By Simon Cuff
Two cities. Two kingdoms. Two nations. Christian and political theology is littered with these binaries. An election is imminent in the United States. Two- party politics. Two major presidential candidates. Two major vice-presidential candidates. A country divided by a common political system.
Whilst our second set of binaries reflect the reality of the American political system, our first set reflect different aspects of the challenge of living the Christian life in any society.) With his notion of “two cities,” St. Augustine (354-430) contrasts the communities in which we live now and the eternal city which is our home, most famously in his City of God 14.28: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.” These two cities have nothing properly to do with each other, even if they are found side-by-side and intermingled in this life.
This imagery builds on a set of similar binary motifs that had been developing for some time in Augustine’s thought. Earlier in his True Religion he drew a similar contrast between two kinds of people: “one, formed of the crowd of the impious, which bears the image of earthly man from the beginning of time to the end; the other, made up of generations devoted to the one God, but who from Adam to John the Baptist, led the life of earthly man with a sort of ‘worldly justice’ its history is called the Old Testament.”
Shortly after Augustine developed his account of two cities, Pope Gelasius described two powers “by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power” (Letter to Anastasius 494). Gelasius identifies two legitimate authorities — priestly and political. For him, the priestly takes superiority, as even presidents must render an account to the divine judgment proclaimed by the clergy. However, earthly powers are allowed legitimately to govern if “in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly mysteries you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these matters you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will.”
Gelasius articulates a distinction between Church and state, so long as the state follows the Church in matters pertaining to salvation, and presumably any other such matters which the Church judges are within its authority. In turn, he calls on clergy to recognize the supremacy of the earthly powers “granted from heaven in matters affecting the public order,” obeying secular laws “lest otherwise they might obstruct the course of secular affairs by irrelevant considerations.” Beware of turbulent priests.
In time, Gelasius’ two forces develop into the two swords of spiritual and temporal power. Whilst Christendom persisted, both were in the power of the Church, as Pope Boniface writing in 1302 indicates: “the spiritual and material sword … the former is the to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest” (Unum Sanctum).
Whilst Boniface’s use of such a distinction serves to preserve the authority of the Church across society, today similar distinctions are used to keep the Church firmly in its place. The separation of Church and State entails the commonplace: “Religious leaders should restrict themselves to matters of religion and stay well clear of politics.” In election season, any intervention by a religious figure is considered inherently political.
In any election, voters face choices. Choices between parties, candidates, and policies. Some of these choices are choices are binary, even if some of these binaries are false. The binary which restricts Christian opinion to religious matters is as false as the binary which reinforces Church control over society as a whole. The binary between “Democrat” and “Republican” is as false as the binary between male or female, slave or free in Christ (Gal. 3.28).
There are, however, binaries which have something of the truth about them. We have already encountered Augustine’s two cities. We can be orientated towards our eternal home, or we can turn away from God and persist in focusing solely on ourselves and our own selfish interests. Crucially, we can live in relation to this binary even in the midst of the world which is passing away. In fact, we have a duty to do so. Our living in this world, oriented towards our heavenly home, changes the way in which we inhabit this world, and causes us to do so in a way that changes our political engagement away from ourselves and towards the eternal city of our heavenly home. Living as inhabitants of the heavenly city causes us to care deeply about the nature of the earthly city and communities in which we currently live.
For Christians, this inevitably draws us in to the world of politics. Our membership of the heavenly polis (city) has implications for how we relate to the community in which we live — the earthly polis (city). Our heavenly politics leads us inevitably toward earthly politics. This realization overcomes that binary which seeks to separate religion and politics and confine the Christian contribution to society to a “religious” realm. Such a division is itself a political one, serving to silence any Christian vision or contribution to our society’s political life.
This binary between religious and political is not the only binary that we are required to overcome. The British Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, referred to another important binary in his identification of “two nations” in his novel Sybil: “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … the rich and the poor.”
The political intervention of Christians requires a commitment to overcoming the fundamental divide between rich and poor. The contours of a Christian politics are given to us by Our Lady’s song heralding the birth of Christ: the powerful brought down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, the rich sent empty away (Luke 1:46-55). Of the very many binaries and choices we are called to make and overturn in the Christ life, the divide between rich and power, powerful and powerless, is persistent. The poor are with always because the processes of marginalization that lead to poverty in all its forms are persistent.
As Christians, each and every day we face the choice to further or confront such processes, to side with the poor and victims of marginalization in all their forms or to ignore them, to live heavenwards or towards ourselves. The realities of this choice take us inevitably to the ballot box, to take our part as Christians in the political life of whichever society of which we are a part, and to reflect carefully about how to vote in such a way that begins to overturn those divides which God is already overturning in Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Simon Cuff is tutor and lecturer at St. Mellitus College, London.