Can This Be Our Cathartic Moment? (Saint Augustine and our current fragile state of America)4
CATHARSIS: "A purification that brings about spirtual renewal or release fron tension" (Merriam-Webster)
Right now, we are currently observing the fragility of the most powerful nation in the world. With the arrival of an unknown virus that we are still very much in the early stages at understanding, and as our leaders are making the most educated responses possible, we have seen many stable institutions quickly crack and nearly crumble. Some hospitals in congested areas are utterly flooded with the sick, many thousands across our nation have been laid off. The stock market has plummeted at a historic precedent. Food and supplies are being rationed, and millions of Americans are forced to stay at home in a self-quarantine.
Thankfully, in comparison to past diseases and plagues that caused mass death (example, the Black Plague which killed 30-60% of Europe), this current virus does not compare. Yet even with a small, still potentially very deadly percentage that is attached to the Coronavirus, our comfortable ways of life in America are instantly rattled. In New Jersey only essential businesses have been allowed to remain open, revealing to us the bare bones of what it takes to actually live, and exposing more of the luxuries that we all are accustomed to, but realize that we actually don’t need.
It may be our modern day cathartic moment, a revelation for us to learn and grow as a people where we can be purged of much that we did not know we needed to be purged of.
As we fear that many small business owners and their employees may collapse in this quarantine, wrecking havoc on families across the nation, as we fear for many of our elderly and more vulnerable may not survive catching the coronavirus, we all experience legitimate fears that cannot be taken or treated lightly. Yet, as Christians and human beings, the question is - in the midst of this trial and this new reality, for however long it lasts, can we learn? Can we be changed? Can we grow? How so? Just how sustainable is our American way of life?
This is not the first time that the Church in world history was faced with a crisis. One of my favorite theologians and pastors, Saint Augustine, was forced to minister during one of the most epoch-changing events in Western history. In 410 A.D., the Goths sacked Rome. Augustine, ministering in North Africa at the time, found himself needing to care and pastor for many disillusioned citizens of the thousand year old Empire. He expected many of those who worshipped the Roman gods to be shaken to their core. After all, their gods were supposed to be the guardians of Rome. Their entire theological understanding of their world was now faced with a collapse. Where would they turn for Good News, or for hope?
Yet as he expected this, one unexpected group that came running to him in equal numbers were his own parishioners, his own flock - Christians, who did not know how to process their beloved Rome loosing its glory. Peter Brown, in his fantastic and landmark biography on Augustine of Hippo, had this to say about this crucial time:
“Above all, Rome was the symbol of a whole civilization; it was as if an army had been allowed to sack Westminster Abbey or the Louvre. In Rome, the protection of the gods for the Empire had been made explicit. For the conservatives of the previous century, Rome had been a sort of 'pagan Vatican'; a punctiliously protected city of great temples where the religion that had guaranteed the greatness of the Empire could survive and be seen to survive.”
In other words, it would be as if modern day Washington D.C. had been sacked and destroyed. The unimaginable occurred. Yet the Church was not unattached to the powerful Roman myth. He continues,
“The Christians had even colluded with this myth: Just as Rome had assembled the gods of all nations to act as talismans, so Roman Christians had come to believe that Peter and Paul had travelled from the East to lay their holy bodies in the city. The one talisman had merely replaced the other; and, after 410, Augustine had to deal with disillusioned Christians quite as much as with angry pagans.”
He concludes with a profound reflection,
“On a deeper level, Rome symbolized the security of a whole civilized way of life. To an educated man, the history of the known world culminated quite naturally in the Roman Empire, just as, to a nineteenth century man, the history of civilization culminated in the supremacy of Europe. The sack of Rome by the Goths, then, was an ominous reminder of the fact that even the most valuable societies might die. “If Rome can perish,” wrote Jerome, “what can be safe?” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, pg. 287).
I hope by reading Brown’s words above, you understand my purpose in writing.
I do not think it would be a stretch to say that the myth of America and its greatness and prosperity has developed to be one just as powerful on the American psyche as the ancient Roman empire was to its citizens.
The time is now to embrace what may be a harsh reality - America, in all of her greatness, is fragile. Our way of live suddenly appears to be propped up by systems that could potentially and easily collapse. If Jerome were an American and alive today, he may exclaim, “If America can perish, what can be safe?” But indeed, we have a greater City.
As the disillusioned Christians arrived in droves to Augustine’s church, he was inspired to write one of the most magisterial apologetic and theological volumes ever written in Church history - The City of God. In what appears to be a contemporary statement written just yesterday, Augustine had this to say to those who were economically and even physically suffering after the sack of Rome, words that we must heed to today:
“… the saints loose nothing in losing temporal goods. These are the considerations which one must keep in view, that he may answer the question whether any evil happens to the faithful and godly which cannot be turned to profit. Or shall we say that the question is needless, and that the apostle is vaporing when he says, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God ?”
They lost all they had. 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, to whom the wealthy apostle said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, find it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil; which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
They, then, who lost their worldly all in the sack of Rome, if they owned their possessions as they had been taught by the apostle, who himself was poor without, but rich within,–that is to say, if they used the world as not using it,–could say in the words of Job, heavily tried, but not overcome: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; as it pleased the Lord, so has it come to pass: blessed be the name of the Lord.”
(Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 10, City of God)
Christians, as we experience such vitriolic and turbulent times as today, we must consider this as mere preparation for unthinkable events like Augustine was faced with. May we not be found disillusioned if America were to be sacked, if our precious nation would collapse. If we were all brought to poverty by such events, may we not consider ourselves “poor” but rather still containing the riches of Christ, and devote ourselves to the loving of our neighbors and the washing of their feet.
America, like Rome, like every other great empire and nation of the world, is not eternal. But our resurrected Christ is. And in him, we can persevere through all things as we look forward to the City that is the come, the New Jerusalem, when he will once and for all, “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).