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Augustine and War: Reflections on September 11, 2001

Carter Aiken is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

“The actions of sinners … cannot obstruct the ‘great works of God, carefully designed to fulfill all his decisions'”(de civ, XIV, 27).

If the above statement from de civitate dei is true, then we must fundamentally re-think the relationship between ourselves and our neighbors, especially when they sin in such a way as to leave our earthly homes, our earthly ‘cities,’ in ruins. While we are tossed in the emotional tidal wave of the events of September 11th, it becomes difficult to focus a specifically Christian response to this singular event of being attacked. The relevance of reflective, speculative, or historical moral theology seems remote given these all too real events. Death on such a scale cannot help but bring us, in tears and prayers for mercy, to our knees before God. Anger and sadness are brought by these events to us all, some more than others. There are so few teachers to whom Christians might turn for instruction on how to bring our very human responses to redemption through the cross. Fortunately, as Catholics and Protestants, alike, we have a common bishop to whom we can defer; one well accustomed to dealing with the threatening of Christian lives, and the attendant human responses when those threats are realized. When voices begin to call for a violent strike against not only those who have committed violent crimes, but against even the children, women, and men in the cities surrounding those who harbor the perpetrators, we wish that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, were taking phone interviews. When Americans call in and ask “just how could God let this happen to our country?” (NPR interview, 9-15-01), we wish Augustine were here to tell us exactly how disordered were our concepts of the proper love of another human being, the proper response to enemies, and the notion of justice. Fortunately, we have de doctrina christiana and de civitate dei. These texts cover the magnitude and the capability of the prideful human in the earthly city, even if the circumstances prompting his discussion of these topics are somewhat different. In prompting Augustine to respond, through these texts, to the issues raised by recent events, we find that he not only speaks toward the disordered senses of love and justice, but the centrality of the sin of pride (perhaps the Sin of pride?) in the state of the human condition, the extent to which we are slaves to Sin and sins (rather than ‘free’ to commit evil acts), and the ability of the/an earthly city to twist the notion of virtuous behavior by way of pride.

One consistent way in which Augustine addresses the problem of dealing with those who aggress against you, or that persist in their sin, is in explicating the proper way to love the sinning neighbor. In de doct, Augustine refutes our predisposition to aggress against the sinner, as sinner. He begins, “No sinner, qua sinner, should be loved,” but then continues, “every human being, qua human being, should be loved on God’s account; and God should be loved for himself. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, each person should love God more than he loves himself” (de doctr 1.XXVII). For Augustine, as we encounter in his political writings, embracing the sinner wholesale is almost cruel, in that pedagogy and assistance in aiding the sinner to repent are not offered. Instead, he argues for a hatred of the sin, but a love of the sinner. Even more clearly in de civ, does Augustine bifurcate the sin from the sinner: “he should not hate the person because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the person. He should hate the fault, but love the man”(de civ, XIV, 6). While one can see the roots of this line of thought in Augustine’s notion of the goodness of creation, one can also see that his advice on the treatment of the sinner comes from his definition of the neighbor, and the centrality of the love command in his theology.

According to Augustine, “it is clear that we should understand by our neighbor the person to whom an act of compassion is due if he needs it or would be due if he needed it. It follows from this that a person from whom an act of compassion is due to us in our turn is also our neighbor”(de doctr 1.XXIX). There are few, if any, that do not fall into this category. Members of extremist terrorist groups certainly do. While Augustine preludes this argument with a paragraph which emphasizes the factor of proximity in neighbor love (that is, the only particularization one can exercise in neighbor love is not even those who are in one’s family, but those who are simply nearest), in the current state of globalization, one cannot easily dismiss any party with whom one may come into contact, world-wide, who is not to be the recipient of the kind of love with which we love ourselves, and all of the primacy which that entails. Even more poignant is the basis of love of the neighbor upon the love of the neighbor on God’s account. In de doctr, this emerges in two respects: we know that the enemy cannot truly strike at those whose greatest love is God, and that our highest wish is to bring our neighbor/enemy to the same state of happiness with which God has drawn us. These two theological moments are brought together as Augustine writes, “we also love our enemies. We do not fear them, for they cannot take away from us what we love, but we pity them, for they hate us all the more because they are separated from the one we love”(de doctr 1.XXIX). Non-love of God is that against which the Christian should struggle, not only because through love of God, love of neighbor is set straight, but also because separation from God is the root of sin.

Much of the failure in Christian public discourse with regard to this issue lies not only in failing to recognize the call to loving of the neighbor (and failing definitions thereof), but also in failure to define the actions committed by these neighbors. With increasing frequency do I hear American officials speak of the ‘evil people’ who committed this crime. ‘They fail to love democracy,’ they say; ‘they fail to love human life.’ Such words from people who are currently debating the possibility of a sustained air strike on countries full of the poor, the innocent, and the children, should seem profoundly obtuse. Augustine understands that all are sinners and, due to this fact, we are in bondage. ‘The freedom to do good or evil’ is an incorrect notion, for Augustine. Instead, through Jesus Christ, “the choice of will, then, is genuinely free when it is not subservient to faults and sins. God gave it that true freedom … can be restored only by him who had the power to give it at the beginning”(de civ, XIV, 11). Our only path to avoiding sin in response to aggression from another is in the one who can set us free from our bondage.

