The Briefing 05-01-14

The Briefing 05-01-14

The Briefing


 May, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Thursday, May 1, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


Over the last couple of days, Americans have been talking about what happened in Oklahoma on Tuesday night. Where what was intended as an execution actually ended in the death by heart attack of the inmate condemned to die in that execution. The inmate was Clayton D. Lockett. He was found guilty of having shot a 19-year-old young woman and then burying her alive. He was sentenced to death for that crime, and after a series of lengthy appeals and legal complications, he eventually entered the execution chamber there in Oklahoma on Tuesday night. The state of Oklahoma was using a new form of chemical execution, that is, lethal injection, and the background to that is itself a very interesting and telling tale. But the execution did not go as planned and even as at this point the governor of Oklahoma Mary Fallin is trying to figure out exactly what did take place, we do know that what did take place was not what was intended to take place. And that itself is a situation that only legal authorities in Oklahoma can unwind and unravel for us.


But this has led many Americans to ask some basic questions about the death penalty. And even as there has been a concerted effort in recent years to try to make Americans leave the death penalty behind—a concerted effort on the part of the opponents of the death penalty to make the death penalty the issue rather than the crimes that have led to the death penalty—that conversation in America has seemingly turned a corner, and we can feel the impact of that in the current cultural conversation. Should Christians support the death penalty? That was the question I was asked by CNN to answer at an article scheduled to be posted at today. I answered that question by saying that the death penalty has been a part of human society for a millennia. It has been understood as the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes, but when you ask today, “Should Christians support the death penalty?” we have to recognize it’s not an easy yes or no question. And that tells us more about our society than about the question.


On the one hand, the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder. In Genesis 9:6, God told Noah that the penalty for intentional murder should be death. As Genesis 9:6 reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” In other words, God spoke to Noah saying that the ultimate sanction for the crime of intentional murder should be the forfeiture of the life of the murderer because the murderer has assaulted the image of God found in every single human being. The death penalty was explicitly grounded in the fact that God made every individual human being in His own image, and thus an act of intentional murder is an assault upon both human dignity and the glory of God in the image of God. In the simplest form, the Bible condemns murder and calls for the death of the murderer, the one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life. We need to note that the same biblical affirmation of capital punishment appears in the New Testament. In Romans chapter 13, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that the government “does not bear the sword in vain.” The Apostle Paul even goes so far as to say that the legal magistrate “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evil doer.” That’s found in Romans 13:4.


On the other hand, we also need to note with honesty that the Bible raises a very high requirement for evidence in the case of capital murder. The act of murder must be confirmed and corroborated by the eyewitness testimony of accusers, and the society is to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that no one is punished unjustly. While the death penalty is allowed and even mandated in some cases in Scripture, the Bible also reveals that not all who are guilty of murder and complicity in murder are executed. Just remember the biblical accounts concerning Moses, David, and Saul, later known as Paul.


Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare. The Bible also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect. In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.


Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not really with the death penalty, but with the society at large. American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. We’ve lost the cultural ability to declare murder, even mass murder, to be deserving of the death penalty. We’ve also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power, and we did that by allowing the death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant legal appeals. While most Americans claim to believe that the death penalty should be supported, there’s wide disparity on how Americans of different states and regions think about the issue.


Furthermore, we need to note that Christians are to be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is currently applied in the United States of America. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is. There is very little chance that a wealthy, white murderer will ever be executed. There’s a far greater likelihood that a poor, African-American murderer will face execution. Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence. By any Christian understanding, this racial and economic disparity is an outrage and no Christian can support this kind of disparity. The Bible itself warns that the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms. We need to also step back and see there’s a larger cultural context. We have to recognize that our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans. Most would not admit that they hold to this lower moral evaluation of murder, but our legal system is itself evidence that it’s most certainly true. We also face a frontal assault on the death penalty that is driven by legal activists and by others determined to bring legal execution to an end in America.


