Does the American president possess divine sanction to use war to stop regimes bent on harming and threatening Americans? In a recent statement, President Trump’s most outspoken pastoral advisor, Dr. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, claims Trump possesses biblical backing for attacking North Korea. In response the New York Times published a critical opinion piece by Episcopal priest Steven Paulikas. He is unequivocal in his response: “there is no possible Christian justification for provoking such a conflict.” Who is right?
The controversial part of Jeffress’ statement comes at the beginning: “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary—including war—to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.” Generally speaking, Jeffress is correct in asserting that government is ordained by God to punish evildoers. Romans 13 and the general consensus across Christian tradition hold as much.
Where Jeffress goes astray is moving from the general claim to a universal application with no restraint. No Christian theologian worth his salt would argue that Romans 13 grants government carte blanche to use unlimited lethal force to stop any evil threat in the world. We would spend our entire GDP bombing other countries into oblivion. The Christian Just War tradition has developed carefully honed criteria that are informed by biblical principles designed to guide statesman toward engaging in warfare in a just manner, which includes limited and prudent use of force.
Paulikas, however, claims Jeffress’ invocation of Romans 13 as the basis for his statement “rips this passage from its context.” What is the correct context according to Paulikas? “Paul is telling Christians to obey the Roman authorities in temporal matters such as taxation, not justifying the authority of one ruler over another.” In Jeffress’ defense, he is not using the passage in that sense. Jeffress invokes Romans 13 for its ordination of the sword by God for punishing evildoers. In this case, the nuclear threats of Kim Jong-un.
Though not unanimous, a majority of theologians have read this passage as extending to the protection of the community. On the basis of Romans 13, John Calvin asserted that waging war was an act of “public vengeance.” If kings and governments are ordained to punish evil, they would have to use force against aggressor nations and those who threaten the country or kingdom in order for governments to preserve peace and laws. Luther as well argued that rulers had been ordained to use force in defense of the people. Paulikas might find it interesting that both Luther and Calvin believed that obedience to rulers was required by all Christians, even if the rulers were tyrants!
Invoking Karl Barth, the famous and influential 20th-century Swiss Reformed theologian, Paulikas argues on the basis of Romans, “Men have no right to possess objective right against other men.” A strange assertion that Paulikas offers no justification for. This is hardly a position that could be considered mainstream within Christian discussions of the nature and scope of political authority. Though Christians will argue about passages such as Romans 13 and other biblical passages that speak to the nature of politics, there is a broad ecumenical consensus that legitimate governments do possess this right.
Along these same lines, Paulikas, invoking Barth again, recounts that Jesus in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew “rejects the Devil’s offer of authority over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will worship him.” From this episode the op-ed then makes the giant logical and moral leap to an absolute moral rule: “In this context, the urge to control the global order is malevolent, not divine.”
One gets the sense that Paulikas’ real argument is not with the violation of scriptural norms but his perception that Trump is a reckless and impulsive. I share those concerns. I too worry about the bluster of Trump’s rhetoric, but those concerns are not primarily rooted in scripture but in the prudence of statesmanship and strategy. If those are his concerns, then he should make them, not claims about the Bible and Christian theology, the basis of argument.
Paulikas argues that Jeffress’ statement was “shockingly uninformed and dangerous.” He counters, “There is such a thing as incorrect theological and moral thinking, and the best way to neutralize it is with an intellectually and morally superior argument on the same terrain. Only good theology can debunk bad theology.” I could not agree more. But instead of providing “good theology,” Paulikas offers a mish-mash of inconclusive arguments, most of them not very theologically informed.
If Paulikas wants to provide a more robust theological response to Jeffress’ perceived shallowness, he ought to provide a more complex engagement with scripture and the broader Christian political tradition which is long and deep. If he wants to debate the particular meaning of Romans 13—a worthwhile discussion to have—he ought to be more restrained in his claims about “Christianity” and what it prohibits absolutely or permits. If we are going to model a better way forward in public debate, we ought to do it not by mirroring the shallowness and proof-texting that we seek to critique.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Robert Jeffress speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, on October 7, 2011. By Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.