War and Peace and the judgements of God

It was during the final year of my MPhil life that I decided to read War and Peace. I was frustrated by how long it was taking to finish off my research and I wanted a book that I would keep me company until the end. It’s was an epic read, much of it was very enjoyable, other bits mundane. But through it all Tolstoy weaves the lives of a small group of people into the macro events of 19th century Russia as they alternate between times of war and peace.  

In Book 3 of City of God Augustine takes up a similar challenge. He has dealt with “the evils which affect the character and the mind” in Book 2 and now turns to the “only evils dreaded by fools, namely physical and external disasters”. Thus in this book Augustine traces the often violent history of Rome since its foundation to modern times.  His purpose throughout is to discredit the claim that the most recent disasters are due to the abandonment of the pagan gods in favour of Christianity. How could this be, he asks, when the entire history of Rome is peppered with civil and federal wars – all of which occurred while these same gods were worshipped?

Before examining the historical events, Augustine begins with a note of exasperation. He asks his reader why it is that “the only things which evil men count as evil are those which do not make men evil? (3.1)”. He ironically observes that men “are more disgusted by a bad house than by a bad life” – they are more concerned with their possessions than their characters. Nevertheless, Augustine takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of the Roman Empire to show how inconsistent their own gods have been in their protection.

So here’s a history of War and Peace in ancient Rome…

  1. War: The destruction of Troy. Augustine explains the founding of Rome through the destruction of Troy, but then he asks “why was it (ie Troy) defeated by the Greeks when it had the same gods as the Greeks?” The explanation according to his opponents, is that Priam, the king of Troy, paid the penalty for perjury of Laomedon, his father. Moreover, the gods were incensed at the adultery of Paris and abandoned Troy. But, Augustine argues, the gods do not punish adultery among the gods, or fratricide, upon which Rome was founded. Augustine asks “what benefit can they bring Rome when they failed to protect Troy?”
  2. Peace: The rule of Numa Pompilius. Numa succeeded Romulus, the founder of Rome and enjoyed a time of peace. However, this time of peace was not associated with worship of the gods as the sacred rites which required their worship were not established yet. Interestingly, Augustine asks whether wars are inherently necessary to prove Rome’s greatness or were they merely a result of aggressive neighbours?
  3. War: with Alba during the time of the kings of Rome.
  4. War: during the time of the consulship and the conflict between Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius, when Brutus killed his own wife and sons because of their conspiracy to restore Tarquin.
  5. War: the Punic Wars fought against Carthage, the other superpower of the day.
  6. War: the siege of Saguntum (219BC), initiating the Second Punic War, because of their affiliation with Rome and yet the Roman gods gave no assistance to this city that had trusted in them.
  7. War: the massacre of Romans by Mithridates, king of Asia.
  8. War: the Civil Wars (88-82 BC), initiated by well-meaning Gracchi who wanted to redistribute  the land wrongly possessed by the nobles but turned into a blood-bath by Marius and Sulla.
  9. War: the Servile War (73-71 BC), started by a handful of gladiators – notably led by Spartacus.

It is easy to see that there was more War than Peace, but both were equally dangerous for the opponents of those in power. For “Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize. For the men whom War cut down were bearing arms; Peace slaughtered the defenceless.”

Augustine’s opponents claimed that “the reason for the worship of these gods, the reason why their worship is demanded, is to safeguard men’s felicity in respect of things perishable and impermanent”‘. But if that is the case, and it is really true that Rome was protected by their gods – why were those who had pledged allegiance to Rome not protected? As he states emphatically “what folly to believe that Rome did not perish beneath a conquering Hannibal because of the protection of the gods who had no power to save Saguntum from perishing as a reward for its friendship with Rome”!

The key question that this chapter raises is: How do we relate the events of history to the judgement of God? Augustine is arguing against the wrong assumption that the gods (with a small g) were punishing Rome for abandoning them in preference for Christianity. He strongly argues that no clear parallel between war and peace and the object of a nation’s worship can be drawn. Switching Augustine’s argument round the other way and applying it to today – surely this means we need to be really careful about pronouncing doom and gloom from specific events of war and peace.

In many ways we in the West face a mirror situation to that of Rome. The West has turned its back on the Christian God, is God now punishing it for its unfaithfulness? The message from Augustine is to be careful ascribing specific events as a judgement from God. There have been many preachers willing to ascribe the rise of AIDS, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the global banking collapse and many other events to the judgement of God. These grab the media headlines for a few days but is there any real substance behind them, other than personal opinion?

The lesson for ancient Israel was that it should learn lessons from the defeats in battle. When Israel was faithful it could expect the help of the Lord in fighting against their enemies, when they were unfaithful they were quickly subdued. There was a clear relationship for ancient Israel in this area. In fact this was the error of Sennacherib (repeated by the New Atheists today), for in his taunting of Hezekiah he recognised no difference between the God of Israel and all the other gods of the nations he had defeated (2 Kings 18.33-35). There was no such God who could protect his people from such a powerful army. But he was wrong, and he was soon defeated because of his insolence against Jehovah.

So, does this pattern carry forward for the Christian? The crusades provide ample evidence that some have believed that they do. However, does scripture support the view that “God is on our side”? The key point that needs to be understood to have a correct view of what makes something a judgement of God is whether there is an interpretation of the event. In the passage above in 2 Kings 18, Hezekiah prays to God and receives the word of the prophet Isaiah (2 Kings 19.20-34). The prophetic word provides the context for the action of God. Thus, in verse 35 when the angel of God killed 185,000 soldiers overnight, Sennacherib leaves in defeat the next morning. Interestingly, the converse is also true (and more common) – the prophets provide the explanation for the defeat and exile of the people of Israel through the ministry of Isaiah, Jeremiah and many others.

As someone who believes in the sufficiency of scripture, this means that events in our day may or may not be judgements from God. But we can never be sure without the prophetic word which no longer comes infallibly.  The facts that we can be sure of is that there is a final Day of Judgement coming when the justice of God will break forth in a final, complete,  fair way. We already have the interpretation for this coming event in the book of Revelation, and this is the judgement that is to be prepared for. We should spend less time retrofitting disasters into convenient “told you so” straplines and more time lovingly, patiently, compassionately warning of the ultimate judgement to come, where every thought will be exposed, every motive weighed and every action repaid.

“For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying “Peace and safety” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” 1 Thessalonians 5.2-3

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