The View From Mars’ Hill, IIl: The Kingdoms of Love and Strife

In the almost infinite variety of human social and political fabrics, we can almost always trace the ancient threads of friendship and strife.  The institutions of marriage and parenthood, the customs of blood revenge and profit-seeking exchanges, and aspirations toward aristocracy or equality—in all of them we can glimpse the cosmic rhythms poetically depicted by Empedocles.  Many an ambitious ruler, seeking to extend his power, has stubbed his big toe on the brute facts of family and kinship, and many an ideological revolution that failed to reckon with the bind forces of greed and competition has been brought down by the primitive passions and instincts they had hoped to eliminate or at least suppress.  

To understand why this is so we shall have to look at the resilient institutions of marriage and kinship that have resisted the French and Russian revolutions and have even managed, for the time being, to survive the more devastating revolution known as "democratic capitalism."

The ancient Greek cities I have described are not the Kingdom of God or what Augustine calls more generally the Civitas Dei, misleadingly translated as city of God.  It is more the city-state of God or even the Realm of God.  But they are not what Augustine, in a fit of despair after the Gothic Sack of Rome in 410, as “the terrestrial city.”  Before and after he wrote the Civitas Dei, Augustine was far more sympathetic to the accomplishments of Greek civilization and the Roman Empire.  The social evils he denounced really belong to the City of Satan, where governments impose the rule of love on the marketplace and the rule of competition on the family, where innocent life is not defended, as is the proper role of government, but murderers and hoodlums are protected and rewarded, where the vices and sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are not only accepted and promoted but viewed as normative.  The sins of the Cities of the Plain pale by comparison with modern vices hardly anyone dreamed of in antiquity.  

Human social life is organized into institutions dominated by the forces of friendship and competition, love and hate.  The family is the fundamental institution of friendship, but the Church can be regarded as the family write large, a fulfillment of the human need for love and friendship and that love known in English as “charity,” while the so-called state, whether in the form of a kingdom, Empire, or republic, is fundamentally an organ by which men or groups of men or nations construct and enforce the rules of competition, in the market, for political office, and for war.  The State should not be at odds with the Church but it should not usurp the powers of Church and family on the pretense that it is carrying out duties of charity.  The Welfare State—when it is anything better than a criminal conspiracy to rob hard working people and transfer their wealth to the ruling class—is by its very nature tyrannical in usurping the functions of family and church.

In the institutions of friendship and Strife, we have the foundation of the Two Kingdoms, whether they are manifest in the ancient Christian Church and the Roman Empire, the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire, the Western Church and the Empires of the Charlemagne or the Holy Roman Empire, or more recently Christian Churches and the governments of Old Europe and the New World.  Church and State, while they are always poaching on each other’s territories, can sometimes live in tandem, maintaining a tension that allows for human beings to flourish in families and communities.  All too often, though, dictatorial Popes and tyrannical kings and Emperors have engulfed nations in strife and bloodshed.  

If anyone expects me or any other writer to put forward a perfect model of state and church interaction, he expects what can never be.  The best we can expect on earth is, first, to understand the separate foundations and purposes of the two institutions, and second, to do our best to keep each one in its own sphere.  One of the greatest errors has been that of the Puritans who tried to legislate the kingdom of God.  This mistake can be avoided by walking in the footsteps of Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas but also of Martin Luther, Joannes Althaus (Althusius), and England’s Richard Hooker. 

Thomas and Luther?  Despite polemics from both sides, yes!

Luther points out that if the human race consisted only of Christians, we should not need government, but good Christians are a minority, but it does not mean that the ruling class should displace the Church.   This is not to say that Luther was entirely following Augustine in declaring secular authority to be an invention after the Fall.  His point is, rather, that even in his day, only a minority were Christian and of them few were living Christian lives.

We can begin by recognizing that it is never a legitimate function of secular government to compel perfection.  The best a commonwealth can achieve, as Thomas Aquinas points out, is to create circumstances propitious to virtuous living, where innocence is protected, personal responsibility encouraged, and crime punished. As Aristotle admonishes us, we must content to be merely human, because in trying to rise above humanity, whether through genetic engineering or the metastasizing power of the nation-state, we shall inevitably descend into bestiality.

The language of two kingdoms and two thrones has been part of Christian discourse from the beginning.  Without too much effort we can see that it is anticipated by our Lord in his conversation with a somewhat inept Roman official, the prefect of the district of Judaea, among the least important and most troubled parts of the Province of Syria.

John’s account of Our Lord’s encounter with Pilate is fascinating.  I invite you again to turn to your Greek NT, to John 18.18 ff.  Pilate is third-rate Roman official with an undistinguished career but he is basically a reasonable man, and, since he does not understand the case against Jesus, he asks the Jewish leadership to declare what the charge is.  Their answer is worthy of Stalin—or Merrick Garland: [18:30]

“If he were not a doer of evil, we would not have handed him up unto thee.”  [The verb paradidomi is a routine word but it also used in the sense of “betray”]

In other words, an accusation is tantamount to a conviction.  I am reminded of one of Kafka’s heroes.  When Joseph K (in The Trial) is arrested, and he declares his innocence, the prosecutor replies:  “How do you know you are innocent if you don’t know what you are being accused of.”

Later, when Pilate puts the simple question to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Our Lord plays the rabbi as he so often does when he is under fire:  Always answer a question with a question.

“Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?”

