“Whoever will live piously in Christ shall suffer persecution.”
— 2 Tim. 3:12
Barbarians sacked Rome in 410 A.D. and the Christians were to blame. According to Roman Pagans the Christians had forsaken the gods Zeus and Athena, among others, who were the defenders of Rome, leaving the eternal city vulnerable to attack. 18th century historian Edward Gibbon also accused the Christians of Rome’s demise, but for a different reason. The Christians, Gibbon argued, had their head in the clouds, their eyes on that heavenly city, and so they neglected the earthly one and let it fall to ruin.
The technical cause of Rome’s fall was laid out by Ludwig von Mises in Human Action. The moral fault is faith in earthly kings. Roman leaders, in an act of misguided charity, thought they could help the poor by enforcing price controls on essentials like grain, wine, and oil. The price controls were bearable until these same leaders debased the currency, a common way rulers rob their citizens. Rulers issued Roman coins made out of baser and more worthless metals, but kept the face value the same. As a result prices rose. But the price laws prevented prices for necessities to adapt, and so the providers of those necessities were no longer able to profitably bring them to the market. Rome’s vast network of trade fell to pieces and large villas withdrew from the market, started growing necessities instead of trying to trade for them. Rome’s vast division of labor broke down, and the self-sufficient villas became the feudal estates that would dominate the middle ages.
5th-century theologian Augustine defended Christianity against pagan accusations in his book City of God. Augustine stated that there are two cities, an earthly and a heavenly, and that Christians (and other seekers of righteousness) are dual citizens. There is no inherent discord between the two cities so long as a citizen of the heavenly city
“lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city, though [he] has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as the earnest of it, [he] makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered; and thus, as this life is common to both cities, so there is a harmony between them in regard to what belongs to it.”
Christians are pilgrims and strangers in any society they live in. While there is no inherent conflict between earthly society and Christianity, there is an absolute line that Christians will not cross that makes the Hamans of the world shudder with rage: Christians will serve no king but God. Those who claim Caesar as their king will mock Christians and laugh them to the scorn for their outdated and backward beliefs. Pagans and the learned will continue to blame Christians for society’s ills.
Joseph Smith, an American prophet, laid the line down clearly in these words:
We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.
Governments exist to protect our freedom of thought (which includes speech and worship), property rights, and our lives. Any government that fails to protect these rights will lose the support and authority granted to it by the people.
To the Christian, the individual is holy, for he is created in the image of God. His life and rights are sacred, and cannot be arbitrarily violated without consequence; for what one does to the least of these, one does to God himself. To the totalitarian, the individual belongs to the state. The individual’s property can be arbitrarily confiscated, and the individual’s life terminated, if it does not serve the will of the state.
This is why totalitarian states like the old Soviet Union and modern communist China cannot tolerate freedom of religion. To totalitarians, the state is supreme, earthly life is all that there is, and heaven is a false and dangerous idea. To Christians, God is supreme, and the state is just a temporary means for organizing this temporary earthly society; heaven is the real goal, and God is the real king. The Christian is an absolute rebel, though his rebellion is latent so long as the state does not violate the laws of God.
The results of this dual citizenship, contrary to the accusations of pagans and intellectuals, has led to the greatest flourishing and prosperity mankind has ever seen. The growth, resilience, and prosperity of the West are the envy of the world, which copies the technology, innovations, and systems created by the West in an attempt to catch up. The economists in the 17th and 18th centuries discovered a rational basis for rejecting earthly kings in favor of a heavenly one. They made it clear that an economy left free will prosper more greatly than one controlled by a king. This scientific backing gave Christians greater faith to let God be in charge of a large swath of society. The United States, which carried this idea farthest, also became the richest country in the history of the world, lifting the entire world out of poverty with it.
But the West has lost its faith. Freedom of speech is being censored and labeled as violence. Property, a sacred right protected for thousands of years by the command “thou shalt not steal,” is now prey for the commonweal; politicians gain votes by promising to steal and distribute it. Life is no longer seen as sacred; rather taking a life is seen as a right, the mark of an emancipated woman, while raising children is seen as a foolish waste of time. People no longer trust in God, they want a king to rule them, so that they can be strong like the other nations. Loss of faith has eroded our moral foundation, and without that foundation, our civilization will not stand.
Barbarians are at the gates. Our seemingly invincible city will fall if we trust our freedom and prosperity to kings. It is God who makes us free as individuals and as societies, failure to obey his commands leads to bondage and death. Not only can the two cities be in harmony, the earthly depends on the heavenly. Active citizenship in the heavenly city is the key to preserving the science, arts, and wealth of the West.