The Briefing 01-03-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, January 3, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
As 2017 dawns, the world anticipates transition of America's presidential administrations
It is amazing how quickly we transition from one year to the next. But note this: we are very careful as human beings to mark time. This is testimony to the fact that God made us, his human creatures, as temporal beings. We cannot think without reference to time. We are in a constant thoughtfulness in terms of past, present, and future. This is a very key issue in terms of the distinction between the Creator and the creature. The Creator is eternal; the creature is very temporal. We feel that temporality in our bones. We see it in the world all around us. Theologians refer to this as the infinite, qualitative distinction between time and eternity. But as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, God is implanted within his human creatures a yearning for eternity. That’s a testimony to his own existence and to the fact that we are made in his image.
One of the things we need to note is that human beings, as chronological creatures, need to mark time. And that marking of time has a great deal to do with the fact that we mark the new year, and we celebrate that in terms of the passage of time, reflecting on the year past and looking forward to the future. And that of course is the year 2017, no longer the future but now very much the present. Three days into 2017, it is already clear that this will be a significant year as virtually every year is. But right now in the United States all eyes are on the incoming presidential administration of Donald Trump. There was at least some break from the political speculation and from the political headlines over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, but it was a very brief respite from the constant barrage of headlines we’re going to face as we now move toward January 20 and the presidential inauguration.
At the same time we have to recognize this means that we are watching the waning days of the presidential administration of Barack Obama. And make no mistake, President Obama has signaled that he intends to make news right up into the very end of his administration, and furthermore he has sent strong signals that he intends to continue to be involved in American politics. Something a bit strange for an outgoing president, but this is also a president who has announced that he will continue to live in Washington D.C. We should note carefully that the last president to decide to live in D.C. after his administration was Woodrow Wilson virtually a century ago.
In coming days we’ll take a closer look at issues and events related to both the incoming and the outgoing presidential administrations. That’s going to frame most of the cultural and political news in the United States at least for the next 2 to 3 weeks.
In the final days of 2016, terrorist attacks in Berlin and Istanbul again shocked the world
On the global scene over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays there were terror attacks in cities like Berlin and Istanbul. In Istanbul on New Year’s Eve, terrorists attacked a nightclub that included people gathered from at least 18 to 19 different nations. In Berlin the terror attack took place just before Christmas, and it was claimed by the Islamic State. Once again a terrorist drove a truck into a crowd—this time people who were gathered in a Christmas market place right in front of Berlin’s historic Kaiser Wilhelm, that is the Kaiser Wilhelm Church. This location is one of the most iconic in Berlin, tying together imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, and modern Germany. It is named for one of the last emperors of what we now know as Imperial Germany, and then it was rebuilt after being destroyed by allied bombing as a symbol of the destructiveness that was brought on Germany by Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. It is also a symbol of modern Germany. Its modern architecture in terms of the church behind that very historic tower that was so damaged by allied bombing, and thus this was more than just a crowd chosen at random. This was an attack upon the very idea of Berlin and the very idea of Germany.
Also in headlines just before Christmas, an assassin killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey even as the ambassador was speaking at the opening of an art exhibitions in Ankara, Turkey’s modern capital. These headlines along with ominous others remind us of the unsettled state of the world. It’s a world that appears to becoming more and not less unsettled, a world in which terrorism poses greater and not lesser threats, not only in other parts of the world but right here as well.
Global government and the United Nations: UN swears in new Secretary-General Guterres
And of course when we’re looking at the world scene, at least some took note of the fact that the United Nations now has a new leader, a new Secretary-General. Antonio Guterres was the former Prime Minister of Portugal. He was also formerly head of United Nations refugee programs. I said few people took notice, and that’s because if you took a poll very few Americans almost assuredly have any idea of the name of the Secretary-General of the United Nations—either the new Secretar- General Antonio Guterres or the outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The reason for that is quite simple: the United Nations is not that important.
The United Nations as we know it today is a successor to what was hoped to be the League of Nations after the disaster of World War I. That was championed by then-American President Woodrow Wilson who in the end was unable to sell the idea even to the United States Senate. But fast-forward to the end of World War II and the idea was resurrected once again by the triumphant allied powers, and they put together what we now know as the United Nations in the hope for some kind of transnational, even multinational, government would create a new era of world peace. To state the matter bluntly, it hasn’t happened. Rather than becoming a very effective global authority, the United Nations has become increasingly discredited and shown to be increasingly incompetent.
