My rule of thumb was always to believe that unless one could definitively prove that such-and-such a political stance was clearly what Jesus and the Church has consistently taught, a clergy member had to be very careful about taking modern political sides in a debate. I think if Jesus walked into the halls of Washington or any State court house or legislature right now, he would not have particularly good things to say to either political party. Christianity can exist within and assist any number of political systems from totalitarian kings to democracies. Some systems are more compatible with the tenets of Christian conscience and freedom than others, but no man made system is perfect.
This is one of those realms in which I can never escape the shadow of St. Augustine, nor do I really want to try. I was very much influenced as a younger man studying political science by his De Civitate Dei, usually rendered in English as The City of God. This work is a seminal political treatise greatly influenced by Platonic thought. I think I was more influenced by that work that any other political science treatise I ever read in college. Being a Platonist at heart because I have read way too much of the Patristic fathers, I still greatly appreciate the dichotomy that Augustine sets up in the City of God because it directly deals with the fallibility of all man-made political systems.
I love the work because it is so analogous to the current political scene in America. St. Augustine goes to great lengths to parse the myriad of ways that Christianity in his time was being forced to relate to and deal with other philosophies and religions as well as Christianity’s increasingly complex and intertwined relationship with the Roman Empire. (Sound familiar?)
This is where I usually grit my teeth at how the title of St. Augustine’s work, De Civitate Dei, is often rendered into English. On one level, “city” is correct, but that is very flat in modern English. Usually a city is defined in everyday English as a simple geographical place, a large or important town.
Occasionally you still hear someone, usually a newscaster, refer to “a city mourning the loss of so-and-so.” In that sense, a city is more than a place; it is a collective group of people or citizens. Citizens comprise a city as part of an organic whole. This comes from the term civitas that can mean the abstract philosophical construct of “citizenship” but in the concrete means “a union of citizens, state, commonwealth; the inhabitants of a city, townsfolk; (rarely) a city, town.” (Notre Dame Latin dictionary.) In Roman thought, the fact that people come together to live in a governed and civilized society is what differentiates a city (civitas) from the wilderness where crazy men and wild beasts live in anarchy. This American notion of the rugged individual living out as one with nature is literally unthinkable to the Roman mind. So, when St. Augustine talks about the City of Man or the City of God, he means the whole community of citizens, not the geographical city as an abstract entity unto itself.
At the time of the writing of City of God, the supposedly impregnable and great City of Rome in the greatest Empire the world had ever seen had been sacked by the Visigoths. This is likely not dissimilar to what many Americans felt after 9/11: how could this happen to the mighty USA? Many in Rome at that time saw this as punishment for abandoning traditional Roman civic religion in favor of Catholic Christianity. Augustine was writing to reassure Christians that even if the Empire crumbled, the City of God would ultimately triumph. (Also sounds familiar in the modern context, does it not?)
Augustine warns that, in essence, Christians should not put all their political eggs in the one political basket of any man-made political government, even the Roman Empire. Empires and nationals rise and fall, but even though Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, Christians should not listen to that siren call of indispensable self-importance to the State. Christianity’s main duty was to look to the City of God, the New Jerusalem, rather than believe that somehow the earthly City of Man could ever truly save them or create the perfect, Christian utopia. Augustine basically asserts that only God can accomplish that restoration of all things unto Himself, and then only in His good time.
Now that I no longer have to be so judicious about hiding my personal political opinions lest I lose a soul, I feel a bit freer to speak on political matters. I still hate talking politics with most people because no one can seem to have a conversation about anything political anymore without going from zero to screaming hissy fit in three seconds. I think Facebook and the internet only exacerbate this modern American tendency.
In my new job, I have gained a new appreciation for the healthcare field and the problems of insurance and such in the modern American world. It is a very complex problem that I have found a lot of clergy like to wag their fingers at, as if any President or political system can simply pass a bill and wave a magic wand and solve all the health care issues.
I intend to make a series of posts in the next few weeks mapping out some of the moral and ethical difficulties that face both governments and medical practitioners in the current healthcare system, as well as some issues that face Christianity in the 21st century. I doubt I will be offer to any huge miracle solutions to the vexing problems, but I hope to at least make some observations that both sides of the healthcare reform and other Christian insiders debates I do not believe take into account when discussing such matters.
Perhaps this is a fool’s errand, but it is my blog after all. If any of my thoughts help people think through the issues, it has served its purpose. I think Augustine has some things of relevance to say on these issues.