By Obbie Todd
How does a follower of Jesus live in a country increasingly hostile to Christ? In an era when the sanctity of marriage and human life are no longer honored, it’s a question frequently posed by many God-fearing Americans. And believe it or not, it’s not the first time a Christian has posed that type of question. In fact the question is as old as Christianity itself. However, unlike first-century Christians, Americans come with built-in assumptions about religious liberty – assumptions that have started to fade in the last few months. And we owe these basic assumptions not only to Thomas Jefferson, but also to a Roman Emperor by the name of Constantine. 21st century Americans live in a post-313A.D. world. That’s the year that Christianity changed forever. It’s the year a piece of legislation known as the Edict of Milan announced that Christians were no longer enemies of the state.
Nearly 1700 years later, Western rulers aren’t burning Christians. They’re pleading for their votes at events like the Send North America Conference in Nashville, TN last week (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio). They’re announcing their presidential candidacy at Southern Baptist schools like Liberty University (Ted Cruz). Three Republican presidential candidates are actually professing Southern Baptists (Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham). Another is the son of a Southern Baptist deacon (Scott Walker). Yet another is an ordained Baptist minister (Mike Huckabee). So to be clear, things have changed. No matter how you assess the current American situation, we haven’t yet reached the Coliseum. Evangelicals have a voice, albeit a changing one. Nevertheless, there’s one thing that Constantine and Thomas Jefferson could never erase, something destined for every soul who calls upon the name of the Lord: persecution. Americans have received a sobering reminder of that fact.
In order to make sense of the present American situation, we’re called to look to the future. According to Russell Moore, “the first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize to the present, but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.” (Onward, 82) However, a dose of the past is also helpful. There’s a great cloud of witnesses testifying to an enduring, persecuted church. And many of the precious truths we need to navigate through hostile American culture are embedded in the experiences of those who have gone before us. Like Augustine of Hippo. He watched his own society crumble. But it wasn’t at the hands of liberals. They were called Goths. And in 410, they left the world capital in ruins.
Just a few years after the fall of Rome, Augustine began writing his twenty-second book, entitled City of God. He wouldn’t finish it for another 14 years. If you ever hold it in your hands, you’ll see why. Following Rome’s destruction, there was a persistent accusation leveled against the church that Christians had sapped the Empire of its strength and weakened its defenses. For the first time in its history, Rome had been conquered, and during the reign of a Christian emperor no less! As a result of these heavy pagan accusations, many feared that the fall of Rome would spell the fall of Christianity, as the ancient city had become its religious center. A Christian official in North Africa by the name of Marcellinus wrote to Augustine, strongly asking the theological giant to refute this charge. What ensued fourteen years later was the City of God, often considered Augustine’s magnum opus. How does a follower of Jesus live in a country increasingly hostile to Christ? It’s a question that Augustine tackled with a brilliant combination of theology, philosophy, politics, ethics, psychology, and a host of other sciences. It’s a question many Americans still need answered. For the sake of the modern church, the following is a short list of truths that Augustine delivered to a people grappling with their own brand of persecution. And for anyone whose ever had the time to read City of God, its relevance for Americans is unquestionable. In Augustine’s eyes, the story of a Christian is a tale of two cities and two loves.
- THE AFFAIRS OF THE AMERICAN NATION ARE ORDAINED BY GOD.
“Yet, if they only had sense, they would see that the hardships and cruelties they suffered from the enemy came from that Divine Providence who makes use of war to reform the corrupt lives of men.”
The first ten books within City of God are dedicated to one single purpose: refuting the claim that Rome’s former greatness is due to pagan polytheism. According to Augustine, the hand of the true and living God was behind every single event in Rome’s history, good or bad. That included victories and defeats. “He permits to happen what no man can commit without punishment.” Nothing escapes the executed plan of God. Things happen because He actively permits them to happen. (Eph. 1:11) Therefore, in joy and in despair, God is to be worshipped as sovereign over all things. He’s in charge. And that’s especially relevant in our own 21st century context. God hasn’t “forgotten” America. God hasn’t “turned his back” on America. The absence of religious liberty and national morality is no sign that God is absent, only that God has promised to shape the hearts of his people through a world that hates them. (John 15:18) Precisely as promised. It’s a promise that should keep us from surprise. (1 Peter 4:12) And yet, instead of trusting in a big God, many Americans have become angry and bitter over the affairs of ‘their’ country. When sinners lose sight of God’s providence, they naturally tend toward finger-pointing. Roman pagans ultimately blamed Christians for their country’s defeat. Conservatives and liberals blame each other day after day. But Augustine reminded his readers that the same God ‘maketh the sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.’ (Matt. 5:45) God’s common grace should be as obvious to us today as it should have been to the Romans then. But the difference isn’t simply reflection. It’s repentance: “God’s patience is an invitation to the wicked to do penance, just as God’s scourge is a school of patience for the good.” American Christians would do well to heed Augustine’s advice. The first step in weathering the persecution and hatred of an unbelieving country is not to honor the will of the party, but the will of the Father. When we worship a sovereign God, the affairs of this world don’t seem so insurmountable. That’s why we don’t place our hope in them.
