Original Sin. Lots of sin or sin in moderation; how one understands it (or not) and applies it to humanity (or not) is at the heart of Alan Ryan’s interpretation of Augustine’s “City of God”. Ryan’s undergirding focus in his book “On Augustine” is tethered to Augustine’s theology as it effects his views of political/ethical workings in society especially on the heels of the fall of Rome. Although Ryan doesn’t make obvious connections to modern crises in the Western world, he hopes the reader will hear echoes of Augustine. The shock waves of Augustine’s position on original sin, when applied to authority of government leadership and just war, are felt even today.
This reading is so mammoth and connected that it was hard to dissect into just one concept. The first thing to grab me was Augustine seemed to have a naive expectation that those in politics could remain grounded in God and therefore make judgements that are tethered to faithfulness….until the fall of Rome. Augustine functioned originally with a heart of forgiveness. But he came to believe that man having reason was not enough to make Godly decisions. I think there were many Christians who voted for Biden with this same naivete thinking; he is a “GOOD CATHOLIC”. But his rhetoric in August of the bombing at the airport in Afghanistan reveals that Christian reasoning is not a thing in politics. “We will not forget, we will not forgive. We will make you pay” is antithesis of Christ’s justice which is about restoration/reconciliation/shalom
Somehow mixed into the “Apologetic of Augustine” was how Augustine felt pushed into corner by the Donatists to proclaim that the character of the person leading the sacrament wasn’t important because the sacrament has efficacy in and of itself. It does beg the question when Christians consider political leaders, like Trump, how important is his character really? Isn’t what is important is the efficacy of his job; at least when considering values from an Augustinian lens? I’m not completely convinced Augustine’s argument although, I do believe sacrament is still holy no matter of my failings, but I also believe that the yoke I carry around my neck points me to strive for Christian character. I do think Jesus loves us where we are, in all of our failings, but also pulls us to a higher plane while forgiving and forgetting, restoring and reconciling.
One of the deeper threads of Augustine’s framework is his investment in “just war” and therefore the implications of “justice”, reach into the 21st century. He believed that the way to curtail humans inclination toward sinful behavior was through fear/guilt/shame. If one was afraid of the repercussions of an action, he/she would choose “good”. The hope was that fear would illicit habitual patterns of good behavior. There are a couple of issues that this philosophy of justice creates. Humans tendency is for self-protection and self-righteousness which show often that fear/guilt/shame do not work in pressing us in choosing our better selves. Coercion justice has led to retributive justice. Retributive justice is about the self feeling satisfied that another got what they deserved; “we will make you pay.” Retributive justice has lead to overflowing prisons and high recidivism. Augustine’s coercion justice does not concern itself with the healing of that which is broken within the offender nor the brokenness that occurs with the victim. Another problem with applying human justice through retribution and coercion is the distribution of power; the one in power gets to make the rules. As “original sin” makes obvious, humans crave power for ego’s sake. And Augustine believes that human sin keeps us from being rational. Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve” talks about how anxious communities are reactive to crises instead of responding; anxious communities struggle to be rational and where justice is needed, anxiety in crises is found. When I consider the events that led to the insurrection in DC on January 6th I saw Augustine’s coercion/retributive justice being lived out. The fact people rationalize and justify behaviors as “just” even in the name of Christ reveals how far reaching Augustine’s theophilosophy is.
The big SO what of all of this? As a pastor called to lead even in the shadows of what could be an impending fall of democracy, it’s important to understand the dynamics of human sin and how we got here.