Sunday, 3 May 2015

Paul Kolbet: Augustine the Preacher and the Violent Contortions of Shame

Recent scholarship has documented in great detail incidents of religious violence in Augustine’s North Africa and explored how they arose within the broader system of the late Roman Empire. It is widely recognized, however, that although ancient secular and ecclesiastical historians were largely interested in the sectarian violence between religious groups and the deaths inflicted by imperial military force, neither of these were the primary experience of violence suffered by most people. Ordinary individual homicides, fistfights, brawls, beatings, rapes, and robberies were more pervasive. Because our historical sources take these things for granted, they have made it difficult for scholars to find material to illumine the dynamics of the most pervasive forms of violence in Roman North Africa. I will argue that throughout Augustine’s many sermons, one finds a widespread attention to the social dynamics of shame (that is, the rich vocabulary of Roman pudor which has to do with how one perceives oneself as being seen by others). Augustine is particularly attuned to the attractiveness of traditional Roman remedies to redeem shameful experiences ranging from revenge to suicide. Although Augustine, by no means, sets aside sensitivity to shame as an ingredient in all proper social relations, he constructs exegetical exercises in a number of sermons that provide non-violent, alternate means for shame’s redemption where perceived humiliation is transformed into humility. In this way, Augustine addressed everyday violence not just in specific moral admonitions, but also by “re-rooting,” as it were, the Roman self.

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