New Forms of Power

Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

yasuo-kuniyoshi-photographerIn The Desire of the Nations Oliver O’Donovan lays out a careful and considered political theology based in some of the most erudite Biblical exegesis I have ever read. There is no way to do justice to this magnificent and somewhat overwhelming book in a short review, so I will restrict myself to discussing a few of O’Donovan’s major themes. O’Donovan begins by asking what the Old Testament writers meant when they said that ‘Yhwh reigns’. ‘The cry Yhwh malak carried with it three kinds of association’, he writes. ‘In the first place it offered a geophysical reassurance about the stability of the natural order; in the second place, it offered a reassurance about the international political order, that the God of Israel was in control of the restless turbulence of the nations and their tutelary deities and could safeguard his people; in the third place, it was associated with the ordering of Israel’s own social existence by justice and law, ensuring the protection of the oppressed and vulnerable’. Yhwh rules because He gives Israel victory, because He judges the righteous and the unrighteous, and because He gives Israel the land as its possession. Exactly what this means for us in the twenty-first century isn’t entirely clear, and although O’Donovan does try to draw out some abstract conclusions about the nature of political power it is to his credit that he doesn’t let them overwhelm his exegesis.

6cm587When Jesus spoke of the kingdoms of Heaven and of ‘this world’, he wasn’t distinguishing between spiritual and earthly kingdoms. Jesus claimed to be king of both, which is bad news for the empires of this world because ‘membership in Christ replaced all other political identities by which communities knew themselves’. God doesn’t mind states, O’Donovan suggests, but He hates empires because of their claims to universal sovereignty (exactly when O’Donovan thinks that a state becomes an empire isn’t entirely clear). Jesus’ understanding of power and authority was the exact opposite of imperial rulers: ‘Within the people of God’s rule authority is directed to providing for the weak’. When He said that we must become like little children, ‘on the one hand, it meant that the child commanded the interest of authority to protect it from harm; on the other, it meant that the child, being simply at the command of others, was the model of humility which authority had to emulate (Matthew 18:1-6)’.

obata1‘It is a Western conceit’, Oliver O’Donovan writes in The Desire of the Nations, ‘that all political problems arise from the abuse of over-concentration of power; and that is why we are so bad at understanding political difficulties which have arisen from a lack of power, or from its excessive diffusion’. Famine is disastrous because we lack food and the power to procure it. When a kingdom is divided against itself, power is diffused too widely and a political crisis follows. Whereas the Zealots wanted to take power away from Rome, Jesus noticed that weakening Rome wouldn’t necessarily mean strengthening Israel. Thinking about how God saved His people through the miracle at the Red Sea, O’Donovan argues that ‘the power which God gave to Israel did not have to be taken from Egypt, or from Rome, first. The gift of power was not a zero-sum operation. God could generate new power by doing new things in Israel’s midst’. Jesus taught us to pray ‘Thy kingdom come!’ (Matt 6:10), Paul prayed ‘Come, O Lord!’ (1 Cor. 16:22), and the author of Revelation ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev 22:20), calling on God to definitively manifest His kingdom on earth. But Jesus also asked ‘How much more will your Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’ (Luke 11:13). The Church, then, has the power to ask for God to work in its midst to enable it to testify to the promise of the coming kingdom. We do not have to overthrow earthly rulers – for they have already been judged in the resurrection – but we do have to live as a holy sanctuary out of which the transformation of the world will come.

img_4832aChapters 5 and 6 of The Desire of the Nations focus on how the institutional Church has dealt with power and authority over the past two thousand years. O’Donovan shows himself to be a very capable historian in these chapters, but it isn’t clear to me what conclusion he wants to draw from it all. At some points he appears to be holding the Church’s critique of secular rulers up as a model worth emulating, and at other times he rejects it entirely. Despite the ambiguity of these chapters, two observations that he makes in passing are particularly worth mentioning. The first is that once we ‘lose sight of the church’s rooting in the Christ-event … we cease to understand the church as a society ruled by ‘another king’ (Acts 17:7). Instead it becomes accommodated to existing political societies as a system of religious practice that can flourish within them, a kind of service-agency (inevitably clerical) which puts itself at the disposal of a multitude of rulers. It assures existing authorities that they will not be disturbed by it, since it does not lay claim to the same ground that they occupy. Its authority is distinguished from theirs as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘earthly’.’ Forgetting that Christ is king over all the earth is a disastrous option for the Church. Second, O’Donovan argues that the Church engaged with secular powers because of its missionary heart: ‘it was the missionary imperative that compelled the church to take the conversion of the empire seriously and to seize the opportunities it offered. These were not merely opportunities for ‘power’. They were opportunities for preaching the Gospel, baptizing believers, curbing the violence and cruelty of empire and, perhaps most important of all, forgiving their former persecutors’.

1024x1024Dancing with empire is a dangerous game, but it can be done provided that one thinks about power in ways that are antithetical to those of worldly rulers. The moment we lord our power over others we have lost. So long as our power is simply the ability to be servants, we are following Christ. In O’Donovan’s vision, the Church’s job is not to condemn secular government, but to reconcile it to Christ. ‘In the light of the resurrection’, he argues, ‘the cross is seen to be a judgment which is, at the same time and completely, an act of reconciliation: an act of judgment, because it effected a separation between right and wrong and made their opposition clear; an act of reconciliation, because by this judgment the way was opened for the condemned to be included in the vindication of the innocent’. Whether abstract entities such as states can be ‘reconciled’ to God is something that I am still not convinced of, but in this book O’Donovan has certainly set the standard by which all subsequent political theology should be judged.


Artworks from the exhibit Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.


One thought on “New Forms of Power

  1. Thanks for this Roland; it is very interesting, very comprehensive and clearly written.

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