Friday, August 11, 2017

"Fire and Fury": Misusing the Bible to Justify War

This week I sat in the waiting room of my therapist.  The receptionist had NPR playing in the background and the news was about President Trump's threats of "fire and fury" towards North Korea.  When she came to get me, I remarked to my therapist, "Today's news might not be the most calming thing to play in your waiting room, especially if you've got clients suffering with anxiety issues."  She grimaced and agreed.  I'm not sure if the radio station was changed or not after my comment.

When I heard the news that Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas had declared, "God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un," I thought, "Oh, just shut up!  You are not helping."  Jeffress is apparently incapable of shutting up and has been doubling down on his declaration all week.  A conservative evangelical friend of mine stated on Facebook, "Robert Jeffress is the low-hanging fruit of morons. Criticizing him is taking the easy way. You don't even have to counter-point, just quote the crazy stuff he says."  I have to admit my friend has a point.  Does anybody take this guy seriously?

 The Dallas Morning News stated the following about Jeffress' latest comments:

"By now, those of us living and working in the shadow of Jeffress' church on San Jacinto Street are well-accustomed to such outrageous - and, in the word of former Dallas Morning News editorial board member Rod Dreher, "obscene" - utterances. This is the man who first became internet-famous in 2008, when he preached about "why gay is not OK." Then he called Mormonism a "cult"; blamed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on abortions; said President Barack Obama's policies "are paving the way for the Antichrist" - just a few of his greatest hits."

To justify his belief that Trump was given authority by God to nuke North Korea, Jeffress has quoted Romans 13:1-4

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.. NRSV

The ridiculous nature of a Christian minister saying God is for using nuclear weapons would seem to be self evident.  Jesus' teachings about "blessed are the peacemakers," "pray for your enemies," and "love your neighbor as yourself" come to mind.  Even the secular web site Mashable couldn't resist this misuse of the Bible.  They put out a satirical piece titled "5 Bible Passages Supporting Trump Advisor's Claim That God Supports 'Taking Out' Kim Jong-un" which had mock bible verses such as the following:

1 Corinthians 12:8--"Three times I pleaded to the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so the Christ's power may rest on me.  Also, Donald Trump has my explicit permission to bomb North Korea in 2017.  

and Jeremiah 28:11--"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  However I do have plans to harm somebody named Kim Jong-un.  He shall die by 'bomb.'  This will make sense in like two thousand years." 

I think it would be easy to dismiss Jeffress' statement, except for the fact that a great many Americans seem to think God did want Trump to be president and therefore God is okay when "God's chosen nation" (the U.S.A.) bombs the hell out of whatever country we consider to be evil--nevermind if the country is populated by people who have no say in their country's policies or actions.  Maybe many American Christians wouldn't say it as loutishly as Jeffress, but they at least passively believe it is a good thing to have a president threatening "fire and fury."

It's not that often that a Bible passage becomes international news.  (Google Romans 13 this week and the top results will be Robert Jeffress' statement rather than a link to an on-line Bible.)  So, I think it's at least worth discussing what it says and doesn't say.

There aren't that many passages in the New Testament, at least, that deal with the role of government, so Romans 13 gets drug out quite often, along with Jesus' statement "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" in Matthew 22.  Yet, as often as these verses are quoted, they offer us little in terms of understanding the Christian's relationship to government.

Anglican Bible scholar N.T. Wright says in the New Interpreter's Bible,

{This paragraph] is not a fully blown "Theology of Church and Sate"; indeed. . . our post-Enlightenment notion of "State" would have been foreign to Paul.  One can hardly blame a writer if, in the course of a letter about something else, a small aside does not contain the full sophisticated and nuanced treatment that subsequent generations might have liked.  

Wright goes on to make an important point: 

 Romans 13, in short, carries a hidden "nevertheless" at its heart.  Jesus is Lord, nevertheless his followers must obey their earthly rulers.  

In other words, whatever authority God may or may not have given an earthly ruler, their authority is subordinate to that of Jesus Christ.  

Presbyterian scholar Paul Achtemeier describes the limits of government implied by this passage in his commentary on Romans..

The language of this passage, at the same time that it calls for obedience to civil governments, also relativizes that government authority.  In the first place, since governing authorities are in fact God's servants for the promotion of civil order, those governing authorities cannot claim for themselves divine prerogatives.

He goes on to describe what happens if a government demands its citizens do evil.

If then a government claims for itself the kind of devotion proper only to God and demands of its subjects that they perform evil rather than good, and if it punishes those who disobey such demands to do evil, that government no longer functions as a servant of God and is therefore no longer to be obeyed as such.  

That final sentence is the rub, of course.  Critics of Robert Jeffress' claim of divine support for Trump rightly point out that preachers like him never thought God gave Obama any authority.  A president authorized by God is in the eye of the beholder, along with her or his political party affiliation.  A more liberal Christian might question the entire idea of God appointing every ruler in every place and in every time.  History is littered with abominations by totalitarian governments, but even the best rulers often commit actions contrary to what God intends.  Personally, I've never understood why Christians like Jeffries who preach all the time about the "fallen" state of humanity and sin can call for absolute obedience to human rulers--at least human rulers with whom they agree.

People of faith can disagree on what constitutes a government, law or ordinance that should be obeyed, but as with most things we should do so from a place of humility.  We should invoke God's support of our political ideas with fear and trembling.  The best way I know to figure out whether or not God would support a particular policy or law is to question its effects upon people who have little to no economic or political power.  God's consistent concern for "the widow, the orphan and the stranger" (i.e. those without power over their own fates) is a good rubric for bringing scripture into the political fray.

Undoubtedly (at least in hindsight), we can point to Christians who disobeyed civil government to protest unjust laws (e.g. the Civil Rights movement), yet most of the time politics and politicians remain imperfect and full of gray areas.  I believe strongly that Christians who take seriously the teachings about justice in the Torah, the Prophets and the teachings of Jesus have an obligation to engage with politics--apathy is not godly, and when we do so, we must act alongside people whose voices are either not being heard or silenced.  Doing so, however, requires courage as well as humility, lest we fall prey to the kind of self-righteousness Jesus so rightly condemned.

Our particular congregation has claimed it is a "Just Peace" or "Peace with Justice" congregation.  This is a designation given by our denomination to congregations who have studied what God's justice and peace mean, as opposed to charity and the passive or active support of violence.  In these days of "fire and fury" it might behoove us to recall what we committed to years ago.

CCCUCC voted as a congregation to officially become a Peace with Justice Church on January 26, 2007 by adopting the following resolution:

Resolved, that Country Club United Church of Christ now is and shall continue to be a Peace with Justice Church.  We affirm the human community and oppose the use of nationalism to divide us.  We reject the concept that whole groups of people and entire religions are our enemies.  We affirm diversity as the best example of God's handiwork.  We affirm nonviolent conflict as inevitable and valuable.  We affirm freedom to travel, freedom of exchange of ideas, and freedom for open dialogue.  We affirm the worldwide goodness of God's creation and deny that God creates junk.  We commit our community to hone our existing skills and God-given strengths to encourage justice and promote peace.  Be it so resolved this day, January 26, 2007, that we adopt this Peace with Justice covenant, so help us God.

Want to know more about what "Peace with Justice" looks like?  Click here to visit the national United Church of Christ Just Peace resources.
Grace and Peace,


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