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No, God did not give Trump authority to bomb Korea.

August 10th, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

‘God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,’ evangelical adviser says

Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers who preached the morning of his inauguration, has released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The only Christian characteristic we may assign to Donald Trump is the example of the unrepentant sinner. That evangelical Christians have embraced him is mystifying. Christians are afforded every constitutional liberty in a democracy that everyone else enjoys. But the Christian who claims membership in the Body of Christ is constrained by a higher authority to stricter standards. In a classic example of the thinking “the end justifies the means,” evangelicals embraced Donald Trump out of their concern for cultural issues and the courts such as LGBT rights and abortion. The assertion publicly made by self-appointed Christian leaders during the campaign was, “we are not electing a Pastor in Chief.” It would seem that some evangelicals hope to force their version of morality on non-Christians by means of an instrument that violates their stated core moral principles. It’s like hoping to use a broken hammer to fix a broken hammer.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, a Donald Trump sycophant and apparent denier of the central Christian message (“For God so loved the world…” John 3:16), has issued a statement in response to the President’s ill-considered off-the-cuff threats to North Korea affirming that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” presumably using nuclear weapons. Perhaps anticipating pushback from other Christians (such as myself), he went on to note that Christians who disagree with his startling claim “are not well taught in the scriptures.”

In the same way that I learned the futility of engaging Trump supporters using logic and reason (or at all really), I have learned not to argue theology with believers who have so distorted the Christian message, particularly those who conflate the Kingdom of God with the United States and the People of God with the Republican Party in the United States. But, as one well taught in the scriptures (at one of America’s finest Evangelical seminaries), I feel compelled to respond to this tortured treatment of the thirteenth Chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans., Specifically, Jeffress bases his argument on verse 4 which states, “For he [the ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. ” The underlying assumption here, obviously, is that Trump is God’s chosen instrument with the power of Caesar to punish the evildoer Kim Jong Un. 

Now it is theologically sound to point out that Donald Trump’s authority derives from God, because all authority (even Satan’s) does. And it is also reasonable, based on Christian principles, to judge Kim Jong Un, with his desire to wreak nuclear havoc on his neighbors, as an evildoer. But it takes a wild leap of the imagination to assume, therefore, that God by means of this verse has assigned to Donald Trump the authority to endanger lives both in the United States and Asia by unleashing war on the Korean peninsula.

One of the very first classes new seminarians take is called “hermeneutics,” dealing with the accurate interpretation of scripture.  Having earned a Ph.D from the University of California and also studied hermeneutics at seminary, I can say with confidence that the critical eye with which Christian academics approach the interpretation of Biblical texts is at least as rigorous as that used in secular academia. In hermeneutics the student is taught methods by which a text written in the far past can be mined for meaning in today’s world. The process is straightforward: first determine what the text said to the people is was written to, and then frame that message for contemporary life. Context is everything. To take literal passages out of context and apply to them random meanings in support of the issues of contemporary society has led to tragedies throughout the ages. One may state with certainty that the Bible does recount that Judas “went out and hanged himself” (Mt. 27:5), but it is a violation of the clear meaning of the text to then affirm that Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) Yet this is what Jeffress has done.

The context of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the Roman Empire in the first century. The Roman Empire was a pagan one with little sympathy for or understanding of Jewish monotheism and their intricate laws, but they tolerated and even protected it. Paul’s experience before the Roman proconsul Gallio (Acts 18) demonstrated that the Roman official had no interest in interfering in religious affairs. With this tacit approval of the pagan authorities to practice their religion in freedom, it was prudent for Christians, who the Romans associated with Judaism, to demonstrate upright behavior through conscientious observation of Roman secular law. This is stated not only by Paul here but by other apostles in other letters to the early Churches (1 Thes. 4; 1 Pet. 2). Christians were admonished to be upright in their adherence to the law to silence critics and demonstrate that they posed no threat to the Empire.

It is in the sense of maintaining peace and order that Paul assigns authority to the ruler as an instrument of wrath: an instrument in opposition to wrongdoing and social disorder. C.S. Lewis summarizes the reach of the secular ruler in his book Mere Christianity:

…it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden— that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 199.

Paul’s description of the relationship of the Christian and the state is in effect an admonition to do as Jesus commanded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) Jesus acknowledges that the state has a valid place in God’s order, even if it is not a “Christian” state. But Jesus’ command sets limits on the allegiance Christians owe to the state. Paul himself noted in his letter to the Philippian Christians that “our citizenship is in Heaven.” (Phil. 3:20) We are to consider ourselves resident aliens and obey the laws of the Empire inasmuch as they do not violate our conscience. But we must also be willing to suffer the consequences of disobedience to laws we cannot in good conscience obey. That is why Peter and the apostles replied to the demand of the Sanhedrin to quit preaching Jesus, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) That is also why the martyrs were willing to suffer execution for publicly maintaining their allegiance to Christ.

Considered within the context of Paul’s purpose for writing, and not to cherry pick a biblical phrase that supports a predetermined worldview, we see that the subject of the first seven verses in Romans Chapter 13 is the relationship of the Christian to the state, not the authority of the ruler, whoever he may be. How then does a biblical scholar make the astonishing leap from a call for exemplary behavior on the part of Christians to God giving Trump authority to nuke Korea? I suggest that Mr. Jeffress is preying upon scriptural illiteracy (already abundantly demonstrated by Trump) buttressed by a fusion of bad theology and US jingoism, none of it supported in scripture.

The New Testament is deafeningly silent on the issue of rulers crushing their enemies. But it has a lot to say about love. When the New Testament puts forward love as a Christian ideal, it is not the flawed human emotion, rather it is the self-sacrificing action Jesus accomplished on the Cross, to create a way for lost humanity to once again enjoy Shalom, the peace of God. Jesus had no reservations about his sacrifice, he did it for no personal gain, and in fact he did it for people who were his sworn enemies. The Apostle John shows Jesus teaching his disciples how the world will know they are his followers: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) Just as I have loved you. That is the high bar that is set for Christians.

Paul also has much to say about love. In fact, it is the subject of the next three verses in Romans 13 following his discussion of citizenship. He admonishes “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10) Who is my neighbor? In answer to that question Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-35). After telling the story of the Jew who had been rescued by the Samaritan (read: Jews and Muslims), Jesus asks his questioner who was neighbor to the victim. The man replied, “The one who treated him with mercy.” In response to this Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

I submit that for a Christian leader, or any Christian for that matter, when asked to consider the prospect of setting out on a course bound to negatively affect thousands if not millions of innocent lives, the considered response ought to keep this call to mercy foremost. Trump may or may not have valid worldly reasons for initiating a war with North Korea, but we can be reasonably certain his authority to do so does not derive from Paul’s advice to Christians about how to behave in a pagan Empire.

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