The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology
by Oliver O’Donovan
Cambridge University Press, 304 pages, $68.50
Granting, of course, that there are countless books I have not read, and with apologies in particular to the friends whose books I have read, The Desire of the Nations is as significant a work of theology as I can recall reading in the last twenty years. It is also, alas, a very difficult (and very expensive) book.
In the Preface to the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant noted that his work, even when set forth in “purely scholastic fashion,” was already quite large. He therefore deemed it “inadvisable to enlarge it yet further through examples and illustrations. These are necessary only from a popular point of view; and this work can never be made suitable for popular consumption. Such assistance is not required by genuine students of the science.”
I recalled this passage as I worked my way through The Desire of the Nations, more than once wondering whether to number myself among the “genuine students of the science” or among those in need of more “assistance.” O’Donovan’s style is dense, elliptical, architectonic but also enormously learned in ways one hardly ever encounters in contemporary theological writing. Many books are worth reading; this book is important.
What makes it important? Chiefly, I believe, two things. The book is, first, a reading of Scripture as a coherent whole and continuous narrative. This reading is genuinely historical in the sense that it makes place for change and development within the biblical narrative. It is very far removed from any ahistorical proof-texting; yet the entire story is told from the standpoint of the Church’s witness to the resurrection of Jesus. It is the story of Gods triumph in Christ, the desire of the nations. And second, the book is a powerful defense of Christendom—not as a present reality, of course, since O’Donovan knows that we no longer live in such times, but as a necessary feature of the Church’s mission.
Complicated as the book is, it is nevertheless carefully plotted. In this review I will try, first, briefly to place the book in terms of some contemporary theological concerns—and in terms of Augustine and Barth, on both of whom O’Donovan draws heavily. Second, and at much greater length, I aim to summarize the argument of the book—tracing its account of political rule from ancient Israel, through the revelation of the kingdom of God in Jesus and the rule of the exalted Christ in the Church, to the Church’s mission which anticipates the obedience of political authorities and the transformation of societies. And third, I will step back and ask what, if anything, the argument lacks. In particular, I will ponder the fact that it makes power, rather than love, the central theme of biblical narrative.
If we try to locate O’Donovan’s project theologically, we might first recall his description of Barth's political theology as a “magnificent, but incomplete, beckoning movement.” Barth, of course, came at political questions from a variety of perspectives at different points in his life, but O’Donovan notes in particular the never-completed volume IV/4 of the Church Dogmatics, in which Barth approached politics “solely from the point of view of the Church's mission.” It would not be entirely mistaken to read The Desire of the Nations as the completion of that project. It is not only that, however, for it is also a City of God for our time, an account of the history of that city of which glorious things are spoken. And O’Donovan calls Barth and Augustine unmistakably to mind when—in a passage that I shall come around to questioning—he writes that “no destiny can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, other than that of a city.”
Although I will not be able to do O’Donovan’s discussion justice, I intend to summarize it at length, if only in order to encourage other readers to enter into it themselves and probe its complexities. Hans Frei once described Barth’s theological writing as having the “peculiar character of being at once accessible and yet so difficult to do justice to in exposition and commentary.” Something similar is true of The Desire of the Nations, and Freis' description of Barth's project is not a bad description of what O’Donovan is doing:
Barth was about the business of conceptual description: He took the classical themes of communal Christian language molded by the Bible, tradition, and constant usage in worship, practice, instruction, and controversy, and he restated or redescribed them, rather than evolving arguments on their behalf. It was of the utmost importance to him that this communal language . . . had an integrity of its own: It was irreducible. But in that case its lengthy, even leisurely unfolding was equally indispensable. For he was restating or reusing a language that had once been accustomed talk, both in first-order use in ordinary or real life, and in second-order technical theological reflection, but had now for a long time, perhaps more than 250 years, been receding from natural familiarity, certainly in theological discourse. So Barth had as it were to recreate a universe of discourse, and he had to put the reader in the middle of that world, instructing him in the use of that language by showing him how.
