A Roman Empire State of Mind

Are you proud of your home city? What about your capital city or country? As someone who was born in Bradford and lived all my life in the UK, its hard to imagine what true patriotism feels like. The closest I get is my feelings for my homeland of Yorkshire, (but unfortunately, rumours of a referendum on independence are completely unfounded!). So it’s hard for me not to be cynical when you see others being effusive about their home city. I love the uplifting sentiments and soaring chorus line of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind – a song about her beloved New York. But I can’t help feeling this is the exception in the cynical and apathetic world we live in.

So I ask myself:

  • What would it be like to be so passionate about your national identify that you were as devoted to it as much as we are our football clubs or celebrities?
  • What if you loved your home city so much it was the dominant element in your identity?
  • What if the values that had shaped the formation of your nation also united the nation’s people?
  • What if those same values had driven the conquest of all other nations and had brought great wealth and glory to your nation?

Well, then you would have a tiny inkling of what it was like to be a Roman citizen.

For those of us in the West I think it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to admire and even idolise your capital city and nation. We are so full of cynicism that its hard to imagine people ever being so naive. But this was the wonder and beauty of Rome – that although it had its fair share of problems, it was loved, really loved, by its people. More than a logistical head of an empire – Rome was a dream.

But then what would happen if that dream was shattered? How strong would be the emotional outpouring when it was finally crushed and the city was sacked? Well this is exactly what happened in 410AD. As the Romans were looking around for explanations for this disaster, some pointed the finger of blame at the Christians. It was in response to this criticism that Augustine wrote the City of God and in Book 1 he attacks these criticisms head on. 

Augustine helpfully summarises the focus of Book 1 at the start of Book 2 “the first duty that presented itself was to reply to those who hold the Christian religion responsible for the wars with which the whole world is tormented, and in particular the recent sack of Rome by the Barbarians.” He goes on to say that his opponents ascribe the defeat to the Christian’s prohibition of “the offering of abominable sacrifices to demons”. 

He begins his defence by looking at the remarkable restraint that the Barbarians demonstrated in sparing many of those who took refuge in the tombs of the Christian martyrs. He seeks to highlight the ungratefulness of those that were saved from death by their momentary association with the protection offered by the name of Christ, who moments later were vocal opponents of the very faith that had rescued them. This all happened while many Christians were tortured and killed. In response to these injustices, he asks the questions: “why did these divine blessings extend also to the godless and the ungrateful? And why did the hardships inflicted by the enemy fall alike on the godless and godly?”

Thus, the start of Book 1 seeks to understand the cause and effect relationship between religious worship and temporal blessings. If it is true that gods are to be worshiped for blessings in this life only and there is a causative connection between the two, then there could be some ground for complaint. However, as Augustine demonstrates, Rome’s pagan gods had been unable to prevent past defeats when they had been worshiped as the national religion. He then explains, that although there is no direct connection between the two, there is an indirect undercurrent at work. He explains that there is a purpose in suffering – both for the righteous and the wicked. For the righteous God uses suffering to purify their desires and refine their character, while for the wicked he uses it to judge their behaviour. He explains it with the analogy of fire: “the fire which makes the gold shine makes chaff smoke” (1.8).

Augustine then address some of the practical pastoral issues that such suffering produces – what about Christians who were not buried? What about Christian women who were raped? What about those who committed suicide because of the shame of their assault? These were pressing issues of his day and he seeks to answer the issues they raise. Regarding the issues of burial, he says that based on Matthew 10.28  those who cannot kill the soul can do nothing with a dead body that can threaten the resurrection.

With regard to rape, Augustine seeks to comfort those who have suffered under this terrible violation with the thought that chastity and purity is something that cannot be taken away without our consent. He uses the example from popular culture of Lucretia’s suicide to illustrate that the Romans believed it was possible to remain innocent and yet be violated in this way. However, he cannot agree with her suicide as the right response for he sees this as an unnecessary reaction to perceived immortality. He quotes a saying of the time that “there were two people involved and only one committed adultery” (1.19). Hence, he sees this as murdering an innocent person – themselves! For if the person really is innocent of immorality then what right have they to murder themselves and commit such a sin.

