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For several years I taught a class on St. Augustine’s classic book, the City of God. It is a weighty and sometimes impenetrable tome, and one I continue to struggle to understand. Though not widely read today, it remains one of the most enduring classics in the history of Western society and has, often unbeknownst to us, shaped our thinking in powerful ways.
Augustine began writing the City of God in the early 5th Century, after Rome was invaded and sacked by the Visigoths. The Romans, looking for a scapegoat for their military defeat, blamed the Christians. Augustine spent the next 14 years composing his response and in doing so gave a philosophical template for viewing the world that endures to the present day.
In one sense, the Romans were correct. The teachings of Jesus, they rightly understood, had very real consequences for the Roman army, increasingly populated by Christians. The commands if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39) and love your enemies (Matthew 5:44) were, in the minds of the Roman leaders, prescriptions for military disaster.
How can you defend an empire against its enemies with such a philosophy? And did the presence of Christians in the Roman army, cognizant of those commands, weaken the military to the point that it was possible for the invading Visigoths to topple Rome?
Of all the words of Jesus, there are none that cause more consternation and difficulty than these. Even the most staunchly Biblical literalist suddenly becomes less literal when dealing with these words. How does one live out such challenging commands? And how does a nation, shaped in so many ways by the words of Jesus, take into consideration these particular words when military action is considered?
How do you build a foreign policy on the idea of loving your enemies? How do you defend a country by turning the other cheek?
In the present days of saber-rattling, these words of Jesus lurk always in the background of conversations about military action. In our nation, so powerfully shaped by the Christian ethic, we find ourselves once again in a position of a possible action that is in opposition to the most fundamental part of that ethic.
This is precisely the point where we find the conflict between America the military superpower and any idea that America is, by policy, a Christian nation. It is a function of government to sometimes wield the sword, but it is not possible to wield the sword in the name of Jesus, because that is a refutation of his most challenging and central command – the love of one’s enemy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian, writes powerfully of this call to love our enemies in his essay Love and Forgiveness as Pointers to God, which comes from his classic book The Cost of Discipleship.
Bonhoeffer writes, “Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy? Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies? Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all (Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, edited by Francis S. Collins, p. 245).”
Bonhoeffer was, ironically, a living embodiment of the struggle to live out his own words and those of Jesus. Convicted as a coconspirator in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945, his death sentence ordered personally by Hitler.
Which leads us back to Augustine and his own struggle to make sense of how to wield love in a world that prefers to wield the sword. Perhaps this is what led Augustine to help solidify another idea that became firmly entrenched in the Western world – the idea of original sin, and the conflict of good and evil within each person.
In spite of our best efforts to be people of love, we are sometimes people of hatred and violence. Judging by history, that’s not likely to change any time soon, unfortunately.
Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.