Visigoths and the City of God

When the Visigoths sacked Rome, the Eternal City, in 410 C.E., the attackers used the city's own mighty transportation system-the Appian Way-as the weapon of its downfall. As Rome's towers crumbled, St. Augustine attempted to address the urgent questions of the day: Why is this happening to us? Have we neglected the gods? Christians believed that their God protected people, and obviously Rome had not been protected. They believed that God had given Rome its prosperity and power-was God now taking that away?

Augustine argued in The City of God that although Rome had suffered a great blow, God was still actively at work in human history. He also argued that Rome was not as eternal as some people claimed. In fact, said Augustine, rather than Rome being the great peace-maker, to some it was only wicked. The superpower of the ancient world was influenced both by God and by the demons of materialism, violence, self-love, fraud, and usury.

Later the Christian monk Salvian took the sins of Rome upon himself, saying, "We wish to sin, but not to be punished....We punish others, but forgive ourselves for the same crime-an act of intolerable arrogance and presumption. We are unwilling to acknowledge guilt in ourselves, but we dare to arrogate to ourselves the right to judge others. What can be more unjust and what more perverse?"

Salvian rallied Christians to cling to the higher ethics of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, especially in the midst of suffering. The poor of the Roman world found more dignity among the barbarous, said Salvian, than among the so-called just and good. Only if Christians genuinely follow the spiritual laws laid out by Jesus will they win back the hearts and minds of the poor against the false pieties of the invaders.

In The City of God Augustine marks out a strict dichotomy between Rome as the demon-ridden earthly city of humans and Jerusalem as God's spiritual city populated by angels. Although the cities appeared mixed, he said, in the end they would be separated. In this tale of two cities, no one knows when this eschatological sifting will happen, but we do know how. In fact, it will look much like America after Sept. 11.

The cities are separated by courageous acts of love-by fire fighters rushing in where fools wouldn't tread, by strangers opening their doors to strangers, by a lone ash-covered priest giving last rites amid the rubble. Evil cannot be separated from good by military alliances, covert assassinations, business-as-usual international finance, or even knee-jerk protests. The cities can only be separated by radical and extreme acts of love. This is how God will work in human history.

Rose Marie Berger is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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