The End of Secularism
- Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Without justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms? The band is itself made up of men, is ruled by the command of a leader, and is held together by a social pact. Plunder is divided in accordance with an agreed-upon law. If this evil increases by the inclusion of dissolute men to the extent that it takes over territory, establishes headquarters, occupies cities, and subdues peoples, it publicly assumes the title of kingdom! This title is manifestly conferred on it, not because greed has been removed, but because impunity has been added. A fitting and true response was once given to Alexander the Great by an apprehended pirate. When asked by the king what he thought he was doing by infesting the sea, he replied with noble insolence, "What do you think you are doing by infesting the whole world? Because I do it with one puny boat, I am called a pirate; because you do it with a great fleet, you are called an emperor."16
The Early Church and the Empire
For a state to reach out and subdue peoples who have not endangered it is little more than grand larceny.17 Great legends arise out of conquest, but Augustine viewed that path with contempt. In an unfallen world, no one would ever have servant status imposed upon him by another man.18 Man was not created to serve a state. And man was not created to serve another man under coercion.
Augustine's account of the pre-Christian state is definitely that of the glass half empty. In addition to being a robber band with better publicity, the state is something to be endured. Temporal life is training for eternal life,19 and one should not complain too much as long as he lives under a state that does not compel him to commit impieties during his short life.20
With the coming of Christ, however, the state could aspire to more. The government could, if led by servants of the Lord, seek true justice and thus form a real republic rather than continuing to exist as a noble veneer covering larceny. God placed the empire in Constantine's hands for the very purpose of proving that his people could rule rather than exist as a permanent protest movement. In fact, the event of continued Christian leadership would prove extraordinarily "felicitous" for the people of the republic.21
Socrates already had part of the puzzle. He realized good morals were required to purify the mind so that it might then grasp higher things.22 Taking on the mind of Christ is necessary to apprehend real justice upon which to found the republic; consequently, the Christian emperor should rule justly and remember he is human. He will use power for the greatest possible extension of the worship of God and he will fear and love God, be slow to punish and ready to pardon, punish for ends of government and not for his own hatred, and grant pardon in hope of correction. There is an important distinction to be made here where Augustine spoke of serving God. The old way was to serve God in the hope that he would grant dominance and power. The way of the Christian is to serve God through charity and caring. Finally, the Christian ruler will restrain extravagance as much as it might have been unrestrained by his predecessors.23 This is the picture of the city of God.
To the extent possible, the earthly city should seek to identify its destiny with that of the city of God. In this way it could rise above theft, coercion, and temporality to strive for an eternal destiny. The city of God recognizes that there can be no right to do anything unless it is done justly. There is no right that proceeds simply from strength. What Augustine declared was later echoed by Martin Luther King Jr. many centuries later, as he wrote from the Birmingham jail, that an unjust law is no law at all. He appealed implicitly to the city of God and explicitly to Augustine's claim that God's justice has little to do with martial superiority.24
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