When the character of God means war.
As Trump ramps up his retaliatory rhetoric towards North Korea, American Christians are finding themselves more divided than ever. And it’s not just about the usual theological and cultural squabbles; it’s about the very character of God.
At the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein homes in on this great divide:
During the ongoing public back and forth with North Korea, the president Tuesday said the country would “be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” if it threatens the United States. Later in the day, one of Trump’s evangelical advisers blessed the president’s rhetoric, saying “God has given Trump authority to take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Jeffress told The Post that a Christian writer asked him: “Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?” The sermon is an epic collection of Jesus’ sayings that have to do with turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and the hell that awaits people who judge or are angry. “Absolutely not,” Jeffress said.
Views of God have become a fault line tearing through American religion, dividing people who emphasize God, and by extension morality, as being about authority, power, loyalty, drawing lines and setting rules from those who focus on God as loving, nonjudgmental and forgiving.
Jeffress and other American Christians, leaders and laypeople alike, rely heavily on the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13 regarding the governing authorities being “ordained of God” to “bear the sword” and “punish evildoers.” Paul’s emphasis there was for Christians to live peaceable and quiet lives of nonviolence and non-retaliation, that it might be well with them. Of course, we know that Paul himself had trouble with the law and was, eventually, imprisoned by the authorities and executed by their sword for his obstinate faith and ministry.
However, historians and researchers like Jeff Sharlet have identified that this Romans 13-centric Christianity is not entirely without guile. In fact, it has long been a tool of those Sharlet calls “elite fundamentalists” in this country to cast American violence and warmongering as sanctioned by God himself (who ordains American power to use the sword), sovereignly directed to accomplish his purposes in the earth. And what are his purposes? For these elite fundamentalists, his purposes are the securing of global capitalist interests and the destruction of all communist, socialist, and pro-labor economic forces.
When Trump swears to rain fire and fury down on North Korea, he may not be consciously invoking Scripture or playing into the elite fundamentalist script. He may just think it sounds cool, like he’s a medieval dragon burning up the countryside of his peasant enemies. But whether conscious or not, this is the cultural and political milieu that he now inhabits, as proven by the response of his white evangelical base. And regardless of how bad Kim Jong-Un and North Korea actually are, Trump is animated by his destructive elitist vision of America as a corporate-capitalist utopia. All of his violent threats towards these international enemies are thus inherently justified, and utterly divinely sanctioned, as part of protecting that utopian vision.
By contrast, we have Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, which Jeffress roundly rejected as non-applicable and even totally inappropriate to the question of war with North Korea. In Jeffress’s mind, there is Jesus’s teaching for individual Christian behavior in the Sermon, and then there is God’s sovereign rule over the affairs of the world through the governments he has ordained. And never the twain shall meet. God, for Jeffress, is like Jeffress - an American capitalist patriot ready to use his Samson-like, strongman president to destroy all of America’s enemies. But God is not like Jesus, eschewing violent retaliation, turning the other cheek, praying for his enemies’ forgiveness. (For that matter, God is not much like the apostle Paul, either.)
American Christians are left to answer this same question: Is God like Jesus or Jeffress? And they are answering it in droves, creating that fault line, that great divide. The answers to this question, now as in Jesus’s own time, just might be the difference between life and death.