The Briefing 01-06-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, January 6, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Crime and Punishment: New York Gov. Cuomo, clemency, and the limitations of human justice
Issues of crime and punishment are as old as humanity going back to the Fall and they continue to reverberate through contemporary headlines, including this one from this week in the New York Times.
“She Faced Cuomo and Got Clemency. He Got ‘a Sense of Her Soul.’”
The article is by Jim Dwyer and it has to do with Judith Clark, a former radical who was convicted of driving a getaway car in a 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery that left three people dead, thus by the law she was found guilty not only of being an accomplice to robbery, but also to murder. According to the New York Times article,
“She did not know who she would be seeing until she was brought into a room used for high school classes.
“About 10 minutes later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo arrived.
“As they sat down, he wanted to know first about her crime and her motivation.”
He asked questions like this,
“Were you on drugs?”
He then asked whether or not Clark had had any contact with the relatives of the victims and whether she had ever expressed remorse. The beginning of the article, however, sets the newsworthy nature of it clearly in focus.
“Governors do not normally — if ever — have private visits with prisoners.”
Thus the headline news is the fact that the Governor of New York broke his own precedent and went to visit one prisoner in the prison there in New York, and that prisoner was Judith Clark. As the paper reports,
“The governor announced [last] Friday that he was reducing Ms. Clark’s minimum sentence to 35 years, meaning not that she will be released, but that she will be eligible for parole in the first quarter of 2017.”
The paper went on to say,
“She was among 113 people who received various forms of clemency from Mr. Cuomo. In a single day, he reversed decades of disuse of that power, issuing what his office said was the largest number of such grants by a New York governor.”
“Perhaps most striking among the commutations was the one given to Ms. Clark, one of three people still in prison for the robbery in which two Nyack police officers, Sgt. Edward O’Grady and Officer Waverly Brown, and Peter Paige, a Brink’s guard, were killed.”
Dwyer has already told us that Ms. Clark was quite surprised when the New York Governor showed up at the prison to have a conversation with her, but we’re also told that,
“The governor said he knew that any lessening of [the radical] sentence would be denounced by law enforcement groups, a prospect he found painful to contemplate after years of mutual support. He and his predecessors,” says Dwyer, “had been lobbied to consider Ms. Clark’s transformation from unrepentant radical to model prisoner by supporters who included volunteer lawyers, Catholic nuns in prison ministries, a former chairman of the state parole board, 13 past presidents of the New York City Bar Association, the former Bedford Hills prison superintendent and Ronnie Eldridge, a former city councilwoman from Manhattan.”
The governor said,
“I wanted to use my own instinct and knowledge. I wanted to find out for myself. I didn’t tell anyone before or after. It was a big decision.”
Now why is this story so important? It’s because here you have the Governor of one of the most populous states in the United States, a state that has prisons filled with hundreds and hundreds of convicted murderers, but here’s the headline: because the governor singled out one particular murderer, a woman who was a radical from the 1970s and 80s who evidently had friends in very high places, and a woman who was found guilty of being a participant in the murder of three human beings, including two police officers, but the governor of New York singled her out for his consideration and after seeing her and hearing her story commuted her sentence, making her eligible for parole at some point in the first quarter of this year.
Now when you go back to that tumultuous period in the 1960s and 70s, and remember this was into the early years of the 1980s, the radical movement was on the front pages of newspapers again and again in the United States, and radicals who were affiliated with any number of radical organizations were participants in an entire spate of crimes, often violent crimes, that ranged from robberies and bombings to other crimes that didn’t get so much headline attention. But in this case we’re talking about someone who did get a great deal of attention and who was undeniably found guilty of the crimes that in other situations would’ve led inevitably to a life spent in prison without hope of parole. But now the Governor of New York has made a decision that he has met with this woman, and having met with her he has “seen her soul” and decided that she has been genuinely rehabilitated and genuinely transformed.
Parts of the article are downright troubling. For instance, Clark said,
“I talked to him about how I understood that the groupthink and zealotry and internalized loyalty had sapped me of my own moral compass.”
That was how she explained her participation in the crime. Dwyer then wrote,
“This part of the conversation helped the governor recognize some of the forces that propelled the mayhem.”
The Governor said,
“You’re fighting for good versus evil. That’s what sends young men into war with guns to kill other people.”
Was the Governor of New York entering sympathetically into the moral reasoning of a woman who basically had acted like a domestic terrorist? In speaking to the New York Times, the New York Governor said,
“When you meet her you get a sense of her soul. Her honesty makes her almost transparent as a personality. She takes full responsibility. There are no excuses. There are no justifications.”