This changes the notion, then of the status of the sinner. She is no longer a product of evil for, as Augustine notes, “no one is evil by nature, but anyone who is evil is evil because of a perversion of nature”(de civ, XIV, 6), instead she is simply lost and in bondage. The members of this earthly city are, “blown away from their homeland by the adverse winds of their own perverted characters”(de doctr 1.VIII). The injury which needs attending is the extent to which humanity has been diverted by our disordered will, rather than the consequences in the context of an/the earthly city. Rather than focusing on the ways in which we can guard our precious national possessions, Augustine suggests, “if we wish to return to the homeland where we can be happy we must use this world, not enjoy it,… [but] to derive eternal and spiritual value from corporeal and temporal things”(de doctr 1.IV). In this context, the primary goal in dealing with the aggressor is not to restore what was destroyed, but to continue in resting on the hope of God in the path to the Heavenly City. The existence of the trials of this life are not in conflict with the pursuit of this pathway. Hence, in Augustine’s discussion of fortitude, “however great the wisdom with which she is accompanied, bears most unmistakable witness to the fact of human ills; for it is just those ills that she is compelled to bear with patient endurance”(de civ, XIX, 4). It would seem, then, that human ills, when properly regarded, can and should be seen as an opportunity to derive eternal and spiritual value from temporal things, by exhibiting the virtue of fortitude.

According to Augustine, “the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as the contempt of self” (de civ, XIV, 28). Since, for Augustine, one needs not a specific command to love the self (for as he writes, even the animals do the same), loving God so much that, by comparison, one regards one’s self as contemptible is a striking moment in Augustine’s theology. Moreover, it indicates another deep flaw in political and Christian responses to recent tragic events: a disordered sense of justice. A love of justice, for Augustine, is unique in that it is frequently tied with discussions of the proper order of nature. A love for justice is not in seeing a sinner getting his just punishment. Rather, it is the love for the proper ordering of the world according to God’s purposes. Augustine writes, “consider the virtue of justice. The function of justice is to assign to each his due; and hence there is established in man himself a certain just order of nature, by which the soul is subordinated to God, the body to the soul, and thus both body and soul are subordinated to God”(de civ, XIX, 4).

We cry with Augustine the words which directly follow the previous passage: “does not justice demonstrate … that she is still laboring at her task rather than resting after reaching its completion?”(de civ, XIX, 4). The goal with all of creation, with regard to the love of justice, is to see the human soul under the dominion of God, and the human body under the dominion of the human soul. ‘Bringing these evil-doers to justice,’ as our president has repeatedly said, should be, in Augustine’s theology, an exercise in outreach and correction, that God’s order might be recovered for those blown away from their homeland by the winds of their bondage to sin. Likewise, the love of justice should call us to exercise great care in any course of action. Love of the Heavenly City would prompt us to reconsider the possibility of retaliation, in that such acts can easily become (if not start in) a motivation bent on vengeance and conquering, and what Augustine refers to as the ‘lusts’ of anger and domination. In the context of such love, “obviously it is a happier lot to be a slave to a human being than to lust; and, in fact, the most pitiless domination that devastates the hearts of men, is that exercised by this very lust for domination”(de civ, XIX, 15). The enemy, for the Christian, is the tendency of all to be agents of this lust, by which our hearts are devastated.

While these factors certainly address the current national crisis, little calls this nation to introspection more effectively than the ways in which Augustine places the root and center of human sinfulness in the sin of pride. Quite simply, he holds that, “the fountainhead of all these evils is pride”(de civ, XIV, 3). The sin of pride, especially as discussed in Confessiones, is the root of the fall of original sin, and remains at the heart of all human sins: it is the desire to be God, and to have ultimate dominion over one’s God, one’s neighbor, and one’s world. Pride is glorying in the greatness of the self. I submit that this country has a great deal to learn about dealing with sinfulness (most especially its own) from this concept of pride as the fountainhead of sin.

What is particularly disturbing in reading Augustine’s treatment of the earthly city, and its tendency towards sins of pride, is the similarity with which we, as a country tend to bristle and be eager to glory in our greatness in response to crises. As Augustine holds, “the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord”(de civ, XIV, 28). Even further, “In [the earthly city], the lust for domination lords it over its princes as over the nations it subjugates … the one city loves its own strength shown by its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength”(de civ, XIV, 28). Our national penchant for violence and our mistaken notion that seeking God’s will, seeking justice through vengeance, and domination of the neighbor are all the same thing, has placed our country in the hands of the sin of pride. It becomes, then, love of ourselves and our life preferences that govern our action, and not love of God, justice, freedom through Jesus, or of the hope in God toward the Heavenly City. Thus, I fear, we may embody Augustine’s evaluation of a nation going to war which, “seeks to be victorious over other nations, though it is itself the slave of base passions”(de civ, XV, 4). May our God, who intercedes for us in the person of Jesus Christ, bring us through this difficult time to a place of redemption in which we encounter the fulfillment of the Law in the love of, and communion with, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 7, December 2001.