The Briefing 09-08-15

The Briefing 09-08-15

The Briefing

September 8, 2015

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

It’s Tuesday, September 8, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Waves of migrants fleeing to Europe overwhelm Europe, world

Sometimes a photograph gets seared into our mind and into our conscience. That was the case in the photograph of the body of a three-year-old child that had washed up on a beach in Turkey. It took place just a few days ago and it was followed by equally searing photographs, including the color photograph that was on the front page of the weekend edition of the Financial Times. It showed the father of the little boy, Abdullah Kurdi burying the three-year-old in the family’s hometown of Kobane, Syria, along with his five-year-old brother and his mother. All three died as they were fleeing war-torn Syria on their way to Turkey, but they weren’t trying to stay in Turkey, they were trying to get to Turkey in order to get into the very heart of Europe. And like so many others who are trying to get to Europe in this great wave of migration and refugees they died in the very effort to get there. Over 2,500 are believed to have died just in recent months in the Mediterranean. Another 70 just to give one horrifying example were found suffocated to death in a refrigerated truck as they were trying to get to Austria.

We are looking at photographs that give graphic evidence of human misery and human desperation as there are approximately between a quarter of a million and 300,000 refugees trying to get to Europe and most specifically, with the majority of them trying to get to the two nations of Germany and Austria. Christians looking at these profound human stories before our eyes have to ask basic questions, what is going on here? Is there anything that can be done? What should be done? Migrations of human population, sometimes vast human populations driven by desperation of one sort or another, this is not new to the human story. This is old as the Bible and of course it is as current as the headlines that seem to be crossing our digital feed just about every moment. Over the past couple of years there has been a steady flow of people trying to get from North Africa, nations like Somalia and Libya also trying to get to Europe, largely through Italy. The most immediate crisis has been prompted by internal developments in Syria; the Syrian civil war has now gone on for years and years. But while that crisis was front and center in the American public mind, at least in terms of foreign-policy as recently as a couple of years ago, it has been swept off the front pages at least largely so, by other seemingly more urgent crises.

Most Americans would likely be shocked to know that the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad, a government that is opposed by the United States, currently controls only about 25 percent of that nation’s landmass; 50 percent, fully half of the country is now under the control of the group known as ISIS or the Islamic State; another 25 percent is being held by rebels against the Syrian government. Those who are concerned for human rights and human dignity have watched this civil war and have watched the crises that have developed out of it, but at the same time, many people driven by those very concerns have switched sides in terms of being for one group or the other, having to recalibrate what would lead or they think would lead to an alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in that country, clearly at this point, nothing is working.

We’re looking at a massive group of between a quarter of a million and 300,000 people trying to get out of Syria in order to get to the heart of Europe. They are particularly trying to get to the nations of Germany and Austria, two nations that have both wealth and a largely welcoming attitude towards those who are fleeing in these desperate terms. But this leads to a very interesting situation, because even as Germany and Austria are more welcoming they have historically been so at least in recent decades, they are not to state the obvious, bordering on the Mediterranean. This means that those who are trying to get from Syria or from other nations to Germany and Austria have to pass from coastal nations into the European heartland and that is the problem. In 1985 European nations banded together in what became known as the Schengen agreement that said that once people are on European territory amongst the agreed nations, they are not to be stopped or impeded in their ambition to get from one nation to the other. The borders between these nations are supposedly irrelevant to the movement of these populations. This is obviously stretching that agreement, but that’s what’s behind the ambition of so many people to get from Syria to a nation like Turkey, in order to get from Turkey through the Balkans eventually to get to Hungary on the way to Germany and Austria. That’s why early this morning; the headline from the Associated Press was,

“Hundreds Surge Past Police Near Hungary Border, March North.”

As the Associated Press reports this morning,

“Hundreds of angry and frustrated asylum-seekers broke through police lines Monday near Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and began marching north toward Budapest, while Britain and France pledged to take in tens of thousands more refugees to try to ease the crisis.”