The Governor also said,
“The zealotry, the ideology, how it filled the vacuum of a young mind. It wasn’t just, ‘I drove the car’ — it was how she got to that place. The psychological underpinnings and immaturity. The zealotry that answers all questions. It was purpose, it was heaven, it was hell, it was God.”
Now I honestly have no idea how to make any sense out of that statement from the New York Governor. Speaking of his decision to offer this prisoner a commutation of her sentence, he went on to say,
“We call it the ‘correction’ system. I think the situation is corrected as it is ever going to be, unless you can bring a person back to life.”
This is a frankly bizarre story. If it didn’t come from the State of New York, if it didn’t concern Governor Cuomo and this particular prisoner, it wouldn’t have been on the front page of the New York Times. But it is, and deservedly so. It raises all the questions that are so central to a worldview concerning human responsibility, the nature of human beings whether good or evil, the reality of sin and our responsibility for our actions, and then the responsibility of any sane society to have a system of justice that would bring someone who would commit a violent crime to the court of justice and then would mete out at least what is proximately as close as is possible to a righteous sentence.
The State of New York had sentenced this woman to many more years than she may well serve because of the Governor’s commutation. But it’s really interesting to note the emotiveness with which the Governor speaks here. He basically says to the people of New York, “Trust me, I have a moral sense that this woman has been genuinely transformed and in terms of her decision to turn her back on a life of crime and to take responsibility, at least in a verbal sense, for what she has done.” It may well be that that is so. But the big question is whether or not this actually serves the cause of justice. That’s a far harder question to answer. But it’s really interesting that in that last statement the Governor says,
“We call it the ‘correction’ system.”
And then he said this is about meeting his own decision.
“I think the situation is corrected as it is ever going to be, unless you can bring a person back to life.”
That points to something that is central to the Christian worldview and our understanding of justice. The fact is that governors and judges and juries have a very difficult time looking into any defendant’s eyes and actually reading their souls. That is a capacity that is just not given to us. We can read the evidence; we can look at all kinds of data, but we cannot understand, much less read, another human heart. And when it comes to our quest for justice, well, we understand that no true justice has actually been brought about, no true righteousness has been demonstrated, unless there is a reversal of the harm. In this sense, the Governor is exactly right. In any true and comprehensive establishment of justice, what would be required would be to bring back a murder victim from the dead.
Governor Cuomo seems quite satisfied with his decision. He said in conclusion,
“I’ve gotten to a point where if I can sleep at night, I’m happy,” he said. “I can sleep at night with this. I believe showing mercy and justice and compassion and forgiveness is the right signal.”
The huge question is, why to this particular prisoner? Why now? Why not to others who might be in a very similar situation even in his own prison system? This woman clearly had friends in very high places. Perhaps she is deserving of this kind of singular attention, but the story appearing in the front page of the New York Times tells us that there are at least some questions as to whether or not it is so and as to how the story ends and whether the Governor of New York really should be sleeping well at night with this decision. Well, we’ll have to say, only time may tell.
Are we more than just a brain? Recent headlines and the Christian understanding of soul and body
Before leaving this week’s editions of the New York Times, Sunday’s edition included an article with the headline,
“You Are Not a Brain in a Jar.”
A headline like that announces that this article is going to address some issues of very deep worldview importance, and I can assure you this one does. The author of the article is Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Cornell University’s Medical School. He writes about the experience of entering what was called a sensory isolation tank. It’s a tank filled with what he described as “a supersaturated solution of magnesium sulfate — better known as Epsom salts — cranked up to body temperature.”
The whole idea is that a human being can enter into this tank, in this case located in Seattle, and have the experience of being completely unaware of having a body. Professor Friedman wrote about this experiment in which he was a willing participant to find out what it would feel like to have no body whatsoever. The experience of being in this tank suspended in this solution in utter darkness and silence would reduce him, at least in theory, to being merely a brain. But of course it didn’t turn out that way. Professor Friedman says that it worked until he opened his eyes and some of the magnesium sulfate went into his eyes and the burning sensation of having saltwater, well, you know exactly what awakened him to the fact that he is indeed an embodied creature. Dr. Friedman describes the experience of being in this sensory isolation tank like this,
“Cut off from the world of sensory stimuli, my brain had free rein to invent any experience it had up its sleeve. So I floated in pitch blackness and waited for a profound experience to wash over me. This is what adherents paid $89 a pop to feel. I’d heard it was better than meditation, yoga and drugs — perhaps because it promised nirvana without any effort or side effects.
