Augustine, Martyrdom and Nonviolence

Now we must follow in the footsteps of the martyrs by imitating them; otherwise our celebration of their feast days is meaningless.

This is among the first words in Augustine’s sermon on the feast of St. Laurence,one of his theologically and politically densest sermons.  The strand of thought that ties together the whole sermon, which moves from a meditation on the nature of life to an exhortation to exercise nonviolence in our personal lives (while supporting the violence of the God-ordained magistrate), is the contrast between lovers of this life and lovers of the next one.

Augustine’s encapsulation of this life is poetic and prescient, would not feel out of place in Pensees or Ecclesiastes, and deserves to be quoted in full.

Surely I needn’t remind you how short life is. We know from experience that it is full of suffering and complaining. It is beset by temptations, it is filled with fears. It burns with passions; it is at the mercy of change. It hurts in misfortunes; with success, it grows arrogant. It greets profit with unrestrained joy; and is tormented by losses. Even while someone is rejoicing over his profits, he is trembling in case he loses what he has already got, and has that to complain about. Though before he ever got it, of course, he wasn’t complaining. In short, life is genuine unhappiness, or deceptive happiness.

Augustine continues in this vein, and finally expresses puzzlement.  How is it that this unpleasant life has so many and such ardent lovers?  “There are so many lovers of this present life,” Augustine exclaims, “Temporary, brief, unpleasant, yet it has so many lovers!”  Augustine compares the clinging love of this life with the love of a “bad woman.”

What have you fallen in love with? What do you love that’s drawn you to it? You’re a corrupt lover of a bad woman: what are you going to say to her? How are you going to address this life of yours that you’ve fallen in love with? Talk her up, chat her up, win her over if you can. What are you going to say? “Your beauty has reduced me to this state of rags?” She shouts back, “But I’m ugly. Are you in love with me?” I can hear her shouting, “I’m a hard woman, and you’re embracing me?” She’s shouting again, “I’m the flight type – are you going to try and chase me?” Listen to the woman you love answering you: “I won’t stop with you; if I do spend a time with you, I won’t stay. I could strip you of your clothes – but I couldn’t make you happy.”

And yet this life has its lovers.  Augustine holds up the example of the martyr to show us that another love is possible: love of the next life.  Augustine gives several illustrations of why this is a sensible move to make.  He describes how some lovers of this life will pay their entire fortunes to live a little longer, and in the end are left without their fortunes and have only postponed death.  Why not instead give your fortune to Christ, who will keep both your fortune and your life to await you in the next life?

The martyrs possess this kind of wisdom, and unlike the dead who lost the life they love, now possess the lives they love, and “will possess it even more fully at the resurrection of the dead. And so, by suffering as much as they did, have paved the way for us.”

But Augustine hits an interesting wall here, because in recounting the martyrdom of St. Laurence, he observes that he was killed by the Roman state.  This leads Augustine to make two points, held together in a sort of dialectical tension.

The first point is that Christians must follow the martyr in not resisting evil men.  This passage mirrors or even pre-figures many writers who argue for Christian nonviolence, and is worth quoting at length.

If you are able, and are not bad yourself, then pray for the evil person to become good. Why do you treat those who are bad violently? You reply, ‘Because they are bad.’ As soon as you treat them violently, you add yourself to them. Let me give you some advice. There’s some evil person you despise? Well, don’t let there be two. You criticize him, and then join him? You swell the ranks you’re condemning. Are you trying to overcome evil with evil? To overcome hatred with hatred? Then there will be two lots of hatred, and both will need to be overcome. Can’t you hear the advice your Lord gave through the apostle Paul, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Now maybe he is worse than you; but you are still bad, and so there will be two of you who are bad. I’d rather that at least one were good. And in the end violence leads to death. Then what about after his death, when the one bad man can’t be touched by punishment any longer, while the other is taken up alone with his hatred? But this is not civil order; this is madness.

Augustine then moves from Romans 12, which he quoted above, to Romans 13, observing that punishment and the upholding of civil order is appointed not to individual Christians, but to the state.  “Bad men have their own judges and authorities,” he says, “He does not wield the sword without reason. He is an avenger of [God’s] anger, but on the evil-doer.  If you do evil, then fear him.  Do you want to live without fear of the authorities? Do good, and you will have praise from them.”

But here is where Augustine is led into a position in tension with the one above.  St. Laurence did good, and was killed by the authorities.  And his answer, while unsatisfactory in itself, leads us in a promising direction.  His answer amounts to a word game.  He says,

The apostle did not say, ‘Do good and the authorities themselves will praise you’….If the authorities are just you will have praise from them in that they themselves will praise you. But if they are unjust, if you die for your faith, for justice and for truth, you will have praise from them even though they treat you violently.  You will have praise from them, even though they don’t praise you themselves.  They provide the opportunity for you to be praised… if the holy martyr Laurence hadn’t had [such] praise from the authorities, we wouldn’t be honoring him today.

I find this unsatisfactory because it holds an almost childishness overliteralness.  Who knows if this trick would work in Paul’s Greek anyway?  But for all that, the fundamental point is exactly right.  When an unjust authority persecutes Christians who are living holy lives, that is itself a form of praise. It means we’re doing something right.  When Christians living holy lives are put to death, the authorities are exposing both themselves and the church for what they are.

And yet Augustine famously endorses Christians to act as judges, executioners, governors and soldiers.  In these capacities (and only these) the Christian can act in judgment and punishment of others.  But even here Augustine is problematic for modern liberalism, as he observes that as a bishop of the church “when we find a pagan in authority, we treat him as we ought to treat a pagan, when we find a Christian in authority we treat him as a Christian.”  In other words, as a bishop he has spiritual authority over Christians, regardless of their position.  Indeed, in letters Augustine often pulls rank on Christians in government, illustrating a complicated church-state relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

Martyrdom is politically significant. The martyr shows us another way to live, in  faithful confrontation with the world. Augustine’s political theology, which I find problematic at points, gives us resources to draw on in a critique of modern liberal democracy. Among other things, it calls into question the distinction that Kennedy, and more recently Mitt Romney, stress between a spiritual Christian identity and a political, non-sectarian one.


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