The Associated Press story actually raises the number of those seeking asylum to over 340,000 as of this morning and the Press reports,

“As European leaders debated how to share responsibility for the more than 340,000 people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who are already seeking refuge, Germany promised to spend billions of euros in extra aid for those already there and those yet to arrive. France weighed whether increased airstrikes against Islamic State militants would help to stem the flow of those fleeing Syria.

“But the Hungarian prime minister scoffed at a proposed quota system for refugees in the 28-member European Union, saying it wouldn’t work unless Europe first secured its borders.”

Now the bottom line in all of that is that no one wants to take responsibility for 340,000 people trying to get from Syria to anyplace, including Germany and Austria. Germany that was the scene for the Holocaust, the great moral evil of the very center the 20th century, feels a special responsibility now in the late 20th and now in the 21st century to respond with humanitarian assistance and with some form of welcome to those who were fleeing oppression, desperation and danger elsewhere. And yet even inside Germany, there’s a growing sense of desperation in the nation itself that they may be looking at refugees that may soon be one percent of the total population with numbers that simply appear to be growing and growing. That raises the political and economic questions, not to mention the cultural and religious question about how in the world any nation can absorb that level of immigration. But that also points to the deep desperation of the world in trying to understand how to handle this and that’s especially true right now of these European countries.

The simple fact is that some nations blame Germany and Austria for being too welcoming, which has implied to those who are in Syria that they should indeed make the calculation to leave their country to try by any means to get to Germany and Austria. Meanwhile, others say the nations aren’t doing enough, and many are saying that other European nations need to bear a larger percentage of the burden. But the headline coming from Hungary makes very clear that there are several European nations that do not intend to increase their immigration, nor to become any kind of permanent home or place of resettlement for those who were fleeing Syria. Furthermore, we need to be watching very carefully some of the arguments being made for why the migration is now taking place. Many people are now arguing that the West, Europe in particular, but also the United States has helped to cause the problem by not solving the situation in Syria, even creating a so-called safe zone for people who are otherwise trying to flee the damage and the danger of the Civil War. But that raises a host of different questions; some of the very same people who were saying that the United States should not become militarily involved in Syria are now saying that we’re at fault for not doing something, the same thing with the European nations that are facing the same kind of criticism.

Saturday’s edition of the New York Times included an article by Anne Barnard that cited Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London, until recently, the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, who said,

“The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted. Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria, and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today.”

There may be some truth in that, but the larger problem is that Europe and the United States and much of the rest of the world did try to alleviate the situation in Syria, but you’re now looking at the fact that no one was willing to do anything that would’ve prevented the breakdown of that country into three different regions with the government controlling only 25 percent.  Furthermore, the United States government and most European nations as well oppose that government. There is no clear indication that European governments or the United States could really have done anything to have prevented this humanitarian crisis and that gets to one of the deepest issues of the Christian worldview. We are living in a world that is deeply intractably broken. There are continual migrations of people driven by desperation from one place to the other. There is a basic humanitarian impulse that is right and righteous, but that doesn’t mean there is any necessarily right answer for how anyone should deal with this, not only as an individual who might have very little power, but as a government that might presumably have a great deal. One of the most important insights from these headlines is that no government, not one government has been up to this challenge and sadly, there may be no government or coalition of governments that will be up to this challenge, even in this immediate crisis as we look to the future.

Ross Douthat writing in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times points out that when we see the photographs and we see the headlines coming from this horrifying situation there is the immediate assumption that someone could have prevented this. If America is in charge of the world America should’ve prevented this. If the United Nations bears a responsibility to alleviate this kind of situation and to resolve it then the United Nations is a huge failure. If Europe as a project means that it is supposed to use its influence to prevent this kind of situation then clearly that promise was empty. And now even as billions of dollars and euros are flowing and rightly so, to try to help the people who are now caught in this desperate situation there is no reason to assume that the very expenditure of those funds will not incentivize others to try also to cross from the landmass or across the Mediterranean driven by a similar hope. Then there is the morality of language, Ben Zimmer writing in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition pointed out that the very term refugee is politically loaded. Some people want to designate those who are fleeing Syria as refugees, but some do not want to apply the term. The United Nations has adopted a technical definition of a refugee as one who was fleeing “armed conflict or persecution.”

