Augustine’s titanic volume, City of God, originated as a defense of the Christian faith against cultured pagans. These pagans blamed the sack of Rome by the Visigoths (410 AD) on the Empire officially abandoning its ancient traditional religion in favor of the relative newcomer, Christianity. City of God eventually morphed into an exploration of the entire sweep of cosmic history, against which the fall of Rome, while an earth-shattering catastrophe to its contemporaries, appears as just another event in God’s master plan to redeem a people for himself. Empires come and go; the City of God is eternal. Indeed, whatever political arrangements we make for ourselves here on earth don’t count for much:
“As far as this mortal life is concerned, which is spent and finished in a few days, what difference does it make under what rule a man lives who is soon to die, provided only that those who rule him do not compel him to do what is impious and wicked?”
Contrast Augustine’s attitude with that of the great English poet William Blake (d. 1827). In perhaps his best-known poem, Blake references a legend that Jesus once visited the British Isles along with Joseph of Arimathea. Since that blessed time, England had been overrun with the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution. But Blake will not surrender:
“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.”
By “Jerusalem,” Blake, of course, means the New Jerusalem, the perfect human society. While in the Bible, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2), for Blake, it is something we must build for ourselves, sword in hand and with our mental faculties strained to the utmost. Organized human activity – including politics (Blake himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution) – can and will bring about the eschaton.
Augustinian Christians can hardly share Blake’s optimism about the perfectibility of human society in the here and now. At the same time, however, it’s hard to get completely behind Augustine’s apparent apathy towards politics (and, in fact, Augustine is elsewhere not quite as indifferent as the above passage might imply). The truth is that we don’t know when God will usher in the New Jerusalem and, in the meantime, our children are going to have to live here. Politics may be transitory, but they carry some real weight.
Moreover, the sheer intensity and vitriol of our political controversies make them feel like matters of ultimate value are at stake as if Blake were right after all and that heaven or hell on earth really are hanging in the balance. Each successive election is touted as the most consequential of our generation. An amusing bit of hyperbole, but not without truth: as a former American president pointed out, elections (and political activity generally) do have consequences, sometimes dramatic ones.
Finding the balance between indifferentism and obsessiveness has never been easy, and it’s especially difficult in our environment. What could help us here is the notion of “calling” as pioneered by Luther, which is first and foremost God’s providential placing of each individual believer in a specific set of relationships. All of these come with their own joys, challenges, and responsibilities, and each of them properly claims a certain amount of our time and focus.
Politics, in particular, can be conceived as attending to our God-given relationships with our various local, state, and national communities. These communities impose responsibilities upon us, and we, in turn, try to influence them towards justice and compassion as best we can out of our desire to love our neighbors. Given our abilities, dispositions, and other life circumstances, there is some level of energy (and no more) that is the appropriate amount to devote to political concerns. Doing so fulfills one aspect of our calling and thereby glorifies God.
How do we expend this energy? Wisdom dictates that we should focus our time and effort on those things over which we have the most influence, which for most (not all) of us means that we ought to concern ourselves primarily with local problems. This isn’t to say that state or national issues have no bearing on our consciousness, but it makes the most sense to proportion our time and attention according to how much we can realistically influence matters. Getting involved in local school board elections should probably take precedence over fighting on the internet over gun control laws in other states. Forcing ourselves to attend to concrete local problems is also a hedge against ideological extremism, which flourishes in generalities and abstraction.
As part of our calling, political engagement has real value even though all earthly societies are transitory (and, contra Blake, imperfectible). But politics is never more than part of our calling, and for most of us, it’s probably a relatively small one. If our transitory citizenships on earth matter, and they do, of far greater significance still is our citizenship in the eternal City of God.