Friday, July 19, 2013

Augustine on war and martyrdom: Grounding death in humility

From Toledo, IA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. Brian's post today continues our discussion on the first chapter, "A Haunting Possibility: Christianity and Radical Democracy," by Hauerwas. See Jon's previous post, and make sure to check out the comments!

Sculpture of Augustine by
Jan Baptist Xavéry; photo by
Haags Uitburo
First, these words from Augustine:
(I)s it reasonable, is it sensible, to boast of the extent and grandeur of empire, when you cannot show that men lived in happiness, as they passed their lives amid the shedding of men's blood - whether the blood of enemies or fellow citizens - under the shadow of fear and amid the terror of ruthless ambition? (From City of God, quoted on p. 26)
Just before the U.S. Independence Day this month, I made a post about technology and the impossibility of a "just" war, wherein I described Augustine as "the imperial church's first political theologian" to preface a striking observation from a post by Vietnam veteran-turned-Christian pacifist, Stan Goff, that:
Augustine's idea that a good human heart could guide the sword never grasped the reality - the reality I have seen with my own eyes in the modern military - that the sword can drive every goodness out of one's heart.
The Anabaptist tradition isn't exactly known for its high esteem of the church fathers such as Augustine, and I certainly absorbed that bias/ignorance from my upbringing in the Anabaptist stream. But I've been warned by a wise Mennonite theologian that we peace church folks shouldn't be so quick to write off the likes of Augustine, and I think the quote above is a good example of that. It seems to temper any imperial bloodlust that pacifist-types (like me) might want to read back into him, and may offer a rejoinder of sorts to Goff's observation (which I still think is powerful and should be taken seriously).

But why is Hauerwas using it here, in a discussion on Christianity and radical democracy?

The glory of a "good death"

Hauerwas makes the Augustine reference above in the context of an interesting section that he thinks many will find a distraction from the more explicit question of the chapter (and book). But Hauerwas wants to suggest that:
the ability to sustain a local politics, whether it be Christian or radically democratic, requires an orientation toward death that grounds humility - the humility necessary to engage in the slow and painful work of sustaining a community capable of resisting the allure of significance that is the breeding ground of violence. (p. 24, emphases added)
Hauerwas is drawing on Augustine's distinctions between the purposes of death for the Roman soldier and death for the Christian martyr. The former is for the glory (and expansion) of the empire through military and political victory. A "good death" for the Roman soldier is met on the battlefield for conquest of new territories, new peoples. It is that particular story of conquest for the glory of empire that captures the imaginations and bodies of the soldiers, and compels them into battle with the hopes of a "good death." It's here that Augustine sounds a note of caution w/ the first quote above. In modern parlance, it's a kind of "'s that workin' out for ya?" He does indeed seem to understand at some level the cost of war on those who have been captured by the imperialist vision.

In contrast, the Christian martyr's victory in death never looks like victory to the powers that be. It always looks like weakness and folly, "because the glory of the martyr is a reflected glory - a reflection of the glory of Christ - signaling an alternative political ethic" (Hauerwas, p. 25). The communion of saints in the church as martyrs/witnesses to the alternative politics of Jesus is perhaps the point at which the Anabaptist tendency to skip post-Constantinian (e.g. Augustinian) theologizing is a mistake. (One notable exception being 17th century Dutch Mennonite, Thieleman van Braght's martyrology, The Martyr's Mirror, which continues to stimulate the contemporary Mennonite imagination.)

Perhaps for Augustine - though to my limited knowledge ambiguous at best on the imperially-sanctioned church - the memory of the church's pre-Constantinian persecution and the "good death" of the martyrs was still fresh enough in corporate memory to provoke caution at the brave new world of the church triumphant (in the worldly sense).

The humility implicit in a "good death" for the Christian martyr is therefore a disavowal of worldly glory: personal, political, martial. It is a Christ-like, cross-shaped submission to the evil and violent Powers of this fallen age. Martyrdom exhibits a "politics of modesty" (p. 25, fn 11) that is at once mimetic (i.e. it imitates/images the glory/weakness of Christ) and eschatological (i.e. it glimpses the glorious/peaceable coming kingdom to the fallen world). As such, it disrupts the legitimacy of the Powers of this fallen age. (See my recent post on the Powers.)

Humility cuts both ways

It is such humility that Hauerwas wants to suggest that the church has to offer radical democracy. Yes, but... - All three of us - John, Jon, and I; as well as frequent commenter Scott Holland - seem to be weary of the state of the church in the late modern West. We all seem to be asking throughout our discussions: "Where is this church of which you speak?" - Which is why I think the conversation Jon opened up about "orthodoxy" in the previous post is so important.

If Christianity/the church (and its orthodoxy/believing rightly) is thought of as a story "across time and space... the story of conflict which makes possible a political alternative otherwise not available" (p. 30), then I think the church today needs this medicine of humility as much as radical democracy does, or more than "the world" does, because of the extent to which the world has infiltrated the church for so very long in Christendom. The sin/vice of pride seems to rule the roost in much of American Christianity.

So both ecclesia and democracy need that "radical" dearly. May it be so...

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