And yet as Zimmer points out, that covers a lot of people who have nothing to do with the situation in Syria and might not apply to everyone in Syria, depending on where they may live, or what their circumstances may be. Some media outlets have used the word migrant rather than refugee and have been criticized for it, others have used refugee rather than migrant and they have also been criticized for that terminology, once again, our vocabulary and its limitations points to the fact we live, even in terms of language in a very broken world, no matter what language you speak. One thing that Christians, especially evangelicals might want to keep in mind is that the word refugee was first applied to those who were fleeing the Catholic government in France that had ordered the execution of Protestants. Christians in general and evangelicals particularly, should keep in mind that the very word refugee goes back to the year 1685, when French Protestants were fleeing the very real danger of oppression and death under Catholic authorities in France. Many of those first called refugees were Protestant evangelicals trying to get out of France into cities such as Geneva and that’s the tie to church history. But even as we are brokenhearted looking these photographs and rightly so, and even as governments are doing their best to try to come up with how to respond and rightly so, one sign of the confusion in this horrifying situation is the fact that most international media have been reluctant themselves on their editorial pages to say exactly what must be done.

Saturday’s edition of the New York Times, for example, runs a relatively short editorial saying in the bottom line, something needs to be done and then they ended on this very poignant note that governments need to take action,

“Before the emotions triggered by the photos fade and more people die.”

And we have to hope and pray that something can be done, that the right thing will be done, even though right now it is not clear over the short, medium or long term what that right thing might be.

Part II

Judge's ruling on Kim Davis denies natural law higher than rulings of courts

Meanwhile, in the United States headlines continue to focus on Rowan County, Kentucky, where the County Clerk continues in jail for defying a federal judge’s order that she must issue marriage licenses, including licenses to same-sex couples. That story may now spin out in any number of directions, but over the weekend something came to light that is of particular importance, not so much just to this clerk or even just one federal judge but to the larger issue. Where do human rights come from and what is the authority of a human court? Robert Barnes and Katie Zezima writing for the Washington Post over the weekend had an article that was headlined,

“Legally, ‘God’s authority’ is a tough issue.”

Let’s just say that from a Christian perspective, that’s a profoundly true if simplistic headline. Cutting to the center of this article,

“Legal experts tended to agree with Bunning, who told Davis that “the idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed.”

That’s the key issue. It was not noted by many on the very day the judge handed down his order; much more attention was paid to the specifics of the order and the fact that he sent the County Clerk to jail. But over the long haul and in the larger perspective, it’s that sentence that might be the most important and most troubling thing from the judge’s decision. Note that the sentence I read indicated that,

“Legal experts tended to agree with [the federal judge].”

What in the world are we talking about here? Here you have a federal judge who sent a County Clerk to jail because she would not violate her Christian conscience and in so doing this judge was asserting the power of the federal courts and in particular what he defined as his responsibility, the responsibility of his court to uphold the law in consistency with the Supreme Court Obergefell decision from late June of this year. But the worldview implications of this single sentence from this judge’s order are simply breathtaking; they are nothing less than spectacular. Here you have a federal judge who in asserting his authority says and let me quote again,

“The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed.”

And frankly, from the perspective of the founders of this country, the idea that any human court would not understand and acknowledge a natural law superseding his authority is what would be indeed a dangerous precedent. The judge’s order in this perspective would have been at least less dangerous had he said in his order that the County Clerk had failed to make a persuasive case that there was a natural law that applied to her case that superseded his court’s authority. But what he actually said is that there is no natural law that supersedes his court’s authority. But that raises one of the most important issues now facing modern America, where do we derive our rights? How are they grounded? Do they merely come from a human court or does the human court and does the U.S. Constitution recognize rights that are granted by a higher authority? But that takes us back to some of the introductory language of our very Declaration of Independence, where our founders stated,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Then you’ll recall the declaration went on to state,