Controversy over the execution this week in Oklahoma will bring even more attention to this issue, but most Americans will be completely unaware that this tragedy was caused largely by the inability of prison authorities to gain access to drugs for legal injection that would’ve prevented these complications. Opponents of the death penalty have, by their legal and political action, accomplished what might first seem to be impossible. They now demand action to correct a situation they largely created. Their intention is to make the death penalty so horrifying in the public mind that support for executions will disappear. They have attacked every form of execution as “cruel and unusual punishment.” You’ll recall that language from the U.S. Constitution, even though the Constitution itself authorizes the death penalty. This is a testament to moral insanity that they have successfully diverted attention from the murderous, heinous crimes and instead put the death penalty itself on trial.


Now we ask the question again: Should Christians support the death penalty today? I believe that Christians should hope, pray, and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense. This would be a society in which there is every protection for the rights of the accused and every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the offense. Christians should work to ensure that there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime. We should pray for a society in which the motive behind capital punishment is justice and not merely revenge. We must work for a society that will honor every single human being at every point of development and of every race and ethnicity as made in God’s image. We must hope for a society that will support and demand the execution of justice in order to protect the very existence of our society. We must pray for a society that rightly tempers justice with mercy.


So when CNN asked me, “Should Christian support the death penalty today?” I respond by saying that I believe we should and we must, but with the considerations that I’ve just discussed. At the same time, given the secularization of our culture and the moral confusion that this has brought, this issue is not so clear-cut as some might think. I do believe that the death penalty, though supported by the majority of Americans, may not long survive in this cultural context. It is one thing to support the death penalty; it’s another thing altogether to be able to explain it, fix it, administer it, and sustain it with justice. We’re about to find out if Americans have the determination to meet that challenge. Christians should take leadership to help our fellow citizens understand what is at stake. God affirmed the death penalty for murder as He made His affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah. Our job is to make it clear to our neighbors.


Meanwhile, looking elsewhere on the American scene, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News is out with an interesting poll saying that the vast majority of Americans just want the world to go away—at least a suppressing political and national concern for the United States. As Janet Hook reports for The Wall Street Journal, Americans in large numbers want the US to reduce its role in world affairs even as a showdown with Russia over Ukraine preoccupies Washington. She continues:


In a marked change from past decades, nearly half of those surveyed want the U.S. to be less active on the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for more active engagement.


As she explains, this is an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines, and without even looking at the numbers, that is assuredly true. This is really not a partisan issue, and it’s probably important for us to note that this interventionist/non-interventionist posture, this has really never been a hugely partisan issue at the most crucial moments in American history. And if you look back at the 20th century, there is a very interesting pattern that appears. Americans tend to be interventionist until they decide to be non-interventionist, until the world pulls them back in and they’re internationalists and interventionist once more.


If you look back to the early 20th century and as wars were spreading across the European scene, Americans said, “We want nothing to do with that. Let the Europeans fight their wars,” until, well, that became no longer an option, and America was dragged into the First World War. And then there was that intervening period between the two great world wars in the 20th century when Americans once again said, “We will never send our boys to war, certainly not over in Europe. Let the Europeans handle it themselves.” And then came 1941. Then came World War II with the American involvement in the war with a surprise attack from Asia, in terms of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and then with Adolf Hitler declaring war on the United States just 24 hours later. After World War II, American said once again, “All we want to do is to step back from the world stage and make sure that liberty is protected here and respected elsewhere,” but the Cold War changed all of that, and the great geopolitical battle between the two empires—one represented by the Soviet Union with its ideology of Marxist Communism and the other headed by the United States, in terms of the worldview of modern Western democracy—well that was a war that if described between the two major parties was a Cold War. At many parts in the world it wasn’t cold at all; it was very hot, ranging from Indochina to the Middle East.


