In A.D. 410 Alaric and his barbarian hordes sacked Rome. It was the first in a series of gut-wrenching events that would lead to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. Christians saw Rome’s decline and coming fall as a disaster for Christendom and the cause of Christ. Opponents, then and now, blamed the catastrophe on the church.
Augustine, the bishop of the North African city of Hippo, however, refused to give in to despair on either count. God, he said, has a bigger agenda than the prosperity of any earthly institution.
“Mankind is divided into two sorts,” he wrote in his classic work, The City of God. “Such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we call the two cities.… The Heavenly City outshines Rome. There, instead of victory, is truth.”
The American empire, born in revolution and the revolutionary idea of government by “we the people,” seems to be facing its own moment of truth. In an emotional message to author Rod Dreher, an anonymous college professor voiced the fears of many:
“I’ve been troubled by what’s happening in Washington, of course, and by the prospect of ending a respected judge’s career based on vague allegations that could just as easily come your way, or mine. Usually I am able to tune out much of Washington pomposity, since we see again and again that this week’s biggest deal ever! is usually next week’s what was that again? Finally this morning it occurred to me what was happening: I’ve been feeling a very real, very tangible sense of grief that it all seems to be slipping away. What is “it”? Culture, I guess. Solidarity. The great story and great promise of this country. Harmony and peace. Shared stories. Kinship and brotherhood. The spirit of being in this together.
All that is gone, and I’ve been teary-eyed because I know we’re passing into something else. Something profoundly uglier.”
That uglier something is clear to anyone with eyes to see. Of course, no one can deny the ugliness in our nation’s past and present—the deadly conquest of the Native American inhabitants, slavery and Jim Crow, civil war, xenophobia, sexual license and the legal slaughter of 60 million unborn human beings, the moral compromise and collapse of too many churches and their leaders, the redefinition of marriage and the growing demonization of anyone who objects, and politics as a zero-sum blood sport where anything goes—even truth—in the service of “victory.”
But America, for all its warts, has been a beacon of hope and a “city on a hill” here and around the world. The United States has been the leading democracy, a champion of human rights and religious freedom. It has lifted countless millions out of poverty into previously unimaginable prosperity and brought us the automobile, environmental protection, and a cure for polio. It has lifted women, the disabled, and immigrants into the cultural mainstream. It has saved Europe—twice—from the scourge of world war and defeated totalitarian communism.
“The story of America,” the British historian Paul Johnson wrote, “is essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence. America today . . . is a human achievement without parallel.”
Yet the American achievement seems on shaky ground. The cultural topography has split apart, and the cultural consensus on former bedrock “givens” such as marriage has crumbled. “Truth” has given way to “my truth” or “your truth,” and “fact” to “narrative.” The “melting pot” has been replaced by a warring tribalism between interest groups vying for power. On such a seismically shifting landscape, can a shared civilization, a glittering “city of man,” still stand?
As Yeats wrote a century ago, in the wake of another world collapsing:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In our own moment of cultural, even civilizational, collapse, where can Christians go to avoid despair? The same place God’s people have always gone—the City of God. The kingdoms of this world may totter, but as Martin Luther said, Christ’s kingdom is forever. And as the Psalmist wrote during another time of national crisis:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
So, by all means, as the Lord’s salt and light, let us prayerfully do what we can to preserve what is good in our nation and in our churches in this unsettling post-Christian moment. For some, this may mean a more active engagement in the culture-making institutions of this world. For others, it might mean a strategic withdrawal in order to build creative, communal solutions to the present crisis.
For all of us, however, it must mean a commitment to hope, knowing that God is working out His perfect plan, and building His City, amid the upheavals of life.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of God’s Story in 66 Verses.
A Mighty Fortress is Our God
Augustine of Hippo
City of God
City on a Hill
The Second Coming
W. B. Yeats
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