“Do you know the difference between a pirate and a privateer?” We were asked this question almost as soon as we landed in Kingston, Jamaica. “Both do the same but privateers plunder under royal patronage,” our guide told us taking us around Port Royal fortress. Of course the Jamaican would know considering their turbulent history.
After all that is not a new observation. Already around the year 420 C.E. Augustine of Hippo wrote: When you dispense with justice, what are all the kingdoms but large scale bands of thieves? For what are bands of thieves in shorthand, but little kingdoms! The gang of men; ruled by a chief, and kept together by the compact how to divide the loot among themselves... (De Civitate Dei 4.4) I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of this Augustine’s major tome, that the Church should replace the civil state (Roman Empire), but I note that in describing empires and bands of thieves Augustine knew what he was writing about. He lived in the dwindling years of the Western Roman Empire. It was crumbling all around him unable anymore to enforce its laws and control its own narrative (who is to be called king, who bandit, and who thief). And Augustine was making his peace with this change, he was rationalizing that the Church is more important than Rome and destined to take over.
Pirate, bandit, thief or king: these are all just our human labels, words we use to control each other. But when the king (or simply a head of state) is behaving like a vulgar criminal, when he is unable to utter a sentence without lying, when the whole system is rigged against the little guys and more and more people are left out, then we are forced to look underneath those labels. Then we need to peal those labels off and try to look at each other as Jesus would - with disdain for the rulers and compassion for the little guys, with compassionate justice. This Sunday we will try to do just that.
|Manuscript of Augustine's De Civitate Dei by Jacobus De Stephelt from 1472|
And here is transcription of the Latin text:
Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parua regna? Manus et ipsa hominum est, imperio principis regitur, pacto societatis astringitur, placiti lege praeda diuiditur.