The Fall of the West & “The City of God”

donald_trump_august_19_2015_cropped
The next President of the United States of America [1]
It’s the day after Donald Trump’s historic election victory in the U.S. Presidential contest and the sun has still come up, the world continues much the way it has since the dawn of time and one would think this will equally be the case on 21st January 2017 – the day after President Trump is sworn in as “POTUS.”

But while the rise of Trump itself is not necessarily the cataclysmic, Armageddon, nuclear-meltdown scenario that some of his critics have predicted, it is symptomatic of trends that do have concerning, world-altering implications.

In a repugnant failure of democracy, the American people chose one of two very poor candidates offered to them as the main – and perhaps only viable – contenders for the top office of the land. The fact that Democrat and Republican voters selected Clinton and Trump in the first place, thus setting us up for a contest that seemed best described as King Kong vs. Godzilla (Kong won, just like in the movie), was an appalling state of affairs.

Similarly tragic is the willingness of both major parties to endorse such terrible nominees and the compliance of millions of Americans who voted for one or the other, as though they truly had no other option. Nothing seemed able to fix the Trump v. Clinton debacle from eventuating and that fact itself suggests American democracy is broken.

America and its Western allies – particularly kindred nations in Europe and across the Anglosphere – are facing uncertain times. The political climate across these nations is volatile, restless and even enraged with the failures of the status quo. The deterioration of our collective cultural atmosphere should concern us to the same extent that many are concerned about the health of the physical atmosphere – perhaps even more. The West appears to be possibly years, rather than decades, away from degenerating into a putrid mess, where the healthy tension between competing and conflicting interests is no longer maintained through the mechanisms of pluralistic, liberal democratic societies.

Rather than worry about a “Clash of Civilisations” between Western and non-Western powers – which may still be the eventual outcome – we must first find ourselves gravely concerned with the seemingly unavoidable collision course of ideologies, values and claimed rights and freedoms that threatens to irreparably tear apart Western, post-Christian societies from within.

If and when this occurs, the American-led West may find itself a house divided to the point of being unable to stand in any meaningfully “united” way. Other powers will begin to encroach into what has traditionally been the Western sphere of dominion and influence and eventually, Western nations may find themselves in economic and even military decline in much the same way we presently are culturally, religiously, morally and politically.

Augustine’s City of God  

While many Protestants are excited about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, there’s another – less notable – anniversary of a nonetheless highly significant event in Christian history, that might do us some service in the closing months of 2016 and beyond.

1590 years ago, one of the most significant Christian theologians of all time published a work he had begun many years earlier, as he sought to deal with the decline and eventual fall of the world power of his day: Rome. Augustine’s reflections in City of God offer a detailed defense of Christianity with respect to Rome’s downfall, in the face of accusations and criticisms from disgruntled pagans who blamed the Empire’s decline on her change of religion and gods.

But he also seeks to help Christians have the right perspective in a situation when the world was in massive upheaval, as the imperial stability offered by Rome was crumbling. Here are just a few of his thoughts which might help us deal with both the present political realities and the possible further decline of the U.S. and the Western world.

#1 “The Times of All Kings and Kingdoms are Ordained by the Judgment and Power of the True God.”

“Therefore that God, the author and giver of felicity, because He alone is the true God, Himself gives earthly kingdoms both to good and bad.  Neither does He do this rashly, and, as it were, fortuitously,—because He is God not fortune,—but according to the order of things and times, which is hidden from us, but thoroughly known to Himself; which same order of times, however, He does not serve as subject to it, but Himself rules as lord and appoints as governor.  Felicity He gives only to the good.  Whether a man be a subject or a king makes no difference; he may equally either possess or not possess it.  And it shall be full in that life where kings and subjects exist no longer.  And therefore earthly kingdoms are given by Him both to the good and the bad; lest His worshippers, still under the conduct of a very weak mind, should covet these gifts from Him as some great things…”
– 
City of God, Book IV, Chapter 33.

#2 Bad rulers hurt themselves more than they do their subjects and they can’t affect true freedom

“In this world, therefore, the dominion of good men is profitable, not so much for themselves as for human affairs.  But the dominion of bad men is hurtful chiefly to themselves who rule, for they destroy their own souls by greater license in wickedness; while those who are put under them in service are not hurt except by their own iniquity.  For to the just all the evils imposed on them by unjust rulers are not the punishment of crime, but the test of virtue.  Therefore the good man, although he is a slave, is free; but the bad man, even if he reigns, is a slave, and that not of one man, but, what is far more grievous, of as many masters as he has vices; of which vices when the divine Scripture treats, it says, “For of whom any man is overcome, to the same he is also the bond-slave.””
– City of God, Book IV, Chapter 3.

#3 It is tragically possible for nations and empires to fall or decline as a result of divine judgement, and yet not learn from their sins and punishment

“O infatuated men, what is this blindness, or rather madness, which possesses you?  How is it that while, as we hear, even the eastern nations are bewailing your ruin, and while powerful states in the most remote parts of the earth are mourning your fall as a public calamity, ye yourselves should be crowding to the theatres, should be pouring into them and filling them; and, in short, be playing a madder part now than ever before?  

…Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state, is not the tranquility of the commonwealth, but the impunity of your own vicious luxury…”

– City of God, Book I, Chapter 33.

#4 We have hope in the face of fading earthly powers, because the City of God excels every city, nation & empire! But Christians ought to exceed the pagan patriot’s love for his country with a greater love for God’s City. 

“But the reward of the saints is far different, who even here endured reproaches for that city of God which is hateful to the lovers of this world.  That city is eternal.  There none are born, for none die.  There is true and full felicity,—not a goddess, but a gift of God.  Thence we receive the pledge of faith whilst on our pilgrimage we sigh for its beauty.  There rises not the sun on the good and the evil, but the Sun of Righteousness protects the good alone.  There no great industry shall be expended to enrich the public treasury by suffering privations at home, for there is the common treasury of truth.  And, therefore, it was not only for the sake of recompensing the citizens of Rome that her empire and glory had been so signally extended, but also that the citizens of that eternal city, during their pilgrimage here, might diligently and soberly contemplate these examples, and see what a love they owe to the supernal country on account of life eternal, if the terrestrial country was so much beloved by its citizens on account of human glory.”

– City of God, Book V, Chapter 16.

[1] Michael Vadon “Donald Trump” CC BY-SA 2.0 wikimedia commons.

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