The first task of political theology is to give an account of what we mean by political authority or rule (the esse of politics)”the notion of a political act. A further task will be to unfold the bene esse of politics, the proper use of political action. O’Donovan’s description of political authority begins with the vocabulary used in the Bible to describe the reign of Yahweh over Israel. The political tradition of Israel—read as a history that develops over time, in which each development “has to be weighed and interpreted in the light of what preceded and what followed it”—is normative, and its character can be roughly summarized in four affirmations.
The Lords reign is, first, an exercise of power that gives Israel victory or salvation; it is, second, the execution of judgment or justice within Israel; and it is, third, the establishment of Israel’s communal identity as a people existing over time (an identity connected at first with the land and, later, with possession of the law). These three affirmations summarize what it means to say that the Lord rules as king in Israel, and, if the features that constitute Israel as a people are normative, what it means to speak of any political authority.
These three—power, execution of right, and perpetuation of communal identity—constitute Yahweh’s rule in Israel, but to them a fourth affirmation must be added. The Lords rule is acknowledged—though not established—in the praise Israel, as a worshiping community, offers. “Shall we conclude, then, that within every political society there occurs, implicitly, an act of worship of divine rule? I think we may even venture as far as that.” This may strike a contemporary reader as bizarre, but it helps us understand why idolatry always lies near at hand in politics when the divine authority that establishes government is ignored or forgotten. At any rate, we do not create political authority; we acknowledge it and thereby acknowledge our existence as a political community. “The doctrine that we set up political authority, as a device to secure our own essentially private, local, and unpolitical purposes, has left the Western democracies in a state of pervasive moral debilitation, which, from time to time, inevitably throws up idolatrous and authoritarian reactions.” Here we see O’Donovan at his most anti-liberal, attacking (on the basis of Israel’s normative tradition) the idea that government exists chiefly to foster the pursuit of private aims and interests. That tendency in his thought will, however, be sharply qualified before he is finished.
The story of Israel does not end with the establishment of Yahweh’s rule through power, judgment, and establishment of communal identity. This rule must now be mediated to the people, and the nature of that mediation changes over time. Moses is himself a unitary mediator—carrying out all three functions as military deliverer, judge, and one who in the law gives the pattern of communal life. Kings in Israel also claimed to exercise all three functions in an undivided sovereignty that provided a unitary representation of Gods rule. Such an arrangement, always controversial in Israel, was a constant temptation to make more of the monarch than he was, to see in the king an image of Israel’s God.
To avoid such danger Israel turned not to a notion of “separation of powers” (which notion cannot therefore be quite as politically essential as we sometimes suppose) but, instead, to prophets. The law of the Lord had an independent voice within Israelite society through the prophets, and, thus, every political authority must understand that it is not the sole mediator of divine authority, that it is itself subject to the community’s own independent witness to Gods will (which witness could, for example, take the form of a theory of “natural law” that transcends and judges positive law). This independent witness may even become, as it did later in Israel’s history when the mediating institutions of government had collapsed, the voice of a single individual (such as Jeremiah) that preserves the community’s memory of its own identity and reaches out toward its reconstitution.
This depiction of political rule, drawn from the history of Israel, can also be applied to other nations, for Israel’s God was not locally confined. “Out of the self-possession of this people in their relation to God springs the possibility of other peoples possessing themselves in God.” To put the point a little differently, but in a way whose relevance to continuing disputes in the Middle East may be apparent, the God who providentially elects Israel as his chosen people is ready to protect the communal identity of other peoples as well. What Israel’s tradition does not authorize, however, is any single mediator of divine rule at the international level. There is no single world order or empire. Yahweh’s world is “plurally constituted.” He could make his name known to the nations through Israel, and his law could bind the nations universally, but there is no universal mediator of his rule. Hence, in relations among nations the rule of law can be invoked but not the commanding rule of a single government.
