I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my mind
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake was quite mad, even madder than most Swedenborgians—and that is saying a good deal—but Christians less insane than Blake have dreamed of building a new Jerusalem where the unpromising specimens of humanity they had known all their lives would live in peace and joy.  When such experiments have been tried, as in Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan New England, or Jacobin France, the reality is more nightmare than paradise.

The utopian dream is not specifically Christian.  Plato and Plotinus had their notions, as did the Stoics, but pagans may be more easily excused for succumbing to their own intellectual fantasies.  Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of their Master, Who firmly declared in one of His final public utterances, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  There is an ancient story that the emperor Tiberius was so impressed by the example of a Jewish prophet who did not contest imperial authority that he asked the senate to include the Christ in the Roman pantheon.  Few historians (apart from Marta Sordi) put any stock in the tale, though it is quite consistent with Tiberius’ ironic sense of humor and just improbable enough to be true.

The first Christian to convert Christ’s moral and spiritual message into a program for political revolution may have been Judas, who complained when Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus with oil, a task she and other Christian women would soon have to perform on His body.  When Judas asked why the oil was not sold and the price given to the poor, Jesus’ reply was an incisive rejection of the Social Gospel: “The poor you have with you always, but me you do not have always.”  The Christian, then, will practice charity out of his love of God and of his fellows made in God’s image, but he will not set up a system to redistribute other people’s wealth.

It is commonly believed that Judas went away from this encounter disgruntled with Jesus’ failure to lead a social revolution.  It is certainly true that Jesus’ answer remains a powerful rebuke to those who would confound the Gospel with one or another form of socialism.  In fact, Jesus’ moral message is far more alarming than Marx or his Catholic followers today have realized.

In His first recorded sermon, He turned the conventional wisdom (not just of Jews but of Greeks and Romans) on its head: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Failure and poverty, which were regarded as unmitigated miseries in the ancient world, are celebrated.  Good fortune, wealth, and power, which had been seen as signs of divine favor, now counted for nothing.

Like most peoples everywhere, ancient Jews respected power and success.  In looking back at their own history, they admired the exploits of Joshua, Gideon, and Samson, violent men who would not have been out of place in the American West.  In expecting a messiah or savior, Jews commonly believed he would come as a fighting prince, another David or Judas Maccabeus, with sword in hand, to drive the Romans into the sea.  Yet here is this prophet or (as some would say) messiah, calmly proclaiming the blessedness of “the poor in spirit” or simply, as in the parallel passage in Luke, “the poor.”

In Greek the ptochoi (poor) are at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale; they are the beggars that crouch and cringe, fearfully, in the presence of their superiors.  A literate listener might have thought of Odysseus, the noble Greek warrior who disguised himself as a beggar and had to endure insults and abuse in his own house—a story that eerily anticipates Jesus’ own arrival in earthly form: the Son of God Who is born to a poor family, a Man “despised and rejected and acquainted with grief.”

Matthew’s phrase “poor in spirit” is even stronger than Luke’s.  Odysseus may have been without resources and beggarly in appearance, but, as a proud and violent Greek aristocrat, he was anything but poor in spirit.  Our Lord was telling His people that the greatest happiness one can have, the happiness usually associated with the prosperous and educated, is to possess the spirit of the cringing beggar.  Most of us have read or heard this sermon so many times that we take it for granted as either hyperbole—He could not have meant these things literally, could He?—or as a set of Sunday-school clichés that we recite without any intention of living up to them.  But then they would not be the Beatitudes, but only the platitudes.

How are we to take these and other terrifying pronouncements?  Some Christians (the Amish, for example), ignoring the rest of the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, have concluded that Christians are required to be communistic pacifists.  A similar line is taken by Peter Cardinal Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice.  Cardinal Turkson recently called for a global economic dictatorship to control world markets.  I quite understand how a mistake like this might be made by a priest from Ghana, a country whose economy depends on the misguided largesse of developed nations, but Cardinal Turkson has played into the hands of neopagans and libertarian “Catholics” who denounce Catholic social teaching as Marxism with a Christian veneer.

Ancient men and women were not all self-centered hedonists who took no interest in right and wrong.  If they had been amoral, they would not have been prepared to listen to anyone preaching any morality beyond the “gospel” of success proclaimed by so many self-anointed prophets of the purpose-driven life.  Jews, Samaritans, Syrians, Greeks, and Romans—although they disagreed on many important points of custom and morality—shared enough common assumptions that they could do business together, read each others’ religious books, live in the same towns, and even intermarry.

In addressing Himself to the Jews (and whatever stray Gentiles may have been in the crowd), Jesus was able to take for granted certain customs and traditions of moral law, whose inner and original meaning He now revealed.  Although modern Christians make much of the Ten Commandments, the moral injunctions they contain, against blasphemy, theft, perjury, adultery, murder, and filial impiety, were hardly unique in the Mediterranean world.  Such prohibitions were the common stock of ancient moral and legal traditions.  Greeks and Romans (going beyond the Egyptians and Sumerians, whose moral codes were similar to the code of the Jews) condemned all these crimes, though (like the Jews) they had gradually relaxed their aversion to divorce.  Although Greeks as much as Jews believed in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye), the Romans were quite severe in restricting the rights of retaliation and even self-defense—restrictions the Church was to incorporate into her own codes.

