And so the reason why sedition is a special sin is that it has a special good to which it is opposed, viz., the unity and peace of a multitude… It is therefore clear that sedition is opposed to both justice and the common good. And so it is a mortal sin by its genus.—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II 42, 1–2
Where there is charity there is peace, and where there is humility there is charity.—Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on First John II
On January 6, 2021, a mob seditiously breached the Capitol Building in an effort to prevent the certification of the electoral college. The mob marched on legislature shortly after the president of the United States encouraged his crowd to “march down” and show their strength. He said he would go with them (though he did not). In the ensuing melee, a supporter of the president was shot as she attempted to breach a barricaded door. She later died. Ashli Babbitt’s death deeply moved me because she was a 14-year US Air Force veteran.
I myself served for 12 in the Air National Guard and have many close personal friends who are veterans in all the services, but most are fellow airmen like myself. On a different timeline, it might well have been me who died on January 6, believing a lie from the highest political leader in my country who not only failed in his sworn duty to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States but who abused the sacred trust veterans like Ashli Babbitt placed in her commander-in-chief. Her death shocks my conscience in ways I will not fully process for some time. Put more sharply, too few of us not involved in Wednesday’s violence have wrestled with the fact that any of us could have been swept up over these last years and lost our lives to a lie. We should not be so naïve or smug to think we would never have been so gullible.
How do we move forward; what next; where do we go from here?—Who hasn’t heard these questions or posed them themselves? I cannot formulate a complete answer, but I can outline how Christians might turn to Saints Augustine and Thomas give us the foundations for thinking through the first couple of steps at political renewal.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence, my social media was inundated with “this is not who we are” posts. These posts were “pan-partisan,” coming from progressives, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians alike. But the sad and lamentable truth is that indeed this is who we are, for it was members of our own body-politic who did this, and we cannot heal if we do not confront the uncomfortable facts as they are. It was sedition.
Sedition is a serious crime, but, moreover, it is a serious sin. Sedition is indeed serious enough that Thomas Aquinas treated the topic directly in the Summa (II-II Q. 42); its placement is included in the broader discussion of sins against charity alongside other vices such as war and strife.
In placing his discussion of sedition alongside these other vices, Thomas draws our attention to the manner through which most of us are inclined to think about sedition: that is, as something related to war and the violent overthrowing of government. But unlike war—something which Thomas teaches might in fact be an act of charity if it is necessary to protect the innocent or right injustice—sedition is given no qualified treatment. It is always wrong, always a mortal sin, and a special sin distinct from other sins.
Sedition is distinguished from war and strife in two ways. First, sedition not only includes fighting but also “a preparation for such fighting.” Second, where war and strife are forms of conflict “between strangers and enemies,” sedition “occurs between parts of a single multitude,” by which he means between members of a preexisting political community with a common good proper to the whole. Anyone, therefore, who incites violence and encourages fighting between members of a political community has committed the sin of sedition.
The proximate causes of Wednesday’s siege of the Capitol were the incendiary comments from the sitting president, his personal lawyer, and a handful of sitting members of Congress—the root cause, however, has been decades in the making. Americans have been retreating into evermore divisive factions and dismissing their neighbors with evermore incendiary language. Our political rivals are longer merely wrong on matters of policy, they are increasingly characterized as evil, as existential threats to be eliminated. Put in the language of Publius, we are seeing the “diseases most incident to republican government.”
And yet combating this disease cannot be accomplished by expunging ourselves of those who incited and participated in Wednesday’s violence. We cannot expunge the right-wing seditionists from our community any more than we can expunge ourselves of left-wing violence because they emerge from and are produced by the very political wellspring that we have nourished. If, as Publius writes, liberty is to faction what air is to fire, then we cannot eliminate these political diseases without also suffocating our constitutional lives.
We should instead turn to the Bishop of Hippo’s loving and patient counsel. He understood faction and civil strife better than we know. Sometime early in the fifth century, Augustine delivered ten homilies during the Easter season on the First Epistle of Saint John. The timing of those homilies was not coincidental, for Hippo Regius had been in the midst of its own civil strife between Catholics and Donatists. The schism between Catholics and Donatists occurred nearly a century prior to his arrival in Hippo, but the intensity between them had accelerated during his time as bishop to include riots, as well as the loss of property and life.
The stated focus of those homilies was ecclesia, the spiritual community. But as he, his flock, and the Donatists of his time knew, just below the surface of his sermons the res publica, the political community. For Augustine, the proximate cause of his homilies was bloodshed and violence tearing both the spiritual and political communities of Hippo Regius. The root was the broader rift between kin whose worldviews led them to conclude their neighbors were threats to be extirpated. (Sound familiar?)
In the homilies, Augustine leans heavily on the biblical metaphor of the vineyard. When speaking directly on the political-spiritual schism in his own community, Augustine exhorts his flock so that they are not led astray by those who have been cut from the vine. But rather, they should “urge those who have been cut off to be re-graphed” onto the vine. Though, the nagging question to myself has been, “Yes, we need to do this—but how?”
I share the view of many Americans that there must be hard consequences not only for those who breached the Capitol, but also for those elected officials who stoked the anger of the mob for their own private ambition. But such consequences, like Augustine’s use of coercive power against the Donatists, is only a stopgap at best.
Rebuilding the American community will only come through a mutual re-grafting of the various factions that have been tearing our civic fabric apart. That can only be done, it seems to me, when we follow Augustine’s teaching to empty our hearts of earthly love so that we will draw divine love into our hearts. It can only be done when we love our neighbor as ourselves, which may require a more forceful combatting of sedition, but which most certainly requires (re)evangelizing the public sphere. No easy task. I pray we are up to it.