This says something about the limits of our collective identities. To be a human being at all is to participate in one or more collective identities. But there is no collective identity so over arching and all-encompassing that no human beings are left outside it. In that sense it is true that to speak of “humanity” is to speak of an abstraction. Only in that sense, for in fact “humanity” has a perfectly conceivable referent, and we should not hesitate to say that “humanity” is real. But it is not a reality that we can command politically. We do not meet it in any community, however great, of which we could assume the leadership. We meet it only in the face of Christ, who presents himself as our leader and commander.
With this essence of political authority as drawn from the history of Yahweh’s reign in Israel, O’Donovan can turn to the bene esse, the proper use of political action. To describe that, we must sketch the manner in which the rule of God, established in Israel’s communal existence, is brought to its completion in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Only then will we have an evangelical political theology.
The same categories that emerge from an examination of Gods rule in Israel can be used to set forth the revelation of the kingdom of God in Jesus. He does mighty works of power that bring salvation; he proclaims the judgment of Israel; he reforms the understanding of the law upon which the identity of a restored Israel is based. The praise that acknowledges Gods rule corresponds now to faith that recognizes the reign of God in Jesus. Much that passes for political theology (what O’Donovan terms “Jesuology”) might stop here, focusing on Jesus announcement of the dawning of a new age of liberation. Such an approach “could encourage hope for new acts of divine creativity. But it could not speak meaningfully of the defeat of Jesus program, nor of its vindication.” A better political theology “must base itself on the hidden counsel of God which worked also through Caiaphas and Pilate.” It must, that is, be grounded not in “Jesuology” but in Christology. The starting point for this Christology is the classical “two natures” teaching, which captures well the manner in which Jesus fills the two roles we have seen within Israel’s story—the mediator of Gods rule, and the representative individual who carries the identity of the people and reaches out toward its reconstitution.
O’Donovan traces the chief “moments” of the Christ-event in a fourfold pattern that coheres with the account of political rule derived from Israel’s history. These moments are (1) the advent of Christ to save; (2) the passion of Christ in which the judgment of the world is given; (3) the restoration of Christ, which affirms Israel’s new identity in its representative; and (4) the exaltation of Christ, the coronation of the one who has triumphed over the powers that oppose Gods rule.
Present in his absence until the Parousia, the exalted Christ rules in the Church, whose life participates in the four moments of the Christ-event. Marked by the sign of baptism, the Church now gathers to herself those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Marked by the sign of the Eucharist, the Church now suffers—paradigmatically in her martyrs, but in countless other ways as well. Marked by the sign of her keeping of the Lords day as a little Easter, the Church now rejoices in the restoration of the creation. Marked by the sign of the laying on of hands, the Church now speaks Gods word in prophecy and prayer (which is speech addressed to the God from whom it comes). The churches have often been tempted to understand themselves in terms of one of these “moments” alone—as marked by mission alone, by suffering alone, by triumph alone, or by social responsibility alone. But such truncated understandings cannot recapitulate the narrative coherence of the moments in the story of Christ.
The salvation that Christ brings always remains political in nature. To be sure, the inward obedience of faith is given a new and striking centrality, as St. Paul makes clear, but Paul also testifies to the necessity of the continuing existence of Israel (with its public, political tradition). Israel too, of course, must take account of what has happened in the Christ. As it once had moved from conceiving its identity in terms of possession of the land to conceiving it in terms of possession of the law, so now it is called to see that possession of the law as fulfilled in Christ. But that does not nullify the continuing importance of its normative political tradition. “So until the last reconciliation the two communities must coexist, the one with the witness of its public institutions, the other with a witness founded on and attesting faith.” The structure of public, political life remains an important concern even in the age of the Church.
