These are the words of my daughter, uttered in an email after the recent US presidential election. A scary reflection made by a 35 year old European mother.
As a theologian I have been thinking of St. Augustine and the feeling of despair and anger he must have had when he saw the ancient Roman Empire, of which he was a most loyal citizen even after his conversion to Christianity, being subsequently crippled and dismantled by the hordes of barbarians invading it from the north and sacking it until there was not stone upon stone left of it any more.
A civilization dissolving and perishing before his eyes.
He takes up his pen and writes his magnum opus “De Civitate Dei”, “The City of God”. Yes, it is a utopia, and Augustine knows it very well. A city – or a state – like that will never happen in history; he most certainly knew that.
Human history contains periods when hope is kindled and “men of good will” seem to prevail in building a society for all human beings; built upon eternal values such as human dignity, equality, righteousness, humility and truthfulness. For a short while, that is. Because when the setbacks come – and alas! they come all the time – they throw us back into the republic of predators, into a Colosseum run and ruled by the only true beasts: the humans.
Hope and despair, succeeding one another in a never ending chain.
What Augustine wanted to depict was an ideal scheme of what a human reign, built upon eternal, God-given values, would be like. This is a reign which can never come fully true in time or in history but which can yet be borne in the hearts and minds of “all men of good will”, in their endeavours and struggles – in time and in history. It could also be briefly expressed in the words of Jesus: “My kingdom is within you.” (Luke 17:21)
In the past months we have been witnessing one more of these successions of hope and despair. A nation to which so many people, in our times as well as in bygone days, have linked so much hope and trust has unveiled itself as a horrifying blend of bigotry, vulgarity and barbarism.
An enemy has arrived and seized power, but not across some distant Alps or by the sea but from within the nation’s borders. A plain and simple triumph of wickedness.
What hope could there be for years ahead, when visions of hope now seem to fail?
At least one thing, in the words of Augustine (who was a realist, philosophically as well as politically):
“He that is kind is free, though he is a slave;
he that is evil is a slave, though he be a king.”