Once there was no politics in the “pre-political” society God created. One day there will be no politics, in the society gathered around the throne of the Lamb. But, for now, political society exists as “a moment in parentheses,” and its structure is trinitarian in character. It exists by God’s ordinance to exercise judgment about what we have done and what we ought to do (a judgment to which, because it is authorized by God, the Church rightly defers); it exercises that judgment through institutions”structures whose representative character can be fully understood only when grounded in “the relation of redeemed humanity to Christ, the representative of all humanity in his death and glorification”; and its God-ordained task of judgment always stands over against and is limited by Jesus’ “counter-political” command that we “judge not,” a command embodied in the Spirit-filled communications of the Church’s life.

Though lacking, of course, the illuminating discussion that fills in the details, this is the basic structure of the political ethics developed by Oliver O’Donovan in The Ways of Judgment . It is hinted at even in the poem, “Buckle Street,” which serves as the book’s epigraph. The poem pictures a stream Unnaturally suspended above the banks / Of ancient plunging woodlands , a stream that now waters genial upland pastures . So also, Rome’s rulers and warriors made their way down to the plains, bringing with them the ways of judgment that nourish social life. But that social life can become a life beyond the ways of (human) judgment only by virtue of a greater rule and nourishment:

So Grace, the invader, scornful of gravity,
Follows the traces left by our interdicts,
Scoops out from the hard-core legal strictures
Runnels of kindly communication.

Desire of the Nations, his work on political theology published a decade ago, O’Donovan had promised a second book in which analysis of political concepts would come to the fore. Though he now draws back somewhat from any overly sharp distinction between political theology and political ethics”and though he aggressively begins not with political assumptions but with Christian faith”he nevertheless explores here in detail the central concepts that shape our understanding of political society.

He does this in part because faith always seeks understanding and, in this instance, an understanding that can guide believing Christians as they exercise their political responsibilities. Beyond that, however, he does it in response to a “crisis of confidence” permeating our culture. We have political beliefs and institutions, to which we remain committed even when we have set aside the underlying metaphysic and faith that shaped them, but whose intelligibility we no longer can explain. “Christian theology in these circumstances resumes its ancient role of educating a people in the practical reasonableness required for their political tasks.”

The exercise of political authority once involved more than the act of judgment alone. After the resurrection of Christ, however, our rulers, necessary though they are, should neither suppose that they are sovereign nor imagine that they can adequately represent the identity of the community and its tradition. The task of government is now strictly preparatory: It orders life toward, may in some measure be shaped by, but cannot adequately represent the universal society to which the risen Lord summons us. Thus, O’Donovan depicts a limited and anti-totalitarian (though not necessarily minimal) state”able and charged to right wrongs, but incapable of developing any comprehensive picture of what a good society would be, since social harmony is “a nexus of social communications that exist and flourish antecedently” and not “a design conceived in a ruler’s head.” If we want more than this, if we want some “concrete, positive image of renewed life,” we should seek it not from political rule but in “the social life of the church.”

The seven chapters of the first part of The Ways of Judgment , treating the (limited but essential and God-ordained) act of political judgment, are extraordinarily rich, and I cannot do justice to them here. I will content myself with brief comments on two of his most important discussions: on the concepts of equality and of punishment.

Committed though we are to a belief in human equality, such equality will hardly strike us as obvious if we simply open our eyes and look around. Rather, our belief in human equality must be “grounded in a truth that is to be told about humankind’s relations to that which is not humankind, and the only relation which answers the point is that in which each human being stands to the creator.”

Despite, that is, our very different capacities, each of us is equidistant from Eternity. To the degree, therefore, that our culture increasingly thinks of itself as secular, and thinks of human beings apart from any relation to the Creator, we have a fundamental commitment without any narrative to make sense of it. We may need Christian theology to “display the intelligibility” of a commitment we take for granted”lest the day come soon enough when, unable to make sense of it, we abandon it.

