Pilgrims in War and in Peace: Augustinian Reflections on Ukraine

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On February 24, 2022, Russia began to invade Ukraine, an event that shocked the modern conscience and will result in countless deaths. In truth, I am not one for commenting on current events, especially online, because they stretch beyond my expertise. I will not pretend to be an expert on European politics nor attempt to shape for you how America and Americans should respond at this moment. My concern is theological and humane. In the Narrative of Redemption course I am teaching, the overarching interpretative framework introduced to students is the early church father Augustine’s conception of the origin, development, and end of the city of God amidst the city of man. The theological framework of Augustine’s The City of God provides a helpful lens for Christians to utilize to navigate current events. In this article, I want to remind you of the context of Augustine’s The City of God, communicate his conceptions of the city of man and the city of God, and stress the Christian calling to be pilgrims in this world. By the end of this article, I hope that we can have some semblance of a theological framework for moments like this.

The events that have transpired grieve me. Modern warfare is shockingly intimate as social media provides immediate access to the terrors of contemporary events. The atrocities invade our consciences just as quickly as they are displayed on our screens. I watched families be ripped apart to defend land, wives weeping over the loss of their husbands, and children clinging to their dads for one last hug. I witnessed a kind of fear that is counterintuitive to the modern sense of self and a psychological terror that will haunt their tomorrows. I was filled with sorrow and confusion for these families and for Ukraine. This campaign will undoubtedly shape not only the coming months but the rest of their earthly lives.

The psychological horror of war was not foreign to Augustine. He took up writing The City of God following the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD. While it was only a short, two-day affair, it crippled the consciousness of Rome. The impregnable city had been punctured—resulting in unimaginable atrocities. Christianity received the brunt of the blame. Therefore, Augustine took up a twofold task: He defended Christianity against its attackers, and he fashioned a theological life and worldview so that Christians might make sense of God, themselves, and the world. In this article, what primarily concerns us is the latter, that is, Augustine’s theological imaginary. In other words, in the wake of the world crumbling around him, Augustine recognized the need to shape his fellow Christians’ social imaginary. He understood that they needed a stronger theological vision of the world.

Augustine’s theological imaginary rests on the fundamental distinction between the city of God and the city of man and is set within a few foundational truths that pervade The City of God. Those foundational truths for Augustine include, at minimum, a strong articulation of God’s providence, where happiness is to be found, and the centrality of Jesus Christ in making sense of the world.

The fundamental distinction between the two cities is that of humility and pride. The virtue of humility befits the city of God and its inverse pride is suitable for the city of man. For pride (in an attempt to exalt oneself) actually debases the self; while humility (to live one’s heart to the Lord) actually exalts the heart [Book XIV, c. 13]. As Augustine writes, “. . . humility is specially recommended to the city of God as it sojourns in this world, and is specially exhibited in the city of God, and in the person of Christ its King; while the contrary vice of pride, according to the testimony of the sacred writings, specially rules His adversary the devil” [Book XIV, c. 13, see also Book XVI, c.4]. Hence, it is the path of humility that lifts us to the Lord (James 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:6).

This fundamental distinction of pride and humility interweaves with the restless desires of the human heart. Due to God’s activity of grace, His unchanging love compels citizens of the city of God toward Himself [Book XI, c. 1; Book XV, c.1]. This love is dependent on God and lives according to the Spirit. In contrast, the city of man has a distorted love that lives according to the flesh and, in its restlessness, strives to be independent from God (Rom. 8:5) [Book XIV, c.3, 4]. As Augustine writes, “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self” [Book XIV, c.28]. This distinction between pride and humility, love of God and love of self, divide the city of God and the city of man.

In this book, Augustine articulates God’s providence over all things—that is, God establishes the steps of man both individually (Prov. 16:9; Eph. 1:11) and collectively (Dan. 2:21; Rom. 8:28), but He also sovereignly guides the cosmos (Heb. 1:3; Rom.11:36). God is the “omnipotent, creator and maker of every soul and of every body . . . [who] can never be believed to have left the kingdoms of men . . . outside the laws of providence” [Book V, c.11]. Augustine fully admits for us that providence is both a mystery and a source of comfort. It is a mystery how evil can often appear to be winning and the good to be at a loss. It is a mystery why and how God utilizes all sorts of angelic and demonic agencies to accomplish His good will [Book XIV, c.27]. And it is a mystery how every nature, every being, all of us are guided along by providence. But it is no mystery that God utilizes all things in order that we might cleave to Him [Book I, c.9]. The heart of Augustine’s work runs through Psalm 73:28, “But as for me, it is good to be near God.”

