City of God, Book 2: Rome Deserved It!

In Book 2, Augustine continues his defense of Christianity against the claim that it is responsible for the sacking of Rome. In Book 1 he asserted that it was due to the barbarians regard for Christ’s name that so many were shown mercy – the Goth’s did not drag people who had sought refuge in a church out into the streets to kill them. This mercy did not extend to the pagan temples, nor did Roman armies show mercy to people who sought refuge in pagan temples when they razed a city.

In Book 2, Augustine shifts gears and moves on to show that the old pagan deities, whom he views as demons, did not spare Rome from calamities in the past. In a passage seemingly inspired by Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Augustine asks, “Where was all that flock of divinities…when the Gauls took Rome and set it on fire. Were they there, but asleep perhaps.?”

Of particular interest is Augustine’s contention that the gods actually set Rome up for destruction by refusing to condemn the immorality of the city.  The gods, rather than condemning vice, actually encouraged it by their example and the feasts they required. People of virtue cannot recount the tales of gods immorality without blushing, and these grotesque acts were reenacted in the pagan festivals commanded by the gods.

The gods, who had not spared Rome from past disasters, had left her to rot in her decadence and vice. Augustine admits, in his youth before finding Christ he “enjoyed the most degrading spectacles put on in honour of the gods and goddesses.” Romans, Augustine contends, “ought to have realized that gods who demand obscene shows in their worship deserve no divine honours.” Add to this immorality the injustices of Roman culture. Augustine groans, “I am sick of recounting the many acts of injustice which have disturbed the city’s history; the powerful classes did their best to subjugate the lower orders, the lower orders resisted – the leaders of each side motivated by ambition for victory rather than any ideas of equity or morality.”

This opinion was not Augustine’s alone – others shared in his diagnosis of Rome’s moral malaise. The city was ripe to fall because of it’s internal moral decay, a decay that had been pointed out by notable Roman senators, generals, and philosophers, including Cicero.

While the gods celebrated degradation and overlooked injustices, they never taught morality. In the ancient world, morality wasn’t the domain of the gods or their priests, but of the philosophers

But, the Christian church had preached better. There were hypocrites among the church, Augustine acknowledges, but the standards of the church are far higher and nobler than that of the pagan cults where the gods didn’t even give any moral law. Augustine challenges his readers to look to the prophets and apostles and hear their warnings against greed and self-indulgence. Had the teachings of Christianity about justice and morality had been embraced by Rome, contends Augustine, then “the Roman commonwealth would now enrich all this present world with its own happiness, and would ascend to the heights of eternal life to reign in felicity.”

Pastorally, Augustine pleads with his readers to turn, offering hope that they can find refuge through Christ – the true refuge being the remission of sins. “Men have been rescued,” writes Augustine, “from the hellish yoke of polluted powers and from a share in their condemnation; they have passed from the night of blasphemy and perdition into the daylight of salvation and true godliness.” In so doing, these men have become members of a new city, and “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison.”

Certain aspects of Augustine’s approach throughout Book 1&2 have surprised me. Maybe most surprising is his treatment of the pagan gods. Rather than simply asserting that they are nothing, just dumb/immoral stories and statues of wood, metal, and stone, he also treats them as if they are actually something. They aren’t divine, they aren’t gods truly, but they’re demons or, in some places, devils. Both seem to be true biblically.

On the one hand, the gods were powerless. They couldn’t take care of the city; in fact, they’re safety and care had been entrusted to the city!  This reflects, for example, Isaiah’s attitude towards the idols of Israel – they don’t know, they can’t tell, they’re dumb as a rock because that’s all they are.

But, there another side to this. Behind these dumb-as-rock gods lurk menacing demonic powers. Paul acknowledges this reality, “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).  These powers are bent on deception and destruction, something Jesus’ ministry showed – demon’s torment individuals and/or cities and empires.

There is in this a warning for those among us tempted to say trite things like ‘we all worship the same God, just call him different names.’  Without getting into a full-fledged discussion of this, which needs a lot of nuances, I will simply remind us that not all that claims to be a messenger of good is of God, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.