With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet Union, Americans entered another non-interventionist posture, but then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, and then came the American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now Americans are fatigued by that investment and beginning to wonder if all that was paid, in terms of those military efforts, was actually worthwhile. And yet what we don’t have to compare with that assessment is where the world might be if we had not entered into those wars. Like every other thoughtful American, most of us look at this and say, “We want to ask the question, could it have been otherwise?” but we simply can’t answer that question. What we do know is that America tried to think that the world had gone away until the world came crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


And now Americans overwhelmingly are saying, “We want America to retreat from the world scene.” But as Walter Russell Mead makes very clear in a very important current article in Foreign Affairs magazine, the problem of geopolitics is that it simply won’t go away. The title of his article that appeared in the May/June 2014 issue is “The Return of Geopolitics” and, as he writes, the revenge of revisionist powers, speaking specifically of Russia now taking on many of the characteristics we thought had gone away with the end of the Soviet Union. As Walter Russell Mead writes:


Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant: the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism, not the obsolescence of hard power. China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it. That process will not be peaceful, and whether or not the revisionists succeed, their efforts have already shaken the balance of power and changed the dynamics of international politics.


Now Walter Russell Mead is one of the most insightful observers of the world scene. He is certainly not an anti-interventionist. On the other hand, he’s hardly an eager interventionist. He is one of those who looks at the world and says, “We need to be involved only where we have to be involved,” but the sad thing is that in a fallen world sometimes we have to be involved. And every time America begins to believe that our involvement can be taken off the world stage, the world stage simply erupts right to us, sometimes right amidst us, as happened on September 11, 2001.


But that poll from The Wall Street Journal and NBC simply affirms what many of us have seen for a long time, and that is that America seems to be caught in a Ping-Pong game between interventionism and non-interventionism. And what seems to change the rules of the game is when something happens outside that forces us to pay attention, or something happens inside that simply can’t be avoided.


And what we now are looking at in the world scene is something that many Americans want to say is far, far away; for instance, in the Crimean Peninsula or in the nation of Ukraine. But it’s not far, far away because we’re involved there and our economy is involved there, and, furthermore, the tensions that are involved there will eventually reach here. Just think of the bombing at the Boston Marathon where a bloody political conflict in the region between Europe and Asia in the Caucasus Mountains spilled over into an explosive tragedy on the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, just over a year ago. As one of Britain’s major poets reminds us, the world is too much with us. And certainly it is.


And so is politics. And that leads to a second big issue in the news. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Harvard’s Institute of Politics has released one of its regular polls of the millennial generation. And as John Sides reports, it’s been making news mainly because it suggests that young people are not enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming midterm election. Now, by the way, a little footnote here. It’s hard to find an overwhelming majority of Americans who are too excited about voting at any time. That’s a part of the political Malays of American culture, but we do need to recognize that this poll does spell some difficult days ahead for the Democrats because, as it turns out, the young Americans least likely to vote are the ones that would be otherwise most likely to vote Democratic.


But the big worldview perspective in this article really isn’t about the partisan reality, but about the fact that the Millennials are trying to back out of politics. The bottom line of this poll, taken by the Harvard Institute of Politics, is that the millennial generation is apparently doing its dead-level best not to be a political generation. But just like foreign affairs intrudes upon our national scene, so also politics intrudes upon every generation’s life, and even a generation that wants to think of itself as relatively nonpolitical will find out that in this country being nonpolitical is just another way of being political. In other words, when most of the big decisions, in terms of the future of this culture, in terms of electoral process, happen by taking a vote, not voting is actually, mathematically, a vote because that empowers the votes of those who do go to the polls and gives them an outsized significance in terms of the eventual result. Harvard Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe said:


It’s been clear for some time now that young people are growing more disillusioned and disconnected from Washington. There’s an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work — and now we see the lowest level of interest in any election we’ve measured since 2000.  Young people still care about our country, but we will likely see more volunteerism than voting in 2014.


