Guest Post: Rev. Brandon Gilvin
I have a love-hate relationship with journalism that covers religion. On the one hand, I love a good feature story about a monastery in the middle of rural America, or a story about religious traditions working together in innovative ways, or an insightful profile about someone who has examined her own faith enough to speak about it without resorting to platitudes. But then, there are the stories that just make me cringe.
Tonight, when I sat down to look over some of the daily headlines, I caught a story that began with a cringe-worthy line: “Texas megachurch Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers who preached the morning of his inauguration, has released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.”
Of course, this was following President Trump’s statement today that North Korea would be met with “Fire and Fury unlike the world has ever seen” should they continue to threaten the United States.
And of course, Jeffress cites Paul’s letter the Romans, Chapter 12 as carte blanche permission for the use of “ Fire and Fury” by the United States. It’s not uncommon for interpreters to use this as a justification for the expansion of military power (although ask those same people how they feel about other federal programs and if Romans mandates them, too), but that does not mean that it’s the only—or even the most responsible or accurate–exegetical conclusion to draw. We’re talking about a letter written to line out a survival strategy for a minority faith in the cosmopolitain capital of a first century super power. Paul was counseling some early Jesus-followers on how to deal with Ceasar’s golf club saber-rattling, not counseling them on how to endorse it.
In Christian Moral and Ethical traditions, there is more than one path when it comes to the consideration of violence and warfare. Pacifism is certainly one route, but so is Just War theory, which outlines criteria for when it is moral to go to war. People of faith from across the generations have struggled with how to live out their commitment to their countries and their covenant to love God and love neighbor. I get that–I’ve read sermons in support of the war against communism and I’ve seen liberation theology-flavored illustrations of Jesus dressed up like a Sandinista, all considering themselves orthodox Christianity. I get that we are all heavily influenced by our social locations, other commitments and values, and that we’re never just ONE ideological thing. I try to be as generous as I can when it comes to a difference of opinion. I get that people of faith and good will can read the same bits of scripture and come to equally justifiable but different conclusions.
It speaks to the anti-intellectual, uncritical way in which some traditions teach the Biblical corpus. It speaks to a rejection of the enlightenment, a sort of implicit nostalgia for the divine right of kings, and it makes doing effective ministry harder.
But perhaps most problematic to me is the fact that it conflates one’s own national self-interest with a theological critique of evil. It’s hard to deny that North Korea poses a threat (or would, at least, like to pose a thread–of what magnitude its actual geopolitical impact could be is debatable) to the United States, and yes, I have personal, familial, cultural, and political interest wrapped up in that threat. But It’s also important to remember that “Fire and Fury” is not without collateral damage, and that—as the same moral traditions that produced Just War Theory would remind us all—there’s a price that we pay when we stop seeing others as Imago Dei and only as actors for a state that we call evil. We can quickly become participants in the same evil we claim to oppose (and doesn’t the first chapter of Romans have something to say about how all of us are complicit in how messed up the world can be—not just North Korea?)
Jeffress isn’t offering orthodoxy, despite his vain declarations. It’s not Faith to go along with Fire and Fury. All he has to offer is a sick mix of hate and hubris.
And I’ve read that story before. It never ends well.
Rev. Brandon Gilvin is the Senior Pastor of First Christian Church, Chattanooga, TN. He has passions for community building, social justice work, and the intersection of culture and faith, as well as a love for reading, writing, live music, and the outdoors. Check out his blog, The Long Road Home.