The time in which Saint Augustine lived was a tumultuous time of many changes. Vandal and Gothic tribes pillaged much of the Roman Empire; extremist Christian groups terrorized other Christian communities, and civil unrest raged across the Roman empire. By 700 AD, it was a whole new world: the Roman Empire had practically disappeared along with much of paganism in the West, and the Middle East and most of North Africa had become Muslim.
Saint Augustine’s works helped Christians transition from the fall of Rome into the medieval era. Augustine responded to Romans who felt lost through these chaotic times and who yearned to return to the peaceful times when the Roman empire was still pagan. Or so they remembered, because Augustine in recounting the history of Rome recalls that such peace was had at the cost of oppressing others. Yet rather than developing that line of thinking, Augustine instead proclaimed that our citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem is where we find ultimate identity and eternal peace.
In The City of God, Saint Augustine does not present a blind optimism, but rather a plan to construct a world based on the treasure trove of the experiences of God’s people in the scriptures and the early Church. By confessing Jesus as Lord, the early martyrs rejected Caesar as king and confessed that their citizenship was in heaven, and their king was Christ.
Augustine’s grand narrative of the City of God, starting from creation and stretching into the end times, provided a way for the Christians of late aniquity and early medieval times from many tribes and clans to become one people. It is the same for us today who struggle in societies where human migration allows for more diversity and more challenges of living interculturally.
In a polarized society, it is easy to justify our anger toward those who think differently as rightful indignation, and instead of availing ourselves to dialogue and building peace, we can place ourselves in the category of the ones who are “right,” and feel justified to separate ourselves, and judge others as evil.
As God’s people, we are as Jesus said, “in this world, but not of this world,” (John 17:14-16) and so we are in the words of St. Augustine “fellow pilgrims and sojourners” united by a common love of God and neighbor. Just as Saint Augustine pointed to love of God and neighbor as the ultimate unifying principle, we are called to speak up in the face of hate, and seek to be united by love of God first rather than nationalism or any other kind of political affiliation. This first allegiance to God can awaken us from any apathy to the injustice that others may experience because of their ethnicity or race, or any other trait that would differentiate them from whatever group we identify with.
Thanks for this timely reflection. Are there any pertinent passages in City of God that would help to illuminate the ideas expressed?
Some pertinent passages: Book 11, Chapter 1; Book 12, Chapter 6; Book 14, Chapter 1; Book 14, Chapter 28; Book 19, Chapter 17.