Trump’s Pastor Endorses Worldly Power

Spiritual Sunday

Charlottesville and Barcelona have replaced North Korea in the headlines these days, but, as a Christian, I want to go back and discuss a North Korean story that has been bothering me for a while. As threats of nuclear annihilation were being haphazardly tossed back and forth by Kim Jong-on and Donald Trump, evangelical pastor and presidential advisor Robert Jeffress was informing Trump of God’s position.

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. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.

I’m not the only one horrified by someone telling the American president that God gives him full permission to unleash “fire and fury” (Trump’s phrasing) upon an enemy. In an eloquent rebuttal, Steven Paulikas, Episcopal rector of All Saints’ Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, reminded us of Christianity’s core beliefs. As he did so, passages from John Milton’s Paradise Regained came to my mind.

Jeffress says that Jeffress interprets Paul’s letter to the Romans wrong and that “there is no possible Christian justification for provoking such a conflict”:

In an interview with The Washington Post, Jeffress backs up his argument by citing Paul, in Romans 13, a famous passage on the relationship between earthly and divine authority. Yet even the casual reader of the Bible will be hard-pressed to recreate this interpretation of Romans. In order to reach his desired conclusion, the pastor rips this passage from its context; Paul is telling Christians to obey the Roman authorities in temporal matters such as taxation, not justifying the authority of one ruler over another.

What’s more, Jeffress seemingly fetishizes his own message of violence over the clarion call to love of Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Jeffress predicts that “pacifist Christians” will turn to Romans 12:17, “do not repay anyone evil for evil,” to refute him. Beyond his curious citation of this obvious contradiction to his own argument, it is hardly necessary to invoke it given his grossly negligent treatment of the scripture he himself has chosen.

Paulikas goes on to cite theologian Karl Barth, a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Germany, who predicted that this passage in Romans would be misused. In so doing, Paulikas mentions one of Jesus’s temptations in the desert:

In Matthew 4, Jesus rejects the Devil’s offer of authority over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will worship him. In this context, the urge to control the global order is malevolent, not divine.

In Paradise Regained, Milton dramatizes this temptation by having Satan show Jesus the capital of the Roman Empire. First, he sets up the prize in ways that one could imagine hitting home with Trump:

The city which thou seest no other deem
Than great and glorious Rome, Queen of the Earth
So far renowned, and with the spoils enriched
Of nations. There the Capitol thou seest,
Above the rest lifting his stately head
On the Tarpeian rock, her citadel
Impregnable; and there Mount Palatine,
The imperial palace, compass huge, and high
The structure, skill of noblest architects,
With gilded battlements, conspicuous far,
Turrets, and terraces, and glittering spires.

Then he explains how, by expelling a “monster from his throne,” Jesus can obtain absolute power:

This Emperor hath no son, and now is old,
Old and lascivious, and from Rome retired
To Capreae, an island small but strong
On the Campanian shore, with purpose there
His horrid lusts in private to enjoy;
Committing to a wicked favourite
All public cares, and yet of him suspicious;
Hated of all, and hating. With what ease,
Endued with regal virtues as thou art,
Appearing, and beginning noble deeds,
Might’st thou expel this monster from his throne,
Now made a sty, and, in his place ascending,
A victor-people free from servile yoke!
And with my help thou may’st; to me the power
Is given, and by that right I give it thee.
Aim, therefore, at no less than all the world;
Aim at the highest; without the highest attained,
Will be for thee no sitting, or not long,
On David’s throne, be prophesied what will.”

 Jesus, as Pastor Jeffress should know, does not think in these terms. Jesus’s business is not with the Roman emperor (or Korean dictator) but with the “Devil who first made him such.” His job is not to free people who have become inward slaves (so he describes the Roman people) but to bring peace and justice to all humankind.

How he will do so, he’s not saying. I doubt that he’s let Pastor Jeffress into his confidence:

Know, therefore, when my season comes to sit
On David’s throne, it shall be like a tree
Spreading and overshadowing all the earth,
Or as a stone that shall to pieces dash
All monarchies besides throughout the world;
And of my Kingdom there shall be no end.
Means there shall be to this; but what the means
Is not for thee to know, nor me to tell.”

Jeffress, who has the ear of someone who could literally unleash holy hell upon the world, sounds as though he is equating this power with God’s. Perhaps he’s intoxicated by his close proximity to such power. By so doing, as Paulikas points out, he has lost sight of Jesus’s vision of love.  He has encountered Satan’s temptation in the desert and succumbed.

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