by Anthony Egan SJ

In Africa this past month we have observed a president survive a no-confidence parliamentary vote despite overwhelming evidence that he is manifestly corrupt (South Africa); another president re-elected with a laughable 98.8% of the vote (Rwanda); and an election marred by pre- and post-poll violence and allegations of election fraud (Kenya). And this week we remembered St Augustine of Hippo (28 August) in the Church’s Calendar.

Augustine (354-430 AD) lived in a time of social turmoil: an empire in freefall, the rise of barbarism, a crisis of reason. In our times we see similar crises: the hints of a break-up of one global bloc (the European Union), the weakening of another (the United States) through internal political turmoil, nuclear brinkmanship in East Asia, and populist irrationality on every continent.

In response to his time, Augustine wrote his great work The City of God. Written in reaction to those who saw the collapse of the Roman Empire as the fault of the Christians. By stressing the difference between the Heavenly City and the Human City, Augustine offers believers, in difficult times, a hope rooted in realism, an ethic for the ‘between times’ in which he – and we – live.

By highlighting the distinction between Heaven and Earth, sacred and historical time, Augustine reminds us that no civilization can be equated with the reign of God. God – not humanity –inaugurates and fulfils the reign of God; we merely cooperate in or obstruct it. All human institutions contain within themselves the holy and unholy. Human actions either move the process forward – or temporarily delay it.

Human society moves forward and backwards. Great social advances that promote democracy, economic justice, gender equality, racial justice and human rights (few of which I suspect Augustine could have envisioned) are brought to a halt, slowed or temporarily reversed by counter-movements like authoritarian populism, neoliberal capitalism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia. But out of this re-emerge counter-counter-movements that refine and renew positive values. There is no ‘end of history’, no perfect Human City. For Augustine, and for all Christians all moral progress is contingent, awaiting final fulfilment in the reign of God.

There is much I find offensive or just plain mean in Augustine: deep issues with women (not least their role in the Church) and views on salvation that make him sound like a raving fundamentalist are but two of them. But his genius lay in reminding us all that Christians have a duty to live in the Human City with our eyes on the Heavenly City. This is not an ethic of withdrawal into our peaceable little ‘kingdoms’ but one of engagement. Does this mean sometimes getting our hands dirty? Yes. Does this mean we have to sometimes find a compromise between the ideal and the downright awful? I believe it does.

We do not yet live in the reign of God. Augustine tells us to get on and do our best in the world while keeping our eyes on the prize.