In Sunday’s reading for Populus Zion, the second Sunday in Advent, Luke speaks of Jesus’s triumphant return, saying, “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (emphasis added).
I wish more American Christians today actually recognized Advent instead of skipping straight to a bowdlerized commercial Christmas, as this passage is of pressing political relevance for our present time. To see why, it may be best to offer a roundabout explanation.
“Keep on the alert!” the Christian is exhorted. “Do not be worried,” we are commanded. While enthusiastic pastors may want to see in this passage a battle cry of apocalypse, it’s quite plain what the Christian is really being told to do: wait in faith. Wait with expectancy and real hope, but wait.
We are not told to pick up arms, accelerate the contradictions, and fight the Last Battle. The truth is, we contribute nothing to the coming of that final day. Only the Father knows the hour of Christ’s return. We have no great battle to fight against evil. What strength have I that adds to Christ’s victory? Will I, by some strength or zeal, accomplish anything of note not already accomplished in the solid trouncing of death achieved on Easter morning?
Today’s Return to Manicheanism
It may interest American Christians to know that, before the rise of Islam, one of the chief religious rivals to Christianity, especially in the Middle East, was the religion of Manicheanism. Among its various tenets, Manicheanism, in contradiction with Christianity, viewed all of human life and human history as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, with the fate of the cosmos hanging in the balance.
In its own day, Manichaean teachings failed to infiltrate the Christian church. Christians rejected narratives of cosmic struggle, of metaphysical dependence on temporal events. Christian thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Athanasius had inoculated Christianity against this view with a very simple teaching: that God, having brought all creation into being by his word, and being the fountainhead of all existence, had made all things good. Evil therefore cannot “exist”; it is outside the mind of God. It is merely an absence of good, not a thing-in-itself.
For most Christian theologians of the time, honesty existed, and dishonesty did not. It was merely the absence of a thing that existed: “truth.” Likewise, the light exists. The darkness is merely the absence of light.
So when Manicheans (and, earlier, Gnostic heretics) came along suggesting that all of life was a great, cosmic, spiritual struggle, Christians were not receptive. There is no great spiritual struggle. The littlest light will push back the greatest of darkness, because darkness is nothing. To Christians, there is no great ongoing cosmic war. Christ was incarnated and walked among us as a man, was crucified, died, and was buried, descended into hell to proclaim his victory over Satan, then rose from the grave, and appeared to many to establish his church.
Christians’ Task Is Faithful Waiting
Now, particularly in this Advent season, faithful Christians basically have one, and only one, eschatologically important task: wait! There is no further war to fight. Christ is coming back, and when he does, it will be like bringing a nuke to a knife-fight. There’s just no contest against the agent of all creation.
For a Christian, there are no stakes in a cosmic sense for anything we observe in the news: Christ will come victorious. Our job is to endure in hope, and share that hope with others.
These should all be obvious truths for a Christian. Yet increasingly I find Christians a bit confused on this basic question of evil. Call it a Flight 93 election, make allusions to Rome, raise the hue and cry over looming persecution of Christians or regulation of Christian worship—at the root of these I sense not just a political question, but a theological one.
It seems some Christians believe this stuff really actually matters, that the “spiritual warfare” scripture speaks of actually is against “powers and principalities,” despite the Bible explicitly saying, no, spiritual warfare is not about politics, but your own immortal soul.
President Trump, I have been told, is not a normal political leader. He is a modern-day Constantine sent to save Christendom (and, quite weirdly, Hillary Clinton has been analogized to… Diocletian?), or else even more: he is a late-coming historical messiah, a new Cyrus, sent to return American Christians to the promised land.
Of course, on the other hand, if you listen to the entertainingly self-labeled “Resistance,” the stakes are just as high. Literally anything President Trump does will be the end of America, according to these folks. Cut taxes? End of America! Deregulate Internet service providers? End of America! Stop forcing people to buy health insurance? America, ended. The histrionics are boundless.