Indeed, the exalted Christ rules not only in the Church but also in political life. After all, the powers have been disarmed by Christ, who has triumphed over them and who is the desire of the nations. Of course, that triumph remains hidden until the end of the age. Hence, we must both assert the rule of Christ and simultaneously acknowledge that it is not yet fully apparent. “Within the framework of those two assertions there opens up an account of secular authority which presumes neither that the Christ-event never occurred nor that the sovereignty of Christ is now transparent and uncontested.” It is fair to say, however, that O’Donovan’s discussion emphasizes the disarming and the rule more than the eschatological reservation and the hiddenness.
How, in fact, should political authority survive at all as a bearer of collective identity once membership in the Church has emerged as the new center of identity? To be sure, power and communal identity remain aspects of any account of the esse of political authority, but the “desacralization” of politics by the Christ-event provides a new understanding of the bene esse”the proper use of political action. (It also provides a setting in which the powers of this world might attempt one last desperate act of self-assertion—might, that is, become the Antichrist.) The point of politics must be rethought, for it exists now to serve the advancement of the Gospel. It exists, that is, chiefly to provide the execution of right, the just judgment that preserves the social order toward the further spread of the Christian mission. “The accumulation of power and the maintenance of community identity cease to be self-evident goods; they have to be justified at every point by their contribution to the judicial function. The responsible state is therefore minimally coercive and minimally representative.” This should make clear that, whatever the other tendencies in O’Donovan’s thought, he holds that the political doctrine arising from the desacralization of politics can, broadly speaking, be characterized as the classical tradition of political liberalism.
In the time and space provided by secular government the Church is in mission, securing the identity of Israel on the one hand, securing for the sake of Israel the obedience of the Gentile nations on the other—until the day when Yahweh gathers both Israel and the nations and Christ delivers the kingdom to his Father. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” the prophet says, articulating thereby the twofold focus of the Church's mission: to society and to political authorities. The aim of the mission is different in the two cases. Society must be transformed only in accord with the purposes of God revealed in Christ. Rulers must disappear, relinquishing their sovereignty now that the stronger one has appeared.
O’Donovan takes up “the obedience of the rulers” in chapter six, perhaps the richest chapter in the book, containing his treatment (and, in some respects, defense) of the idea of Christendom—that is, the idea of a political order secular but nonetheless professedly Christian. That this seems to us almost a contradiction in terms demonstrates what has happened to the meaning of “secular” in our world. For Christian political thought, O’Donovan suggests, the alternative to “secular” should be not “religious” but “eternal.” Secular government is “secular” not in the sense that it is irreligious but in the sense that its role is confined only to this age (the saeculum) that is passing away. It does not and cannot in any way represent the promise of the new age that comes in Christ. “Applied to political authorities, the term secular should tell us that they are not agents of Christ, but are marked for displacement when the rule of God in Christ is finally disclosed. They are Christ's conquered enemies; yet they have an indirect testimony to give . . . . Like the surface of a planet pocked with craters by the bombardment it receives from space, the governments of the passing age show the impact of Christ's dawning glory.” What Christendom attempts, therefore, is to reconceive government in such a way that it bears witness to the triumph of Christ while also recognizing itself as belonging only to the age that is passing away.
O’Donovan is emphatic, however, that the creation of such a political order is not the project of the Church’s mission. That mission is to announce the rule of God in Christ, the desire of the nations. Christendom is simply a result of the Church’s mission and—here is the crucial claim—“a sign that God has blessed it.” Suggesting that we might usefully date the time of Christendom as lying between 313 (the Edict of Milan) and 1791 (the adoption of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), O’Donovan traces its history and development in nineteen densely packed and richly learned pages on “the doctrine of the Two.” Because the old age of the principalities and powers that have been disarmed by Christ overlaps with the coming age of Gods kingdom, Christians had to explore the meaning of living within two societies. The movement of that exploration was roughly from a struggle between two societies (in the patristic period), to a vision of a single society with two foci of authority (in the medieval period), to a distinction between an inner self and its external roles in society (in the thought of Luther). Recognizing that we no longer live within the time of Christendom, O’Donovan is nonetheless unwilling to brand it a mistaken turn in the road. “The Church is not at liberty to withdraw from mission; nor may it undertake its mission without confident hope of success.”
