The Briefing 05-18-15

The Briefing 05-18-15

The Briefing


May 18, 2015

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


It’s Monday, May 18, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Death penalty given to Boston Bomber in right recognition of need for justice

On Friday a federal jury handed down a death sentence to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev just weeks after he was found guilty of multiple federal counts, including several for which the death penalty was applicable. As the New York Times reported on Saturday,

“Two years after bombs in two backpacks transformed the Boston Marathon from a sunny rite of spring to a smoky battlefield with bodies dismembered, a federal jury on Friday condemned Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the 2013 attack.”

As Katherine Seelye went on to report for the Times,

“In a sweeping rejection of the defense case, the jury found that death was the appropriate punishment for six of 17 capital counts — all six related to Mr. Tsarnaev’s planting of a pressure-cooker bomb on Boylston Street, which his lawyers never disputed. Mr. Tsarnaev, 21, stood stone-faced in court, his hands folded in front of him, as the verdict was read, his lawyers standing grimly at his side.”

Now one of the most important points made by the New York Times and many other national media in response to the death penalty verdict is this and I quote,

“With its decision, the jury rejected virtually every argument that the defense put forth, including the centerpiece of its case — that Mr. Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, had held a malevolent sway over him and led him into committing the crimes.”

What we’re looking at here is one of the great moral dramas of our time, and it’s a drama that involves the American legal system – in particular the federal courts – but it’s a drama that has ramifications that go far beyond this jury, this defendant, and this case. We’re looking at the first time since the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001 that a federal jury has brought forth a death penalty recommendation – in this case the death penalty verdict. And that’s highly telling because when you consider all the cases that have been brought before the United States courts since 2001 it’s very striking that it has taken this case to bring forth a federal death penalty verdict.

In this case the jury was asked to weigh the question of the death penalty or life in prison without the opportunity of parole – and that was for the 17 capital counts of which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was convicted of weeks ago. Now you’ll recall that when his criminal trial began, the phase of the trial was to determine his guilt when it came to the crimes, his own attorneys conceded that he had done what the federal prosecutors alleged. They did not deny in any sense that he’d been an active participant in the terrorist attack that killed three and wounded so many others – so many of them grievously. It turned out that from the very first day of the criminal trial the main concern of his defense team was evidently to avoid the death penalty – and as the New York Times reflected on Saturday, they were spectacularly unsuccessful in doing so.

They had made two main arguments to the jury. In the first place they argued, as the New York Times indicated, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was under the sway of his older brother, that he was not culpable to the degreed would invoke the death penalty for the attacks. And yet it turns out that the jurors, looking especially at the evidence brought forth by the prosecution, came to the conclusion that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not under the moral sway of his brother, or at least not to the extent that it alleviated his own moral responsibility. That’s a very key issue. And as the New York Times and others reflected, the verdict forms indicated that only three of the 12 jurors believed that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had acted under his brother’s influence – that’s a very telling finding.

The second argument made by the defense team was that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was repentant and remorseful concerning his participation in the horrible events of 2013. But, as the New York Times reported,

“…the jury put little stock in any part of the defense. Only two jurors believed that Mr. Tsarnaev had expressed sorrow and remorse for his actions, a stinging rebuke to the assertion by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and renowned death penalty opponent, that he was ‘genuinely sorry’ for what he had done.”

One aspect of this that’s crucially important is the demeanor of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during his trial and even during the penalty phase of his trial. But as the reporting has indicated, virtually unanimously, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sat impassively in the court room even when the facts of the case were recited in all of their brutality and even when those who were the victims or the relatives of those who died in the attack had given very graphic testimony. One of the things we learned here is that being in that courtroom evidently made a great deal of difference, having the responsibility as a juror to weigh the relative arguments in this case, turned out not even to be a close call. And that is itself very telling.

There is a very important background to this and that is the fact that the state of Massachusetts does not have a death penalty in terms of its state books. There is no death penalty for any crime that is covered under Massachusetts law, but this was a trial in a federal court and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being tried for federal crimes in a federal court with a federal jury. And this jury in this case was so-called death penalty qualified, which meant that all of the jurors had to state that given the opportunity they would not categorically reject the death penalty if it were called for in this case. And as we now know, the vast majority the jurors decided that it was called for. And this had to be a unanimous verdict at least on one of the death penalty convictions, not on all of them but at least on one of them.

A crucial insight on this issue was brought by the editors of the Wall Street Journal in an editorial that ran in its weekend edition. As the editors wrote and I quote,

“There are strong arguments for and against the death penalty, and there is no doubt that innocent men have been killed by the state. But there is no doubt of guilt in this case. And whatever else one believes about the death penalty, it sends an unmistakable message that even a society as tolerant as ours still believes that some acts deserve the ultimate penalty.”

That is one of the most important arguments being made in the aftermath of this death penalty verdict. The bigger question is not just, ‘was the death penalty indicated in the crimes of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?’ but, would the death penalty be indicated in terms of any crime. One of the most interesting aspects of our cultural and moral landscape is the polls indicated that a majority of the citizens of Boston did not support the death penalty in any case, and particularly in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But this jury in Boston did find, not only that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was guilty of the crimes, but that he deserved the death penalty, and they impose that penalty.