You can imagine the frustration of a civilized Roman, who is not very bright, when he is asked to arbitrate an essentially religious question among a people he certainly despises:  “Am I a Jew?  Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?”

At this point Our Lord gives him an answer he was not expecting, and one which would have persuaded a braver judge to cancel the grisly farce:

“My kingdom [basileia] is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” 

Later, when Pilate is puzzled by Jesus’ calm demeanor and asks him, “Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? [19.11]

Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin. [exousia= both raw power and the authority of magistrates.]

  Pilate was clearly impressed by Jesus’ disclaimer of earthly power, because from the moment he hears it, he tries to find a way of letting off the innocent man, but Pilate is not Gallio, a man secure in is position; he is not even a Senator, and of all the bad jobs a Roman official could get, prefect or procurator of Judaea must have been near the bottom.  Josephus, in his description of the period, speaks of unending uprisings and brigandage.

It is the great strength and glory of the Roman Empire that it governed by a better system of law than most of its subjects could have dreamed of and it included among its officials men like Vespasian and his brother the prefect of Rome, the elder and younger Pliny, and future emperors like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, but no human institution is without weak points and weak men like Pilate.  Still, as Jesus tells him, Pilate’s is the lesser blame.

There is a story, one that is not accepted by most historians for obvious reasons, that when Tiberius heard that there was one Jew who did not reject the authority of Rome, he asked the Senate to enroll Him as a god in the Roman pantheon.   The Catholic historian Marta Sordi, who does accept it, argues that the Senate's explicit refusal is the origin of the Roman treatment of Christianity as an outlawed religion.

In a passage of Romans, beloved by good Lutherans, Paul picks up the line of argument Christ had begun and declares that the ruler—meaning the Roman Emperor and his officials—hold the sword not in vain.  Paul’s view of human rulers is not a simple-minded demand for absolute obedience.  The Saul of Tarsus who relied on his Roman citizenship to protect him from the persecution of his fellow-Jews, certainly did not fail to understand the usefulness of a secular Empire that, for all its many undoubted flaws, had brought some measure of peace.  As Luther observed, those who truly belong to the Kingdom of God have no need of law, while those who belong to the Kingdom of the World owe obedience to the rulers who protect them and prevent them from doing the evil they would.  People who do not fear God but only the terror of the Law he compares to savage beasts constrained by fetters.

But Paul’s statement is a two-edged sword.  Not in vain do the rulers hold the sword.  The Greek word is εικη, a word that might be translated as “at random” or “to no purpose” or even, as I think is meant here, “to no good purpose.”  The same word is used by Jocasta in Sophocles’ Oedipus, when she tells her husband to have no concern over oracles or the gods:  Live at random, from day to day with no thought of supernatural punishment.  That is exactly what Paul is saying a ruler, entrusted with the sword of war and execution, may NOT do

A madman might hold a sword but only to kill himself or an innocent man or he might toss it away when danger comes, as our own ruling class does.  A ruler might be as personally wicked as Caligula or Hitler, but if he is preserving order, protecting life and property, his rule is consistent with the divine commission of the rulers, but if he refuses to use the sword of justice to execute felons and protect the weak, then our obedience to him is not infinite: It is limited by our own prudence and by the dictates of our religion.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Sam Dickson says:

    Salve, Magister! Very fine essay.

    One pick: ” the City of Satan, where governments impose the rule of love on the marketplace and the rule of competition on the family…”

    A friend of mine – a recovering liberal reared in an ultra-liberal West Coast family – once referred to part of what you said in the quotation above. He spoke with kind vexation of his mother whose feminism had scarred his father and his and his sisters’ childhood.

    He said, “My mother sought ‘relationships’ in the business world and competition in the family.”

    Not quite the same thing as your neat dictum but coming from the same problems.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Good to see your comments pop up, Sam.
    I like the way Tom approaches the subject from two separate realities. Regardless of what you name them—- the world, the flesh and the devil, strife, competition and thievery, or a quote from Luther: “ People who do not fear God but only the terror of the Law are like savages or beasts constrained by fetters.” Or Homer who says the said the same thing too many times to count. Or Christ who healed the poor fettered man by sending beastly spirits into the beastly swine nearby. It’s even part of the truth in the old cliche that “we are a nation of laws and not of men”. It’s true in so far as it goes. So far as it included divine, natural and positive laws. Things are related and when they become totally unrelated and separated , by leftist lunatics, revolutionaries, utopian fanatics or by those who desire to fully manifest the “eschaton” for a perfect kingdom in this world , things break into pieces— they
    break apart —- families, no less than communities and countries.

  3. Dom says:

    Does ‘exouisa’ give any clue as to the source of the power? The context in English translations seems ambiguous whether ‘above’ refers to heaven or to Caesar. In the case of the latter, ‘above’ would be understood the way a soldier or a bureaucrat might appreciate.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    I always thought on the literal level of reading the accounts it was a reminder to Pilate that his authority came from the bureaucracy.
    Our Lord did respond to Pilate’s questions but so far as we know, said nothing at all to Herod. Both figures of authority —- only simple responses to Pilate, no response at all to Herod. I have often wondered why.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    A literal remanding demands us to recognize that Pilate’s authority is suprahuman. Perhaps part of the reason of Our Lord’s refusal to respond to Pilate derives from the knowledge that the Herods, never legitimate in Jewish eyes, are finished. Pilate, as low-level as he is, represents the future.