The words came straight from the words of President Obama last week: The United States of America is “the greatest country on earth.”
He made this statement while encouraging all-partisan leaders to work towards a compromise concerning the US debt crisis. Admittedly, even a compromise seems to be a no-win situation for our nation’s economic future. We are in serious trouble.
One could never tell that we are in a crisis by looking at the lifestyle of the individual consumer. Sure, our nation has accrued irresponsible debt. But the average American household is no better than the nation as a whole. Some say that families on average spend $1.25 for every $1.00 earned. While I admit I am better with words than numbers, clearly those figures are upside-down.
If you were to ask the average Americans to rank their greatest fears (besides public speaking and spiders), you would hear things like, “terrorism, ecological disaster, nuclear war, or economic collapse.” Yet these very real threats appear to have done little to change anyone’s behavior.
After all, repeated studies have demonstrated that the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes up to 80 percent of the goods and services produced from the earth’s resources. The US is certainly a significant contributor to this lopsided statistic.
Nearly half of the world’s population – some 2.8 billion people on planet earth – struggle to survive on less than $2.00 a day. We are lucky to find a $2.00 parking space or pay $2.00 for a decent cup of coffee.
More than 1 billion people worldwide lack reasonable access to safe drinking water, which continues to result in diseases that are killing children at a ridiculous rate. The amount of water we as Americans waste in a day could likely solve this problem permanently.
I realize global problems and national economic problems are not as easy to solve as these simple figures might imply. But my point remains: What difference have all of these concerns made in our lives? Who among us is prepared for a major blow to our comfort?
DID THE COLLAPSE OF ROME FORESHADOW OUR DEMISE?
You will be hard-pressed to find a pastor, theologian, or ascetic who was more influential on medieval theology than St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430). In fact, many of the most fundamental doctrines birthed by the Protestant Reformation were founded on Augustinian theology. In the fifth century AD, Augustine was not only arguably the most important theologian since the Apostle Paul. He was also one of the most influential leaders in the then “greatest nation on earth”: the Roman Empire. For nearly 800 years, the world truly revolved around Rome. By the time of Augustine, however, Rome had nearly exhausted the benefits of its conquests and had begun reaping the consequences of its materialism, wastefulness, and overconfidence.
At a time when the greatest nation on earth was being penetrated from the outside while fracturing within, Augustine was the most influential voice on the Church’s behalf. His most consistent argument was: there are two kinds of people: those who love God above all else and those who love themselves above all else. The former were consumed with God’s Kingdom, the latter with the Roman Empire – and particularly with its ability to give them a cushy life (The City of God).
This short passage comes from The City of God, Book 1, chapter 33. I have adapted this translation slightly from NPNF, Series 2, Volume 2.
That the Overthrow of Rome has not Corrected the Vices of the Romans
Oh infatuated people! What is this blindness, or rather madness, that possesses you? How is it that while we have heard even the nations of the East are lamenting your ruin, and while powerful states in the most remote parts of the earth are mourning your fall as a disaster to all, you yourselves are still coming in droves to the theaters, pouring into them, and filling them; and, in short, playing the part of a person who suffers from madness now more than ever.
Scipio (a famous African general of the second Punic War in the third century BC who was a hero to Augustine and the African Romans) tried to protect you from this diseased spot; this wreck of virtue and honor from which he hoped to preserve you when he prohibited the construction of theaters. His reasoning was that you might still have an enemy to fear, because he knew how easily prosperity could corrupt and destroy you. He did not consider that republic flourishing whose walls are standing but whose morals are in ruins.
But the seduction of evil-minded devils had more influence with you than the precautions of prudent men. Therefore, you take no responsibility for the injuries you give, but the injuries you suffer you blame on Christianity.
You have been depraved by your good fortune. You have not learned any discipline by adversity. You long for the restoration of peace and security in the state, but not so that there may be true peace in the commonwealth. On the contrary, you want a free pass to resume your own vicious ways of luxury.
Scipio wanted you to be hard pressed by an enemy so that you might not abandon yourselves to a manner of luxury; but you have become so abandoned to them, that not even when crushed by the enemy is your luxury repressed. You missed your opportunity to profit from disaster had have instead been made most wretched, and have remained most degenerate.
