreign policy would probably not stand up very well on close examination. Do our enemies really have no reason at all to mistrust us? We shall attain a more incisive view of how matters stand, he insists, ‘if we are not carried away by empty bombast and do not let the sharp edge of our inquiry be blunted by high sounding terms’ (IV.3). Yet, denigrating as he is, Augustine is no cynic, nor does he counsel the Christian to withdraw from civic responsibility. The tragic necessity of leadership in the city of man is just that: tragic and necessary, and it is not something the Christian should avoid. Citing Jesus’ encounter with the centurion and John the Baptist’s advice to soldiers and noting that giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s was largely in support of soldiers’ salaries, Augustine insists, as did St. Paul, that the restraint of evil is a duty the governing authority cannot avoid.

But he is realistic about what can and cannot be achieved. Well-motivated but ill considered attempts to repeal unjust laws have on occasion led to ruinous civil disorder, he points out in one of his anti-utopian passages. Then there is the harrowing section in Book XIX where he discusses those ‘dark shadows of the social life’ that create such misery and doubt. Consider the awful plight of the judge. The claims of human society impose a duty it is unthinkable to ignore. Yet the magistrate can know neither another’s heart nor motives. How many witnesses have been harmed under pressure to testify and how many of the accused have been forced into false confessions, and how many wrongfully convicted and executed? Judges are not guilty of sin when they discharge the duties of their office but let us never count as happy those who ought rather to pray to be delivered from their necessities, as the Psalmist says. This is the ‘realist’ Bishop whose pessimism stood behind Reinhold Niebuhr’s widespread influence over American foreign policy during the Cold War. There are duties we cannot avoid during the exercise of which some harm will always be done, none more so than when idealism clouds our vision of the possible.

Augustine also sounds like a contemporary military strategist as he analyses war in its various types. He is acutely aware that civil wars are the most brutal, that reprisals against civilians and unarmed soldiers often take place at the end of wars – ‘peace raging like a savage’ (III.28) -, and that urban warfare unleashes its own distinctive form of unspeakable horror.

And this could have been written yesterday:

The gang, too … is bound together by a pact of association, and its loot is divided according to an agreed law. If, by constantly adding desperate men, this scourge grows to such an extent that it acquires territory, establishes a home base, occupies cities, and subjugates peoples, it more openly assumes the name of kingdom, a name now publicly conferred on it due not to any reduction in greed but rather to the addition of impunity (IV.4).

Or perhaps, changing greed to religious fanaticism and bizarre cruelty, it will be written tomorrow.

III. AUGUSTINIAN IDEALISM

But is this just a political realism born of an inherent mistrust of the claims of empire? Not exactly. There is a sorrow in Augustine’s unblinking realism that is ameliorative and not merely fatalistic. That wars differ in their intensity or the kind of suffering they inflict, suggests that even in this awful human reality – the use of force in restraint of evil – there is a better and a worse that deserves some attention. So, for example, his anxiety about unjust punishment had led him in earlier letters to remind Roman governors and commanders that the judge too stands under the judgment of God and needs mercy; that Bishops will insist on pressing for clemency in capital cases, contrary pressures notwithstanding; that the death penalty, if necessary at all, is an appalling necessity; that churches will cease their payments for the redemption of hostages if the authorities insist that hostage takers are to be tortured. More famously, in the City of God he will continue to press his just war claims, claims that if he was not the first to articulate, he was certainly the first to make absolutely central to political theory by grounding them in the love of Christ toward his enemies, thus setting one of the most important concepts in the whole of military history on an unshakeable spiritual foundation. The savagery of war can to some extent be controlled and vengeance held in check – and that extent is worth the attempt – by military commanders who understand that even the justified use of force in the restraint of evil must itself be restrained by benevolence – even as its necessity must be the cause for endless grief. Without Augustine we can easily understand that a platoon sergeant must keep his soldiers well drilled, aggressive, and ready to fight, but it is less easy to imagine those many officers from his day to ours who have believed that that discipline is rendered useless where soldiers lose their moral compass. ‘For who will of his own accord be satisfied with a vengeance equal to the injury? Do we not see men, only slightly hurt, eager for slaughter, thirsting for blood, as if they could never make their enemy suffer enough?’ (Against Faustus 19.25).

The relevance of this final point hardly needs stating. Yet its theological grounding does bear some thought. In the celebrated Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine repeatedly makes it clear that even if it is a peace that merely shadows the peace of the heavenly city, nevertheless the city of man does seek a kind of peace, a peace that the Church respects and supports. No matter how perverted, all things participate to some degree in the essential order of things, otherwise they could not exist at all. And therefore no one’s vice is so great that it destroys utterly the nature in which it subsists. God created nothing evil. War then, not by its own nature but by the nature of those who wage it, is oriented toward some conception of peace and order. Those who make war have their reasons.

For this reason Augustine was able to preach a sermon in which he must have startled his congregation by pointing out that it is love that enables a terrorist to withstand torture rather than give up his associates. Not the supreme good to be sure, but it is some good that the terrorist seeks. This gives us a reason to take terrorists seriously as political communities and to seek rational political communication with them – using unacknowledged back channels if necessary, even when waging war against them. Even a band of robbers agrees as to the objects of its love. Perhaps the ancient Bishop might have found some humour in the fact that Gerry Adams once asked 10 Downing Street to help him draft a speech in reply to one given by the Prime Minister; obviously they didn’t agree with him, but the Sinn Féin leader knew that they surely understood him. Quoting Seneca, Augustine wrote in one of his letters, ‘He who hates bad men hates all men’. They are to be loved just so that they not continue to be bad.

By turns deeply suspicious of all ideologies of empire, including Christian pretensions in this direction; skeptical of utopian programs; decidedly unsentimental about the prospects for happiness in this life, St. Augustine was nevertheless committed to a politics of love and justice. He is not easy to classify. Consequently he has for centuries been a source of inspiration for those who have turned away from worldly affairs to pursue the life of the mind and spirit while others have turned to him either as the first of the great conservative realists in search of a sustainable politics of order or as the father of western progressive liberalism. Nobody in the Christian tradition offers us greater resources for thinking through the issues presently confronting us.

[A version of this article first appeared in the Advent 2014 issue of the Anglican Planet under the title ‘Augustine Helps Us Grapple with War’ and is reprinted with their permission.]