Sunday Sermon

This what some members of Hizb ut-Tahrir have been saying to Harriet Harman, according to Nick Cohen:

‘We’re not a part of British society,’ they told her. ‘We stay here like guests in a hotel.’

If that’s what they think, there’s nothing to worry about at all. Guests have to abide by all the rules of the house.It’s also seems to me to be a less politically subversive position than authoritative Christian teaching on the same subject. Right through City of God, St Augustine’s opinion is that the “civis civitatis Dei“, the citizen of the city of God, must act with respect to the state as if s/he were a “peregrinus”, a Latin word that is usually translated in this context as “pilgrim”. And that makes a certain amount of sense: Christians are, on this view, to treat their time on earth as a pilgrimage through a vale of tears on their way (with God’s grace) to a better place in the hereafter.

But the translation of “peregrinus” as “pilgrim” always seems to me to be a little misleading, bypassing a lot that is most interesting about the word, and it’s worth digging out the major meaning the Latin word bears — a peregrinus is someone who comes from foreign parts, a stranger, or an alien. I’m rather drawn to the identification of the peregrinus with the modern refugee or asylum-seeker, the person who doesn’t feel welcome, or feel they quite belong in the country in which they find themselves — and, of course, there is no asylum which the state can offer to Augustine’s peregrini: they are in search of asylum, of freedom from strife, but this in a world to come.

So on the Augustinian view, the Citizens of the City of God are not to embrace the state or the nation, to internalise its values as theirs, or find any joy in its successes. They put up with it. They tolerate it. They keep it at arm’s length. Harriet Harman would probably disapprove of this attitude. If they are anything as dignified as guests in a hotel, it’s probably the crummy bed and breakfast the local authority put them in while waiting to hear the outcome of their deportation hearing, with rising damp and a hostile local population outside.

But then there’s a further twist. Harman’s question to the chaps from Hizb ut-Tahrir which prompted the reply about the hotel, apparently, was this one: “You’re British citizens. Shouldn’t you try to play a part in British society?” What would Augustine say?

Augustine argued, as I’ve suggested, that Christians should think of themselves as not-particularly welcome foreigners in the political communities in which they found themselves living, but he also argued that that shouldn’t stop them holding offices of responsibility in that society. Indeed, the example he uses is of sitting as a magistrate and authorising torture (a standard practice in criminal investigations back in the fourth and fifth centuries).

In one of the most striking passages in Book XIX of City of God, Augustine tells us that judges can never see the consciences of those they judge (only God can do that), which means that judges are

“often compelled to seek the truth by torturing innocent people merely because they are witnesses to the crimes of other men. And what of torture applied to a man in his own case? Here, the question is whether he is guilty or not; but he is tortured even if he is innocent… For this reason the ignorance of the judge is often a calamity to the innocent… And when the accused has been condemned and put to death, the judge still does not know whether he has slain a guilty man, or an innocent one…”

And then Augustine asks the key question:

“Given that social life is surrounded by such darkness, will the wise man take his seat on the judge’s bench, or will he not venture to do so? Clearly, he will take his seat; for the claims of human society, which he thinks it wicked to abandon, constrain him and draw him to his duty”

The right path is “to acknowledge that the necessity of acting in this way is a miserable one: if he hated his own part in it, and if, with the knowledge of godliness, he cried out to God, ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me’.” What the earthly city is needed to accomplish is to help secure an earthly peace, which, while it is but a shadow of the heavenly peace the “peregrini” will enjoy when they finally reach the place which really can offer them asylum, is still an important good, not least because it enables the Church Militant to preach its mission to the world more effectively. And this is why Augustine also offers an account of a just war in the passages that follow this one, which is a war which is still wretched and miserable and violent and detestable — thatï’s important, and war should never be romanticised — but one which can nevertheless be a permissible or even necessary means to the valuable end of terrestrial peace.

So his isn’t an argument about how Christians should detach themselves completely from politics. Christ himself may have made such an argument — it’s not really clear — and the earliest Christian Fathers argued strenuously that Christians should have nothing to do with powerful secular institutions, such as the Roman state. But Augustine always set his face against Christians who counselled withdrawal from the world of affairs; he took very seriously the idea that Christ had enjoined upon the Church a mission to the world, and that Christians had to engage with the world and not withdraw into isolated communities of the virtuous in the desert (Donatism). In Augustine’s vision politics is a necessary evil. Real value lies elsewhere — in religion, in good Christian living, in following the divine commandments, and so on. But politics can’t be escaped altogether, and we shouldn’t seek to try.

I wonder what either Harriet Harman or the militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir make of that.

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