Several people have told me recently that they have ceased watching the News, whether on television, social media, or virtually any other platform. They say they find it too depressing. In fact, one person told me that she has had a few panic attacks watching the News, as she contemplates what kind of world her children and grandchildren might be destined to live in. Her anxiety is not unique. Social scientists have studies and surveys to show that this past year cases of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, and other forms of mental illness have significantly increased. What can we do to reverse these trends? I am no therapist or social psychologist. So, I am not qualified to provide professional counsel on such matters. However, I can bring an historical perspective that might be helpful. From the Christian past, we can listen to the voice of St. Augustine, who gave direction on how Christians could remain calm and spiritually secure even during turbulent political and cultural times.

He is qualified to teach us to cope because he witnessed the decline of the Roman Empire itself. It is hard for us to imagine how distressing the cultural decay of Rome must have been to someone like Augustine. After all, Rome was called the Eternal City. It was difficult for him and his contemporaries to fathom that Rome could morally and politically decline, and even suffer military invasion. But during Augustine’s lifetime, the symptoms of Roman decay and social turbulence became so pronounced, that the eventual collapse of Rome, within a century after Augustine’s death, was portended.

Some of Augustine’s contemporaries were so upset at Rome’s decline that they sought a scapegoat. This scapegoat was the Christian Church. Augustine’s pagan contemporaries, especially their leaders, claimed that the success of the new Christian religion so confused and conflicted Romans that it precipitated the Empire’s decline. Augustine was so annoyed by this accusation that he was inspired to write one of the great works of history, titled The City of God. In this book, Augustine explains that history must be explained by Biblical teachings about the human condition. So explained, the Christian citizen will be informed, fortified, and consoled to accept historical change. Christians will not despair or suffer paralyzing anxiety because they will know that God is in charge.

The City of God is a defense of Christian wisdom broadly, but more specifically it is a prescription on how to remain confident and strong even in the face of disturbing historical change. By the way, Augustine’s observations were not an abstract, academic exercise. The stresses of history are something he knew up close and personal. He died in the North African town of Hippo Regius, where he had been Bishop, while the Vandals invaded the city. He died in the year 430 (at age 76) while the Vandals were literally sacking his town.

At any rate, The City of God, being a long book, contains a plethora of insights. But there are a few regarding historical change that, if taken to heart by a citizen, are a source of strength. The first is Augustine’s teaching that justice in society is temporary. It can be achieved for a while, but in this fallen world, injustice is bound to make its reprisal. The second is that an earthly utopia, an ideal, politically perfected world, will never exist. Such a world can only exist in heaven, and that is God’s business. Human beings are helpless to engineer utopia because our actions, regardless of our good intentions, will always be compromised somewhere and at some time by our ancestral human sin. The third teaching is that the Christian should not tie his or her happiness to the promises of politicians. Christianity is about transforming the heart of the individual into becoming a new creature in Christ. Christianity is not a political project. Jesus understood this; hence he disappointed zealots who hoped he would be a revolutionary politician. For Augustine, Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and Tares is definitive. The lesson of the Parable is that evil in this world will always be “coincidental with the good.” In other words, no political system, nor its agents, can get rid of evil or injustice permanently. In the next life, in God’s Kingdom, God will correct once and for all the imbalances of injustice. However, on this side of Heaven, while human history rolls along, humankind will have to wrestle with evil.

Peace, prosperity, and justice may exist for a while. But be sure the other shoe will drop soon enough. Prepare for that, asking what, as a Christian individual, you are expected to do as a participant in the drama of history. This sense of mission will keep one well-adjusted and focused. It will keep one from imagining that the point of life is to be comfortable and pampered by utopian dreams of perpetual justice and peace. It’s not that easy.