We will never know what happened between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the maid in his hotel room. What, if anything, did Herman Cain say or do to the women who accused him of sexual harassment? What are Putin and Hu and Ahmadinejad planning? Until this week, how many knew the U.S. has drone bases in the Seychelles?
Secrecy generates suspicion, but there’s no need for conspiracy theories. Politics is opaque because humans are opaque. In what Oliver O’Donovan calls an “electrifying” passage in Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine catalogues the “great ills” that result from our habits and institutions of mutual concealment. “Injuries, suspicions, hostilities” arise even among “friends whose love is honorable.” Treachery can hide behind “a pretense of duty” or “the name of kinship.” Because of language barriers, we can barely communicate even if we want to, and the imposition of a lingua franca only creates new opportunities for conflict.
The secrecy that mars even close friendships and intimate marriages also disfigures political action. Judges can never be certain whether they justly punish criminals or further victimize victims: “the ignorance of the judge is very often a calamity to the innocent.” Augustine acknowledges that Roman judges “torture the accused precisely so that he shall not, in his ignorance, slay an innocent man.” Yet a judge might extract a false confession and condemn “the very man whom he had tortured to avoid putting the innocent to death!” Judicial power cannot escape the double bind: “Ignorance is unavoidable” but “judgment is also unavoidable because human society compels it.” A pious judge can do no better than repeat the sigh of the Psalmist: “From my necessities deliver Thou me.”
Despite promises (at least quadrennial), today’s politicians continue to work behind closed doors. Fund managers can cripple the world economy without leaving their cubicles. Media ubiquity does not entail media transparency. As O’Donovan comments, it is wishful thinking to believe that “there are alternative patterns of political life available which are not vulnerable to treachery, stupidity, or simply conflicts of view.” Yet easy toleration of the evils of secrecy is worse. Augustine has pointed words for “realists” who make peace with opacity: “If anyone either endures these evils or thinks of them without anguish of soul, his condition is still more miserable: for he thinks himself happy only because he has lost all human feeling.”
These dilemmas would be less acute if withdrawal were an option, but we are social beings who realize our end in a civic community. We are impoverished when isolated, yet together we are plagued by ignorance. Society is the perfection of the race, but sociality depends on a seemingly impossible transparency.
There is a city that fulfills Augustine’s dream of social life, but it’s not an earthly city, not the city of man. In the life to come, everything will become transparent to the Creator, and as a result, opacity will give way to complete transparency: “The thoughts of each of us will then also be manifest to all.” When God removes his veil, we will peer into the souls of others. When we are purged of sin, we will freely share the good within. Only in the city where we see God face-to-face will we have faces to face each other.
Advent celebrates the coming of the King, but the Christian tradition has always recognized that the Son’s first Advent heightens our longing for his coming again. In this respect, Augustine’s politics are a double-sided politics of Advent. On one hand, it leaves us with an anti-utopian skepticism and a radical dissatisfaction with every existent or conceivable human society. On the other, it fills us with hope that the good of human society, which is the end of human life, will be realized–not here, not now, but in another city, after yet another Advent.
But I wonder: Do we need a man from heaven to tell us all this? Weren’t the limits of politics self-evident before the Incarnation? Augustine doesn’t allow us to immanentize the eschaton, but has he so thoroughly transcendentized it that the first Advent leaves the world untouched? Hasn’t God already shown his face? Is Augustinian realism a politics of the second Advent only?
Our Advent hymns point toward some answers. When we sing, “Zion hears the watchmen singing,/ and all her heart with joy is springing;/ she wakes, she rises from her gloom,” we confess that the Son’s first Advent leaves behind a revived city, here and now. We confess too that this revived city is Zion, a temple city, distinctly ecclesial.
Of course, the church can be as opaque as any community. Pastors are often as ignorant as Augustine’s judges. Secretive, treacherous, lecherous bishops are, shall we say, not entirely unknown. Herman Cain is a Baptist minister, for goodness’ sake! Still, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his lovely book, Life Together, the church is called to anticipate the transparency of the city of God. No one is to bury his talent, but each member of the body is to share whatever good he has for the common good of all. Sins are not to be concealed but confessed, and Christians are commanded to meet open confession with open forgiveness. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples, a light shining out but also a light that, supplied by the oil of the Spirit, illuminates the corners and dark corridors within.
Within the church are faint glimmers of a society that might meet with Augustine’s approval. Within the church we find the imperfectly realized possibility of a politics of two Advents.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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