When In Rome…

Fasten your seatbelts, kiddies. This is going to be a long one!

Something that many people don’t know about me is that I am fascinated by the ancient Roman Empire. Ancient RomeThe Romans amaze me. They were ahead of their time in matters of law, warfare, government, technology, architecture. In many ways, Rome reminds me of America: proud, strong, wealthy. However, my fascination with Rome can be a two-edged sword because I see its more negative traits exhibited in America as well.

Now recently, I have been reading “The City of God” by St. Augustine, a book which came out of the author’s meditation on the fall of the Roman Empire. In it, Augustine covers everything from the fall of Rome to the miracles of the early church. The greater purpose of the book is to illustrate that there is a City of God and there a City of Man. These two cities are at enmity with one another. Of course the City of God will be the one to triumph (and indeed already has). He illustrates this by examining pagan religions, philosophical issues, and political/social happenings of his day (namely, the sacking of Rome). All of his digressions are meant to bring home the point that the City of God is made up of people who have chosen to live according to God’s precepts.

The first portion of the book is so interesting to me because it gives me a glimpse into Roman thought. Books I through V are a rebuttal of some of his contemporaries who blamed the sacking of Rome by the Goths, and the Empire’s subsequent end, on the Christians. After all it was the teachings of Christ that had lead to the abolition of worshipping the gods. The gods, they argued, brought this fate upon Rome for turning away from them and to the Christian faith. Augustine shows how calamities had come upon Rome in the past even while they served the gods. The historian Sallust stated that it was because Rome had become so powerful that it began to corrode from the inside. Indeed he said that between the second and third Punic wars (a series of wars fought against the ancient city of Carthage) is when Rome enjoyed its greatest harmony and its “pur[est] state of society. However, Sallust further states, this did not come out of their love of order but out of fear “lest the peace they had with Carthage might be broken.” Augustine points to Scipio Nasica, a Roman consul, who opposed the destruction of Carthage because if Carthage (and the fear thereof) was taken out of the way aSt. Augustine of Hippo host of evils would erupt out of Rome’s new found comfort in the absence of her enemies. Unfortunately, the Senate did not listen to Nasica and that is precisely what happened: bloodshed, civil wars, “the lust of rule”, etc. Thus inner corruption was its downfall and such corruption had begun to come upon Rome before Christ even appeared in the flesh.

Now if the gods had cared about preserving their servants, they surely would have given to the Romans some holy precepts for righteous living, but none are ever mentioned. In fact, you can see that the gods were known to be licentious and cruel themselves by seeing how they are depicted in ancient Roman plays. The ancient poets who wrote these plays, Augustine says, were thought to be doing so at the command of the gods! The gods, we can conclude, wanted to be seen as being adulterous, conniving, cruel, and vain.

St. Augustine, after explaining this (and many other) things, grabs my attention fully when he begins to state the true motives of those who are using the Christian faith as a scapegoat. They are not concerned about Rome:

“But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes….Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure….

Roman Colosseum

Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him….Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate….If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed.” (emphasis mine).

Before you think this is another “bash modern America” tirade about how “tha church needs ta git on fire fer God!”, let me explain why I have gone on and on about Rome, St. Augustine, and the City of God. I don’t deny that I’d like to see the modern church (and myself) be more on fire fer..I mean, for God. However I am interested in a little more introspection here. You see, I definitely see all of the traits that Augustine mentions in the above quote in the attitude of modern America (especially the ones in bold). But more disturbing, I see some of them in myself. It is true that I have bought into American materialism and at times I am thankful for America being so great a world power just because it affords me to have the things I want. Never mind that I am not beaten for my faith day in and day out. Never mind that I am free to tell anyone I want about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have a higher calling and the freedom I have in America affords me the opportunity to live out that calling.

Even though Augustine wrote his book 1,500 years ago, I do not believe its teachings have expired. I still believe in the City of God. I do not buy into the idea that God has forsaken “the late great planet earth” or that I am just waiting around to get out of here. I also, like Augustine, take Christ at His word that His Kingdom is not earthly; but that does not mean it is not present on the earth. I believe that you, me, and the church are here for a reason and we are here to stay. Let’s be who we are! We are the citizenry of the City of God.

I am thankful for what I have, but I will not let it become the most important thing anymore. Computers, cars, guitars, and iPods are nifty and even quite useful. But they are no substitute for living daily in the presence of God.

Josh H.


3 Responses to “When In Rome…”

  1. 1 kev
    January 19, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Wow, an honest-to-goodness “educational” blog post! Nicely done.

  2. January 19, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Well if I go around talking about nothing but cats and Costner, people might begin to think I’m shallow.

    Costner rocks!

  3. January 20, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Really good post, Josh. Took me a while to read it all (kinda hard to focus on too much this week), but I really enjoyed it. History was always my favorite–especially Ancient History. Rome has always been an example of what not to do once you “get it all together”. But on a smaller scale it can be a lesson for us as to what not to do once God has blessed us, or we gain victory in a certain areas of our life. We can’t get too comfortable and too secure in OUR ability to be great or to be in control of things. It’s God. And following Him is what got us to this place of blessing in the first place. Well, before I steal your sermon, I’d better go. 😉

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