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Timely Lessons from the Sack of Rome

If Christians truly believe that we are charged with protecting a moral vision in our country, then we must recognize that this vision cannot be imposed by force. If we want to remain more than an interest group, we must stop treating our first amendment rights as freedoms from interference and start treating them as freedoms for witness, laden with obligations of love.

The recent storming of the Capitol by rioters, including one in barbarian garb, reminded many of the sack of Rome. Fortunately, when it comes to their respective human cost, there are more dissimilarities than similarities; while five deaths are tragic indeed, the ancient Visigoths raped, tortured, enslaved, and murdered thousands of people, sending exiles fleeing across the sea with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore striking parallels between the two events: both violated the inviolable, both were perpetrated by violent mobs, and both seem to indict Christianity. For this reason, Augustine’s response to the Sack of Rome is worth revisiting today.

A Psychological Shock

As anyone familiar with the sack of 410 knows, the event threw the whole Roman world into disarray. It was not that the Visigoths were a new menace; the Roman Empire had been victim to a series of barbarian invasions in recent years, and the city itself suffered two sieges. It was also not that the sack was especially violent for its time; it was mild in comparison to the Visigoths’ usual assaults. It was not even that it was a long-lasting occupation—indeed, Alaric’s men left after three days. Rather, as Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard put it, the sack of Rome shocked so many because it was “an intentional and provocative act of desecration striking at the core of Rome’s identity.” Rome’s walls had not been breached in over 800 years; to penetrate them, to terrorize the Romans, and to wreak havoc on the city’s most iconic buildings was an assault on the very idea of Roma Aeterna. Then, just as today, it was the symbolic meaning of the act that was so devastating, for, if Rome was crumbling, where was stability to be found?

 

Augustine’s answer, of course, is that stability is only be found in God. To put trust in powers that “sway in their temporal instability” is always a bad idea, for there is only one Eternal City. Yet, despite the importance of Augustine’s emphasis on putting first things first, we do well to ask what he has to say to those who want to preserve their political community. How can he help us understand what went wrong on January 6 and what we might do about it?

Who Is to Blame?

Unsurprisingly, after the sack of Rome, the question of what went wrong quickly turned into the question of who was to blame. For a number of reasons, the barbarians’ Arian faith being one of them, the blame fell quickly on Christians. While some responded by minimizing the damage done, others like Augustine deemed it necessary to face the evils for what they were, consoling victims, defending their innocence, and strengthening them in their wavering faith. What is most significant for our purposes, however, is Augustine’s response to the allegation that Christianity was to blame for Rome’s humiliation. This allegation took two forms: the first was leveled by the elite, who claimed the Christian rejection of Roman civil religion was responsible for the decay of public-spiritedness that left Rome vulnerable. The second was more popular. The halting of pagan sacrifices had angered the gods; they had, as a result, flown the coop, leaving Rome defenseless. In City of God, Augustine takes up both of these charges, and his responses are surprisingly relevant to what occurred at our Capitol.

In the first place, Augustine chastises the Roman elite for failing to correct the errors that caused uneducated pagans to hate Christians. In Augustine’s time, many had come to believe that Rome had never experienced the suffering it was experiencing and that Christianity was the cause of all its woes. Yet, Augustine argues, this is not true, and “the well-educated who are fond of history” know this. By failing to correct the falsehoods that furthered their own political agendas, the well-educated were responsible for the misinformation and superstition that exacerbated partisan ire. This was not the first time the Roman elite had abandoned the many to lies for the sake of political expediency. Augustine unveils a long history of this, arguing that the Roman people had been made what they were by a toxic political culture.

Knowing that the many preferred salacious stories to philosophical truths, the wise had long abandoned them to these desires, while the cunning actively leveraged them for their own benefit. The result was a people addicted to plays and games. Thus, rather than being a boon to the Roman civitas, the civil religion that had grown up in the culture was destructive. It seduced Rome’s best by promising them access to exclusive knowledge, and it appealed to the rest by playing to their fears and desires. What resulted was a people unable to preserve what they had been given, who looked to the commonwealth only for what they wanted out of it, and who looked the other way when injustices were necessary to get it.