Other polls indicated that a majority of Americans did believe that the death penalty was indicated in this specific case, and in at least some other cases. The editors of the Wall Street Journal got right to the point when they indicated that this jury, illustrating the general position of Americans at the moment, believes that at least in some cases the death penalty is applicable. Now we should note that even in the Bible, even in the Old Testament, the death penalty was very severely restricted and when it came to, for instance, the death penalty for murder – there had to be a very high evidentiary standard.

But one of the things we need to note is that a great deal of the moral transition on the question of the death penalty has to do with the secularization of American culture, because the biblical worldview establishes the death penalty not in vengeance but rather in the sacred dignity and worth of every single human life. Christians should be reminded that the death penalty is rooted in the Noahic covenant, found in the book of Genesis chapter 9 when after Noah and his family had emerged from the Ark, and as the Lord made his covenant with Noah, the Lord said this and I quote – this is Genesis chapter 9, beginning in verse five:

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.”

And then verse six,

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

There you have the most important textual basis in Scripture for the death penalty. What follows in Scripture, in the Old Testament in particular, is an outlining of the circumstances in which the death penalty might be imposed. One of the most interesting aspects of our understanding of the Old Testament is the limitation that it puts upon the death penalty and the very high standard of evidence that was required before the death penalty can be applied. Christians looking at the issue the death penalty have to recognize that the biblical foundation of the death penalty is not in any sense rooted in retribution, but rather in the necessity of justice. And the fact that the crime of murder particularly demonstrates the fact that the one who would take a life forfeits his own life in so doing – that’s the biblical logic, its right there in the Noahic covenant.

In the United States at presents, an increasingly secularized country, the death penalty has lost much of that biblical foundation. And for that reason and for others it is itself now a highly controversial issue. And one of the things that we should note is that the death penalty has been significantly conscribed when it comes to laws in many of the states, including in particular the state of Massachusetts but also in terms of the crimes for which the death penalty is applicable in the federal courts. One of the most important moral points made by the editors of the Wall Street Journal is that the question of guilt in this case was never in doubt. As a matter fact, the very first statement made by the defense was to acknowledge the guilt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in terms of committing these crimes.

One of the things we’ve looked at, whether its the case of Anders Breivik in the Netherlands, or in this case Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, the question, would the death penalty be applicable in any case? If indeed the death penalty is applicable in any case, then a civilized society – especially one that would operate out of a biblical worldview – has to be particularly careful, scrupulously careful, about making sure that the death penalty is actually applied only when it is called for by the evidence and justified by the actual circumstances of the crime. A conviction for murder is not itself enough to indicate the death penalty, but there have to be what is defined in the law as aggravating circumstances. There has to be intentionality about the act of murder; it can’t be merely manslaughter, it has to be intentional murder. And in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev it was multiple cases of intentional homicide.

One of the things the Christian should note is that there are very legitimate, even urgent questions, about how the death penalty is often applied and whether or not it actually fits the circumstances of crimes and of convictions. But we must also understand that there is a basic understanding of the requirement of justice that appears to be shared widely by the American people. But we also need to understand that there’s a basic hunger and thirst for justice and when it comes to some acts, it turns out that there is a basic impulse towards understanding that at least some crimes are deserving of the death penalty. As I said, there are serious questions about how the death penalty is applied – especially at the state level – in many circumstances in the United States. And Christians need to be very concerned about achieving justice at every conceivable level, and that includes the state level.

But this was a federal case, and this federal jury brought a death penalty verdict. And as the editors of the Wall Street Journal indicated, even in modern America there is an understanding that was certainly symbolized by this jury that there are some crimes that simply demand the death penalty. The death penalty and the whole issue of capital punishment is going to be an ongoing controversy in American life, of that we can be absolutely certain. But Christians at least need to understand the biblical foundation that is at stake, and understand that what is centrally at stake is the understanding that every single human life is of infinite worth because every single human being is made in God’s image.

2) House passing 20-week abortion ban exposes institutionalized worldview division between parties

Next – also speaking about the sanctity of human life – a big development last week in the United States House of Representatives. As Tom Howell reported for the Washington Times and I quote,

“The House voted Wednesday to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy as Republicans delivered a key piece of the pro-life agenda and overcame an embarrassing false start earlier this year.”

Howell went on to write,

“Dubbed the ‘Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,’ the legislation cleared on a 242-184 vote that largely broke along party lines, with just four pro-life Democrats joining in support and four Republicans voting against it.”

The deep worldview divide over the issue of abortion points to an even deeper worldview divide over the question of the sanctity of human life. And this bill, that past last week in the United States House of Representatives, is only the latest indication of how deep that divide actually is. Biblically minded Christians need to look at this story very carefully. One of the most interesting aspects is how the Washington Times introduce the story, telling us that it broke largely along party lines. There were four Democrats, identified as pro-life, who voted for the bill joining with the Republican majority, but there were four Republicans who brought from their Republican colleagues and voted against the bill.

