World Youth Day and the "City of God"

What are kingdoms without justice? They're just gangs of bandits.

- Augustine, City of God

City of God is, I would argue, one of the greatest films of the past twenty years. The cinematography is daring and innovative, the acting (done in large part by local residents and children) is deeply affecting, and the taut storyline about organized crime just outside of 1970s Rio de Janeiro is a world unto itself with universal implications. There are very few flaws to speak of, aesthetically or otherwise.

I was reminded of this film as I thought about the World Youth Day Rally in Rio this week, the first in a Portuguese-speaking country. The 14th annual global gathering of young Catholics was first initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985; ten years later, over 5 million people attended the 1995 WYD in the Philippines - one of the largest peaceful gatherings of human beings in world history.

This wandering godly city - a massive pilgrimage of peace and prayer - stands in stark contrast to the brutal quest for earthly power and control in Fernando Meirelles' 2002 film. The difference between the two calls to mind Augustine's 5th century work of the same name, and a 19th century atheist whose words still stretch across the center of Brazil's flag.

City of God, which is loosely based on real events, tells the story of a favela outside of Rio de Janeiro that was swallowed up in a small war of drug violence between the late 60s and early 80s. "Rocket," an aspiring journalist and member of a crew of hippie beachgoers, describes the initial settlement of the favela this way:

We came to the City of God hoping to find paradise. Many families were homeless due to flooding and acts of arson in the slums. The bigwigs in government don’t joke around. Homeless? Off to the City of God! There was no electricity, paved streets or transportation. But for the rich and powerful our problems didn't matter. We were too far removed from the picture postcard image of Rio de Janeiro.

Drugs and crime quickly become the warp and woof of the impoverished city, as several young thugs strive to make a name for themselves and gain a following. One young gangster, "Lil Dice," kills dozens of innocent people during a motel robbery, then guns down Rocket's older brother to keep all of the money for himself. Years later, Dice is renamed "Zé" in a ceremony with a sort of witch doctor in an alley - and soon decides that the City of God is his to control:

The words of the witch doctor ring in our minds the rest of the film:

Exu-the-Devil is the light that shines forth. He brought you here. Why remain in the City of God where God has forgotten you? I know what you want. You want power.

Lil Zé quickly takes over the city through a process of elimination - but one drug dealer, Carrot, holds out. A series of backstabs and backroom deals erupts into an all-out war between Carrot's crew and Lil Zé's, a war which Rocket and his friends can't escape or hide from:

What should have been swift revenge turned into an all out war. The City of God was divided. You couldn't go from one section the other, not even to visit a relative. The cops considered anyone living in the slum a hoodlum. People got used to living in Vietnam, and more and more volunteers signed up to die.

What becomes clear throughout the film, especially in the character of Lil Zé, is that this city is anything but "of God." Au contraire, it's nothing if not of men: corruption, greed, dishonesty, murder, torture, addiction, and rape become virtues, and power the only god worth worshiping. It is too generous to call this a descent into the animalistic side of man. As Dostoevsky put it: "People speak sometimes about the 'bestial' cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel." It's just such an artistic cruelty - the cruelty of men - we see hard at work in the City of God.

But one character, Clipper, escapes this cycle of violence early in the film - not physically, but spiritually. Hiding from the police with his partners in crime, he has a sort of mystical image of a larger fish devouring a smaller fish - a glimpse into the anthropological cycle of desire and sacrifice gripping the city, a cycle which devours the weak and helpless and exalts the strong and controlling. He decides in that moment to abandon his life as a gangster, and devote his life to God, marching through the city with a sort of brazen confidence (literally dodging a bullet) that we don't see in any other character - not even Lil Zé, who is perpetually anxious about losing his control:

Clipper's inner transformation in the midst of chaos calls to mind Augustine's The City of God, a fifth century work about two cities: the crumbling Roman empire, with its eyes fixed on earth, and the Church, with its eyes fixed on heaven.

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord...The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, "I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength."

Augustine holds nothing back: this is not merely a vast difference in kind, but a vast difference in degree. "The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison," Augustine writes. "There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity." On the other hand, the earthly city "is often divided against itself by litigations, wars, quarrels, and such victories as are either life-destroying or short-lived. For each part of it that arms against another part of it seeks to triumph over the nations through itself in bondage to vice."

Lil Zé's attempt to make himself the victorious, high-ranking god of his city was a petty, disorganized aspiration doomed to failure. But was it doomed because of the nature of the attempt, or because of its execution? Was it the very quest for godliness that did him in, or simply a lack of vision and virtuosity?

The attempt to build a utopian "city of man" isn't always so local. We see dozens of more large-scale enterprises in the past few centuries - one man's valiant attempt even found its way onto Brazil's flag.

"Ordem e Progresso," or "Order and Progress," has been on Brazil's flag since it became a republic in 1889, and is taken from a motto of the French philosopher Auguste Comte: "L'amour pour principe et l'ordre pour base; le progrès pour but. (Love as a principle and order as the basis; Progress as the goal.)" But words like love, order, and progress mask the core of Comte's philosophy, which consisted of a rejection of both the theological and metaphysical stages of human history - a gradual erasure of all traces of the city of God.

