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The State of the Union is Empire

State of the Union 2015

We have a national religion in a America, and it’s not Christianity. We saw it on display Tuesday night, when all three branches of government gathered together for the greatest annual act of public liturgy that exists in our society. The State of the Union address is a high holy day of the American state, a touchstone for reaffirming the ideals and values of the Empire. We who seek to follow in the nonviolent way of Jesus must open our eyes to the fact that the liturgy of state power is at odds with the claims and commitments of the kingdom of God.

Against my better judgment, I tuned in for President Obama’s speech on Tuesday. As part of a community that seeks to be a prophetic voice in our culture, it seems important to stay connected with the pulse of our political arena. It’s hard to speak a message of peace while blissfully unaware of the rhetoric of war.

I’m glad I did. Thanks to the power of Twitter, the State of the Union is a far more interactive and dynamic event than it used to be. Even as the president was speaking, I felt that I was able to engage in a meaningful conversation with my fellow citizens about what God might be calling us to value as a nation. For some of us, social media became the site of an alternative liturgy of questioning, doubt, and repentance.

Without a cultivated awareness of who I am as a disciple of Jesus, it would be easy for me to become absorbed in the powerful symbols and logic of Empire. Unless we are rooted in an alternative story, it is almost inevitable that we will breathe in the assumptions and values of an imperial order.

The governing narrative of the imperial state is deeply woven into the fabric of public events like the State of the Union. The president received thunderous applause as he spoke of the importance of American military might in providing peace and security for the whole world. He spoke of the exceptional nature of the United States, legitimizing our military, cultural, and economic dominance of most of the globe. Barack Obama called upon the nation to live up to the ideal of the Pax Americana; he never questioned the underlying rightness of an imperial orientation.

None of this is surprising. I don’t think anyone was expecting the president of the United States to deliver a radical critique of the military industrial complex, drone warfare, and our increasingly unlimited surveillance state. It would have been unrealistic for me to expect the president to seriously address the obscenity of a world in which 1% of the population controls 50% of the wealth. That’s not what he’s there for. The president of the United States is elected to embody and reinforce the power and privilege of the imperial state, not to undermine it.

As followers of the crucified President Jesus, we have a different mandate. Our purpose is to lay bare the unjust foundations of that power. We can call our people into a more loving, peaceful, and merciful order – a world that is literally unimaginable for those who are immersed in the story of Empire.

As friends of Jesus, we are being baptized into a different narrative: the upside-down kingdom of God. We are heralds of a peaceable kingdom where the strongest humble themselves and the weakest are lifted up. In the face of a national mythology that glorifies the brute strength of military might, we hold out the possibility that love can triumph over hate, and that true strength is known in weakness.

What does it look like for our communities to become places where we can experience an alternative liturgy, defying the power gods of Empire? How will we defy the assumptions of human kingdoms, lifting up the life-giving possibilities of the reign of God? How can we stay rooted in God’s story of compassion, justice, and love? What does the State of the Union look like if Jesus is the one addressing us?

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