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Religion and Society

Augustinian Thought on the State and Patriotism

"God bless America" /1. The account of the relationship between the city of God and the city of man at the centre of the great work by the Bishop of Ippona helps us to understand the special condition of American Christians after 11 September: the loyalty due to the state and the absolute desire for peace, the ultimate end and the "lesser good", the democratic system and the role of religion.

The question of loyalty to the government of the United States, particularly after September 11, 2001, is not a theoretical issue for me.1 For example, a friend wrote me in response to my critical appraisal of the American reaction to September 11, 2001, asking if my refusal to identify with the "war on terrorism" did not require me to disdain all "natural loyalties" that bind us together as human beings. Does my refusal to be "patriotic" mean I am indifferent to the gifts I have received through those that have sacrificed their lives in the wars that have made America such a great country?

 

The problem is complicated for me because I am a pacifist. For pacifists, questions of allegiance to the nation are not as urgent as questions concerning the implications of our commitment to nonviolence for our relation to those closest to us.

 

The challenge before those committed to Christian nonviolence, however, is not peculiar to them because they are pacifist. Rather, pacifism represents the tension between church and world that is inherent in Christian practice. Nowhere is that tension better seen than in the account Augustine gives in The City of God of the relation between the city of God and the city of man. That I call attention to Augustine may seem quite odd, given the assumption by many that he represents the defense of the Christian use of violence. I will use Robert Wilken's account of Augustine's understanding of the Christian responsibility for the earthly city in his book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. I do so because Wilken certainly cannot be counted as someone tempted to identify with Christian nonviolence; but his careful display of Augustine's understanding of the two cities and their relation I believe not only to be the "real" Augustine, but I hope to show Wilken's account of Augustine helps Christians discern our peculiar situation in America.

 

Wilken argues if we are rightly to understand Augustine, we must begin by noting that though Augustine never identifies the city of God with the church, it is nonetheless the case that for Augustine the church must be a "community that occupies space and exists in time, an ordered, purposeful gathering of human beings with a distinctive way of life, institutions, laws, beliefs, memory, and form of worship."2 If you lose this sense of the church in Augustine it is too easy to turn Augustine into an apologist for the liberal regimes that provide a place for the church only to the extent the church is willing to accept its relegation to the "private."

 

Wilken argues that in order to understand the relation between the two cities, we must see the significance of Augustine's contention that peace is the end for the city of man as well as the city of God. "The peace for which the city of God yearns is a 'perfectly ordered and harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God.'"3 Such a peace is possible for the church because the church is constituted by right worship, that is, where true sacrifices are made to the One alone worthy of such sacrifices. Accordingly the greatest gift the church gives to the worlds in which she finds herself is a glimpse of what the peace of God looks like. Without the church, Augustine doubts whether the politics of the city of man even deserves the description "politics." Augustine says,

 

 

It is we ourselves we, his City who are his best, his most glorious sacrifice. The mystic symbol of this sacrifice we celebrate in our oblations, familiar to the faithful. [...] It follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient City according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system of subordination; so that just as the individual righteous man lives on the basis of faith which is active in love, so the association, or people, of righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love, the love with which a man loves God as God ought to be loved, and loves his neighbor as himself. But where this justice does not exist, there is certainly no "association of men united by a common sense of right and by a community of interest." Therefore there is no commonwealth; for where there is no "people," there is no "weal of the people."4

 

 

Peace, the telos of any city, is not to be had short of the true worship of the true God. Yet Wilken quite rightly calls our attention to Augustine's contention that Christians must try to achieve the peace of the city of man, imperfect as it is. Augustine goes so far as to suggest that the Christian may find he must take on the office of the judge. The office of the judge, moreover, may require the torture of innocent people in order to determine guilt or innocence.5 Wilken notes that the fact that Augustine could consider that Christians might be judges, a thought Origin could not even entertain, may well have depended on Constantine's legalization of Christianity. Yet whatever advantages may have come to the church through the Constantinian settlement, those advantages did not tempt Augustine to be any less insistent that the only true peace to be found in this life would be found in the church.6

 

Accordingly, Wilken's account of Augustine's understanding of the relation between the two cities is quite different than that made so prominent by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr argued that in this time before the end time - when we cannot distinguish between the cities given their mixed character - Christians must take up the work of the earthly city in order to achieve the lesser good.7 Yet what a Niebuhrian account ignores is Augustine's view that the church provides the context for Christian discernment about the Christian role in the earthly cities. To be sure, citizens of the city of God must "make use of earthly and temporal things," but it is equally true that "the customs and practices of society can be embraced as long as they do not misshape the souls of the faithful or detract them from their ultimate goal of fellowship with God and with one another."8

 

 

Patriotism as a Virtue

 

Augustine says the Heavenly City, the City on Pilgrimage in this world, calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens speaking all languages. Accordingly she takes no account of any differences in customs, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved. She does not annul or abolish any of these customs or institutions just to the extent they provide for earthly peace unless (and this is the unless that Niebuhrian interpreters of Augustine so often ignore) these institutions are a hindrance "to the religion which teaches that the one supreme and true God is to be worshiped."9 Wilken observes that Augustine supports this unexpected sentence a few paragraphs later by citing Exodus 22:20, "Whoever sacrifices to any god save to the Lord alone will be destroyed."

