Much of the world has responded with “fire and fury” to President Donald Trump’s message to North Korea that continued threats will “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—an unmistakable allusion to using nuclear weapons. Given the gravity of this remark, it seems appropriate for onlookers to be unnerved by America’s apparent stance.
Still, not everyone was troubled by it, with some evangelical Christians actually cheering the President on (more on that in a bit). So we have to acknowledge that Christians are divided on nuclear weapons.
As a study by the Presbyterian Church in America (“Christian Responsibility in the Nuclear Age,” 1987) put it, “Given the dilemma of possible escalation to an all-out nuclear war on the one hand, and the near certainty of enslavement to a totalitarian power on the other, it is not clear that the nonuse of nuclear weapons is an absolute moral obligation.”
And further, “The thought of killing masses of helpless people who are themselves at the mercy of their own government is abhorrent. Only if there were no other way to prevent an even worse catastrophe could nuclear retaliation ever be justified.” The language is nuanced, but the point is clear: The use of nuclear weapons is, in extreme cases, morally just.
Others of us emphatically disagree: Under no circumstances would the use of nuclear arms be justified. Our reasons hinge on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” and the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons. Simply put, they end up killing a great many more civilians than combatants, and therefore, their use violates one cardinal principle of just war: proportionality.
Sadly, every war will entail the death of civilians, but as one summary of just war theory put it, “The violence in a just war must be proportional to the casualties suffered.” Thus, “innocent civilians must never be the target of war; soldiers always avoid killing civilians.”
While we hear occasional reports of civilians killed by US soldiers in the Middle East, our armed forces go to extraordinary lengths to prevent this. For this they are to be commended. But a nuclear bomb—by its very nature—cannot prevent this and will entail the killing of vast amounts of the innocent. We’ve not even begun to consider retaliatory strikes followed by more retaliatory strikes, likely ending in a conflagration that recalls medieval visions of hell.
‘Good for Nothing But Killing’
To be sure, we who repudiate the use of such weapons still haggle over how to eliminate them safely. Christianity Today weighed in on this more than 35 years ago: “But how in our atomic world can we best work to secure these goals? A carefully phased negotiation process—ultimately to encompass all nations, and aiming first at the reduction and then at the repudiation of all weapons, both nuclear and conventional—is the most viable way to work toward these goals.” Our views haven’t changed.
This is not the place to argue the fine points, but it is the place to reiterate that we stand in that stream of Christians who find no justification for the use of nuclear weapons. This is not a politically radical view. Some of the most conservative of Christians and politicians, including evangelist Billy Graham, have also concluded that nuclear weapons are inherently evil or, to not put too fine a point on it, “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization” (Ronald Reagan).
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.
We’re also concerned with the specific reference to assassination. In fact Executive Order 12333 expressly addressed this: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in or conspire to engage in assassination” (article 2.11 of Executive Order 12333 as amended in 2003, 2004, and 2008). It seems to us that to submit to governing authorities means to submit to this as well.
The President does not have the right to do “whatever” in response to another world leader. Of course he must forcefully deal with a man like Kim Jong-un. Of course he must defend our nation against all threats, but if he does so in a way that leads to the wanton waste of innocent human life, he will have only “saved the village by destroying it.”
In Whom Shall We Trust?
It is appropriate to recall the obvious here. Many Christians have supported Trump because they believe he will “keep this nation secure.” As Jeffress put it during the election: “I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek. I've said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”
If pressed, these evangelical Christians would say they ultimately trust in God to protect the nation. And they would add that the current President is God’s anointed to do just that. But we have seen a fair amount of evidence to suggest that many evangelicals in the pews are confused about this. The most egregious—and, yes, extreme—was the fellow believer who proclaimed in a Facebook post that “Donald Trump is our salvation.”
None of us, on the left or right, escape the temptation to put our trust in a human leader to guide our nation into peace and justice. But the Bible warns us time and again about this sort of thing:
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. (Ps. 118:-8-9)
Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. (Ps. 146:3)
The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled)…,
Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils.Why hold them in esteem? (Is. 2:12, 22)
Yes, it is human beings, especially those in authority, who must take the practical steps to defend our nation. Yes, we need a strong military, with appropriate weapons to do just that. But we can never put our confidence in any leader or weapon (especially nuclear warheads). As Psalm 20:7 puts it:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.