Looking through the lens of a Christian worldview, we come to understand that the very idea of a global government is very problematic. It is, according to a biblical worldview, far more likely to eventuate in some form of autocratic power or bureaucratic inefficiency rather than in it any kind of government that would function to bring about peace and stability and prosperity. The biblical doctrine of sin functions to remind us of the dangers of pretensions to power and of the accumulation of power. The very idea of a global government brings a haunting realization that any government that would have the power to rule over the entire globe would be a government that would end up in tyranny, almost by definition. It would also end up in incompetence, and that’s because problems at the human level, at the human scale cannot be sold globally, they can only be addressed and sometimes resolved locally. This is the principle of subsidiarity that reminds us that the government that will govern best is the government that is closest to where human beings live. It is also a reminder that as we look at the spheres of responsibility and authority that God has given us you can’t solve a problem, for instance, that emerges with the breakdown of the family by any kind of imposition of government.
And furthermore, a government that might be headquartered say in Brussels or in Geneva, or in Washington D.C. for that matter, is not a government that can adequately and competently address problems, very real human problems on a human scale, virtually anywhere in the world beyond its sight. And when you get the representatives of 1 93 different governments together in one room in the UN General Assembly or even represented in the UN Security Council, you really do not have 193 voices, rather you have a constellation of networks and special interests and power blocks. All this is a recipe for disaster as we saw affirmed and underlined in recent days with UN resolution 2334, a resolution having to do with the state of Israel. The resolution we will look at more closely in days to come.
Why the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Soviet Union is important to remember
But in this first edition of The Briefing for the year 2017, the year in which we will observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation among other very important remembrances, we also need to recognize the December 25, Christmas Day of last year, marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most important events in our lifetimes, the Fall of the Soviet Union. It tells us something that 25 years after the Fall of the Soviet Union there was so little attention to what is by any estimation a monumental event in terms of world history.
The Soviet Union intended to dominate the world and for many decades during the 20th century it appeared that it just might. This is an anniversary that is not only of importance in terms of history, but also in terms of worldview analysis, because the death of the Soviet Union should have spelled the death of Marxism, and in particular, the death of communism. But as we shall see, it actually did not.
To understand the fall the Soviet Union, you have to go back to its birth, especially in the Bolshevik revolution in the second decade of the 20th century. You go back to the years 1918 to 1919 and come to understand that even as the 20th century was born out of the ruins of the 19th, on the left the two major competing worldviews were Marxism and anarchism. And as we shall see, it was Marxism that gained the upper hand.
Karl Marx, one of the most important philosophical minds of the 19th century, along with his colleague Friedrich Engels, wrote what was called the Communist Manifesto. But Marx also offered a nearly comprehensive worldview, a worldview that was based upon atheism and upon the idea of Hegelian Dialectics—that is going back to Georg Friedrich Hegel, the idea that history moves in terms of a sequence, of thesis and antithesis, and eventually synthesis. Marx looked around the world as he saw it in the 19th century and identified the major dynamic in terms of human activity as economics, and he identified the economic oppression of those who were without capital, that is without major private property, as being the major dynamic of human oppression. He saw capitalism as the thesis. He then saw a form of revolution, even a violent revolution, as the antithesis. The synthesis that he promised that would inevitably come out of a communist revolution would be a communist utopia. After the thesis would come the revolutionary antithesis and after the antithesis would come a new era of prosperity and peace under the rule of the people known as the Soviet.
Of course, all this came by means of a bloody revolution led by Vladimir Lenin and his theorist Leon Trotsky. And of course the revolution was bloody from the start as had been prophesied by both Marx and Lenin. Within months of the beginning of the revolution, the royal family had been murdered, including the Czar Nicholas II, the Czarina Alexandra, the young Tsarevich, a crown prince, and all of the Russian princesses. The revolutionaries went on to murder a great deal of the Russian nobility, but this is not where they stopped. And this is one of most profound lessons of our times. By the time the Soviet Union fell at least officially in 1991, the death toll of that revolution and the revolutionary governments that followed would amount to tens of millions, perhaps even over 100 million dead. Rather than bringing about a stable and prosperous regime that honored human rights and human dignity and freedom, the Bolshevik Revolution actually led to one of the most oppressive regimes that also ended up with world power that has ever taken place in history.
