“What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
“In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” That is what Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, said in a press release.
How does he know this? He cites Romans 13. “When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary—including war—to stop evil . . .”
He told the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey that he was prompted to make this statement after the President said that North Korean threats to the United States would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Jeffress dismissed those who have qualms about this bellicose language as being unduly influenced by “mushy rhetoric” and not being “well taught in the scriptures”—proving once again my contention that, for many conservative Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is part of the Apocrypha.
What is certain is that Jeffress himself is not “well taught,” or, even worse, indifferent with regards to the readily foreseeable human costs of “taking Kim Jung Un out.” (Then again, as he told Bailey, “many evangelicals, like most Americans, really don’t pay attention to global affairs.”)
As Mark Bowden spelled out in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, they are horrific: “[With] only a few of its worst weapons, North Korea could, probably within hours [of an American first strike], kill millions,” in “one of the worst mass killings in human history.” By one estimate, the use of sarin gas alone could produce 3 to 5 million casualties. And this is only the tip of terrifying iceberg.
If the Almighty, working through His servant, the president, and his court prophets, has ordained this outcome, one can only marvel at His insouciance when it comes to the lives of non-Americans.
The truth is, Jeffress’ remarks are morally obscene and bring to mind what St. Paul wrote in Romans 2: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” At the same time it is oddly invigorating to see an evangelical leader reinforcing my lingering suspicions that translating the Bible into the vernacular may not have been a great idea. (For the record, that’s a joke. Mostly.)
Likewise, I give Jeffress props for his willingness to dispense with any pretense about the importance of the Just War tradition. “Whatever means necessary”: Forget about jus in bello, proportionality, non-combatant immunity, and so on. Sure, a lot of those dead Koreans will be our fellow Christians, but as someone else committed to waging God’s war against evil once said, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” (“Kill them all. God will know His own.”)
Ironically, the story about Jeffress’ statements broke on the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. That blast killed approximately three-fourths of the city’s Christian population. These “Urakami Catholics” had survived 250 years of persecution—depicted in Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence” and the novel upon which it was based—only to be obliterated by their ostensible co-religionists.
As Dave the Swede (not his real name) has pointed out to me, Nagasaki was not the original target on August 9, 1945, so, obviously, the United States did not intend to nearly wipe out the heart of Japanese Christianity. But, regardless of anyone’s intentions, that’s what happened.
And it will happen again across the Sea of Japan if the president exercises the “authority” Jeffress says he has.
In the years after September 11, 2001, I watched as Christian leaders, both evangelicals and Catholics, expounded on the Just War tradition. After a while it became apparent that they often employed the tradition much as the proverbial drunkard employs a lamppost: for support, not illumination.
If there was a military action taken by the U.S., at least when there was a Republican in the White House, that ran afoul of the tradition, it escaped their attention. They used phrases like “collateral damage” unironically, as if using the phrase made women and children caught in the crossfire any less dead.
When then-Cardinal Ratzinger, whom they loved when it came to the pelvic issues, said that the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church” in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, they paid him no heed. What did the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church know?
When polls indicated that frequency of church attendance correlated with support for torture, Christian leaders were mostly silent. Mostly. A small minority, like Evangelicals for Human Rights, robustly objected to the use of torture. Others, both Catholics—notwithstanding the clear teaching of the Church—and Protestants banded together to make Pope Benedict XVI (him again) a liar when he said that “the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”
Taking their cue from torturer Jack Bauer, instead of torture victim Jesus of Nazareth, they argued from television and movie hypotheticals (the “ticking bomb” scenario) and ignored what was happening in the real world.
The net effect of this silence, rationalization, and politically driven misuse of the Just War tradition was the growing realization for many that consequentialism, not caritas, was the criterion by which the justness of war was actually measured.
What’s more, what constituted a “good consequence” was defined almost entirely in terms of American interests. When, for instance, Iraqi Christians, who, unlike their Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish neighbors, didn’t have militias to protect them, suffered the consequences of the American invasion, these people were genuinely surprised.
This time around, it doesn’t matter that, as Bowden and others have pointed out, if Pyongyang were to fire a missile at any U.S. territory, the regime would be signing its own death warrant. The United States would hit “delete” and North Korea would cease to exist.
What matters is that Americans are scared—in large measure because they have been told to be scared—and thus, just as we are willing to fight the war on drugs down to the last Mexican, some Christian leaders and their fellow court prophets are prepared to assuage their fellow citizens’ fears down to the last Korean.
If Hegel was right about people and governments never learning from history and acting on what they learned, it’s mostly because they never bothered to learn history in the first place. They certainly never learned history from the perspective of people who weren’t like them.
All of which makes it easier to overlook what “taking them out” will cost those caught in the crossfire.
Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.
Image courtesy of ronniechua at iStock by Getty Images.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.