In one way, Pastor Robert Jeffress is right. In an interview with the Washington Post, he elaborated on his statement that Donald Trump has complete authority from God to use any means necessary to “take out” Kim Jong-Un, even if that means war.
Jeffress cited Paul’s letter to the Romans to back up his claim that God has endowed the President with the authority to “execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” He predicts that others will use the previous chapter to argue that Christians should never avenge themselves, “but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Jeffress is right in reading Romans 12 as a moral instruction to individuals or communities of Christians, and chapter 13 as dealing with systems of government instead. But then he goes off the rails.
Christians have always had mixed feelings about political authority. Paul, himself a citizen of the Roman empire, was often critical of the authorities who arrested him and executed many of his Christian colleagues. And it was, after all, a representative of the Roman government who gave the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. To be fair, Jesus did tell Pilate that he only had that authority because it had been handed down to him by a higher power—but that is not the same as saying that he was using that authority properly.
It was not the ordained role of the religious adviser, even before the separation of church and state, to grease every decision of a ruler with the oil of divine approval—and to claim that those who have political power are always acting on behalf of God’s good judgement is arrant nonsense.
Jeffress does Trump no favors by pretending that when it comes to North Korea, the president can do no wrong.
Anyone who has ever picked up a bible knows that the kings of ancient Israel were by no means unequivocally righteous in their judgement and execution of power. The biblical prophets of Israel and Judah were employed by God to rail against the authorities, to provide a conscience that could stand against those advisors who told them only what they wanted to hear: “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another. See, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who use their own tongues and say, ‘Says the LORD.’“ (Jeremiah 23:30-31)
When Ahab, king of Israel was tempted to go up to war alongside Jehoshaphat of Judah, he first consulted with four hundred prophets, who told him it was a great idea. There was one more prophet to ask, but the king said, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me.”
At first, Micaiah the prophet agreed with the four hundred, but then the king said, “Tell me the truth,” and Micaiah told him that it was a mistake, and a trap. It was a trap that Ahab was primed to fall into (2 Chronicles 18). The prophets who told the king only what he wanted to hear did him no favors.
Jeffress anticipated, in his interview, that not every Christian would agree with his whole-hearted approval of the president’s fiery language towards North Korea. “’Some Christians, perhaps younger Christians, have to think this through,’ Jeffress said. ‘It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.’”
Frankly, I think it is Jeffress who is is reading scripture wrong.
None of this is to second-guess the political strategies that are being gamed out in Washington: mind you, I am not an expert in international diplomacy. But I am not a young Christian, and I do have some long acquaintance with scripture—and rushing to rubber-stamp the decision of a leader to ratchet up the rhetoric of war with the blanket approval of God is not biblically sound.
In a week of atomic anniversaries, remembering the horrors wrought in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the face of rude provocation, if I were to advise the president biblically about his promise to bring “fire and fury such as the world has never seen,” I would point him instead towards a story told about Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke (emphasis mine):
When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56)