Oliver O’Donovan is this year to present the New College Lectures. He is in Australia at the invitation of the College to deliver the lectures and to speak to residents at a formal dinner. The first official component of his visit took place on Wednesday when Oliver delivered a short address to the 250 residents of New College, plus a few life fellows and staff. The largely non-Christian audience of 18-20 year olds (about 30% of residents are Christians) were privileged to hear a brilliant address on political responsibility. His talk challenged them and provided an introduction to political theology and urged them to consider their responsibility to the nation. In doing so he addressed a theme that readers of his work (as in books such as The Desire of the Nations) would recognise – that through the nation of Israel God made known his purposes in the world. A kingly rule expressed in Israel’s corporate existence and brought to final effect in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And of course he spoke of true freedom.
Australians he argued are a people with a government that serves the provision of freedom – being effective and being able to carry through purposes into action. Such a structure requires cooperation and collaboration. Quoting Rousseau he suggested to our residents that they are “not born free…… unless we are born into a society that makes us free.”
The New Testament he suggested sums up the role of government in two ways: it is a “minister of God” and it is a “human institution”. It exists to serve the will of God that there should be government and it exists to give order and shape to human society and its affairs.
He also explored the notion of representation - government is “representative”. Representation he suggested is a concept based directly on the model of Christ’s representative role in relation to the human race. Jesus is the one who suffers and triumphs for us, in whose suffering we suffer, in whose triumph we triumph. But the key to political representation is that authority is conferred by it. Government must be identity-bearing, speaking for the people, at the same time as it commands the people.
In challenging New College residents to consider their political responsibility he suggested that commitment to their nation required something that ancient Israel demonstrated, memory. The Israelites were a people with the consciousness of a common history. Second, they could see in their history how God’s providence had worked through their history to preserve and sustain them.
While introducing significant biblical themes he also posed some significant and practical questions. Can a nation of great cultural diversity develop a shared memory? How do people with family stories that are not bound up with the memories of this country develop shared memory? Can they make the memories of this country their own and recognise the hand of God in the events of their lives and that of the nation?
“How can there be a common memory when some memories can be very bitter? This is a common problem of ex-colonial nations such as Australia, in which the legacy of the colonial experiment is a terrible mixture of constructiveness and destructiveness. How is the memory of indigenous Australians to be held together in one with the memory of those whose people came from Europe? Will memory not be conflictual, tying us into repeating patterns of destructive behaviour? Much memory is not true memory at all, but obsessive images - often of violence and injury - which leap out at us from their context in the past and trail around with us in the present. Joseph’s brothers recalled the moment when they threw Joseph into the pit and sat down cold-bloodedly to decide how to dispose of him. And around the image of their own past guilt all their insecurity and nervousness collected. But they were not really remembering, since their attention was hooked on this one moment, and did not lead them on to think of Joseph’s success in Egypt and his role as deliverer. They had not learned to say, “but God meant it for good”. Good historians can always give us that view.”
There is much in these comments that resonate with the challenges we face as a nation, and pointers to the biblical insights that apologists might bring to bear when commenting on contemporary issues that we face collectively.
Case #12 will be in the mail this week (if you’re a CASE associate) in which an article by Oliver O’Donovan will appear. Don’t forget the New College Lectures next week (4,5 & 6th Sept). Come and hear one of the most outstanding Christian Ethicists of our time. Consult the New College Website for details. You might just be able to RSVP on Monday but that will need to be the cut-off, we have had a big response.