It's not every day that a religious leader with the ear of the U.S. president advocates raining hellfire down on another nation. But that's what happened yesterday when Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, released a statement that seemingly gave President Donald Trump religious permission to attack North Korea.
"When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, 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,” Jeffress said. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”
Jeffress took to the airwaves, including an appearance on Fox News, to explain his position, saying that Trump prefers other methods of solving the North Korea problem — namely, the country is threatening neighbors and even parts of the United States with long-range, possibly nuclear missile attacks. But the Bible, he said, grants the president the "moral authority" to conduct assassinations or make war to fight evil.
Pretty radical stuff, huh? Bringing holy books into the discussion notwithstanding, this rant from the divisive Dallas Baptist is actually echoing something that has been at the core of United States policy for decades, the concept of the "just war." And one recent adherent was former President Barack Obama.
Like most questions of philosophy, the central question is simple, but the answers are infinitely thorny. When is war justified? When is the destruction and waste of a conflict worth the possible societal benefit? Are there rules that must be adhered to, even in war, or is it better top keep warfare terrible so as to discourage its practice?
Often, the answer is: You'll know when you see it.
That seemed to be Obama's message when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after winning the presidency. Instead of sounding off like a peacenik, he used the stage to argue, surprisingly, in favor of the tenets of a just war.
"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes," Obama said. "There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."
Here's more from Obama, using the kind of good vs. evil language that has put so many on edge it comes from the mouth of Robert Jeffress:
"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there's nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naive — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
More eloquent, sure. But at the end of the day, Obama and Jeffress are in broad philosophical agreement. Some people are bad enough that they need to be killed.
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The concept of just war existed well before Christianity. A 2017 study says the ancient Egyptians studied the causes of war and tried to create boundaries for waging it. The study claims to revise "the standard history of the just war tradition by demonstrating that just war thought developed beyond the boundaries of Europe and existed many centuries earlier than the advent of Christianity or even the emergence of Greco-Roman doctrine."
But Christians have dwelled on and justified war for centuries. One of the most influential thinkers in this was St. Augustine. He coined the phrase: "Who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals."
The always-helpful Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes a passage that demonstrates the juggling of faith and application of violence is nothing new and changes over time. "In chivalrous times, the Christian crusader could seek priestly absolution for atrocities committed in war, a stance supported by Augustine, for example," the site reads. "Today, the law courts are seemingly less forgiving: A violation of the conventions assumes that the soldier is responsible and accountable and should be charged for a crime."
Nothing stays the same when it comes to judging the moral correctness of war. There is one exception. Since its inception, a truly just war has always been one that can't be avoided. If the missiles and artillery shells start to fly into and out of the Korean peninsula, the first question that even St. Augustine would ask is: Was there a way to avoid it?