In 430 A.D., as Augustine lay dying in Hippo, waves of Vandals came crashing on the city gates. Augustine and his city clung to life by a thread. Leading the defense of Hippo was Augustine’s old friend, the Roman general Bonifatius, Count of Africa.
Dying, and with the very culture that had nourished him throughout his life at risk, Augustine remained fervent in prayer and faith. His theodicy–his vindication of God’s goodness in the face of evil–remained bleak but steadfast: We are sinners and children, and our Father chastises us in love. We deserve this chastisement, and we are fortunate to receive it. Evil is but the punishment of a loving father forced to correct his errant children. We may find ultimate relief from the evils of the world only in a focus on the next life, on our personal salvation.
In the wake of Katrina, Augustine’s thoughts provide solace and explanation in churches and Bible studies, both around the country and around the world. For Augustine, like the Church, teaches us that God’s Providence allows the workings of the natural world in the course of salvation history. We cannot comprehend the purpose of tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis, but we can trust in God’s purposes.
We must be careful, however, to guard against the misuse of this trust in Providence. Let us distinguish human error from an act of God, and let us not consider all human error inevitable.
Augustine teaches us that we are sinners and children. We err. But we must strive to prevent our errors. Augustine’s own actions in times of crisis and need teach us this.
In 420, at the age of 66, Augustine traveled a thousand miles through the desert to persuade his friend Bonifatius to remain a general rather than to pursue the monastic life he so coveted. Amid all of the upheaval of the late Roman Empire, Augustine’s argument to the general was simple: We need civilization; we need order; we need you.
Augustine was a man of action. As the ancient writer Possidius put it, “He was one who fulfilled the word of St. James: ‘So speak ye, and so do.'” He had faith not only in God, but also in man’s response to God–in man’s vocation to serve, and to serve well; in man’s vocation to govern, and to govern well.
Despite his pessimism about human nature and earthly life, Augustine did not believe that all tragedies are to be borne with a spirit of humble acceptance of Providence. He did not believe that all tragedies are part of God’s plan.
A levee breaking is in one sense an act of God, but in another, it is a catastrophic and sinful human failure. Local, state and federal governments unable to evacuate their citizens because of appalling incompetence is in one sense an act of God, but, in another, it is an appalling example of indifference and contempt for human dignity and human life.
Augustine understood that we cannot look to God to maintain our levees. We cannot look to God to evacuate our fellow citizens. We cannot look to God to stop the poverty and the inequality, which along with the flood waters drove the miserable and the wretched into the Convention Center and Superdome.
Augustine understood that we must take action. Civilization and life–especially the lives of the poor, children, the elderly and disabled–depend on it.
Hans Broekman is principal of Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tenn.