For this reason, providence is a deep sense of comfort to Augustine. Indeed, without such a theological vision of a God who is both near and transcendent, Augustine claims this life is one of misery [Book XIX, c. 19]. In contrast, “Blessed are those people whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 144:15) [Book XIX, c.26]. For Augustine knows that the events that transpire in this world, though tragic, though admittedly heart-wrenching, though filled with suffering and sadness, transpire as God permits. Therefore, providence offers believers solace as they harmonize with His rule [Book XIX, c.27].

The second foundational theological truth that pervades The City of God is happiness or blessedness. Nearly every book of The City of God closes with a reflection on happiness. The happiness of this world is fleeting and temporary (Eccle.1:2). This is why the various narratives, cultural liturgies, or world-visions that pervade society of what will provide happiness always fail to satisfy [Book III, c.20]. For Augustine, true happiness—abiding, enduring, ultimate happiness for both the individual and society—can only be found in beholding Christ [Book IV, c.15; Book XXII, c.29]. Therefore, Augustine turns to God and God’s actions in the world (that is, God’s self-disclosure of Himself) to display that enduring happiness can only be found in knowing and being known by God who alone gives rest to the restless heart for all eternity [Book V, c. 26; Book VI, c.12; Book X, c.2, 3]. Even if it is difficult to think of happiness amid suffering, we must fix our gaze beyond earthly happiness and toward the eternal [Book XIX, c.10]. In truth, this is only possible because of Christianity’s understanding of Christ.

Augustine centers his theological imaginary of the world on Jesus Christ. For Augustine, all things display Christ in revelation, in history, and in the testimony of our lives. In The City of God, Augustine particularly focused on Christ as one who partakes and participates in our suffering. The Son of God, the voice of wisdom, takes upon Himself the voice of humanity. Augustine emphasizes again and again before us Christ’s humility, particularly in His death. The form of humility is the embracing of our humanity. What it means to be human according to Augustine is then reinterpreted in light of Christ’s humanity. More technically, in a world of “signs,” Christ becomes the “ultimate sign” through which everything else in the world is to be interpreted. In this manner, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection both atone for sin and become the “sign” by which all other “signs” are understood. In other words, the life of the believer is entirely transformed by the work of Christ, but also reimagined, re-humanized, and reinterpreted in light of this work.

Put simply, just as all of Scripture points to Christ, our human lives are to be understood in view of Christ—particularly His suffering, death, and resurrection. The voice of Christ then is simultaneously the voice of wisdom (of God), and the voice of humanity (of man). This is beautifully illustrated in Augustine’s exposition of the Psalms, in which Christ’s voice as the weak and suffering human is displayed alongside the stirring and powerful voice of wisdom. This is also why in Augustine’s The Confessions, his life is submerged in the language of the Psalms as he attempts to reinterpret his life via the suffering Savior.

These foundational truths and fundamental distinctions between the city of God and the city of man result in distinct visions of war and peace. Augustine turns his attention here in Book XIX, chapters 11–12. He considers that both the city of man and the city of God desire happiness and peace. Even those who wage war desire peace, according to Augustine, but the lust for power is stronger (1 John 2:16) [see also Book XIV, c.15]. Augustine concludes: “It is thus pride in its perversity that apes at God. It abhors . . . the just peace of God, and loves its own unjust peace” [Book XIX, c.12]. Therefore, the pride of the city of man leads it to war. What is the city of God to do?

Considering the misery of this world, including the pain of war, Christians are led to acknowledge that they are pilgrims in this world [Book I, c. 15]. The human condition is a frail one (Ps. 8:4; Gen. 3:19). We are fragile, unfinished creatures who are susceptible to all kinds of pain and suffering—and, in many cases, we are the ones who inflict this pain and suffering onto other people (Gen. 4:8). The horrors of war magnify before our eyes the utter depravity of man, that we are often very cruel and prideful creatures. Many Ukrainians have fled their homes. There is something immaculately holy in taking up the task of an exile, a pilgrim, a creature who must wholly depend on God. Of course, this reflection is not to short shrift their pain and fear but to magnify and acknowledge that they are deeply human in this moment. Ukrainian Christians are leaving their home, trusting that God has them. They are suffering the pains of this world, knowing Christ has suffered them. The actions of Putin are indeed the acts of a deeply evil and arrogant man. The city of God is to be composed of pilgrims on a different path. As such, we are to be creatures who live by faith seeking peace and justice for every human, for the betterment of society, and this includes a call to love [Book XIX, c.17].

As a brother in Christ, I simply want to grieve alongside our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine who are experiencing the fragility of human existence and mourn alongside the people of Russia who are appalled at the actions of their president. I also want to offer a solemn word of hope, via Augustine, that we are indeed exiles in this world and that God’s hand is cosmically and providentially over all things. He is not a distant God but one who knows this pain and suffering, one who is not far from us by our side as our High Priest, Prophet, and King—Jesus Christ. And this Mediator reigns over all things in the city to which we belong.

For now, we lament as pilgrims. In the city of God there will be no such heartache.