The City of God v The City of Man

by Wendy Murray

(Public Domain)
(Public Domain)

Amid the perpetual dissent that arises from President Trump’s many actions and policies, I have been perplexed by some who have appealed to the teachings of Jesus as the reason for standing against him. (This has been especially true in the case of his Executive Order on the status of refugees coming from hostile countries.) Some Christian leaders have gone so far as to say that a person cannot support Donald Trump while calling him or herself a Christian.

 Many theologians over the millennia have wrestled with how to reconcile a Christian’s role in society with the role of government as it enacts affairs of state. None has articulated the particulars more adroitly than Saint Augustine of Hippo in his treatise, The City of God. In short, Augustine highlights the existence of two distinct and often opposing “cities,” the City of God, encompassing heavenly beings and the host of saints and angels living in harmony under the direct governance of God; and the City of Man, which exists in real time on earth, for the purpose of maintaining civil order through fear of pain or punishment and for restraining destructive and barbaric acts of the self-serving. How glorious it would be if all citizens of the world embodied the tenets of the City of God! But, alas, as Augustine notes, “while those are better who are guided aright by love, those are certainly more numerous who are corrected by fear.”

The overseers of states are left with a conundrum: while some citizens abide under divine governance and higher law of love, most don’t. Most citizens are “wicked men” who stop at nothing to override rights and safety of others if it meant benefitting themselves. Thus, governance in the City of Man exists to constrain the barbarians, not to elevate souls of the godly. The latter is the domain of the church.

Christians would do well to consider this distinction in the ever-unfolding public discussion about the policies of President Trump. Confusion arises when there is a conflation of the two cities, each of which possesses distinct and specific mandates. It is not the mission of the state to be governed by principles of the gospel.  They are wrong who expect the state to carry this banner. In the City of Man (that is, the worldly order), it is incumbent upon ruling authorities to govern all people, not simply Christian people. And, as already noted, most people do not comport themselves under the guiding hand of God’s grace-filled purposes, but instead are corrupt and self-serving brutes. Governments exist to restrain such brutes from violating the protections and rights of the non-brutes, the citizens who are doing the best they can to live in peace under the law. It is an imperfect arrangement, but that is price to be paid in reckoning in with the brutes.

Augustine does allow for the possibility that a Christian must rise up against governments, “to obey God rather than man,” when the law would force them to commit acts of disobedience. Such was the case (in today’s context) of the Little Sisters of Poor, who challenged the mandate in Obamacare that required them to facilitate access to contraceptives, including abortion.

The current temporary ban of some refugees does not simultaneously forbid Christians from obeying the principles of Christian charity that enjoin them to help refugees. By all means, Christians ought to help them! God have mercy on us if we don’t help them! This is the mission of the church and its adherents who are governed by the principles of the gospel.

But the castigations that this policy is “unChristian” is a banner being waved while standing on the wrong hill. Of course the policy is unChristian! Our government — even “under God” — does not exist for the purpose of executing Christian polity. It does not operate under a biblical purview and does not exist to save souls. It exists solely to manage its affairs in the restraint of bad actors for the purposes of keeping peace in the land.

I am further nonplussed by cultural critics who are now summoning the name of Jesus after decades of driving Jesus from the public square, as if Jesus is now our standard bearer in matters of governance. The name of Jesus meant little to the same cultural critics in destroying the livelihoods of good citizens who have invoked his name in other ways that affronted them. (I’m picturing owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, whose lives and business were devastated by the order to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple whose wedding cake they opted not to provide as dictated by their conscience in obedience to Jesus. In this case, Jesus was irrelevant.)

My suggestion for both Christians and nonChristians alike is to leave Jesus out of governing. It is an arena he himself avoided, while dutifully paying his taxes. Think in terms of the Two Cities, each with distinctive roles and missions and each that exists in entirely different–sometimes opposing — spheres of governance. Where your conscience demands that you speak and act, by all means, speak and act. But please do not assert or demand that the actions spawned by religious conviction must arise from the apparatus of a secular government or be imposed thereupon. Unless, that is, in the clamoring for Jesus, these dissenters are calling for the imposition of a Christian state, in which case, what to do with the refugees would be the least of the moral dilemmas needing to be addressed.

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