The Briefing 08-18-14

The Briefing 08-18-14

The Briefing


August 18, 2014

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

It’s Monday, August 18, 2014.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Prominence of ISIS shows declaring peace does make peace

We all know that the world is a dangerous place, and one of the signs of the particular danger of our context is the fact that a group can all the sudden emerge into our consciousness that we didn’t know about just a matter of weeks or months before. And yet it can now be a potent factor, landing almost every day in the headlines of the nation’s newspapers and having attention from all over the world. That’s certainly the group that is known variously as ISIS and ISIL – either the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In any case, it has to do with the group that used to be Al Qaeda in Iraq, that is now radicalized far beyond what Al Qaeda was already recognized to be – in terms of its terroristic threats and its actual potential. But what we are looking at now is a state of affairs in the world in which it appears that chaos, rather than order, threatens to break out at almost every turn. Journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign-Policy run articles suggesting that what we’re seeing is a return to tribalism and the decline of the nation-state.


That runs human history backward, so far as most of us in the West are concerned. Those of us who are citizens of the United States, or other modern Western nations, are generally unfamiliar with just how recent in terms of human history the nation-state actually is. And before the nation-state, they were various levels of either autocracy or chaos, battling empires or the absolute lawlessness that affected so many parts of the world. And there was the belief, at least to the end of the 19th century and certainly throughout the 20th century, that the rise of the nation-state would bring order out of all that chaos. The nation of Iraq as a matter of fact, is itself a classic example – it was created artificially as a nation-state, but the constituent parts of that nation were never unified, in any sense, other than what was forced by politics and military action. The Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites and a Christian minority all represented different understandings of exactly what the nation might be. And as current events make abundantly clear, any holding together Iraq as a nation is by force rather, at least at present, than by persuasion.


But the return of tribalism on the world stage should be something that rings with the familiar to Christians. All you have to do is think back to the narrative of the first book of the Bible. When we think about the Table of the Nations, found in Genesis 11, and what we find there is reference to families, clans, tribes, and nations. The nations identified in Genesis 11 aren’t modern nation-states, they are collections or groups of tribes. And what we see taking place in so much of the world today is that the nation-state that was believed to be the shape the future, actually has very little to do with what’s actually going on on the ground in much of the world – Iraq is a central example.


But on Friday of last week, Americans were informed by our own national intelligence agencies that the threat of a group such as ISIS and ISIL is not now limited to the Middle East, to the Levant, Syria, or most crucially right now, Iraq. Rather, as our own intelligence agencies have informed us now ISIS forms a threat to the United States. As Siobhan Gorman, Tamer El-Ghobasy, and Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday,


[The groups] made in recent months by the group calling itself the Islamic State have bolstered its long-term ambitions to attack the West, including the U.S., and the group has become such a potent force that traditional counterterrorism tactics aren’t sufficient, U.S. intelligence officials said on Thursday.


The three reporters continue to write,

Officials painted a bleak assessment of the threat posed by a group that was largely counted out just four years ago, when it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq. Since then, it has staged an extraordinary comeback, particularly in the past year. The forces that fueled its resurgence are also the factors that will make it so difficult to defeat.

Citing intelligence agencies in Washington.

There are several ways to look at this news, all of them negative. One of them has to do with the fact that according to the very intelligence agencies who are cited in this report, almost every single one of the current leaders of ISIS was once in American custody. We once had them in custody, but then we set them loose and when we set them loose, they began to coalesce around an even more radical terroristic plot than even what would have been undertaken by Al Qaeda in Iraq.


Concerning an attack on the United States, the intelligence agencies said


It has pitched itself as the true successor to Osama bin Laden. The full implication of that is that it intends to focus on the West.


As The Wall Street Journal summarized,


While its focus on gaining territory has translated into local attacks, those moves are a means to the longer-term goal of attacking America and the West.


An unusually thoughtful understanding of exactly what we face was published over the weekend in the pages of National Review Online in a column written by Jonah Goldberg entitled ‘The West Gaza.’ As the subtitle of the article declares, “no one in the West wants a long struggle with jihad-ism – the problem is the enemy always gets a vote.” This has been the great problem that has plagued the Western tradition in terms of politics and foreign policy. In the West, there been successive attempts to tryto create a world peace – the League of Nations, before that the Congress of Nations, after that the United Nations and what we see time and time again is that lawlessness breaks out, even when the powers that be declare that they have established order. But Jonah Goldberg is making a very important point here, and one that Christians should well understand. Even when you declare peace, that doesn’t mean that there is peace –as the Scripture records, there is shame that comes to those who cry “peace, peace” when there is no peace.


Goldberg points back to the 9/11 attacks in 2001and points out that almost immediately those attacks were followed by a discussion that was flavored by the kind of understanding of the world that was offered by Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations, and the same kind of analysis offered by experts such as Bernard Lewis when he spoke of the problem with Islam. In both counts what we were looking at is the claim made by very credible academics, who understand the world and have a theory of the world, that what you’re looking at in the current conflict between Islam and the modern West is not something that is either new or resolvable.