At the same time, we need not suppose that our belief in human equality has any simple translation into social policy or requires that those who are equal be treated identically. We should eliminate from our shared life not all differences but only those that are a genuine affront to our God-given equality. O’Donovan suggests that there are three moments, in particular, when the act of political judgment must respect equality absolutely: (1) Those who, because made by and for God, transcend every earthly society, must be treated equally before the law. (2) When life and death themselves are at stake”with respect to our coming into and our going out of being”our equality must be honored. And (3) no human being may be deprived of the resources necessary to participate in society. These last two, in particular, “form an eschatological framework of equality, within the bounds of which social differentiations can safely be developed.” As “metaphysically foundational,” they “can seriously and unqualifiedly be demanded from fellow human beings.”

In his discussion of punishment O’Donovan patiently dissects the standard theories of punishment, noting that”whatever we say about the precise connections among retribution, deterrence, and remediation”anything called punishment must be “backward-looking” and hence, in some sense, retributive. But he is not persuaded by any account of retribution that thinks of it as a simple exchange”in which the offender receives back something rather like the wrong he inflicted. Instead, O’Donovan suggests that we should think of punishment as attributive rather than retributive . What the offender gets back “in return” is precisely society’s judgment of himself as an offender”not an “echo” but an “answer.” He hears the truth about himself.

The precise nature of the answer will always be to some extent conventional and, hence, will vary from one society to another. But in two important ways this act of judgment should now be shaped by Christian faith. There is, first, a Christian “prejudice in favor of mildness,” and it must have its effect on our conventions of punishment. More important still, whereas theories of punishment normally seek to benefit the society at large (by deterrence), the offender (by remediation), and the victim (by retribution), a Christian political ethic leaves no place for the thought that one purpose of punishment is to benefit the victim. God himself has taken the side and the place of victims, and”though government as God’s servant must defend the right of victims”no private act of vengeance is needed or permitted. Hence, “it is a measure of the deep de-Christianization of our times that it is once again possible to speak in public of the victim’s interest in punishment.”

In the second part of The Ways of Judgment , O’Donovan turns to the manner in which political authority represents (or fails adequately to represent) a people’s shared life. Here he takes up within the contours of a Christian political ethic many of the topics one expects to encounter in political theory: the nature of political rule (and, in particular, the relation of force to the state), the nature of “representation,” and the justice of representative structures (their legitimacy; their standard division into legislative, executive, and judicial powers; and their relation to international institutions).

Mankind is communal by virtue of God’s creation, not by political invention.” Thus does O’Donovan distinguish himself from great contract theorists of both early and late modernity (such as Hobbes and Rawls). A people must have some kind of shared identity before a political authority can arise that truly represents it. In developing this claim, O’Donovan clearly has his gaze focused on the possibility of a European Union worthy of the name. Its emergence must depend upon the prior presence of a range of communications “so necessary and natural” that they require corporate representation. “When the Italian who moves in next door is not a foreigner, but merely from out of town; when it requires no comment or explanation that the chief of police for Northern Ireland is from Denmark, or a Spaniard heads an elementary school for the children of Prague, and everyone automatically speaks English, then a European people is at hand.” This explains why O’Donovan insists that a shared identity as a people is a work of “moral imagination””a work, one might add, which on his account has quite some way yet to go. Especially in light of recent events, one wishes that O’Donovan had also turned his analysis inward”toward the question of whether and how a common British identity can survive in the face of multiculturalist politics and a home-grown Islamist threat.

Important as a people’s common identity is to O’Donovan’s account of representation, to focus on it carries considerable danger”and it is on this point that his account of representation has an important theological bite. All political representation, necessary though it is, can easily slip into idolatry. “In the political self-consciousness of Israel there was a polemic against national representation in the insistence that YHWH alone could represent his people.” Justification is needed for the fact that political rulers limit social freedom in countless ways. If we justify this only in terms of what is necessary to sustain a people’s shared identity, that identity itself has come perilously close to being an idol. A more adequate justification must ask how preservation of a people’s identity at any given time can “be brought to serve that common good which belongs to the all-embracing identity, individual and collective, of God’s kingdom.” Right though this question seems, I confess to some perplexity about how political leaders could be in a position to answer it”other than, perhaps, simply by limiting the pretension of their claims.

