What does the Bible say about the North Korea crisis?
Using the Bible to provide straightforward solutions to complex domestic and foreign political problems is rarely a good idea. That's not what it was designed to do. An article entitled '7 things the Bible says about Obamacare', for instance, isn't likely to be very helpful on the face of it, and so it proves. Neither are impassioned appeals to Scripture over the repeal of DACA ('The Bible does not teach open borders,' says one group, while Sojourners presents a very different take).
The truth is that we should be very wary about appealing to biblical texts in favour of our preferred options. So the headline, 'What does the Bible say about North Korea?' quite rightly invites the answer, 'Nothing at all.'
But that doesn't mean biblical wisdom just doesn't apply in this most complex case, fraught with danger not just for the Korean peninsula but for the world. We shouldn't look to the Bible for simplistic solutions. But we can read its stories about God and human beings in search of insight into how people think, what motivates them and how they can go tragically wrong – and we can learn how to avoid their mistakes.
One of the saddest stories in the sad book of Judges is about Jephthah (chapter 11). The son of a prostitute who grew up with a chip on his shoulder because of his treatment by the rest of his family, he became a fierce outlaw warrior. The outsider was invited to rescue those who had despised him, and became a victorious general in Israel's cause. So far so good: but he made a fatal vow to God, promising to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house to meet him after his triumphant return. It was not an animal, but his daughter, and he kept his vow.
It's possible to read this as a heroic act of promise-keeping at the cost of what was most precious to Jephthah; possible, but misguided. It was a murder, carried out because he had publicly committed himself to a course from which he lacked the moral courage to withdraw. We can speculate about the reasons behind it: a flawed character after a damaged childhood, the need to maintain an aura of toughness in front of his supporters, a fundamental misunderstanding of grace, a worship of power. But the consequences were tragic.
This is a story that's directly relevant to the North Korea crisis. One of the poorest countries in the world is now a nuclear power, in spite of all attempts to stop it. No one can pretend this is a good thing. But two leaders, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, are making increasingly belligerent statements from which it is harder and harder to back down. They do not intend the consequences, but those consequences may still follow. The rhetoric has been ramped up by others who should know better: the US Ambassador to the United Nations has said Kim is 'begging for war'. He is not; he sees the possession of nuclear weapons, and convincing the world he is prepared to use them, as a guarantee of peace, and he has reason.
The risk for the peninsula and for the world is that these promises of 'fire and fury' and special 'gift packages' will be delivered, because those making them don't have the wisdom or humility to realise how foolish they are.
The Old Testament story of Jephthah shows what happens when rhetoric goes too far to be recalled. It's not too late for the US and North Korea to learn that lesson.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods