Sunday, June 28, 2015

City of God, or City of Man?

Ever since the Supreme Court handed down its verdict on gay marriage, a thought, or more precisely a collection of thoughts have been bouncing around the vast empty spaces inside my head. Then I had a text conversation with my son yesterday afternoon. He mentioned that in the sermon he heard at Christ Church Episcopal in Nashville, the priest had mentioned Augustine's great work, The City of God. It occurred to me that the thoughts banging around up there weren't all that original, since they had much in common with the ramblings of an Algerian philosopher from the 5th century! I suppose that there's nothing new under the sun, but here's what I've been thinking about.

Perhaps, the nine black-robed justices have done American Christianity a huge favor. Maybe now, having been disabused of any notion that evangelical Christianity enjoys majority support in this country, the church can be decoupled from politics in general and the Republican Party in particular. Maybe now, Christians will get back to the real work of Christianity which is the betterment of mankind through the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I come from a faith background which has always closely identified itself with our country and mostly conservative politics. Although it was rarely if ever said publically, the clear implication was always that Christians were, or at least ought to be, conservative Republicans. Some of this was a result of the fact that generally speaking, Republicans tended to be pro life and Democrats pro choice. Most of the devout Christians who I have known in my life have been consistently against abortion, viewing it as the taking of a human life. Although, I agree with them about abortion, I have never been a one issue voter. I have always been persuaded that choosing a political leader is a terrible mess of a thing that requires a million trade offs and that the man or woman you ultimately choose will be part saint and part sinner. So I always felt that closely associating your church with one side of the political divide in an overwhelmingly divided country made little sense and in fact was bad for business.

Now that we Christians have come to the realization that our views, by and large, are out of favor and we are no longer the dominant fashion of thought in this country, we can all now take a step back from political activism, in favor of delivering salt and light, the roll that Jesus invisioned for his disciples. As exiles from the dominant culture we will be better able to identify with other marginalized segments of society...in other words, the kind of people who Jesus hung out with. Perhaps now that we realize that we can't create the utopian (American) city of man, we will concentrate on the City of God. Which brings us to Augustine.

Now, I'm no Augustinian scholar,(actually I'm not any kind of scholar), and I don't claim that I have read all twenty five books that make up his seminal work. I'm more like a guy who had to read the Cliff Notes version for a paper I wrote my sophomore year at UofR. But, I remember the big stuff. After the Roman Empire was overrun by barbarians at the beginning of the 5th century, the early Christians were getting the blame from many Romans who thought that ever since Constantine had established the new sect as the official religion of the Empire, things had gone downhill. Enter Augustine, with City of God, a full-throated defense of the faith, and it's many contributions to society. But for Augustine, there was a difference between the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of God, and confusing one with the other would lead to trouble.

While my citizenship is American, in the mind of Augustine my first citizenship isn't secular, but sacred. When the power of the state finds itself aligned with the eternal truths of the faith, all benefit. But when the state runs afoul of God's laws, a separation must occur. One goes one way and one another. 

However, when the state and the church start to be seen as two sides of the same coin, both the state and the church are in trouble. The state becomes too powerful, and the church becomes impotent. There should always be a tension between the two. The goals of the modern nation-state often flow from base motives, the desire to exert power and dominion over smaller, weaker neighbors for example. If the church is seen by the world as part of the government, it will also come to be seen as equally base. Now that many Christians are waking up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, 
our salvation lies somewhere other than political power, we can once again be free to administer grace and comfort to a screwed up world in desperate need of both.

On the other hand, the church may respond to a culture that doesn't agree with them on gay marriage, by trying to mobilize those who do into some sort of crypto-religious-lobbying-influence peddling special interest group...exactly the sort of thing that our Lord and Savior would never have done. The battle for hearts and minds isn't fought in a committee. There are no precinct captains in charge of feeding the hungry, no district chairmen in charge of comforting the downtrodden. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a fully engaged citizen and taking part in political work, politics is a poor substitute for the gospel.