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Nineveh, New Orleans, and the City of Man

“Cities do not last. Those built in precarious places collapse. The rest are doomed to decay or suffer humanly induced destruction.” That is the assessment of historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto. He spoke those words with reference to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but his historical judgment would well apply to Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon and a host of cities long ago covered with dust.

The pictures out of New Orleans tell the story. Broken glass, twisted steel, sunken streets, and abandoned homes testify of the city’s impermanence. And yet, the pictures of devastation wrought by nature paled in light of the picture of moral devastation that followed the hurricane. Lawlessness in the streets, rioting in the Superdome, and sniper fire aimed at rescue teams revealed the disorder and anarchy that lie close beneath the surface of human civilization.

Of all people, Christians should be least surprised. After all, we have been warned of civilization’s fragility, and we know that history unfolds God’s judgment in the rising and falling of empires, nations, and cities.

Augustine, the great theologian-bishop of Hippo in North Africa, produced the greatest interpretation of history by a Christian in his monumental work, The City of God. Writing even as Rome had fallen to the Vandals, Augustine offered a Christian vision of history and its meaning.

Christians should see all of history in terms of two cities, Augustine explained–an earthly city and a heavenly city. The earthly city, the City of Man, serves the gods of power, wealth, and pleasure. Its ultimate founder is Cain who, according to Genesis 4:17, “built a city.” Cain’s city–and all the lesser cities that follow in its way, are transient monuments to human achievement and pride.

Christians are indeed citizens of the earthly city, Augustine argued. But as the New Testament makes clear, we are ultimately citizens of a heavenly kingdom–of the City of God. As Augustine wrote, “We have learnt that there is a City of God: and we have longed to become citizens of that City with a love inspired by its founder.”

Augustine understood that the two cities represented two different allegiances, two different loves, and two different ways of life. Ultimately, the two cities represent two very different destinies. The earthly city is concerned with the matters that make for glory and pleasure among men. The City of God, embodied in this age as the Church, is the eternal city that is completely devoted to the glory of God. The earthly city is headed for destruction. The City of God is eternal.

The earthly city looks secure, but is passing. This truth is brought to mind when looking at the remains of New Orleans. Buildings that once looked so permanent and safe are soon to be demolished and replaced. Institutions and organizational forms that once constituted the very structure of civilization can quickly pass from existence. Anarchy quickly supplants order, and ruins quickly appear where gardens had once been tended.

“The ruins of places once full of confidence surround us,” reminds Fernandez-Arnesto. “History is a path we pick among them. Yet we contemplate them with romantic yearning or philosophical detachment, instead of being very afraid.”

Christians understand that fear would be an appropriate response to what we have seen in New Orleans. As Augustine reminds us, “The earthly city will not be everlasting; for when it is condemned to the final punishment it will no longer be a city. It has its good in this world, and rejoices to participate in it with such gladness as can be derived from things of such a kind. And since this is not the kind of good that causes no frustrations to those enamoured of it, the earthly city is generally divided against itself by litigation, by wars, by battles, by the pursuit of victories that bring death with them, or at best are doomed to death.”

Cities appear to be permanent, but no city has endured throughout the course of human history. No earthly city will endure the judgment that is to come.

Fernandez-Arnesto sympathizes with our reflexive trust in cities. “The fragility of cities is a cruel fact to acknowledge,” he admits. “We put so much effort into them. We beautify them in confidence of the future. We measure their greatness by their willingness to make present sacrifices for future fame, or–more altruistically–for the benefit of posterity. We admire cities that court disaster. Dazzlingly heroic examples include Venice–built in stone on islets of salt marsh, so that it is bound to sink, or San Francisco, built and rebuilt in defiance of topography and almost in the embrace of a geological fault-line; or Tokyo, earthquake prone and in the path of typhoons.”

Even a brief review of human history tells the story. Augustine wrote The City of God as a Christian interpretation of history that had been made necessary by the fall of Rome. When the Visigoths plundered Rome in A.D. 410 (followed by the Ostrogoths in 455) the capital city of the Roman Empire fell–and the fall of that city was indeed great.

By the end of the fifth century, only a hundred thousand citizens lived in Rome–the rich having fled to Constantinople or other safe and attractive cities. The capital that had styled itself the “eternal city” was now a desolate ruin.

Christopher Woodward recalls, “In the sixth century the Byzantines and the Goths contested the city three times, and the population fell to thirty thousand clustered in poverty beside the River Tiber, now that the aqueducts had been destroyed and the drinking fountains were dry. The fall of Rome came to be seen by many as the greatest catastrophe in the history of western civilization.”

Poetry and literature are filled with references to ruins and the passing of civilization. Percy Bysshe Shelley told the story of King Ozymandius, whose abandoned statue mocked his claim to be “Ozymandius, King of Kings.” As Shelley described the scene: “Nothing beside remains, round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Standing at the very apex of Queen Victoria’s empire, Rudyard Kipling warned of the judgment that was to come. “Far-call’d our navies melt away / on dune and headland sinks the fire. / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” he intoned.

Remember that Augustine described the two cities as created by two kinds of love. As he taught his fellow Christians, “The earthly city was created by self-love reaching the contempt of God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience.” Alas, we are tempted by the wrong love, and we are easily seduced by the wrong city.

Augustine was absolutely certain–and absolutely correct–in emphasizing the temporary nature of the earthly city and the passing power of its love. Only the heavenly city remains, and all earthly cities will follow Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon and every other metropolis and village into oblivion.

One day, unless that day of judgment comes sooner, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and all the cities we now know and admire will be covered with dust, if not with water.

In the midst of all this, the church–representing the City of God–must keep its wits. Jerome, one of the great leaders of the church as Rome fell, asked the wrong question: “What is to become of the church now that Rome has fallen?”

The City of God is represented wherever the church is found, and the church is safe by the power of God. Christians must be humbled by a biblical view of history that understands the difference between the earthly and the heavenly cities–that understands full well that every earthly city will fall and that only the City of God will remain.

In the meantime, we should pray humble prayers and ask for God to preserve the earthly city until His kingdom comes. As Kipling called England to pray: “Lord God of Hosts be with us yet, lest we forget, lest we forget!”