This explains in part why Northern admirers of liberation theology have had such little success in deploying its approach in relation to questions faced in their own hemisphere. Can democracy avoid being corrupted by mass communications? Can individual freedom be protected from technological manipulation? Can civil rights be safeguarded without surrendering democratic control to appointed courts? Or stable market conditions without surrendering control to appointed bankers? Can punishment be humane and stiil satisfy the social conscience? Can international justice be protected by threats of nuclear devastation? Can ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities assert their identities without denying individual freedoms? Can a democracy contain the urge to excessive consumption of natural resources? Can the handicapped, the elderly and the unborn be protected against the exercises of liberty demanded by the strong, the articulate and the middle-aged? Should the nation-state yield place to large market-defined governmental conglomerates? The peculiar forms of oppression experienced by a daily commuter in a large Northern conurbation, a check-out assistant in a supermarket, or a democratic politician hoping to avoid deselection by the party: these characteristic dilemmas and experiences have attracted astonishingly little notice from the political theologians of our generation.
For the Northern experience has been shaped in all its aspects by what became of the notion of authority in the modern era. Its technological imperative, its mass consumer culture, its democratic forms of distributing and denying power, all spring, in ways which cannot be gone into here, from the wasting away of authority as it was understood and witnessed to by the High Tradition, authority derived from and responsible to the just rule of God, In speaking of God's rule in a political context the tradition did not refer to the potentia absoluta underlying the bare fact of creation itself, but to the potentia ordinata which gave itself in covenant through the creation. To speak of the authority of God's rule is to speak of the fulfilment promised to all things worldly and human; and to measure the exercise of political power in its light is to make its world-affirming and humane character a test for all that is authentically political in human communities. The questions that confront the Northern democracies require a careful scrutiny in this light of the claims to authority on which their dominant social practices rest. And it is not political theologians who have made a start here, but those philosophers who address the criticism of modernity, especially those who have concentrated on the philosophical character of technology and the distinctive features of late-modern political and moral thought, (We might mention Jacques EIlul, George Grant, Leo Strauss and Alasdair Maclntyre as a representative selection.) Not that this collection of diverse thinkers has been without its own theological seriousness, however. If a new generation of political theologians nourished on liberation theology were to effect a meeting with this tradition, they might discover some surprising echoes of their own concerns.
However that may be, political theology needs also to regain a purchase on its own forgotten tradition, which derived, and critiqued, all exercise of authority from the rule of God. This proposal should not be misunderstood. It is not meant to suggest that the proper goal of political theology is to describe an ideal set of political institutions; for political institutions are anyway too fluid to assume an ideal form. The assimilation of the idea of authority to that of office and structure was a cardinal mistake which happened as Western politics turned its back on its theological horizon. Offices and structures are important, certainly, but as a secondary expression of authority- The primary object of attention should be a certain type of human (also, humane) act: the 'political act' we may call it. This occurs when God authorises the action of one or few to be performed on the part of many. It is representative, effective, and it constitutes the society in which and for which it is done as a political society that acts in and through it. How is this act authorised by God, so that members of socicty are represented in it, whether they choose to be or not? What are the criteria for its authentic performance? And how does it bear witness to the present and future of what God himself, the sole and only authority, daily undertakes for all? The future of political theology lies with these questions.
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