He then asks if suicide can ever be a noble act of self-sacrifice to avoid being defiled. Augustine argues that one sin should not be avoided by committing another – particularly if committing an actual sin to avoid a potential sin. He takes this to its logical extreme and says that if we really wanted to avoid all potential sin we should commit suicide straight after being saved. For at this point we can avoid all future sin and ensure that we have been cleansed of all sin. By using this extreme example he shows how absurd this train of thinking is. True greatness, he argues, is a “spirit that has the strength to endure a life of misery instead of running away from it” (1.22). He does add the caveat that in some exceptional circumstances (e.g. Samson’s suicide) God may directly proscribe a particular act that in normal circumstances would be disallowed.

In the final few chapters he returns to the issue that he began with and says that the real reason the anti-Christians complain is because they want to return to their indulgent and indolent past. He paints a vivid picture of pagan hedonism that was mediated through the plays and actors of ancient Rome. Actors that were, apparently, producing degraded plays at the request of these pagan gods. He concludes that a further use of temporal judgements is to curb our lusts by fear of punishment. He rebukes their inconsistency when “you refuse to be held responsible for the evil that you do, while you hold the Christian era responsible for the evil which you suffer” (1.33).

Response

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking first book from Augustine. I agree with his basic argument about the difficulty of attributing cause and effect between temporal events and the worship of false gods or even the true God. For it is only when God speaks into his creation (either in prophecy or interpretation) to explain the purpose of a particular event that we can be certain of his intention. It would be difficult to argue for the truthfulness of Israel’s God if military victories were the only criteria we had to go on. Many times Israel was routed before its enemies – most often because of their unfaithfulness. But to an outside observer, such as the Assyrians attacking Judah in 2 Kings 18.31-35, it seemed that Israel was like any other nation. Only the interpretation of the prophets provides the context for the various judgements on the nation.

However, I found his view of rape to be too influenced by Greek thought, who regarded the body (flesh) as evil and the spirit (soul) pure. Hence he thinks that what happens to one can be isolated from the other – the body can be defiled while mind and spirit remains pure. I struggle to share this view as I see the body inextricable connected to spirit so that what defiles one defiles the other. Finally, I didn’t share all his comments on suicide. However, it did remind me of the current debate on assisted suicide in the UK and his encouragement to take the nobler path of enduring difficulties rather than taking the drastic but immediate way out is a timely reminder of the virtue of perseverance.

Father, help me to see you are guiding the current of my life, but not need an explanation for every breaking wave. I seek you and know that you are shaping my life, through the good and hard times. Help me to be content with knowing the destination, without questionning the purpose of each trial that leads me to you. I trust in you Lord, grant me perserverance to endure to the end, Amen

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11 responses to “A Roman Empire State of Mind

  1. Hi Martyn!

    Do you remember what hefty tome I was working my way through when we were in Estonia? I’d be interested in your thoughts on civitas dei. btw – I’ve just finished Peter Brown’s biography on the great man. Fascinating in that Augustine’s thought evolved quite slowly and that his conversion didn’t change his thinking overnight – by any means. In fact, he was pretty much beholden to Greek philosphy for a long time and Brown more than suggests the alleorical method all his life. Still, he told Pelagius!

  2. I’ll not promise to read all your Augustine posts (busy!) but I’ll chuck in my 2 pennies if you wish…Hey, have you followed any of the Elephant Room T.D. Jakes kerfuffle (speaking of Augustine the great Trinitarian…)?

    God bless brother,

    Jim

  3. PS – I noted the word Carnoustie on your tweets… I used to go to Carnoustie a bit. My grandparents moved there and have fond memories of 38 Lochend Rd where they used to live so my grandad could play his beloved game. Hope it went well.

  4. re. TD Jakes: I always listen to the dividing line with james White – excellent coverage of the Jakes thing. White addresses the things I’m interested in: reaching Muslims, Reformed theology, apologetics and theology. Highly recommended.

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