Now when you look at the number four it’s an even exchange there, but one of the things we need to note is that the deep worldview divide over the issue of abortion is now rather institutionalized in America’s two dominant political parties. The Democratic Party addressed the issue of abortion in its 2012 national party platform, not only supporting abortion under every conceivable circumstance, allowing for no opposition to abortion legally whatsoever, but also calling for taxpayer support of abortion in the national party platform. In contrast, in that same year, 2012, the Republican Party indicated its pro-life position and made a pledge to work for just the kind of legislation we saw passed in the House of Representatives last week.

As the Times indicates, the Republican majority in the house delivered on a campaign promise. The response of the other party, not just those in the House of Representatives, was swift and it was clear. Maya Harris, Senior policy advisor for Hillary Clinton, said that the bill

“…puts women’s health and rights at risk, undermines the role doctors play in health care decisions, burdens survivors of sexual assault, and is not based on sound science.”

Now, again and again we see that phrase ‘sound science’ and there’s a very important issue to this that is indeed scientific – we’ll get to that in just a moment. On the other hand, the White House also responded with the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declaring the bill passed by the house to be disgraceful. The bill is unlikely to pass the United States Senate, even with the Republican majority – there simply aren’t enough votes to get cloture in the Senate at this point. But if it were to pass the Senate, Pres. Obama has declared that he would veto the legislation if it were to reach his desk.

Meanwhile, the editorial board of the New York Times, that has stalwartly defended abortion under every conceivable circumstance, declared that the abortion ban was based on what it called bogus arguments. As the editors wrote,

“For the second time in two years, the House voted Wednesday to pass legislation that would ban almost all abortions 20 weeks or more after fertilization. The bill, called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, claims that ‘an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization,’ though medical evidence does not support this.”

Well, this is an editorial, it’s not a news report, but we simply have to point out that all depends on which scientific studies you are quoting and which medical evidence you are deciding to privilege. And that is virtually always dependent on whether or not you believe that the unborn child is a moral agent worthy and deserving, indeed demanding of, protection.

The most important section of the New York Times editorial comes when the editors wrote,

“The measure gained momentum after The New England Journal of Medicine published a study indicating that a tiny number of babies born at 22 weeks can survive if given intensive medical treatment. Representative Diane Black of Tennessee, one of the bill’s sponsors, released a statement last Friday saying, ‘Science tells us that, after 20 weeks, babies can feel pain and are increasingly able to live outside the womb.’”

One of most interesting aspects of this is that this very newspaper ran a front-page article, just days ago, that I discussed on The Briefing in which they made the very same point. They begin their editorial saying that “medical evidence does not support this,” but they actually reported on their own front-page some of the same medical evidence. Writing in her own essay published in the Washington Times Representative Black said this,

“Polls consistently show that upward of 60 percent of Americans support putting an end to the dangerous and inhumane practice of late-term abortions. Those numbers will only increase as hearts and minds are made aware of the pain that these babies experience during abortion and the evidence supporting their viability at increasingly early stages of development.”

It’s that very concern, we need to note, that led to the subhead on the front page of the New York Times, stating that the fact that this study had come out indicating that at least some babies at 22 and 20 weeks were capable of surviving outside the womb, it was that very paper that said that this would add fuel to the abortion debate and so it has.

In terms of The Briefing today, these two stories put together indicate that great chasm that now separates Americans on the issue of the sanctity of human life. But the two stories also point to the fact that there still is an amazing terrain of common ground. The vast majority of Americans believe that the death penalty should be applicable in at least some cases, and the vast majority of Americans believe that at least some abortions are wrong and at least some unborn babies deserve protection even in terms of the law. That tells us something about the conflicted and sometimes even contradictory understandings held by some Americans, even individually, on issues such as the death penalty and abortion.

Thinking as a Christian I simply have to say that the issue of abortion right now should be a far higher priority than the issue of the death penalty. On the issue the sanctity of human life on the American landscape there is much ground that must be reclaimed, and not all of this ground is level. But this much is abundantly clear: the loss of the Christian worldview in our culture is deeply subversive of the very idea of the sanctity of human life. To put the matter bluntly, you really can’t have the word sanctity and the words secularization at one in the same time. By its very definition a secularizing society holds to a lessening understanding of anything that is sacred, even the sanctity of human life. There are other issues to which we will turn as this week unfolds, but when it comes to the sanctity of human life it comes first and in this case it came first in the week.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to Remember, we’re taking questions for Ask Anything: Weekend Edition released. Call us with your question, in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058.


I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Death penalty given to Boston Bomber in right recognition of need for justice

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Given Death Penalty in Boston Marathon Bombing, New York Times (Katherine Q. Seelye)

Death For Tsarnaev, Wall Street Journal (Editorial Board)

2) House passing 20-week abortion ban exposes institutionalized worldview division between parties

House votes to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Washington Times (Tom Howell, Jr.)

House Approves Revised Measure Banning Most Abortions After 20 Weeks, New York Times (Emmarie Huetteman)

An Abortion Ban’s Bogus Arguments, New York Times (Editorial Board)

Pain-capable opponents ignore science, Washington Times (Diane Black)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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