Now that’s a very interesting statement because you have to wonder if he listened to what he said. Notice he said this is a dramatic problem. It’s unprecedented. It’s never happened before—except since 2000. In other words, if you go back just fourteen years, you’re at the same level they’re reporting now. Only they weren’t talking about the Millennials, they were talking about Generation X, which means that if you take these polls simply on the headlines offered, you’ll think the world’s turning around every 24 hours. If you look more deeply at the data, you’ll discover that the Millennials tend to be somewhat like their parents and like their grandparents, dragged into political involvement when they realize they have no option otherwise. The issues are simply too important to be avoided. And that’s what will surely happen to the millennial generation. We can simply hope that it will happen when they have a worldview that involves respect for the family and for raising children and for the critical institutions and moral structures that make civilization possible.


And finally, before I leave this poll, there is one rather stunning piece of analysis in it. And that is this: when you look at the millennial generation and you divide them between the older Millennials and the younger Millennials, the younger Millennials has some very serious concerns about the legalization of marijuana. In other words, there is something really interesting going on here. The younger you go in the population, the more concern there is about the legalization of marijuana. As a matter fact, much of the cultural momentum towards the legalization of marijuana is actually coming from people in their 60s and 70s who were a part of the revolution in the 60s and, evidently, never got over it. And yet when you look at younger Americans, we can come up with reasons why they should be concerned.


For instance, the Associated Press yesterday reported that the state of Colorado, on the forefront of this great social experiment by legalizing what they called recreational marijuana, is now considering—and you can imagine that this was coming. They’re going to have to come up with a lot of rules about this; a lot more rules than they thought they were going to have to have. Because what’s the most crucial issue right now in terms of health? It’s the edible marijuana. It turns out that when marijuana is put in edible products, such as brownies, cookies, and cakes and the like, it becomes very dangerous because people don’t know marijuana is in them and they don’t know how much marijuana might be in them. They don’t know how powerful the marijuana might be, and people in Colorado are getting sick and there is a grave danger to public health, especially to young people, to teenagers and young children, who might accidentally or even intentionally ingest some of these marijuana-laced edibles and find themselves in great medical distress. As Kristen Wyatt of the Associated Press reports:


Whether through inexperience or confusion, many are eating too much pot too quickly, with potentially deadly consequences.


A college student from Wyoming jumped to his death from a Denver hotel balcony last month after consuming six times the recommended dosage of a marijuana-infused cookie. And earlier this month, a Denver man accused of shooting his wife reportedly ate pot-laced candy before the attack, though police say he may have had other drugs in his system.


The deaths have underscored a common complaint from new marijuana customers – they say they don’t know how much pot to eat and then have unpleasant experiences when they ingest too much.


That’s an interesting and very telling complaint, isn’t it? I’m doing something I probably ought not to be doing and I don’t know how much of it I can do safely without doing what I shouldn’t be doing in a way that brings me results I don’t want. But even as that tells us about human nature, it tells us about human nature in a way that can only be explained by the Christian worldview and why we understand that sin is itself a barely disguised form of foolishness. And we know that full well because we recognize that very foolishness in the mirror.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember our weekly release of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with you question in your voice by calling 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to Remember that article on the death penalty is scheduled at today. I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) Questions raised by botched execution say more about morally ambiguous society than death penalty

One Execution Botched, Oklahoma Delays the Next, New York Times (Erik Eckholm)

Why Christians should support the death penalty, CNN (R. Albert Mohler, Jr.)

2) Most Americans want world to go away – history repeats itself

Americans Want to Pull Back From World Stage, Poll Finds, The Wall Street Journal (Janet Hook)

The Return of Geopolitics, Foreign Affairs (Walter Russell Mead)

3)Millennials attempting to back out of politics, just like their parents

The Democrats still have their own young-people problem, The Washington Post (John Sides

Low Midterm Turnout Likely, Conservative More Enthusiastic, Harvard Youth Poll Finds, Harvard University Institute of Politics

4) Need for edible marijuana regulations reveal sin as scarcely disguised foolishness

Colorado Eyes Edibles Rules As More People Eat Pot, Associated Press (Kristen Wyatt)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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