Thursday, January 9, 2014

"City of God" I.9-10

Chapter 9:

None of us can claim innocence in the face of suffering--nothing, according to Augustine, happens in this world that we do not deserve. Of course, in the technical or judicial sense Christians don't deserve punishment--Christ took all of that on the cross in our place. Yet, we also admit our guilt and that we deserve so much worse than we ever get because of our rebellion against a gracious and good God. To that end, Christians alone can claim simultaneous guilt and innocence, and so accept whatever comes our way with steadfast faith.

What I found particularly interesting in this chapter was the discussion of communal punishment along with individual suffering. "Accordingly this seems to me to be one principal reason why the good are chastised along with the wicked, when God is pleased to visit with temporal punishments the profligate manners of a community. They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life..."

What could be more anathema to the modern sensibility than this? Americans are so individualistic that we don't like to think of some people in a community (whether a majority or a minority) suffering because of the actions of others. If we aren't all equally guilty, we shouldn't all equally suffer. (Which on some level is silly and thoughtless on our part--among other things the Gospel is proof that an innocent can suffer because of the actions of the guilty.) Yet Augustine does not share that same individualistic view. Along with the explicit condemnation of sins of omission is the implicit assumption that individuals are united in a community that acts as an organic whole. Just as when I stub my toe my whole body hurts, so when one person in the city sins we all suffer the consequences to some degree. And lest we think of this as some kind of silly "We are the World" sentimentalism, we need to remember that pillage, murder, rape, and all the brutalities of war are under consideration.
As Collin Garbarino points out (sorry, I can't link to the Facebook post-you'll just have to join the group to see it!), Augustine is not a systematic thinker. He does not give us a detailed view of what makes up a community or a point-by-point explanation of why we all suffer for the sins of one in the style of an Aquinas or a Turretin. He just assumes and then makes his broader points about the nature of evil and suffering. Which I find frustrating when trying to teach this book, but I think it is ultimately much more satisfying when reading it devotionally.

Chapter 10:

We understand that as Christians we have a treasure greater than anything the world can offer. Whatever calamity befalls us or our community, the treasure we have in Christ cannot be lost. "They lost all they had." We can almost hear the scorn in Augustine's voice: "Their faith? Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart, which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose these? For these are the wealth of Christians" Earthquake, famine, war, plague, imprisonment, persecution, suffering, and death, Christians can face all of these things with confidence because they cannot touch the true treasure that comes from being reconciled to God in Christ. (A good parallel from Augustine's own life can be found in this discussion of Augustine's Confessions.) Augustine here is simply echoing Paul, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)
In fact, through suffering we only draw nearer to Him who is sovereign over all the good and evil of the world and works all things for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) "For," as Augustine says, "under these tortures no one lost Christ by confessing Him." Thus we hear the echos of 1 Peter 1:6-7: "In this [forgiveness through Christ] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than god, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."

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