Comte, however, was no fool - he knew that man was, by nature, a religious creature in need of communal adoration. (Consider the popular ecstasy of political rallies, music festivals, and celebrity worship in our own post-Christian age.) Henri de Lubac describes Comte's quasi-religious system of "positivism" in the book The Drama of Atheist Humanism:

...Positivism, the most organic of all doctrines, "for the first time supplies complete satisfaction to all the tendencies of the many-sided nature of man." Above all, it supplies an object for that urge to worship which is at the heart of our nature. It concentrates "our feelings, our thoughts and our actions around Humanity," "the only truly great Being, of which we are wittingly the necessary members." Thus, by its efforts, Humanity is finally substituted for God, and, if its cult cannot be really systematized until God has been eliminated, his elimination will at last become a complete certainty thanks for that one of his lectures in 1851, Comte squarely contrasted the "slaves of God" with the "servants of Humanity." "In the name of the past and of the future" it behooved the latter, alone capable of "organizing the true Providence," to get rid of the former everywhere "as disturbing and backward elements."

As one writer notes, Comte's positivism still exert a subtle impact on Brazil:

Up to the present days, Brazil's system of higher education still bears the marks of Comte's positivism, and stronger still is the influence of the positivist political philosophy within the higher ranks of the military and among the technocrats. Positivism says that scientism is the trademark of modernity and that in order to accomplish progress, a special technocratic or military class of people is needed who are cognizant of the laws of society and who establish order and promote this progress.

The prevalent ideology of a large part of the ruling elite stands in sharp contrast to the traditions held by the common people. As in most parts of Latin America, Brazil's popular culture is deeply marked by the Catholic-scholastic tradition, with its skepticism toward modernity and progress and its more spiritual-religious orientation, which rejects the linear concept of time as a progressive movement in favor of a circular eternal vision of life.

However many fractured shadows of Comtian positivism exist today, Comte's "church" has long faded away. This is not quite what he had in mind. Comte dreamed that he, like the early Christians, would "go and make disciples of all nations" (the motto of WYD 2013). He predicted that in 1927, the "reorganization" of the West would be "sufficiently accomplished to have regenerated souls everywhere"; that a priesthood of scientists (100,000 to be exact) would take over the great churches of the West from the fallen Catholic papacy; and that Notre Dame would become "the great Western Temple where the status of Humanity will have for pedestal the altar of God," surrounded by a "sacred wood" containing the tombs of 24 leading positivists.

He even had a vision of a service at another temple of Humanity, the Pantheon, where he imagined a woman crying out in tears to him: "Adored Master, I will endeavor to imitate thy courage, and shall succeed by nourishing myself on thy example...Auguste Comte, our father, founder of our Holy Church, may thy memory guide, sustain and conserve me, a faithful daughter of Humanity, from this day on until the hour of my death. Amen."

Comte evidently had delusions of grandeur - and it's well-recorded that he was subject to bouts of self-destructive mania all of his life. One of Comte's biographers, Mary Pickering, describes Comte's behavior after he was released from an asylum:

Somber and uncommunicative, he would often crouch behind doors and act more like an animal than a human. He still had many fantasies. Every lunch and dinner, he would announce that he was a Scottish Highlander from one of Walter Scott's novels, stick his knife into the table, demand a juicy piece of pork, and recite verses from Homer. He often tried to scare Massin by throwing his knife at her. Once he even grazed her arm. One day, when his mother joined them for a meal, an argument broke out at the table, and Comte took his knife and slit his throat. The scars were visible for the rest of his life.

All of this culminated with a suicide attempt in 1827, when he threw himself into the Seine river.

Setting aside the question of a connection between his philosophy and the trajectory of his life, it seems clear that positivism was bound to fail - not because Comte didn't bring to bear enough organization or intelligence on his vision, but precisely because he misread the nature of man, oriented not simply to religious worship which springs from within, but to the one eternal God who calls from without. Like Lil Zé, his spiritual hubris stamped out the sine qua non of man; and even a God-less Catholicism, a happy religion of Humanity, was doomed for precisely that reason. As De Lubac puts it:

[Comte's] gravest weakness came from the fact that he never allowed any room in his mind for "those great questionings that challenge all purely human interpretations, those great questionings from the beyond," which alone reveal man to himself. He thought he had exorcised them forever. Never, perhaps, has their voice been so strong and insistent as it is today.

Brazil is home to more Catholics than any country in the world, and hundreds of thousands are gathering there this week - beneath Comte's words, but not around Comte's successor.

Today, Pope Francis visits the poverty-stricken favelas surrounding Rio, a grim reminder of the continued presence of gang violence and drug addiction that plagued the City of God in the 70s. The question is posed for Brazil's elites and commoners alike, as it's posed for all of us: which city will we build, in our hearts and in our streets? Where will we fix our gaze?

Is it a false choice? Or the only choice?


  1. Astounding work! Thanks for the good read

  2. Astounding work! Thanks for the good read