In a recent interview with Fox News, Dr. Robert Jeffress, an Evangelical adviser to President Trump, claimed that “the Bible gives President Trump the moral authority to use whatever force necessary, including assassination” to remove threats to humanity like Kim Jong-un. Justifying his views by citing Romans 13:3-4, he contends that “most Christians understand that.” Some however have taken exception to Pastor Jeffress’ comments, questioning whether one verse of the Bible can be used to justify the removal of a leader of a foreign nation. In truth whether or not assassination is morally permissible or not is far from self-evident and would require more justification than a single line from Sacred Scripture.
A Not-so Careful Citation
A quick gloss on the cited passage is in order because it is unclear that it even applies. In this section of the letter, St. Paul is addressing the question of social justice and these particular lines refer to the reasons why the citizen is subjected to authority in the first place. In short, St Paul says that it is by God given authority that the ruler, as custodian of the common good, is given the power to punish evildoers. The ruler is God’s minister by inflicting punishment on the evildoer. Pastor Jeffress is most certainly going beyond what is being said here. This particular verse might be applicable if President Trump was King of the World, but as President of the United States it is a giant leap to suggest that God has given him the authority to punish any evildoers in North Korea, let alone their leader. President Trump’s authority simply does not extend that far. This line of reasoning will ultimately lead the President and his adviser down a rabbit hole that only serves to discredit both.
There is another line of reasoning, one with a historical precedent that could be used to support a similar conclusion. During the Second World War, there were a group of patriotic, anti-Nazi German men who plotted to assassinate Hitler. Although these men were helped by the British, most of their outside help came from Fr. Robert Leiber, who was acting as an intermediary for Pope Pius XII. This remarkable story is told by an intelligence specialist named Mark Riebling in his recent book, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler.
Not only does Riebling’s book ring the death knell for the myth of Hitler’s Pope, but, relevant to the discussion at hand, it shows the great difficulty the plotters had in getting German buy-in. What little they did receive was mostly along confessional lines. The Catholics, schooled by St. Thomas Aquinas could morally defend the assassination of the tyrant Hitler. The Protestants (mainly Lutheran) schooled in a distorted view of state authority and found themselves in a moral quandary not unlike what Pastor Jeffress has found. In short, the argument based strictly on the authority of the ruler cuts both ways.
In examining the question of assassination, President Trump might be better served expanding his advisory group to include Catholics who have sat at the feet of St. Thomas. It is Aquinas who gives the best argument in favor of tyrannicide; the same argument that convinced Pius XII to help those Germans opposed to Hitler. It is this argument, rather than the one put forth by Jeffress, that might be used to justify the removal of the North Korean leader.
Aquinas on Tyrannicide
St. Thomas did not rule out tyrannicide, but instead thought it to be a laudable act if the conditions warranted it– “He who kills a tyrant to free his country is praised and rewarded”(Commentary on the Sentences 1,d44,q2,a2). What exactly were those conditions? The first has to do with how the tyrant came to power. If he was legitimately elected, then it is the community that must remove him (assuming they can). If he is a usurper and therefore a criminal, then an individual (or group of individuals) may act to depose the tyrant even by assassination. Secondly, the tyrant must pose an actual threat to the well-being and the morality of his subjects by ignoring divine and natural law. Third, that there is no other reasonable recourse. Finally, that his death would lead to a better situation and not create a vacuum such that the citizens were likely to become subject to a worse leader.
Applied to the situation in North Korea, there is no doubt about whether Kim Jong-un is a tyrant. Nor is it really questionable whether he is a usurper or not. Since becoming “eternal President” he has become a self-appointed leader in more and more areas in order to consolidate power both politically and militarily and has murdered anyone who he has viewed as a challenge to his power grab. Likewise, there is no doubt that he is a threat to the well-being of the people both physically and morally through his blatant disregard for natural law.
It is the third and fourth condition that ought to lead President Trump to ponder his actions carefully. It is not entirely clear that every reasonable remedy has been tried nor is it clear that his killing would lead to a better state of affairs. In a militarily bureaucratic system like North Korea, the killing of one tyrant can easily pave the way for another.
While St. Thomas is clear that tyrannicide can be jusitified, he is rather silent about whether it is morally acceptable for someone outside of that particular country to orchestrate such an action. In the example cited above, Pius XII (and the British) did not orchestrate but only provided material and strategic support. The deposition of a tyrant should always occur from within. The US and its allies might aid those from within North Korea, but they should not be leading the charge.