In the third part of The Ways of Judgment , we encounter O’Donovan in his most theologically penetrating mode. If the characteristic political act is that of judging (right from wrong), and if the New Testament proclamation of the Cross is “counter-political” in its command that Jesus’ followers “judge not,” political theology comes to its sharpest practical point when these meet. This does not mean that political judgment is overthrown; it means that it is an “interim service””that “moment in parentheses” between the pre-political society God created and the post-political society toward which the life of the Church even now seeks to point.

There is an important sense, therefore, in which the Church must be characterized as “unpolitical.” If the Church can be spoken of as a polis , living under God’s rule, it is also the bride of Christ. And in a passage that provides a welcome refinement of his treatment in The Desire of the Nations , O’Donovan notes that the eschatological community toward which the Church points will be post-political, living “without structure or form other than the immediate presence of God and the Lamb in its midst.”

As a standing witness to the interim character of all political rule”as a society that seeks to model “what it means for human beings to live together without judging””the Church, paradoxically, presents through its very existence a political teaching and influence: “it restrains the thirst for judgment; it points beyond the boundaries of political identity; it undermines received traditions of representation; it utters truths that question unchallenged public doctrines.”

To do justice to the life of any society, political ethics must therefore pay attention not only to the act of judgment and to the representative institutions that participate in that act; it must also give some attention to what it means for human beings to live toward the eschatological judgment of God. This requires attention to the “communications” ( koinonia ) that mark a people’s common life, attention to the life of the Church, and attention to the conscientious individual who”in personal relation to the risen Lord that cannot be mediated by any institution, even the Church”must finally (in Kierkegaard’s language) “judge for oneself” what is right and true.

Communication involves and includes all sorts of sharing that take place in a society. The logic of communication points toward a society that unites those who remain individual and different. But this does not mean that the individual and his possessions are prior, or that society is fashioned out of our individual interests. Human community comes first as God’s gift; for part of what it means to be human is that individuals are made to live in society, to take one example, the right to property is “simply and solely the right to make dispositions for the common good; it is the command on resources which allows us to be participating agents in social communication.”

Theologically instructive as this argument is, one may wonder whether it makes quite enough space during this moment in parentheses for the multitude of ways in which our societies east of Eden try to reduce all forms of social communication to some politically given measure or put all forms of communication in service of general social goals.

In the face of such possibilities, it is important to underscore with O’Donovan the truth that a society”as the totality of many overlapping spheres of sharing”“has no ‘business’; it exists simply as the coherence in which the spheres of communication flourish in relation to each other.”

When we think of the many different societies in the world, not to mention the countless spheres of communication within them, we may doubt that it is sensible to believe in the unity of the human race. Only the Church makes it sensible. “Apart from ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ the posit of universal human fellowship is irreconcilably in contradiction to the concrete and bounded spheres of communion that we actually live in.”

Yet, there is still a sense in which we can rightly speak even of that Church as invisible, pressed down into the heart of the individual who believes. For there may be moments”“times of testing””when the conscientious individual can only with difficulty discern where true Christianity is to be found and must judge for oneself, must be the Church in one’s time and place, trusting that “in a line of faithful apostolic transmission of belief from the heart” rather than “in any other type of institutional succession” the “deepest continuity” of the Church is to be found. For it is finally the individual believer, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” who “participates directly and subjectively in the life of God.”

It is striking to note, having come to this point, that the Church is also an interim institution, on O’Donovan’s account. Both political rule that enacts judgment and the community that seeks to live beyond judgment are moments in parentheses. It is individuals, who must judge for themselves, who are finally drawn into that most complicated of communications that is the eschatological praise of God.

In the kingdom of heaven, when the rulers of the nations cast their crowns before the throne of the Lamb, the institutions of judgment will be redundant. And so will be the counter-political institutions of the church itself.” Thus, political theology, as O’Donovan has brought it to fruition, points ultimately beyond the political (and beyond the political even in the form of the counter-political) to a different image: the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University

Articles by Gilbert Meilaender

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