Nevertheless, I had a difficult time getting too emotional or excited over this change of guard. For, while yesterday was historical from the perspective of the United States, it was a pretty small speck when history is viewed rightly. As John Howard Yoder tirelessly argued, the locus of history is not with the state but with God’s work through his church. The state is merely the context in which the real drama of history can unfold.
So, while the words and symbolism of the inauguration may be moving, the sobering fact is that the state is still the state. Yes, Obama seems more intent than Bush on using diplomatic tactics to secure peace, but his message to our “enemy” was still virtually the same: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Not much room there for Jesus’s message to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and turn the other cheek. But this is as should be expected, because the state is still the state.
Ironically, with this change of guard many of us ‘open-minded, progressive’ Christians will begin to forget that the state is still the state. We will start to put our faith in the ideals of the state and our hope in its progress. As blogger Halden recently argued, now more than ever is it imperative (though difficult) to be resolute in our anti-empire polemics. It was far too easy to maintain a prophetic witness to the state when those in charge overtly sanctioned military aggression, torture, and seemingly unbridled increase of personal power. But when those in power seem to share many of our ideals, the temptation will be to give them a pass when they deem military violence necessary in this or that situation. And it will be difficult for us to make the unfashionable charge that those in power sanction the unjust extermination of the least of those among us. Indeed, to increase the irony still further, it may be the conservative Christians who begin to recognize with more clarity the separation between church and state (as many of my students, for example, ponder whether or not Obama is the anti-Christ!). They will now be the ones to speak prophetically, though their witness will be narrow and tainted by their continual use of political means to grasp for power.
It as at this time, perhaps more than any other, that we need to heed Yoder’s exhortation to what he calls “evangelical nonconformity,” quoted here at length:
When then Jesus said to His disciples, “In the world, kings lord it over their subjects . . . Not so with you”; He was not beckoning His followers to a legalistic withdrawal from society out of concern for moral purity. Rather, His call was to an active missionary presence within society, a source of healing and creativity because it would take the pattern of his own suffering servanthood.
Jesus thereby unmasks the pretension to use violence for the good as being a form of hypocrisy: these rulers call themselves “benefactors” but they are not servants. He who would claim to have the right to use violence, and especially legal violence, against another, places himself outside of the scope of Jesus’ mode of servanthood. This is not so much because he sins against the letter of the law from the Old Testament or the New but because he claims (with a pride intrinsic to his position) to have the right — (whether on the basis of official status, of superior insight, or of his moral qualities) — to determine in a definitive way the destiny of others. The older language in which the theme of “conformity to this world” was stated in Bible times had to do with “idols,” with those unworthy objects of devotion to whom men in their blindness sacrificed. Thus it is quite fitting to describe the use of violence as the outworking of an idolatry. If I take the life of another, I am saying that I am devoted to another value, one other than the neighbor himself, and other than Jesus Christ Himself, to which I sacrifice my neighbor. I have thereby made a given nation, social philosophy, or party my idol. To it I am ready to sacrifice not only something of my own, but also the lives of my fellow human beings for whom Christ gave His life.
- John Howard Yoder, “Christ, the Hope of the World” in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, 174-75
In this time of celebration, may we not forget that the state is still the state. And we are still called to be the church.