Overall, the verdict on the Soviet Union is that rather than bringing prosperity, it brought poverty. Rather than bringing freedom, it brought oppression. Rather than bringing about the arrival of a new utopia of communism, instead it led to one of the most brutal regimes repressing its own people, and furthermore it even led to a complete distortion of morality. The Soviet regime claimed for the State ultimate authority and loyalty, seeking to turn even children against their parents, and husbands against wives, wives against husbands, generation against generations. It was an officially atheistic state. Even as Karl Marx understood religion as the opiate of the people, the Soviets sought to crackdown on all religious expression, but most particularly on Christianity. The state effectively idolized itself, much as had the Roman Empire in which Caesar claimed to be God. In the Soviet Union, it was claimed that there was no God, that all that was left was the Supreme Soviet acting on behalf of the people.
We also need to understand that in the name of equality the Communists put together a system of government and a state-controlled system of economics that was if anything even more unequal in terms of economics than had been the system criticized by Karl Marx, even in the 19th century. This led George Orwell, one of the prophetic voices of the 20th century, in his famous novella, Animal Farm, to state that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, aptly summarizing the morality and the economic system of the Soviet regime.
Economically the Soviet Union was a spectacular failure, but it was a far more serious moral failure. By the time you get to the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in the middle decades of the 20th century, the Soviet Union has fallen into even greater moral disaster with purges of the party and show trials with summary executions. It is estimated that tens of millions of persons died under the regime of Joseph Stalin, sometimes for no obvious reason whatsoever. In the moral formula of the Soviet Union once you are declared to be an enemy the state, you became effectively a nonperson. You simply disappear.
The Soviets maintained oppressive party control with an entire system of political prisons known as gulags. Some of the most horrifying narratives of the 20th century came from those few who survived the experience of being imprisoned in one of those gulags. You also have to look at the fact that at the end of World War II and throughout almost the rest of the 20th century, the main issue in terms of the world dynamic is what was known as the Cold War. It was an epic battle between two great superpowers: the United States, allied with modern Western democratic governments in the West, and the Soviet bloc, headed by the USSR or the Soviet Union. They were competing not only for territory, but for souls and for minds and for political influence around the world. One of the noteworthy arenas of that competition was, we simply have to note, the floor of the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations.
But the Cold War was sinister in so many other ways as well. At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin took the opportunity with the collapse of Nazi Germany to claim much of the property that mother Russia had wanted, had coveted for so long. This included the nations of the so-called Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe that included not only a good portion of Germany but also Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and a host of other nations. And sometimes the Soviet Union just baldly claimed and grabbed power and land such as in the Baltic republics. The great horrifying symbol of the Soviet Union was actually not in Russia at all but in Germany in the city of Berlin. The Berlin wall went up early in the 1960s dividing the city of Berlin virtually in half, a wall that came to represent not only the communist government of east Germany and furthermore the evil intentions of the Soviet Union, but the very reality that this totalitarian regime was willing to put up a wall in which to imprison its own people and to shoot and to kill anyone who sought to leave that territory.
In the bigger picture the seeds for the destruction of the Soviet Union were sown by the Soviets in their own revolution and in their own tyranny, but we also have to note for the historical record that in terms of the battle of worldviews, there arose a very different situation in the 1980s with the arrival on the world scene of three very powerful personalities who were willing to stare down the Soviet Union and the ideology of communism. Those three were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the American President Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II. In the last case we’re looking at the fact that breaking centuries of tradition, the Roman Catholic Church elected a Polish Pope. That may seem less significant now than it was then, because in electing a Polish Pope, they were electing an enemy of communism, an opponent of the communist regime there in Poland.
It requires no theological compromise to recognize that on the world scene Pope John Paul II was a very effective, prophetic voice against communist tyranny, but so were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And when they arrived on the political scene, especially the height of their powers in the 1980s, both of them understood not only that communism was an evil ideology but that the Soviet Union could be a temporary reality. Winds of change began to become very apparent blowing through the Kremlin and elsewhere during the late 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev became the President of the Soviet Union and the head of the Communist Party. He brought about what was called a process of perestroika or change within the Soviet Union, and it was basically an admission of the failure of the Soviets to deliver on their promises. But it was more than that. In economic terms, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led an arms race that effectively made clear to the Soviet Union that it was not only technologically backward, but that economically it simply could not keep up with the NATO powers and especially with United States.
