It was on the shores of North Africa that one of the greatest Christian thinkers tried to work out the relationship between Jesus' teachings about loving even enemies and the impending invasion by a distinctly unfriendly army.
Augustine was the bishop of Hippo in what is now the northeast corner of Algeria, just over the border from Tunisia, only 500 miles from Tripoli, the capital of Libya. This was in the early 400s, when the Vandals were moving across Europe and threatening to take control of North Africa.
Augustine's story has something to say today as U.S., European, and Arab allies are enmeshed in the battle for Libya. Augustine, after all, played a major role in developing what is known as the "just war" theory that is supposed to provide a moral test for nations considering going to war.
It is a theory that often seems totally irrelevant in modern warfare, where drones kill people far from a battlefield in Pakistan, where CIA operatives slip across national borders, where tribal loyalties lead to genocide in Rwanda, where the U.S. dramatically enters the wars of other nations.
It is a theory that has long been rationalized by the policy makers that decide on committing troops to battle. And yet if there is going to be any kind of moral calculus in considering when war might have a justification, what has happened in Libya and so many other places raised new questions that need serious ethical and moral consideration.
Is war only justified when it is in self-defense? How about a pre-emptive strike to prevent an attack? Or for retribution to deter a future attack? Is it justified to stop genocide in another nation? Is it justified to protect the weaker party in a civil war? Is it justified to protect vital resources, such as oil? Or can it ever really be justified, given all the horror that inevitably is part of war?
So here's the story of Augustine. The Roman general in Africa, whose name was Boniface, had lost his wife and had wearied of war. He had deepened his understanding of what Jesus had been teaching and of how early Christians rejected participating in war before the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. So Boniface decided to spend the rest of his days as a monk.
Not so fast, said Augustine. Maybe you could be a monk later. Right now, the monks will pray for you against the invisible forces of evil. Augustine's advice to the general: "You must fight for them against the barbarians, their visible foes."
It is reminiscent of a prayer of the young Augustine as he enjoyed life with a couple of mistresses: "Give me chastity, God, but not yet."
It seems to me that's what nations do far too often. If they are not engaged in war just for the sake of conquest, then they justify war by cloaking it in the language of a peace hoped for