“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Now notice very carefully that language coming directly from our founders in the very Declaration of Independence. That statement makes very clear that the purpose of a government, the responsibility of any government; any just government is to recognize and to secure rights that are granted to citizens by their Creator not by the government. It says that these rights are endowed by their Creator and it says that the purpose of government and this is the verb that is used is to secure these rights. As George F. Will has explained, in the 20th century legal progressives tried to separate those rights from any grounding in nature or in what the founders called nature’s God. In particular, he traces it back to President Woodrow Wilson, who even before he became president argued that the opening language in the Declaration of Independence was something of a fiction. It was as he called it a preface to the Declaration of Independence trying to sever that opening language from the declaration itself. As Will writes,

“[Woodrow Wilson] disparaged the doctrine of natural rights as Fourth of July sentiments. He did so because this doctrine limited progressive’s plans to make government more scientific in the service of a politics that was more ambitious.”

Will explicitly traces at least part of this movement back to Darwin’s theory of evolution and explains that in their effort to try to come up with a secular grounding for human rights,

“For progressives progress meant progressing up from the founders and their false but static understanding of human nature.”

That is explicitly a human nature that was given to us by God. We can rightly criticize the founders are failing to live up to the understanding of human rights they articulated in the Declaration of Independence, but the one thing, that is most important is that they set the ground for the expansion of those who are understood to be endowed with those rights by the very fact that they did not believe the government did the endowing, rather it was to the creator. They understood that the purpose of government was to secure the human rights that the creator had given us. How in the world is the secular worldview going to ground human rights in anything other than abstract philosophical argument or in emotivism? That returns us right back to our first story, why are we rightly and necessarily concerned about those people whose lives are endangered as they’re trying to get from Syria into the heart of Europe? It is because every single one of them is a human being made in God’s image. Failing that, why in the world do we have any responsibility to them at all? One of the situations we now face is the glaring failure of the United Nations and its lofty language about human rights to either prevent what’s going on in Syria or prevent the humanitarian crisis that is now happening in Europe.

While the news story about one County Clerk in Kentucky is getting so many headlines and attracting so much attention, the real issue is what’s embedded in that one sentence in the judge’s order that most have overlooked. I repeat it again when Judge Bunning wrote,

“The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed.”

The real dangerous precedent is the understanding by any human court in the United States or elsewhere that the rights it supposedly secures are actually rights that it grants, grounded in nothing more than the authority of the court itself. While there is always a legitimate debate over how the rights granted by the creator are rightly to be secured by any human government, the fact that now a human government represented by a federal judge says that these natural rights do not supersede his authority, that’s the truly dangerous precedent and it happened, once again, right here in Kentucky.

Part III

Celebration of marijuana legalization leads to college pot consumption exceeding tobacco

Finally, the New York Times in recent days ran an article from the Associated Press indicating that more U.S. college students are now making a habit of using marijuana, a use, a habit, they are tracing back to high school students as well. As a matter fact, the study indicates there are more college students regularly smoking marijuana than are now smoking cigarettes, a stunning reversal of previous trends. One of the obvious cultural background facts to this is the reality that so many in the American elites are celebrating marijuana while they condemn cigarette smoking. College students as this story makes clear are getting the message and they are increasingly switching from cigarettes to marijuana.

According to the article, 21 percent of the college students surveyed indicated they had used marijuana at least once during the previous month, 34 percent said they had used it in the previous year. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this study is what comes at the very end of this Associated Press report,

“Parents sending their children to college this fall can take comfort in another of the survey’s findings, Johnston said: Half of the survey respondents said they had not used any illicit drugs in the past year.”

Let me just read that last line again, this is where parents are supposed to take comfort in the finding,

“Half of the survey respondents said they had not used any illicit drugs in the past year.”

That meant, of course, that half had. And remember the Associated Press says that’s the fact that parents are supposed to find comforting. Welcome to the American college and University campus where as this study indicates, parents are supposed to find comfort in about half.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information to my website at Albert 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 Boyce

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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