The core of the idea of Christendom is that each of the two authorities—which we can here call simply the Church and the state—is to render service to the other “predicated on the difference and the balance of their roles.” The state serves the Church by making possible its mission; the Church serves the state by instructing it in what it means to be a “humble state.” The esse of political authority still characterizes the humble state; it exercises power and sustains the identity of a community. But now that the new age has dawned in Christ, we can be clearer about the bene esse—the proper action—of political authority. Now the exercise of power and the preservation of communal identity give way somewhat to the execution of right and justice. Power is now exercised under law, never as if it were the ultimate source of justice and right. “The responsible state is therefore minimally coercive and minimally representative . . . . This is not a restraint imposed by the nature of political authority as such, which can thrive on excesses of traditional legitimation and on splendid displays of force; it is imposed by the limits conceded to secular authority by Christ’s Kingdom.”
Once again, therefore, the antiliberal strain in O’Donovan’s thought is qualified. The “legal-constitutional conception,” the limited state, becomes part of the wisdom the Church has to recommend to rulers of this world. Indeed, the Church may over time have learned a good bit of such worldly wisdom, which has become part of the Christian political tradition, and which may be shared with many who do not consider themselves Christian. The temptation in such circumstances is to offer for public consumption the political doctrine “as a substitute for proclaiming Christ.” This is, in fact, an apt characterization of much that is currently called “public theology.” What public theology has come to mean quite often is that Christian and non-Christian endorse similar political views while (privately) offering different reasons for those views. But that, O’Donovan perceptively suggests, is to withdraw from mission. “Granted, the Church may always make the best of any coincidence of political doctrine between Christians and non-Christians that it lights upon; but making the best means making the evangelical content of the doctrine clear, not veiling it in embarrassment.”
If the Church serves the state by helping it to be the humble state, it in turn serves the Church by creating space in which the latter’s mission may be carried out. In part it accomplishes this simply by being the responsible state that understands the limits to which the dawning of Gods kingdom now makes it subject. It may do this unwittingly, but it may also do it quite consciously, recognizing the Church and acknowledging its mission—and a reader should not permit the boldness of that claim to be lost in the complexities of O’Donovan’s prose. The most truly Christian state will echo John the Baptist: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
Not all states are likely to be so humble, of course. And part of the Church’s mission is to recognize the Antichrist (who claims to unite “earthly political rule and heavenly soteriological mediation” in one agent) when he makes his appearance. In the face of the Antichrist the Church will have to be prepared for the possibility of martyrdom, but she should also confidently anticipate that the witness of her martyrs will be powerful. Hence, “the Church must be prepared to welcome the homage of the kings when it is offered to the Lord of the martyrs . . . . No honor is paid to martyrs if they are presented as mere dissidents, whose sole glory was to refuse the cultural order that was on offer to them. Martyrdom is, as the word itself indicates, witness, pointing to an alternative offer.” And that alternative offer is Christendom—the humble state that knows it is destined to pass away and that, in the meantime, helps to make the Church's mission possible.
Must not such a state be coercive—at least from the perspective of those not inclined to welcome the Church’s mission? To the degree that the state seeks to make possible the Church’s mission, must not some members of the society feel themselves to be “outsiders,” in it but not of it? It all depends. If the Church’s mission has successfully taken root in the lives of many people within a society, it is quite right, O’Donovan suggests, that their deep agreements should be reflected in their government. He argues persuasively that nothing in the classical tradition of political liberalism requires otherwise. That tradition encouraged the shared pursuit of truth, and “one cannot approve the common quest for truth without approving the hope that common persuasions may emerge from it.”