If there was any chance that the Romans might have learned something by their impending downfall, Augustine was convinced it had not happened. Rather than changing their behavior or renewing the call for discipline, the Romans had simply looked for someone else to blame. Conveniently, the pacifist and benevolent teachings of the Christians were an easy scapegoat. But I am convinced Augustine’s words were also for the Church. His greatest desire was that the people of God, and the people of the Roman Empire, would choose to be citizens of the heavenly city and give their hearts to the Kingdom of God as if pursuing the greatest treasure. Indeed, Augustine affirms the words of Jesus:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 ESV)
MORE ABOUT AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (AD 354-430)
Augustine (Augustinus) was born on November 13, 354 in a small town in North Africa (modern-day Algeria). His father, Patricius, was an important citizen and member of the city’s ruling council. Patricius was a highly committed Roman who swore allegiance to many of the Roman (Punic) gods. Augustine’s mother Monica, however, was a deeply committed Christian. She would be Augustine’s lifelong prayer warrior and and a continual voice of Christ calling him to faith.
When Augustine left the small town for the big city life of Carthage, he followed more in his father’s footsteps than his mother’s. He fell in love with the writings of Cicero, such as Hortensius, and began pursuing a career in rhetoric and philosophy. From late adolescence into early adulthood, Augustine was a successful man of the world. Intellectualism was his greatest passion. During this time he took a mistress with whom he had an illegitimate child, chose popular philosophies over Christian faith, and became a highly-respected professor of rhetoric in Carthage, Rome, and finally Milan.
Little did Augustine know that his move to Milan would result in the call of God on his life. Augustine became acquainted with Milan’s most famous Christian – the great preacher and bishop Ambrose of Milan. In August of 386, as Augustine was wrestling with his lifestyle and the constant prodding of his mother to accept for good the teachings of Christ, he was overwhelmed by words from a children’s song he had overheard, “Take up and read.” He picked up a copy of one of Paul’s epistles and read the first line upon which his eyes focused, which happened to be Romans 13:13-14: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
According to Augustine: “No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions, 8.29)
The next year (387) on Easter, Augustine was baptized by Ambrose. After that time he more or less retired from his already illustrious teaching career. He moved back home to North Africa and soon endured the tragedies of losing his son, mother, and a dear friend. In 391, he moved to Hippo in order to teach and pursue his own personal brand of monasticism (The Rule of St. Augustine).
His desire for quiet and self-contained service to the Lord was not fulfilled, however. It didn’t take long for the people of North Africa to realize the gem they had found in Augustine. His potential for leadership was as great as anyone had ever seen. He was almost forcefully ordained as a priest under the bishop Valerius. When Valerius died in 396, Augustine was the obvious choice to replace him as Bishop of Hippo. He would remain in this high position of influence in the Western Roman Empire until his death in AD 430. Throughout his bishopric, Augustine taught and wrote voluminously on theology, apologetics, and personal Christian faith. As Rome faced its collapse, Augustine was one of the most important voices of faith and reason throughout the Empire and world. He was a pastor to countless refugees who took up residence in North Africa after the northern empire was infiltrated.
He wrote the 22 volume work City of God, which in my estimation has been the most influential Christian literature besides the New Testament. He also wrote his Confessions, which is one of the first autobiographical works in Latin-based language and also a beautiful and transparent picture of authentic Christian faith. He also wrote De Trinitate, or On the Trinity, which remains one of the most important theological works on the Trinity to date. Several of his letters and sermons have also survived, and each are a treasure to the recorded history of Christianity. Augustine is undoubtedly the most influential theologian since Paul and before Luther, and most Christians have been significantly influenced by his theology, even if they don’t know it.
MORE ABOUT THE COLLAPSE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
The oft mentioned “fall of Rome” is actually a misnomer that causes confusion. First, there is not a universally agreed upon event that can be called THE fall of Rome. Rome, as both a city and an Empire, “fell” into the hands of enemies in various places and at various times. What happened at the end of the Roman glory days, which took place primarily in the fifth century AD, was less of a fall and more of a tumble down a long, bumpy hill.
The steep decline in the power and influence of the Roman Empire was clear near the end of the fourth century AD, particularly after the death of Theodosius I. The empire quickly became a splintered version of its once unified self and dissension filled the social and political realms within. At the turn of the fifth century, two empires had clearly developed around the Mediterranean. The Western Empire, with Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Empire with Constantinople (Byzantium and today Istanbul) at its center.
At same time and as a result, Rome’s imperial authority on the rest of Europe waned and the Western half of the empire became increasingly vulnerable. This disintegration culminated in AD 410, with the sack of Rome by Alaric I and the Germanic tribes following an unprecedented retreat by the powerful Roman army. This took place when St. Augustine was 56 years old and bishop in Hippo of North Africa.
The final blow to Rome came more than 35 years after Augustine’s death, when Germanic leaders deposed the Roman Emperor Romulus on September 4, AD 476.