In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, along with William Perry (former secretary of defense) and Sam Nunn (former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee) wrote, “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”
In light of all this, the fact that our sitting president enjoys an enthusiastic willingness to use nuclear weapons indiscriminately, “like the world has never seen,” is deeply troubling.
As is the response of some of our evangelical brethren. To Trump’s outburst, pastor of the prominent First Baptist Church of Dallas, Robert Jeffress said: “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-un.” And this: Romans 13 “gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment, or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong-un.”
One would hope that Christian supporters of the President’s views would at least qualify and nuance their statements, as did the Presbyterian Church in America. As Mark Tooley put it in the National Review, “Most of Christianity, in its political theology, understands that sinful, finite humanity, even at its best, can approach most political decision-making only with modesty, not certitude.”
When Christian leaders must weigh in on such issues, we should at least suggest that we’re dealing with something of great complexity and moral gravity rather than issuing bellicose pronouncements.
Re-reading Romans 13
Like Jeffress, many evangelical Christians read Romans 13 to justify their approach. It is best to quote the passage in question (Rom. 13:1-5) in full here:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This passage is plainly about Christians’ response to the governing authority they live under, and does not begin to address how one governing authority is to deal with other nations. In describing the role of government, Paul says that within their jurisdiction, governing authorities “bear the sword … to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Paul’s point is that Christians who fail to submit to their authorities shouldn’t be surprised if they have to pay some sort of price.
This passage is decidedly not about “taking out” corrupt foreign heads of state. It certainly does not give the state “the authority to do whatever”—a most dangerous phrase if there ever were one—to quell the actions of evildoers.