 

Augustine does not "solve" the problem of how Christians are to negotiate their divided loyalties. Rather Augustine creates the problem of how Christians are to negotiate the worlds in which we find ourselves. Yet Augustine does provide an account of how such a negotiation is to be undertaken. He does so, according to Wilken, not, as if often assumed, by offering a theory of political life. Rather Augustine:

 

Shows that God can never be relegated to the periphery of a society's life. That is why the book (The City of God) discusses two cities. He wants to draw a contrast between the life of the city of god, a life that is centered on God and genuinely social, and life that is centered on itself. Augustine wished to redefine the realm of the public to make place for the spiritual, for God. As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has observed, The City of God is a book about the "optimal form of corporate human life" in light of its "last end." In Augustine's view, "it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically political. The opposition is not between public and private, church and world, but between political virtue and political vice. At the end of the day, it is the secular order that will be shown to be 'atomistic' in its foundations." A society that has no place for God will disintegrate into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-aggrandizing interests that are destructive of the commonweal. In the end it will be enveloped in darkness.10

 

 

But what does all this have to do with the question of divided allegiance for Christians in that state called the United States? At the very least it reminds Christians in fact we have a divided allegiance. For surely one of the great betrayals of Christians in America to America is confusing America with the Kingdom of God. Christians have done so because we assume that America is a democracy and democracies are less coercive than other forms of political organization. Allegedly democracies are the limited form of government that some claim is incipiently present in Augustine's understanding of the two cities. So Christians now assume that democracies can ask us to make sacrifices that are unproblematic because they are uncoerced sacrifices. I do not think you need to be a pacifist to think there are problems about such an assumption. Augustine gives you all you need to recognize that the sacrificial system called democracy remains for Christians problematic just to the extent we fail to recognize that America names a sacrificial system.

 

In an article entitled "Is Patriotism A Virtue?" Alasdair MacIntyre observes that there is a deep tension between the dominant account of morality in our culture and patriotism.11 In order to act morally we believe the agent must as far as possible assume a position abstracted from all social particularity and partiality. My way to put this understanding of morality is to point out that we believe you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. We call this "freedom." The primary expression of such freedom is to be found in the assumption that we should not be held responsible for decisions we made when we did not know what we were doing. The only problem with this view of the moral life is it makes marriage and the having of children unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised life-long monogamous fidelity? Moreover, you will never get the children you want.

 

According to MacIntyre, patriotism is constituted by a alterative moral perspective. Patriotism "requires me to regard such contingent social facts as where I was born and what government that ruled over that place at that time, who my parents were and so on, as deciding for me the question of what virtuous action is at least insofar as it is the virtue of patriotism that is in question. Hence, the moral standpoint and the patriotic standpoint are systematically incompatible.12 It is, therefore, the central contention of a morality of patriotism that a crucial dimension of my ability to live well is lost "if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country."13 MacIntyre observes that liberal social orders, such as the United States, cannot help but regard patriotism so understood as morally problematic. Liberal social orders and the corresponding accounts of moral rationality require me to assume that I act morally not as a parent, farmer, or American, but only when the principles of my action can be justified by my assumed status as a rational agent qua rational agent. America names that peculiar country in which the cause of America, understood in the language of patriotism, and the cause of morality, understood in liberal terms, came to be identified. MacIntyre observes that the history of this identification could not help but be the history of confusion and incoherence. "For a morality of particularist ties and solidarities has been conflated with a morality of universal, impersonal, and impartial principles in a way that can never be carried through without incoherence."14

 

More troubling (at least for me) than incoherence is such a conflation of patriotism and liberal universalism cannot help but result in violence a violence all the more virulent because our violence allegedly is not self-interested, but rather perpetrated in the name of ideals allegedly all people share. Young people in American armed forces may think they are serving in the military as part of their obligations to their families and local communities; but in fact those parochial loyalties are being used in the interest of an empire that lacks the means to acknowledge it is just that, an empire. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia was fueled by hatreds harbored for centuries, but at least people in Yugoslavia did not kill one another in the name of a universal cause.

 

 

American Universalism?

 

The ongoing war in Iraq is an obvious example of American arrogance cloaked in the pretensions of a universal cause. In many ways it would be a moral advance to attack Iraq because America needs and wants their oil. But Americans cannot go to war out of self-interest. We can only go to war for American ideals of freedom and democracy which makes it all the more difficult to conduct war in accordance with just war commitments. The higher the ideals invoked to justify a war, the more difficult it is to keep war limited. For example, now that Iraq has been defeated, we now think "we," that is, Americans, must make Iraq a democracy. On what possible grounds can that assumption be justified? What could it possibly mean for Iraq to institutionalize a separation between church and state? Islam has no idea it is a church or a religion. To ask an Islamic society to "privatize" religion is to ask Muslims to be something else than Muslims.

