Inauguration Thoughts: The State is Still the State

Yesterday was truly a big day in U.S. history. The inauguration of the first African-American President is truly a turning point for our nation, especially given our abysmal history on race. Moreover, it was encouraging to hear Senator Dianne Feinstein’s reflections on the nonviolence of Martin Luther King, President Obama’s message that we need not choose “between our safety and ideals” and his call to diplomacy and international aid over sheer violent force and military power, and Reverend Joseph Lowery’s prayer that one day we will “beat our tanks into tractors.”

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.



Comments (20)

  1. jason j

    Great post! Seriously, I could not agree more.. As great as Obama seems, he is still committed to the use of force to maintain the American Empire and any locals that don’t like us having military bases in their country (the nerve!) will still be called terrorists and will be dispatched with as such.. Obama doesn’t seem to have a problem with use of military force either.. Sure he wants to get us out of Iraq, but we wants to focus our energy more on Afghanistan, so its a push..

    So we need to be sure to maintain our prophetic voice against the state, even if it has a newer and friendlier face.

  2. Tim Baer

    We don’t need a voice against the state. We need a voice calling people toward God.

    “He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord!'”

  3. jason j

    fair enough Tim.. since much of the policies of the state are in opposition to the Kingdom of God, its easy for my default mode to be get stuck on “against the state” :)

  4. DavidC (Post author)


    It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Yes, John the Baptist’s message was “Prepare the way for the Lord,” but consider also why he was arrested and later beheaded. Moreover, I’m not really speaking “against” the state as much as I’m reminding Christians to keep it in its proper place in their hearts and minds. Thus my conclusion: “the state is still the state. And we are still called to be the church.”

  5. Tim Baer

    Herod didn’t kill John because John disagreed with Herod’s economic policies. Herod killed John because John exposed Herod’s sin life.

  6. DavidC (Post author)

    Precisely. He spoke prophetic truth to those in power. Agreed.

  7. Michael Wiebe-Johnson

    Excellent post! Its so true that it is easy to accept and approve of the state with its new veneer of morality. But I was so disappointed when I heard the America rhetoric come out all over again from Obamas mouth. We are called to keep God´s Kingdom, one of joy, equality, peace, and love, first in our minds. Thanks for reminding us.

  8. SteveK

    Thanks so much, David! That has been exactly my opinion as well, although this opinion has got me in trouble with some of my starry-eyed friends.

    In the immortal words of the Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

  9. Tim Baer


    Will you marry me?


    : )

  10. virginia

    While i read this post, I clinched my fists at the thought that we have to be reminded that “The State is Still the State”

    I for one recongize that with a clear mind, and rejoiced in tears the inaguration of President Obama.

  11. John Stoner

    Neither starry-eyed nor “meet my new boss, same as the old boss” is good enough. Either is too easy. Got to be both and know both at the same time…you know, eat and chew gum at the same time?!
    You only have to be African American in this country to know for sure that the new boss is not the old boss–and some others of us too, can see that. And you only have to be alive to say that hope springs eternal–because it should, and does.
    So we’ve got to be realistic in our expectations of this guy, keeping it clear that the standard is way beyond anything which he has articulated. He is not going to measure up to the standard. But we should be idealistic too, and push him and you and me and the body politic (or body of Christ, whatever you want to say) to come closer to the standard than we or they or he would come without the choice and the effort to do so.
    Perfection indeed eludes us. But the differences we can make make a difference, and copouts of perfectionism are still copouts. Who is to say by what process the nations are healed (Rev. 22)? But we can say with some confidence that it will be by the power of love, forgiveness and nonviolence. To believe that implies a radical critique of Obama’s suicidal rhetoric about Afghanistan at the same time it implies an encouragement of his rhetoric that our power does not entitle us to do as we please. We need to keep saying these things to him, and to others.

  12. John Stoner

    Sorry about that…”WALK and chew gum.” I did say that perfection eludes us, didn’t I?

  13. carl

    Thank you, John. Well said.

  14. DavidC (Post author)

    Yes, well said, John. While we might acknowledge that “the state is still the state” and will always be the state until God’s kingdom is fully consumated, we can and should still rejoice when the state acts more justly and respond when the state acts unjustly. Moreover, we should always treat state officials (e.g., President Obama) first and foremost as individual persons and thus witness to Christ’s gospel of peace on a personal basis when possible. I hope none of this contradicts my original post, but if and where it does, please disregard those original comments.

  15. Joel Nofziger

    It’s great to see some of these sentiments discussed. I was feeling mildly optimistic with a healthy dose of skepticism on Inauguration Day for many of the reasons stated here.

  16. Josiah Garber

    Thank for this post. Just as many Christian Conservatives were conned by Bush, So too will many be conned by the Obama administration.

    I am glad to see your healthy skepticism of Obama.

    I also very much appreciate that you have shown that our allegiance is ultimately to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to live out the life he modeled for us. Let’s never forget that.

  17. Eric

    It is unfortunate that when north american anabaptists vote in presidential elections they are voting for a new commander in chief. They are, in effect, encouraging the use of violence while at the same time preaching peace. What do north american anabaptists expect when they vote -peace?

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