The [Victims of War] You will Always have with You
Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Yet Hopeful Times
(Ivanka Demchuck: Transfiguration)
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Around the start of Russia’s invasion, I purchased an icon from an artist in Ukraine. After she apologized to me for any delays that might arise in delivery, I emailed back to her, “It’s horrible what’s happening to your country…” She replied, “We have hope!”
How can you have hope in a hopeless situation? I thought.
Among the theological virtues— faith, hope, and love, the apostle Paul declares that only love ultimately abides. Love alone lasts eternally because by “love” Paul has in mind Christ Jesus, who is without beginning or end. Faith is impermanent, for one day we will know by sight what we now can merely trust. And hope is a posture which is necessary only so long as the world awaits its rectification according to the purposes and promise of God.
Hope measures the distance between the now and the not yet.
Hope is only intelligible amidst hopelessness.
Christian hope, therefore, is far from being the psychological crutch Freud imagined it. The pie-in-the-sky escapism Marx ridiculed is also not Christian hope. The otherworldliness of Christian hope is unintelligible apart from a frank assessment of this world. Hope is not the refusal of reality but the recognition of the difference between what is and what ought to be.
If hope requires both these poles, let’s call them the “present evil age” and the coming Kingdom, then focusing only on the former or the latter, says St. Augustine, will yield the opposite of hope.
I thought of Augustine on Monday.
Shortly after seeing the horrific photograph in the New York Times of the Ukrainian mother and her two children killed by mortars as they tried to flee across a bridge, I was planning worship and thumbing through my Bible when I stumbled across a scene at the edge of the Passion. Mary anoints Jesus with perfume. Judas sees the price tag still on the bottle. Mary’s lavished roughly $45,000 worth of nard on the same Jesus who didn’t have a single coin in his pocket when the begrudgers asked him about paying taxes. Judas explodes, rightly we think— if we’re honest, that a whole hell of a lot of poor folks could’ve been fed with such a sum.
But Jesus surprises.
He offends Judas with his pessimistic reply, “The poor you will always have with you. You will not always have me.”
The offense abides.
Try hearing Jesus say something equivalent, The war wounded you will always have with you. You will not always have me.
The philosopher Charles Taylor notes that modernity constructed a very different moral universe from the one in which Judas or Jesus of Nazareth lived. Without the conviction of a world to come— and with it, God’s coming justice— modernity focused on this world and create an “extraordinary moral culture,” one with ever-higher demands for concern for all other humans. Mass media, the interconnectedness of the World Wide Web, and social media have only exacerbated modernity’s effects, leading us to feel genuinely concerned about and responsible for all sorts of people near and far. While we’re not necessarily better people than our forebears, our perceived moral obligation is wider than it’s ever been in human history.
And this is largely good. You should give a righteous shit about that family in the Times photograph. Our sense of moral obligation, however, is complicated by another construction of modernity; namely, the (often unexamined) assumption that suffering is an accidental fact about human life, not inevitable, but able to be eliminated or fixed. Charles Matthewes argues in the Republic of Grace that modernity’s moral revolution:
“is at once its strength and tragic flaw. It encourages in us awesome moral energies, but ties those energies to the conviction our exertions will one day be rewarded with the elimination of suffering and evil…if we root our moral energies in the conviction that they can be eliminated, the inevitable discovery that they cannot results in endless vexation and, perhaps, a deepening resentment of and cynicism about those very moral energies.”
Augustine, who knew firsthand the stubborn reality of war, understood that our compassion for this world could only be sustained by the promise of a better world to come.
We need hope.
While modernity can construct an extraordinary moral culture, that moral culture cannot sustain itself without a transcendent hope.
And our moral culture cannot create that hope.
By definition, it must come from outside us.
We need hope from beyond what Charles Taylor calls the immanent frame. We need God. Otherwise, says Augustine, we’ll attempt to gild our moral endeavors into an idol, a world without war or racism, for example, or a world without suffering. Such an idol will only leave us exhausted from our endeavors, self-righteous towards those who are not so engaged, or disillusioned that the need never ends.
Hope— Christian hope— hope that measures the distance between the now and the not yet invites us to serve our neighbors, near and far, by relieving us of the illusion that, if we but try hard enough, one day we will not have the poor with us.
Thus our hope is also a kind of mercy, acknowledging that “not yet” means “not ever” in this mean time until Christ comes back. We’re free, in other words, of the burden of being God. We can instead care for his creatures as fellow (finite) creatures of God.
Sadly, we will always have the poor and the wounded with us. But one day, Christ will come again to set all things right. So in the meantime we do what we can.
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