And this is where Christians who understand the importance of conviction and worldview understand that if you have two peoples who are opposed by ideologies that are absolutely irreconcilable, and when one of these considers violence and appropriate means for furthering its ends, there is no way that the group that is not committed to violence can be completely non-violent because violence is inflicted upon them. This is why the Christian tradition in the West has offered what has been known as Just War Theory, often mentioned on this program. That’s the theory was developed all the way back in the fourth and fifth centuries in the Christian tradition in the attempt to understand when force is justified and must be used. That is not a question that is even asked in the Muslim world – there is no Muslim theory of Just War, because in the Muslim view any armed effort, any aggression, that ends up with a gain for Islam is just simply because of that fact.


It is Islam that divides the world into two different spheres: the world of Islam and the world of war – obviously implying from the very beginning of the Muslim experience that those who are in the world of Islam must enter the world of war in order to see Islam expanded to that territory as well.


Goldberg’s point in raising the ‘clash of civilizations’ model is to point to the fact that so many people on the left are embarrassed by any commitment to American or Western civilization to the point that they rejected there is any clash of civilizations – some go so far as to argue that there is no possibility of a clash of civilizations, believing that all peoples everywhere are basically the same, wanting the same thing, operating out of the same kind of worldview. Christians know that isn’t true. Furthermore, just about any sane analysis of the world reveals it isn’t true at all. Goldberg concludes his column with these sentences,


Pentagon officials told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski that they see the Islamic State as a “10- to 20-year challenge.” I hope that’s pessimistic. But it’s simply realistic that the ideological agenda driving these jihadis will present a challenge for far longer than that.


Finally, he writes,


No one in the West wants a generational struggle with jihadism any more than Israel wants perpetual war with Hamas in Gaza. The problem is the enemy always gets a vote. It just may be that the Middle East will become the West’s Gaza. And, so far, nobody has a good answer for what to do about it.


Those last words are also important, no one, nobody, has a good answer for what to do about it.

2) Criticisms of Obama reminder that even Christians need to formulate ‘theory of the world’

And that leads me to an exceedingly important front-page story in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times – the headline, As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way. It written by Peter Baker and it is a very evenhanded article. It points to the fact that the chaos in the world is being blamed, at least in part, on the income of the Oval Office, the president of the United States. And Baker’s exactly right, in one sense that simply goes with the office, and in another sense presidents are themselves responsible for much of that misapprehension, because presidents build up the aura of their office so much that it seems as if the President speaking as President the United States can have an invincible will that should be inviolate just about anywhere on the planet. Baker cites people on both sides of the political spectrum, as you would expect in a piece such as this. On the right he cites Will C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush, and executive director of the William P. Clements Jr. Center on History, Strategy and Statecraft at the University of Texas. I should mention that Professor Inboden was my host for a public lecture at the Johnson School there just a matter of months ago. Will Inboden said


I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office, [but he went on to say] but he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.


On the other side, Baker cites Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, he said what makes this period different is the diffusion of power from states to non-state forces – what we were just talking about in terms of the rise of the tribes – the rapid spread of technology in the rise of Islamic extremism. Talbott said,


We have an overall contagion of diffusion which makes it much harder to advance the cause of regional and global governance.


That is the kind of language, by the way, that’s rather common in the foreign-policy establishment the means basically we are in big trouble. Baker then says,


Some Democrats said Mr. Obama’s challenge has not necessarily been his approach to these crises, but his ability to explain and sell it.


And that raises a very important issue that should interest anyone interested in the way ideas form, and Christians at an even deeper level. Every leader on the world scene, or anyone who seeks to have an influence or understanding of what’s going on in the world, has to have what specialist in foreign policy have called for decades now a theory of the world. A theory of the world is a basic theory, not just of how geography works, but more importantly how foreign policy works.


What is the dynamic that leads nations to seek their way in the world – why are certain alliances steadfast while others break apart, why do things happen as they do in the world and what should we expect?  Is the natural state of the world peace or is it violence? Should we be surprised when order falls into the disorder? Or should we be surprised when disorder is arranged into order? Those are fundamental issues of worldview and this is where Christians have to understand some very important principles.


Part of President Obama’s problem is that he rejects the responsibility to have a theory of the world. He has basically said this even in some of his most important public addresses. In one sense it seems he trying to repudiate the very idea of a theory of the world – suggesting that such a theory is what got the United States into war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, which he judges to be entirely negative. I would argue that the main problem with President Obama’s foreign policy is that he actually doesn’t have one. That’s not to say that he does it make decisions and he hasn’t cast policies – it is to say in his rejection of a theory of the world he doesn’t even make clear what he expects to take place. Is he surprised when someone shoots or when they hold fire? It’s not at all evident.  Does he believe that democracy is a goal of all peoples or does he believe that it’s a cultural achievement – explained only by certain ideological commitments and certain kinds of understandings even of what it means to be human being? Where in the world does he ground a concern for human rights? Is it in some international consensus or is it in a deeper commitment – as Christians would voice – to the fact that every single human being, in every point of development, is equally made in the image of God.