In political terms, it also became clear that the Soviet Union and its leadership was losing confidence in the very idea of the Soviet Union, and when winds of freedom began to circulate amongst peoples in Eastern Europe and even within Russia, the Soviet Union lost the will to oppress them. Seizing the opportunity, parties of freedom gained control in several of the satellite states, the Eastern European governments that had been a part of the Eastern bloc began to distance themselves from the Soviet Union, and eventually the Russian Federation replaced the Soviet Union in terms of the power that was at the center of the government. The Soviet Union effectively ceased to exist on Christmas Day of 1991.
One of the things we need to recognize 25 years later is the danger of failing to remember the horrifying lessons of the Soviet Union, and furthermore the horrifying lessons of the communist revolutions. We also need to recognize with embarrassment that a good many Western liberals saw the idea of a communist revolution and even of the Bolshevik Revolution as a brand-new adventure that would lead to great promise on the world scene. One of the most famous of these was Lincoln Steffens, an American reporter who reported back from the Bolshevik Revolution saying,
“I have seen the future, and it works.”
Of course it did not work. In 1919 Lincoln Steffens apologized for the Soviet Union saying that Soviet Russia was a revolutionary government with an evolutionary plan. In other words, he was saying, “Wait and see, and when you see it will work.” He explained away the bloody tyranny of the revolution by calling it “a temporary condition of evil, which is made tolerable by hope and a plan.”
Well, the hope disappeared, and the plan was a colossal failure. The philosophical and political left in both Europe and the United States continued to serve as apologists for communism in general for Marxism as a philosophy and even for the Soviet Union virtually until the fall of the USSR 25 years ago. Writing concerning this anniversary in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Clark, the executive director of the group known as Generation Opportunity, he himself a millennial asked the question,
“Is Communism Cool?”
And then he says, if you dare,
“Ask a Millennial”
Pointing to the fact that many millennials in the United States and in Europe today have a romanticized idea about not only the Soviet Union and communism, but about Marxism in particular. He writes,
“Millennials are one of history’s luckiest generations. We were fortunate to be born around the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago, when the tyrannical Communism embodied in the Soviet Union came tumbling down, also knocking socialism down a few pegs along the way. We have grown up in a world where, for the most part, economic and personal freedom are the rule rather than exception.”
And then he continues,
“And apparently we hate it. How else does one explain why so many millennials seem to long to live in government-run economies, or worse?”
Part of the background of Clark’s concern, of course, is the unexpected popularity of the openly declared Democratic Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic presidential nomination. As Clark points out, many of the young followers of Bernie Sanders actually have no idea what socialism actually is, nor how socialism actually played out on the ground. They often point to Scandinavian countries and cultures as those that they would wish the United States to emulate without recognizing that those Scandinavian countries actually abandoned socialism decades ago. Something not brought to our attention by Senator Sanders.
Clark concludes his essay by writing,
“Young people living in Communist and socialist countries today don’t deserve U.S. millennials’ envy, but their concern and pity. There was nothing to admire about the Soviet Union, and there is even less to admire in countries that seek to perpetuate its failed philosophy at the expense of liberty and prosperity. Our generation is lucky it hasn’t learned this firsthand—and let’s hope we never have to.”
I hold in my hand just now the transcript of a conversation that took place between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the American President George H.W. Bush that began at 10:03 A.M. on Christmas Day of 1991. In that conversation as it took its most crucial turn, President Gorbachev said to President Bush,
“I have here on my desk a decree of the president of the U.S.S.R. on my resignation. I will also resign my duties as commander in chief and will transfer authority to use the nuclear weapons to the president of the Russian Federation. So I am conducting affairs until the completion of the constitutional process. I can assure you that everything is under strict control.”
President Gorbachev continued,
“As soon as I announce my resignation, I will put these decrees into effect. There will be no disconnection. You can have a very quiet Christmas evening.”
And so to quote the poet, the Soviet Union fell, we should be thankful, not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with ironically and tellingly enough, a call that came from the President of the Soviet Union informing the President of the United States that he was resigning and his government was collapsing and then wishing the American president a Merry Christmas. In this first edition of The Briefing for the year 2017, I would argue we dare not miss the lessons and the worldview implications of that anniversary that took place just a few days ago, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, Christmas Day 2016.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website Albert Mohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from West Palm Beach, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.