Friday, 8 May 2009

Augustine on suppressing heresies

In Letter 93, Augustine addresses the question of whether it’s ok for the Church to encourage the government to punish their enemies. He’s talking about the Donatists, Christian heretics who were violently suppressed by the Roman empire – maybe the modern equivalent would be Christians asking the state to suppress abortion (ooh, controversy), ban Jerry Springer the Musical, or send Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison. Pick your own analogy. He acknowledges that there aren’t any examples in the New Testament of the Church asking rulers to punish their enemies, but points out that the rulers of the time weren’t Christians, so it was a whole different ball game, right? Before, wicked people made Christians suffer; now that the Christians in charge, it can be the wicked who suffer (Don’t you just love Christendom?). He says that it’s important to treat heretics severely or they’ll never return to the truth, casting the Emperor in the role of parent to naughty Donatist children who need a good smacking.

The important thing about force, says Augustine, isn’t that it’s good or bad in itself, but what people are being forced into. He says that he used to be opposed to the idea of using force to convert people or force them back into the truth, but he’s seen examples of Donatist heretics being coerced back into orthodoxy, and can’t argue with how effective that strategy has been. Maybe the Donatists aren’t heretics out of pure evil wills – maybe they were heretics out of habit, laziness, fear, or because they’d been conned into believing lies. Forcing them to reject their heretical ideas can only do them good.

He does say, though, that the motives of the people doing the coercing is important. If the Donatists were persecuted by people who just didn’t like them, or wanted an excuse to take their possessions away from them, that would be bad; in principle, though, it’s fine to take their riches – we have earthly possessions only if we’re granted them by God or by earthly kings, so it’s totally justified to confiscate the property of heretical Donatists who set themselves up against both God and the Christian Emperor.

Coming from the guy who formulated just war theory, I find this pretty troubling. It’s not that Augustine was a mean guy – elsewhere he’s compassionate and reasonable, and he didn’t get to be one of the most influential theologians of all time just by being wrong about things. But I think this letter highlights some of the problems inherent in the idea of a ‘Christian nation’, and makes me pretty glad to be living in a society that values multiculturalism and freedom of religion, however complicated that might be.


Dustin said...

Augustine... one of the greatest Christian thinkers ever. He certainly does have a lot of good stuff to say. On the other hand, every once in a while you will run into something like this. I haven't looked very in-depth at his just war theory but I do think there might be validity to SOME parts of it. His ideas about using force to bring people to the truth, however, don't seem very consistent with the words of Jesus...

Marika said...

You're right, Augustine does have a lot of good things. As Augustine himself admits, his position got more hardline over time: I think that the long and frustrating conflict with the Donatists pushed him into an ever more extreme position, just as his later conflict with Pelagius pushed him into a more extreme position on free will than he took in his younger, more innocent days. Maybe it's like that saying about middle age being the time when a broad mind and a narrow waist swap places, but I think it's also true that conflict can push us into more extreme positions than we'd take if no one disagreed with us. One to watch out for, perhaps: like Barth falling off the theological donkey.