One symptom of the way the world has been working of late is that it seems that on The Briefing on Mondays we tend to look at foreign policy issues simple because they demand that kind of attention. And that’s because it seems that almost every weekend brings a new sense of disorder in the world and new set of headlines about ominous developments on the world scene. But rather than just take the headlines and take each one in turn, we need to step back a bit and understand that we too have a responsibility to develop a theory of the world. We do not sit the Oval Office, we do not establish international policy, but it is our responsibility as intelligent Christians to develop an understanding of why we believe the world is as it is, and why we believe people act as they do, and why we believe wars and armed insurgencies occur and what we should do to confront them. How do we understand terrorism? What we do to answer a terroristic threat?  We should be at least comforted in part by the fact that Christians have been trying to think about this for centuries and have developed a very robust and substantial understanding of Just War Theory and other aspects of the morality and, for that matter, the theology of armed conflict, war, and violence.


But the Christian worldview based in an understanding of human sinfulness, and the fact that sinfulness is often set loose in terms of the world scene, also lead us to understand why Jonah Goldberg ends his column with a very insightful comment that no one seems to know what to do. Because Christians understand something, that it seems almost no foreign policy establishment understands – there is a good reason why these problems are intractable – it is because these problems are not waiting for a mere human solution, these problems not waiting for just the right diplomatic moment and just the right diplomatic insight, these problems are waiting for the Prince of Peace.


That is to say that Christians have an eschatological understanding of foreign policy – even as we have an eschatological understanding of every aspect of life. But having that understanding, and the fact that that understanding gives us and grounds us in hope, that doesn’t mean that we do not have a responsibility – and certainly that those in political office do not have a responsibility to act and act as wisely and helpfully as is possible, even in a fallen world, because the Christian worldview also honors something else – and that is even a gradualist gain, even a partial victory. The holding back of violence and aggression and evil, in any context, at any time, is itself a good thing. But the Christian worldview reminds us it’s not going to hold.


When I look at situation like this I think of the fact that when asked whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, I have to say I’m neither – Christians have no right to be either optimistic or pessimistic, because both of those are false humanistic understandings. Rather, I live in hope. Perhaps a better way of expressing this was given voice by Lesslie Newbigin, the late theologian and missiologist who when asked, “Are you optimistic or pessimistic?” said, “I’m not an optimist and I’m not a pessimist – Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”

3) Worldview and culture affect parenting, too

Finally on a lighter note, but one that also points to the importance of worldview and to cultural distinctions around the world, National Public Radio ran a story over the weekend on how American parenting styles just don’t match some of those found elsewhere in the world. They mention several, for example, in Norway parents have kids nap outside, even in subzero temperatures – it turns out that this is in the preschool program where children take naps outdoors and even when it is subzero they still take their naps outdoors. Secondly, Vietnamese mothers train their babies to urinate on command by age 9 months, when they’re out of diapers. Now as you would see if you read this article, the mechanism for doing that might be considered just a bit extreme. More akin to training a dog than training infant. But as NPR points out their babies are out of diapers at age 9 months. Third, people in some tribes in Kenya avoid looking their babies in the eye because they don’t their babies to feel powerful by having a kind of eye contact – so they just avoid looking their baby in the eye – they will look at each other, but not directly. Compare that to American parents who will stare into the eyes of their newborn all day long.


Four, Danish parents leave their kids on the curb while they go shopping. They just leave the stroller with the children or the babies in it outside the store, go in and assume they will be there when they come out. – just try the United States!


In the Polynesian islands, children take care of children. Babysitting is considered something that is appropriate for children as young as elementary school age when it comes their younger siblings.


Six, Japanese parents let their kids go out by themselves, and by going out by themselves this means that children as young as four are often found riding by themselves on the subway in Tokyo – four-year-olds.


And finally, in Spain kids stay up very, very late – it’s because people in Spain then have dinner very, very late. They want children be a part of the conversation so they let them stay up very, very late – sometimes even until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. The Spanish consider the American tradition of putting children to bed rather early to be cruel – meaning that American parents don’t want their children involved in family life.


Well listening to The Briefing today you may decide that you’re very glad that you weren’t potty trained in Vietnam, that you didn’t have to take naps outside in Norway, that you weren’t left out on the curb in Denmark, nor left on the subway alone in Japan – but I’m going to guess the kids listen to The Briefing today would wish that their parents ,when it came to bed time, were a bit more Spanish. Worldview matters, culture matters, it all matters.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 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 I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Prominence of ISIS shows declaring peace does make peace

Iraq Crisis: Islamic State Now Threat to West, Says U.S., Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman, Tamer El-Ghobasy, and Nour Malas)

The West’s Gaza, National Review (Jonah Goldberg)

2) Criticisms of Obama reminder that even Christians need to formulate ‘theory of the world’

As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way, New York Times (Peter Baker)

3) Worldview and culture affect parenting, too

Global Parenting Habits That Haven’t Caught On In The U.S., NPR (Emily Lodish)



R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).