But what some of our contemporaries have now in fact begun to believe is that any deep social agreement is itself inherently coercive and potentially oppressive. If we acquiesce in that claim, however, the social agreements that constitute the Church would also be undercut. “If there is no religious test on the right to vote, or to have access to education or medical care, why should there be one on attending Mass and receiving communion, which is, after all, a source of satisfaction to religious temperaments and an important means of social participation?” That is where an unqualified liberal individualism lands us, and that it should find any societal consensus threatening is unsurprising. But if such a view undergirds the critique of Christendom, then, O’Donovan is suggesting, one must say a good word on behalf of Christendom. Of course, the time of Christendom is for the moment gone, but it was not wrong—and we would not be wrong—to hope that kings might come to the brightness of Christ's rising.
Nor wrong to hope that nations would come to his light. This directs us to the other focus of the Church's mission: not only political authorities, but also societies. If the former must ultimately disappear, the latter must be transformed. The distinctive features of liberal society in the West have, in fact, been shaped to some degree by the four moments that make up the narrative structure of the dawning of the kingdom in Christ and the narrative structure of the Church's life. Hence, O’Donovan thinks of the needed social transformation as having taken place, at least in part, when modernity brought to fruition and gave social shape to central Christian beliefs. But he also suggests that modern society has taken those beliefs and subverted them by losing the context which alone enables them to enhance human life. Thus, modern society both fulfills and subverts Christian teaching. We can briefly sketch this “pair of counter-interpretations” of modernity in terms of the same fourfold structure at work throughout the book.
Christ comes in power to save, the Church gathers his disciples through baptism in a manner that transgresses all given communal boundaries—and liberal society has its beginning in this discovery of freedom. “A society founded in conversion and baptism is a society unlike all others.” Because no human authority can now be understood as ultimate, space is created for personal freedom. This is not, however, an assertion of individual freedom; rather, it is the freedom that emerges from a new community whose Lord sets it free from all other lords. If, however, individuals become nothing more than freedom, nothing other than abstract will set over against an inert nature, and if consent becomes the only moral language we know, freedom subverts the natural communities and structures of life that are required for us to learn how rightly to exercise that freedom.
Christ endures a suffering in which the judgment of the world is revealed, the Church, sharing through the eucharist in his broken body, shares also in his suffering in the world—and liberal society gradually learns the meaning of sympathy for sufferers, learns that, though judgment remains necessary, mercy in judgment is now essential. But once freedom becomes its own ground and whatever we do not will seems unintelligible, suffering can no longer be accepted. Compassion—basing itself on “the rejection of suffering rather than the acceptance of it”—replaces sympathy. Hesitation to pass judgment upon those who suffer remains, but now it is a hesitation grounded in moral insecurity rather than in religious humility.
Christ is raised to a new life as the representative of Israel’s new identity, the Church, celebrating on each Lords Day the joy of that resurrection, rejoices at the restoration of the creation—and liberal society gradually develops a concept of natural right, of a humane social order in which both the equal dignity of every human being and the importance of distinctions that make natural communities possible are affirmed. But when freedom becomes its own ground, natural right becomes simply an interest in self-preservation, and equality can no longer make room for the nonreciprocal roles that important forms of human community (such as the family) require.
The risen Christ is exalted to rule, the Church, empowered through the laying on of hands, raises up its prophetic voice in society and speaks”and liberal society gradually is instructed in an openness to speech. Rulers learn that they must be responsive to the public deliberations of the entire community. But when freedom becomes its own ground, speech becomes mere assertion of self and finally loses its point.
Thus far O’Donovan’s rediscovery of the roots of our political theology, making clear that we now find ourselves in a society that in some respects fulfills the Church's mission and in other respects subverts it. This pair of counter-interpretations of modernity serves “to sharpen our understanding of the decisions we now face; to interpret the two loves which made two cities in a form appropriate to our historical situation.” What we are, politically and socially, bears the unmistakable imprint of Christian thought and action. The inextricable intermingling of the two cities in human history is, by Gods providence, directed toward the eternal unveiling of the Church as the city for which we hope. But in the meantime, in earthly history, the mission of the Church is to disclose to human eyes the true meaning of a city “through the prism of the Church.” That is the purpose of political theology.