This situation should hardly sound unfamiliar, and it is unnecessary to expand on the problems with entertainment news, internet conspiracy theories, and the widespread failure of talking heads to correct the “alternative facts” that play to their benefit. The point is that now, just as then, there is a political tendency toward myth-making that corrodes civic life. Endorsing lies that aid the purportedly correct side is never good for politics. Instead, it breeds cynicism and fanaticism, pushing the radicalized further into their own unrealities every time the other side behaves dishonestly. Over time, the useful lie takes on a life of its own, so that the class that began by controlling others through it ends up being controlled by it. For Augustine, there is little else to do in response to such myth-making than to embark on a long and exhaustive fact-checking project. Aware that superstitious Romans might not be the main audience of his work, his goal is to show educated patriots why they would not want to go in for such nonsense and why the worldviews they are tacitly allowing to let lie ought not be condoned.

 

This, of course, raises an interesting question for us today: if Americans are insulated within their own media bubbles, what is the point of fact-checking? As Augustine’s approach indicates, it is always worthwhile to speak the truth, and doing so may well convince those on the fence. Nevertheless, it is a dismal proposition that the perspective of the radicalized might well be unfalsifiable. As Augustine taught us long ago, human beings are very capable of hating the truth for the sake of an idea they love, even though truth will out. If we take him seriously, however, we must add that this hatred of the truth is a trap into which we all fall. Here, then, one last Augustinian point about blame becomes salient.

When Augustine responds to those who asked why they had suffered in the sack, he consistently points them to their own sin as a starting point for understanding what took place. In doing this, Augustine’s goal is not to suggest these Romans were particularly responsible for what they suffered, although he does think God’s justice was involved in a general way. Rather, he is tapping into a powerful truth: if we want to diagnose what took place fairly, especially if we are angry or indignant, we need to examine our own sins first. For Augustine, the fact of the matter is that we are all sinners, and if we want to sit in judgment over others, we have to do so in this knowledge. Otherwise, we just play further into the logic of enmity that the Gospel seeks to unravel.

This being so, one of the most Augustinian responses I saw to the riots was Bishop Barron’s call for a national examination of conscience and Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble’s set of questions that fleshed out this call. In the end, we are all to blame for the riots insofar as we fall into the habits of thinking and acting that strengthen political myths. To say this is not to undermine the fact that the perpetrators of the riot were guilty in a unique and direct way. Rather, it is to move toward the only kind of solution that Augustine can countenance.

What Is to Be Done?

For Augustine, there is no easy solution to the problem of political decline that the events at the Capitol unveiled. Yet, to those who would do what they can to prevent such acts in the future, he would emphasize that shortcuts do not work. Instead, each person must commit him- or herself to the truth. This requires us to see beyond the urgencies of the moment and remember that how we behave matters just as much as the policies that we support. While there is no guarantee that integrity will be politically expedient, it is inevitable that behaviors that destroy civic trust and erode the boundaries of what is politically acceptable only seem politically expedient. They foment anger and division, and hasten our decline.

 

For those of us who are Christian, we must take a hard look at what it means to bear witness to God in our political community. If we truly believe that we are charged with protecting a moral vision in our country, then we must recognize that this vision cannot be imposed by force. We must also reconsider this way of understanding our position. That is, if we want to remain more than an interest group, we must stop treating our First Amendment rights as freedoms from interference and start treating them as freedoms for witness, laden with obligations of love.

We must also get our priorities straight. As Augustine reminds us, true religion either shapes politics or becomes disfigured by it. Properly speaking, an eschatological worldview should raise our eyes above the political horizon and draw us away from the myopia of the moment. Yet, when Christianity becomes tethered to a political ideology, it loses its power to do this. Political fracases gain eternal significance: our political enemies become God’s enemies, our political wars, God’s holy war. For this reason, it is vitally important that we let God transform our vision. The true Christ urges us to both love and forgive those who threaten us, provocatively inviting us to see them in their humanity. While this is not easy, the struggle is for the good. In fact, it leads to the following challenge: let it not be because of you that your political community failed to work together for real earthly peace. While common ground might be genuinely scarce—and we should acknowledge this—we should be looking for ways to work with the other when and how we can. This attitude of openness does not compromise principles, but invites dialogue.

Ultimately, Augustine reminds us that the best way we can be a healing presence within our political communities is to live well. Addressing his congregation around the year 410, he speaks to the sentiment of hopelessness that all is in decline: “Bad times! Troublesome times! These men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times. But what can we do? We cannot, it may be, convert the mass of men to a good life. But let the few who do give ear live well.” While it might not seem terribly important what we little people do, it is always worthwhile to live beyond the script of enmity. We may even expand our culture’s moral imagination in the process.

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