Following President Trump's initial threats of "fire and fury" toward North Korea on Aug. 8, Robert Jeffress, the evangelical pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and a presidential adviser, released a statement claiming that God had given the president authority to "take out" North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Jeffress was the president's selected preacher at the traditional pre-inauguration liturgy at St. John's Episcopal Church and claims to speak with Mr. Trump "on a variety of issues."
Regardless of his political credentials, Jeffress's theology is shockingly uninformed and dangerous, and it is a sobering reminder of the power of misguided moral statements to influence matters of life and death in policy. President Trump's language, which he intensified a few days later, evoked apocalyptic nuclear war. Despite what either of the men claim, there is no possible Christian justification for provoking such a conflict.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Jeffress backs up his argument by citing Paul, in Romans 13, a famous passage on the relationship between earthly and divine authority. Yet even the casual reader of the Bible will be hard-pressed to recreate this interpretation of Romans. In order to reach his desired conclusion, the pastor rips this passage from its context; Paul is telling Christians to obey the Roman authorities in temporal matters such as taxation, not justifying the authority of one ruler over another.
What's more, Jeffress seemingly fetishizes his own message of violence over the clarion call to love of Romans 13:8: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." Jeffress predicts that "pacifist Christians" will turn to Romans 12:17, "do not repay anyone evil for evil," to refute him. Beyond his curious citation of this obvious contradiction to his own argument, it is hardly necessary to invoke it given his grossly negligent treatment of the scripture he himself has chosen.
The 20th-century theologian Karl Barth wrote "The Epistle to the Romans," a work belonging to theological canon that has influenced generations of Christian leaders since its publication in 1919. A thinker of the Christian Reformed tradition, Barth sought to counter the liberal religion of his time with a theology rooted in "the Word," and he found in Romans a fertile field. Barth prophesies against polemicists like Jeffress, writing of Romans, "Should this book come into the hands of such persons, they ought not to begin with the 13th chapter. Those who do not understand the book as a whole will understand least of all what we now have to say."
Barth takes pains to demonstrate that Paul is not calling for theocracy or a government controlled by the Christian Church. Quite the contrary, Barth declares in his commentary on Jeffress's favored passage, "Men have no right to possess objective right against other men." It is worth noting that Barth became a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Germany.