I have indulged myself in this lengthy summary of O’Donovan’s argument not because it can substitute for the book itself but in order to offer some account of the scope and structure of his undertaking. Moreover, if O’Donovan’s project is what I suggested at the outset, conceptual redescription of the world narrated by Scripture, one must first try to live within the world so narrated and see what one makes of it. Nothing is easier than to suggest what an author might have done but did not, and I do not want to engage in that kind of critique. But it may be useful to ask whether anything is missing from O’Donovan’s account and, if so, what difference it might make.
One thing that is missing is the primeval history of Genesis 1–11, the backdrop against which the story of Israel, Jesus, and the Church is played out. And whatever else we make of that primeval history, it seems to teach us that the work of God in history for our salvation takes place within certain limits, the most fundamental of which is: no return to paradise is possible. The angel with the burning brand is placed east of Eden; Cain, first to found a city, is also author of the first fratricide; the covenant made with Noah recognizes the sad fact that within history community will always be sustained through the use of force; the scattering of the peoples at Babel makes clear that we should not hope for a single, harmonious human community.
Now, of course, O’Donovan is not wrong to see in the triumph of Christ the restoration of creation, and in the Church a community built upon trust into which all peoples are invited. But if we read that story against the backdrop of these opening chapters of the Bible, our reading may be more cautious than O’Donovan’s. We will then anticipate that Christ’s triumph must remain hidden under the cross, and we will be less certain that we can trace that triumph through history. We will be less eager to have the force of even a humble state joined too closely to the mission of the church.
Is this to take the triumph less seriously? Not really to treat it as a triumph? I think not. It is only to emphasize that the triumph is more evident to faith than to sight. It is only to take seriously the eschatological reservation that St. Paul himself articulates, for example, in Romans 6. The Paul who writes there that “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart . . . and . . . have become slaves of righteousness” is the same Paul who gives the new creation a decisively future orientation. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” To take that eschatological reservation seriously, one need not question the basic contours of the story O’Donovan tells, but one may simply emphasize that the bene esse of political action will not replace its esse (the use of force).
All that, however, is only a qualification. Something else is missing, though, from O’Donovan’s account that may make a still greater difference. “No destiny can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it,” he writes, “other than that of a city.” It is not surprising, therefore, that, in his account, when we gaze upon the face of Christ we look at one who is “our leader and commander.” What if we were to think of the God whose face is revealed in Christ not first as one who commands but as one who loves? Perhaps such a move would not be as conducive to political theology, but it might alert us to overlooked possibilities.
Can we really conceive of no destiny in this world or another than that of a city? When in Revelation 21, in a passage that plays an important role in O’Donovan’s account, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven, the seers metaphor is a decidedly mixed one. For the holy city is described in the nonpolitical imagery of marriage—as “a bride adorned for her husband.” And the holy city Jerusalem that is revealed is “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” We should not too readily assume that the holy city is chiefly an image of political rule; perhaps, rather, it images a communion in which each participant is loved personally and intimately.
We might try to retell the story O’Donovan has told from this perspective—as the story of Yahweh’s wooing of his bride Israel and the marriage of Christ and his Church. Not politics, then, but marriage would be the sign of Gods ultimate, redeeming intention for the creation. Not command but love would be the dominant motif. The point of politics would be to make possible such private bonds of love. And the promises to Israel would point not toward a redeemed public realm but toward a hope that lies, finally, beyond that realm.
But all that is only the sketch of a story someone else might try to tell. O’Donovan has told his in a book that deserves to be widely read and discussed. We shall know the full truth of these matters only in the new Jerusalem, where, we may hope, such discussion will be a part of the praise of God. To work ones way through The Desire of the Nations may, therefore, be good preparation for heaven.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.
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