2. MORALITY TALKS.
“Is it reasonable and wise to glory in the extent and greatness of the Empire when you can in no way prove that there is any real happiness in men perpetually living amid the horrors of war, perpetually wading in blood? Does it matter whether it is the blood of their fellow citizens or the blood of their enemies?”
Conservatives point to the blood of innocent children spilled in countless abortion clinics around America. Liberals point to the blood lust of our nation’s political and military leaders. In addressing these issues, Augustine suggests that ethical problems precede political ones. When we look upon the rampant immorality in our nation, it can’t be divorced from the state of the union: “Let the pagans blame their own gods for all their woes, instead of repaying our Christ with ingratitude for all His good gifts.” When liberal Democrats point their finger at so-called backwoods, fundamentalist Christians for the lack of ‘progress’ in this country, are their diatribes grounded in the ethical misconduct of Christians? Augustine asked for clear evidence that Christians contribute to the moral decay of a society. The bishop of Hippo even went so far as to say, with Cicero, that a society without justice isn’t a society at all! Of his pagan accusers, Augustine writes, “These men, I say, hold Christ responsible for the evils which they deservedly suffer for their wicked lives.” When unborn children are murdered before they’re born, justice and mercy take a backseat to the love of personal freedoms. And that kind of warning goes for conservatives as well. Has our distrust for Barack Obama led us to put our trust in Donald Trump, a man who embodies absolutely none of the virtues that we desire in a leader? In a Christian? Are ethics and elections completely unrelated? In combatting liberalism, many conservative Christians seem more eager to ‘fight fire with fire’ than to search out a moral candidate. In Augustine’s eloquent prose, he observes, “the republic could be happy while walls were standing, yet morals were collapsing…the fire of their base passions burned more fiercely in their hearts than the flames that devoured the city’s roofs.” It’s a good reminder of a country’s true destruction. While foreign policy is important, moral integrity is essential. Republican or Democrat.
3. THE ROMAN EMPIRE DIDN’T LAST. NEITHER WILL AMERICA.
“For, while these martyrs looked forward with certain faith to a heavenly home, they still knew that they were but pilgrims even in their own country.”
Augustine’s hope in Christ’s return outweighed his hope in a reformed Roman Empire. And we as American Christians should understand that it’s okay to pray for God to ‘save America,’ as long as we understand that sooner or later America won’t last. In the end, the greatest Empire in the history of the world wasn’t strong enough to endure. And neither will America. And that’s the small beauty in America’s current predicament: it points us to the brevity of nationalistic pride. “Divine Providence alone explains the establishment of kingdoms of men.” Nations and empires will fall. But Christ will remain forever. And if we can’t tear ourselves away from the American ideal, then maybe it’s not so ideal. When we pray ‘your kingdom come,’ we’re not praying for a better America. We’re praying for the reign of God to be instituted on this earth. And that’s not a Republican agenda. It’s a divine prerogative. America exists because God’s grace said it should. And by His sovereign grace, one day it won’t anymore.
In his new book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore reminds us not to neglect the precious souls in our country who are never beyond redemption: “The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.” (215) The man who wrote one of the most influential books in the history of Christian thought was someone who, just decades earlier, had been miles from the grace of God. And the Lord of Lords used him to speak truth into a world waning from the truth. That’s the power of God. That’s the message of Jesus. And that life-changing Gospel is also what sustains us through the injustices of our time. After all, it survived the fall of an Empire. And it can survive a few more.
Obbie Todd is a doctor of philosophy student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as youth and college pastor at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La.