The first virtue of citizenship: Taking the law seriously
by Ken Myers
On May 29, 2020, we released an interview with Oliver O’Donovan about living with COVID-19 and its consequences. The interview was one of a series featured on our app with a number of theologians, ethicists, philosophers, doctors, historians, and others who were asked — early in the world’s experience of this pandemic — to reflect on various practical and theoretical questions raised by the various rearrangements of our lives.
Oliver O’Donovan is one of the world’s leading political theologians, a thinker whose biblical, historical, theological, and philosophical knowledge provides a framework for understanding political order in a thoroughly Christian (that is, Christ-centered) way.
As the interview was conducted a few days before the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension, late in the interview I asked O’Donovan to comment on the consequences of the fact of Christ’s Ascension for how we think about politics.
The affirmation of the Ascension is the authorizing of human life, ultimately, over against death, by God through the life and death and resurrection of his Son. And the implications of that for our attempts to rule our lives as societies and as individuals has to be this confident belief that this is what God has decreed and established and accomplished.
We’ve become very impatient with politics, and for very good reasons. But we also have to look at the deeper story in which it is part of God’s story and God’s bearing witness to what he has done, part of his maintenance of this human thing for the glory to which he has appointed it — and effectively appointed it. So I think it just might begin to make us a little more hopeful of politics, not in itself or in its powers or in the resources of the people who populate the political parties, all of which are very, very depressing on the whole to look at in the Western world. But in the knowledge that they are merely the servants of an authority that is greater than they. And we must expect that higher authority to take effect in all kinds of ways. That’s the way in, I think, we need to take, I think. We need to grasp what it means that God has exercised his rule, and that he has exercised it in this way, and given it to the human representative who is his Son. If we can focus around that we can perhaps take a little courage that even the horrible mistakes that are made are not out of his control. It’s a start.
So to see politics not as a necessary evil but ultimately as part of eschatological fulfillment?
I would put it this way: that it’s a promise of eschatological fulfillment. What we are shown in the eschatological visions is, as it were, the kings of the earth are casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb. And it’s that to which we look forward. Here they are subordinate to that ultimate purpose, that ultimate rule. So let us take from them the promise that they have to give us. It’s an elusive promise and an indirect promise. It’s often difficult to discern, but it’s there. They represent, as it were, within the structure of society — they represent the command of God which is going in that direction, whether they know it or not. They may well not be conscious of the direction they’re going or the function they’re fulfilling — that is common enough — but for those who have eyes to see God’s purposes, they represent this.
In The Ways of Judgment, you talk about the refusal to acknowledge God as the sovereign authority of any human society — that’s a form of idolatry. And it would seem that late modern liberalism seems intent on not acknowledging God as a sovereign authority of any human society. That may be an over-reading, but it seems that that’s the presupposition that underwrites the endorsement of liberalism for many contemporary people.
I think that’s right. And I think it is because of that that political authority and the way it works remains so ineffably mysterious to us. We, as it were, can’t accept what it’s telling us, what it’s pointing us to, in the way this world works. It’s got a message that we are deafening ourselves to, and hence we are constantly taken aback — disturbed, confused, dismayed — by the way our structures work, because we have never seen the logic.
One question to close. What has the experience of the last several months revealed about the necessary virtues for both political leaders and for citizenship?
Well, for both I want to say that I think that we can learn and need to learn what it is to be a community living under law. I don’t know the mechanics by which the various authorities in the United States have introduced their regulations and their restrictions and their shutdowns. But here it has been done with force of law — a series of emergency regulations passed through Parliament and copycat versions passed through the devolved Parliaments. And the significance of this, it seems to me, is that the terms on which we are to live as necessarily and inevitably decided for us by authority are in all of our possession, and we can know them, and we can live into them and learn how to live with them and accommodate ourselves to them. That is, I think, one might say, the first virtue of citizenship — that it takes the law seriously. And it takes it as its own in an important way. Once the law is made, the authority has located itself. It has located itself in these requirements.
Now, this is actually no longer intuitively natural to a generation that is fed on television interviews, press conferences, soundbites, tweets, and so on. And what we’ve seen here is that the position laid out by these emergency regulations passed into law has constantly been thrown into doubt by what one might call “free improvisation” from all sources. From the sources of the proper government ministers down through the constables and chief constables, individual police, and so on — every one of which is convinced that it’s up to him or her to make the law up. And what began as, one might say, a perfectly clear and, in a sense, liberating relationship of authority to the people — liberating not in the sense that we are free to do what we like, but liberating in the sense that we are free to know where we stand in these difficult conditions in relation to the law — is immediately taken away by everybody’s need to improvise freely on it. And invent new regulations out of the back of their heads, often paraded as “advice” — the difference between advice and law becomes highly uncertain.
In other words, there is a certain lack of a will to live within the constraints of a law-governed society. That lack of a will to live is clearly seen in those who hold authority. Now that then throws back on the populace the need to discern the authority of law and the need to see clearly when a demand or a request is clearly in keeping with the line of authority that law has laid down, and when it is, as it were, simply unauthorized. So, it actually has to make us far more alert — respectful of authority and alert to its pseudo-pretenders. I don’t know whether that has any correspondence to the American experience. But it’s been quite a lesson, I think, for us here in Britain to discover what a law means.
I think [another factor is] the communications media and how our experience of time has been changed, so that there can be instant responses from a variety of voices whose alleged authority is tied to how popular they are in terms of how many people have watched their YouTube video or whatever.
Yes. That’s very interesting. And, of course, when you have a complex structure of government . . . you actually introduce this very difficult element of rivalry and competition, of which we have some obvious evidence here, too, since the government of Britain is by no means as centralized as it once was. In which, as it were, it becomes a sort of matter of pique for those who hold office in one form or another to make sure that their demands are heard over the top of the noise of all the other demands.
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Oliver O’Donovan is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the featured guest on two MARS HILL AUDIO Conversations, about which you may read more here and here.