Rome Always Falls Eventually
If you listen to the sound and fury of our political apparatchiks, you might think big things are afoot in America, that some climactic, nearly apocalyptic political moment is at hand. For materialists who find all their value in this world, there may be some truth to that. We may be at a crucial political inflection point, from which there is no return.
Maybe, as the loudest conservatives suggest, we stand at the opening volleys of Adrianople, and the barbarians are hungry. Or maybe, as progressives suggest, we are seeing America’s long experiment in justice-for-all destroyed by reactionaries. I don’t think so, but I’ll be charitable; maybe people have a point about the politics.
But Rome fell. Then it fell again with the end of the Byzantine Empire. Then again when the French Revolution dismembered the Holy Roman Empire. The truth is, Rome always falls eventually; the plans of man are fleeting, and they end in the grave.
Out of the wreck of Rome strode one triumphant party: the church. Out from under the shadow of the emperor, the western church throve for hundreds of years, flowering into the bright array of Christendom, putting down roots, from which one day would grow the tree of all modern European cultures.
The church did not just survive the fall of Rome; it throve among the ruins. Far from saving Christianity, Constantine nearly killed it when he tied it to the sinking ship of Roman bureaucracy. Only by breaking the chains Constantine forged did Christendom persist beyond Rome.
Look Beyond the City of Man
Augustine did not only give Christendom its leading theory of goodness. He also gave us the foundation of all pre-modern Christian political thought in the western church, his work “City of God.” Written in response to a barbarian sack of Rome, it is Augustine’s urging of his fellow Roman Christians to look beyond the “city of man,” Rome, blasphemously called by Romans “the Eternal City,” and see the actual Eternal City, a New Jerusalem.
Christian leaders like Augustine taught their flocks not to look for a new establishment politician with just the right policies, like Majorian or Anthemius. Nor should Christians turn to a dubiously legitimate strong-man who upset the establishment, but got stuff done, like Stilicho, Aetius, or the wicked, empire-wrecking (but very popular with native-born Italians!) Ricimer. Rather, as his hometown of Hippo Regius was aflame, besieged by rampaging Vandals, Augustine saw clearly the Christian path through chaotic political times: to remember that the stakes are very low for us.
We are citizens of two kingdoms, and our first citizenship is always in heaven. To be an American first and a Christian second is, simply, to not be a Christian at all. If our party’s electoral defeat gives us more sadness than an empty pew at church does, then we have drunk the poison of Manichaeanism: we have convinced ourselves that the City of Man is our true home, the place with our most vital investments, rather than the City of God.
If the sins of an opposing politician incite our judgment more than our own sins do, then we have been blinded by the darkness of Manichaean thinking, deluded into thinking that the cosmos depends upon our political victory, rather than Christ’s Advent. If we more eagerly evangelize the good news of tax cuts than the the body and blood of Jesus Christ served to us each Sunday, then we can see clearly where we have actually stored up our treasures.
This Doesn’t Mean to Hide in the Hills
I do not mean to counsel political quietism. It is decent and proper for Christians to engage in politics and seek to bring about the common good, and to enable the living of quiet Christian lives. But we must never lose sight of where the real stakes are: not at the ballot box and not on Twitter, but in our own souls, and what conduct and behaviors we allow, endorse, and encourage.
Whenever we begin to get riled up, to tell ourselves that everything is terrible, we must remember that it is better that America, like Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem of old, should be sunk beneath the waves than that the church should accept an unclean conscience on its behalf. Then we must recall what we are commanded to do: wait.
Wait for His Advent. Be ready. Be alert. Know that you do not know the day nor the hour of his coming; know that though there are wars and rumors of wars, God’s word will never pass away. It will not pass away if abortion doubles, nor will his Advent be hastened if abortion is ended. The word will not pass away if every church is reduced to ash, nor if every senator were a minister would the timing of our coming redemption be changed by an iota.
So be at peace, and do not worry about tomorrow. The worst the world can do to you is kill you; and that is of little consequence to a Christian.