Robert Jeffress couldn’t interpret the Bible well by accident. He’s proof that people shouldn’t roam about in scripture without adult supervision.
By now, after almost ceaseless coverage of the president’s “fire and fury” comments directed at North Korea, I find myself weary of both the bellicosity of the remarks, as well as the debate over whether the president’s tone is some kind of genius strategic jiu-jitsu, insecure masculine overcompensation, or merely stunning incompetence. Whatever the case, at this point it feels like trying to parse the post-colonial subtext in Gallagher’s humor or Danielle Steele’s fiction: a lot of time spent searching for meaning in an epistemic black hole.
Am I concerned about the possible military or nuclear repercussions of the president’s remarks? Of course. As a pastor, I take an active interest in the immorality of war — nuclear or otherwise — not to mention, the reality of a president who might plunge us into such a war. But for a president who, though he claims Christianity, seems to have been largely unmoved by its moral demands, I have already exhausted my reserves of disappointment. Since I don’t believe the president wastes much time worrying himself over the question of what Jesus would do, I have reserved my disappointment for those who do claim to preoccupy themselves with that question.
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I remain baffled by the evangelical wing of Christianity, for instance, which sees in this president a possible champion for Christian values. He has done nothing that if Jesus showed up on the scene would cause him to say, “Yeah, nice job! That’s totally what I had in mind.”
So, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Robert Jeffress, a fundamentalist megachurch preacher, released a statement showing support for the president’s saber-rattling. But this one makes me ashamed to say that he and I share the same religious designation. I say, “religious designation,” because what he says doesn’t even bear a passing resemblance to Christian faith.
Jeffress says: “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, 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.”
First of all, let me say for the record: Jeffress couldn’t interpret the Christian scriptures well … even by accident. He is proof that we shouldn’t let people roam about in scripture without benefit of adult supervision.
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Why do I say that?
Jeffress is referencing Romans 13, in which Paul admonishes Roman Christians to subject themselves to the governing authorities, who have been placed where they are by God. Therefore, to resist such an authority is to resist God. I don’t have near enough time to go into a full interpretation of this text here, but suffice it to say that Paul makes an appeal to Christians in Rome to avoid provoking Caesar. Why? Because Christians were already the object of great suspicion in the empire. Christians were assumed to be political subversives, and Christianity was already in a weak and vulnerable position. In effect, Paul says, “Keep your heads down. Don’t give Caesar any reason to lower the boom.”
Romans 13 wasn’t meant to be a universal admonition to all people and at all times to do whatever the governing powers tell you to do, just because they tell you to do it. If it were, then one would have to conclude that Kim Jong Un has as much claim to divine legitimacy as Donald Trump. If “there is no authority except from God, and those authorities have been instituted by God,” then the Kim dynasty has just as much right to resist and wag its nuclear finger as the United States.
“Yes, but we’re a ‘Christian nation,’” Jeffress might say. “North Korea is a ‘heathen nation.’”
We’re not a Christian nation — and God help us if we ever were. Because if we were, biblical illiterates disguised as patriots, like Jeffress, would be high priests, and actual Christianity would disappear.
But even if we were, God forbid, a Christian nation, that wouldn’t have any relevance to this nuclear discussion that makes reference to Romans 13. Rome, to whom Paul wrote that Christians were to be subject, wasn’t a “Christian nation” at the time either.
But perhaps most importantly: Those people who follow Jesus — a man executed by that same Roman government in the name of extinguishing challenges to its authority — should always be suspicious of those who claim to know who the state ought to “take out” … especially if they also claim it should be done on God’s behalf.
Derek L. Penwell is the senior pastor at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, a co-founder of The Ally Network, and an executive committee member of the Fairness Campaign. He writes for The Courier-Journal, where this piece was first published.
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