 

The incoherence MacIntyre suggests is at the heart of the American project makes it impossible for Christians to be American patriots. Christians, certainly Catholic Christians, cannot and do not believe that America represents what is truly universal.15 The Christian word for universal is catholic. Moreover the universal church is not constituted by ideals such as freedom, but rather for Christians universal names the connection across time and space between real people united by a common story. The office of the church that holds the particular responsibility for sustaining our unity is called "bishop." That office, moreover, is only intelligible to the extent the bishop helps diverse Eucharistic assemblies to share their stories with one another so that the church becomes the one mighty prayer for the world. Indeed, it is my view that the reason the our world thinks it has no alternative to war is the disunity between Christians.

 

Patriotism at least MacIntyre's understanding of patriotism can only be a possibility for Christians if we are determined by a more parochial loyalty than our loyalty to country or people. Christians by being Christian are not asked to deny being Ugandan, Texan or, even American. However, what it means to be Ugandan Christian and what it means to be an American Christian present quite different challenges. How those challenges are negotiated, though, requires that a church exists that is at once more parochial and, thereby, more determinative than what it might mean to be Ugandan or American. Christians in Uganda and America rightly want to be of service as a Ugandan or an American. But you have an indication that such service is in tension with our being Christian if it means being American takes priority to the unity forged between American Christians and Ugandan Christians by the church.

 

The forging of such connections is peace. That is why I find it odd for pacifists to be criticized for being politically irresponsible or disloyal. To be committed to Christian nonviolence should not prevent those so committed from trying, even in America, to make our relations with one another more just. I think, however, the way Christians committed to nonviolence as well as Christians not so committed best serve this land called America is by refusing to be recruits for the furtherance of America ideals. Let us rather be parochial people. For the only way we will be saved from the temptations to serve the universal ideologies of the empire is through the concrete relations which make our actual lives possible. The lives of the people who worship at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have first claim on me. Whatever loyalty that abstraction called the United States may have will need to be tested by the effect it has on what I owe to those that worship at Holy Family and how what I owe to them puts me in contact with Christians around the world.

 

 

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1. I normally do not make myself the subject of the papers I write, but I found it hard to avoid the first person perspective given the subject of this paper that is, the question concerning loyalty to America. There is something right about those that challenge my understanding of Christianity because they think it betrays what I owe to America.

 

 

2. Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought(New Haven, Yale University Press 2003), p. 191.

 

 

3. R. Wilken, p. 195.

 

 

4. Augustine, The City of God, XIX, 23, translated by Henry Bettenson, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 889-890.

 

 

5. Augustine, The City of God, XIX, 6, pp. 860. For Wilken's discussion of Augustine's account of the judge see The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, pp. 198-199.

 

 

6. Much is made of Augustine's use of the "power of the state" to suppress the Donatists, but in fact he opposed any use of capital punishment against the Donatists. In his biography of Augustine, Gary Wills calls attention to Augustine's letters to the Christian tribune, Marcellinus, that counseled patience in dealing with the Donatists. Gary Wills, Saint Augustine (New York, Viking, 1999), pp. 99-126.

 

 

7. Niebuhr's most developed account of Augustine's significance is his essay "Augustine's Political Realism," included in his book Christian Realism and Political Problems (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), pp. 119-247. Niebuhr argues that Augustine's realism can escape cynicism because he recognized "that the corruption of human freedom may make a behavior pattern universal without making it normative." (p. 130) That is, though self-love dominates the earthly city (and the church), it is still possible to achieve relative justice made possible by the demand of love.

 

 

8. R. Wilken, p. 203.

 

 

9. Augustine, The City of God, XIX, 17, p. p. 878

 

 

10. R. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 208.

 

 

11. Alasdair MacIntyre, "Is Patriotism a Virtue?" in Theorizing Citizenship, edited by Ronald Beiner (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 209-228.

 

 

12. MacIntyre, p. 212.

 

 

13. MacIntyre, p. 224.

 

 

14. MacIntyre, p. 228. This situation is even more complex than MacIntyre's analysis suggests if the development of the modern state as the savior from religious wars is taken into account. That story goes something like this the development of the secular state was necessary to stop Christians from killing one another for being Protestant or Catholic. So the state is necessary to insure peace. The mechanism for insuring such a peace is the privatization of religion. The onlyproblem with this story is it is not true. As William Cavanaugh argues in his book Theopolitical Imagination (New York: Continuum Books, 2002): "The rise of a centralized bureaucratic state preceded these wars and was based on the fifteenth-century

 

assertion of civil dominance over the Church in France." (p. 29) Cavanaugh argues that with this development came a new understanding of "religion," namely, religion (which itself was given new meaning at this time) is understood as a "system of belief." This was necessary to insurethe unity of the state because now the local and particular must be subsumed under the alleged universalism of the state.

 

 

15. Political liberalism is not the primary engine that drives the universalist train. Capitalism is the most determinative practice that materially embodies the liberal drive to destroy what from a liberal point of view cannot help but appear as parochial. The American dollar is, therefore, the most determinative form of the universal. For a prescient analysis of the conflict between capitalism and Catholicism see Michael Budde, The Two Churches: Catholicism and Capitalism in the World System (Durham, Duke University Press, 1992.

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