Church as Polity

As different as the above approaches are from one another, they share the assumption that the modern separation of theology and politics is proper and that politics resides in a different autonomous space from that marked out by the church. The church must therefore approach politics indirectly, from afar. There is a different approach, however, that seeks to overcome this division by examining the politics embedded in core Christian theological themes, without need of translation from theology to politics or vice versa. Key to this approach is reimagining the political as a direct response to God's activity in the world, a return to the Augustinian conviction that politics is truly politics only when mapped onto salvation history. God's acts and human acts are not to be identified, but both take place, as O'Donovan says, in the "one public history which is the theatre of God's saving purposes and mankind's social undertakings" (O'Donovan 1996: 2). Central to this reimagining is the conviction that the church is at the heart of God's plan of salvation.

Oliver O'Donovan's work is unusual in this respect, because it regards Christendom as the most significant practical instance of the conviction that theology is politics. As O'Donovan sees it, Christendom is simply the unfolding drama of God's rule as manifested in the Old Testament and as fulfilled in the kingship of Christ. If Christology is given its due political weight, then after the Ascension the nations could simply not refuse to acknowledge Christ. If Christ really is the fulfillment of the salvation history begun in Israel, then God must in fact be using the governing authorities for his own purposes in bringing about a new social order. Nevertheless, the government is not the church; the church exists to serve as a distinctive witness, to remind the government of its temporary status. As ruler, the ruler is meant to judge; as member of the church, the ruler is meant to judge with clemency; and the church is there to signal the inherent tension between the two obligations (O'Donovan 1996: 200). The church thus plays a central role in the transformation of the social order. The church itself bears the fullness of God's politics through history. "Does the authority of the Gospel word confer no social structure on the community which bears it? Does that community have no 'social space' determined by the truth?" (p. 208). There can be no question of a disembodied Christianity that serves only, in a Gnostic fashion, to inform the consciences of individual citizens occupying an autonomous political space.

O'Donovan presents a serious challenge to Christian accommodation to liberal social orders. Nevertheless, he locates himself in an established national church and depends upon the state to be the police department of the church. His repositioning of politics within salvation history recovers the eschatological dimension missing from much of contemporary political theology, but his escha-tology has a strong accent on the "already" of Christ's victory. As a result, he puts a great deal of emphasis on the biblical images of rule, to the exclusion of images of wandering, pilgrimage, exile, and resident alien status. These themes are taken up by Stanley Hauerwas who, though in fundamental sympathy with O'Donovan's retrieval of eschatological politics, would place the emphasis more decidedly on the "not yet." Hauerwas has no doubt that God's reign will triumph, but he wants to be more reticent than O'Donovan about how in fact God's reign is manifested on the way. The lordship of Jesus, Hauerwas suspects, is nothing like the worldly rule of states, and is most often found in the signs of weakness and contradiction that mark the Christian way of the cross. The political task of the church post-Christendom is to suffer rulers as faithfully as possible, to the point of martyrdom if necessary, to wait upon the Lord and not to presume to rule in his place (Hauerwas 1997: 199-224).

Such a reticence about the reign of God seems to prompt Hauerwas to say more about the church, to identify the church fully as polis (as the subtitle of one of his books indicates) - though it is a polis without a police department. Unencumbered by the need to rule, the church is called to be "a 'contrast model' for all polities that know not God" (Hauerwas 1981: 84). The church's role in the history of salvation is precisely to bear God's politics through history. The hallmark of God's politics is that authority operates through the power of the truth, and not through violence. In the modern nation-state, the autonomy of politics from God's rule ensures that social order is based only on the arbitrary suppression of will by will. The role of the church is not merely to make policy recommendations to the state, but to embody a different sort of politics, so that the world may be able to see a truthful politics and be transformed. The church does not thereby withdraw from the world but serves it, both by being the sign of God's salvation of the world and by reminding the world of what the world still is not.

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