These pre-Christian moral and legal assumptions about marriage, filial piety, and patriotism, and the prohibitions on adultery, theft, and murder, make part of what Saint Augustine referred to as the earthly city or commonwealth (civitas terrane).  Though Augustine, as a former pagan, naturally exempted most Jewish traditions from this category, it is easier (and more fair) to look for parallels among these three ancient cultural traditions whose convergence produced the social and cultural order known as Christendom.

For Roman citizens of Augustine’s time, whether Christian or pagan, the city or commonwealth was Rome.  Posidonius, a Greek philosopher of the early first century b.c., had taught the Romans their destiny: to rule over a stable world order, preserving and spreading the fruits of Greek civilization.  This must have been a somewhat bitter pill for the more civilized Greeks to swallow.  However just the Romans may have appeared to themselves, they had destroyed two of the greatest Greek cities, Syracuse and Corinth, looted many others of their art treasures, and finally enslaved the entire Greek world.  And yet, even at their worst, Roman generals and statesmen were more humane than most of the rulers of Hellenistic Greece had been.  Alexander’s successors and their descendants waged war as a business in which the primary objects were loot and slaves.  To many Greeks, at least, the Roman order offered a relief from the dynastic and territorial wars that sometimes seem more like terrorism than warfare.

In principle at least, Romans were only willing to wage a just war in defense of themselves or their allies, and, even when provoked, they often conducted their wars with a degree of justice and mercy not often witnessed in either the ancient or modern world.  The poet Vergil sums up this character in his account of the Roman historical mission: “To spare the fallen and subdue the proud”—a phrase that Augustine derides as “the inflated fancy of a proud spirit,” though upon further reflection he was willing to concede the fact that the Romans had constructed and maintained the only terrestrial order that served the cause of justice.

When Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in 410, therefore, it came as a terrible shock to the world.  Pagans, such as the conservative senator Symmachus, argued that in abandoning the old gods Romans had invited catastrophe.  Christians, too, were alarmed.  During the siege Saint Jerome writes in horror at the news: “My words strangle in my throat.  My sobs stop me from dictating these words.  Behold, the city that conquered the world has been conquered in its turn.”  After the sack he lamented, “The human race is included in the ruins.”

Augustine had lived in Rome, and, while he felt deep sympathy for the sufferings of Christian Romans, he was disturbed by the pagan propaganda.  In what became one of the most influential Christian books of all time, De Civitate Dei (The Commonwealth of God), he conceded the obvious fact of Rome’s success and security, but what was worldly success compared with the heavenly kingdom?

Augustine’s work is filled with theological and historical insights that justify its great reputation and influence.  Nonetheless, his often one-sided rejection of Romanitas sometimes amounts to little more than special pleading.  Greek and Roman myths are derided as violent and immoral, while parallel Jewish stories are interpreted allegorically and theologically to produce a wholesome message.  Romulus was evil to kill his brother Remus, while murders committed by Old Testament heroes are commanded by God, which rather begs the question Augustine has raised.

Greek and Roman gods set immoral examples and exulted, so he says, in obscene theatrical performances.  There is no mention of the classical Greek portrayal of Zeus as the god of justice who punishes sinners or of the moral wisdom taught by the Delphic Apollo, and Augustine pretends not to know of all the immoral behavior described in the Old Testament, a veritable catalogue of deadly sins—adultery, incest, fornication, robbery, murder, and genocide—many of them committed, so the perpetrators claimed, by godly men under divine inspiration.

When Romans committed suicide for moral reasons, they are derided, while Samson’s action, in bringing down the Phoenician temple around him, was commanded by God.  Augustine is well aware that weak-minded people might be deluded into thinking they are justified in killing for God, but his argument could lead the unwary into just that conclusion.  On the surface, then, it might appear that Augustine was actually indifferent to the fall of Rome, but not long before he began The City of God, he had depicted Rome as a paragon of earthly virtue by which God has shown “how great is the influence of even civic virtues without true religion that it might be understood that, when this is added to such virtues, men are made citizens of another commonwealth, of which the king is truth, the law is love, and the duration is eternity.”

The Commonwealth of God is the Church, not the Roman Empire or the American Republic.  While incompetent and wicked sovereigns have to be obeyed when they carry out the laws (so long as they do not command us to do what the Church forbids), we are not to look upon them as God’s anointed delegates, carrying out a divine program of world conquest for Christ or promoting the cause of American exceptionalism.  In rendering unto even a Christian Caesar, we must not surrender to him, to a constitution, to a form of government, the things that are God’s.