“But I felt nothing. After some time, I became acutely aware that I could not feel my body, which I suppose was the whole point of depriving the brain of any connection to the physical world. I started to slowly move my hands and legs to reassure myself they were still there. Check. I had a vivid image of my phantom body; I knew intellectually that it was present, but couldn’t detect it in the normal sense.”
That’s when he said he made the error of letting his head dropped too low into the salt broth and felt the burn. At that point he recognized, oh, he really does have a body. He then writes,
“The experience made me wonder about a question that has never let go of me: Are you more than your brain? Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without an enthusiastic report in the popular media about intriguing neuroscience research linking some human behavior to the function of a particular brain circuit.”
Professor Friedman is exactly right; this is the modern heresy of physicalism. It is becoming almost an established orthodoxy in scientific circles that we are merely physical creatures, that we are brains that somehow have a body. There is the overt denial of what is called dualism, the idea that there is anything beyond our physical representation in existence. That is the overt denial that consciousness has anything to do with the soul that might be in any sense separated from the body. This leads of course to modern debates over whether or not there is any true human responsibility. If we are merely the operation of our brains and our brains are merely engines that are responding in terms of proteins and chemicals, then how can you find anyone guilty of anything if it’s just a matter of the operation of a physical entity such as the brain? But Professor Friedman here is onto something when he says that this experience in this isolation tank in Seattle led him to understand,
“We are not just a brain in a jar; we are also bodies, and what we do with those bodies can influence the brain.”
He goes on to say,
“You can easily alter your thinking and mood by manipulating your body: by, for example, injecting your forehead with Botox, shining light into your eye, exercising — or floating in an isolation tank.”
“In the end, whether or not we are more than our brain is less important and less interesting than the fact that our brain does not just give orders; it takes them, too. An isolation tank can turn the body weightless and invisible, but your brain knows better.”
Now Christians have to understand that the Bible knows better than even this, because the Bible tells us that we are indeed what is theologically described as a psychosomatic unity. God made us the only creature made in His image, and He made us both soul and body. He made us both material and immaterial. And furthermore, the biblical worldview makes clear that it’s true, certainly, that we are not just a brain in a jar, but it goes further to make very clear that our consciousness, including our conscience, our imagination, the spiritual dimension in which we are made—it is not something that is reducible merely to physicalism. The fact that we are, of course, a psychosomatic unity is also demanded by our own empirical, individual experience. That is to say, we experience ourselves as having a knowledge and having experiences that cannot possibly be reduced to something that is merely the operation of physical organs or even just of our body.
Benedict Carey, writing an article in the aftermath of the deaths of actresses Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds—of course, Carrie Fisher died one day, her mother, Debbie Reynolds died the very next day—in the Palm Beach Post we find the headline,
“Did Debbie Reynolds die from a broken heart?”
Carey writes a really interesting article, in which he says,
“No one can know if the actress Debbie Reynolds — who died on Wednesday, a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher — died of a broken heart.”
She was reportedly frail. Doctors said any number of factors could have contributed to her death, which was said to be from a possible stroke. But remember, it came within nearly 24 hours of the shocking death, the surprising death of her own daughter. Carey then writes,
“But by all accounts, she and her daughter were very close in recent years, and death from a broken heart is a well-established occurrence, both in medical literature and throughout the folklore of the earliest human communities.”
Carey goes on fascinatingly to write,
“One form of the phenomenon is called Takotsubo syndrome, after the Japanese term for ‘octopus trap,’ because the heart looks as if it is caught from below, its upper chambers ballooning as if trying to escape.”
He then says,
“The sudden loss of a child or spouse, perhaps foremost among life’s cruelties” sets off what one doctor in this case, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum of the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York said is “an overflow of stress hormones, and the heart can’t take it,”
Carey’s article also cites Dr. Anne Curtis, chair of medicine at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo who said,
“‘I’ve seen estimates that about 1 percent of perceived heart attacks’ are because of broken-heart syndrome and that seems about right. I think every cardiologist has seen cases.”
Well, all of this comes down to the fact that even medical scientists aren’t sure whether or not Debbie Reynolds died of a broken heart syndrome, but what does it tell us that in the aftermath of these headlines there is the speculation, even among medical professionals, that something more than mere biology was at stake here? There was an emotional dimension that eventually might well have impacted this physical dimension.
In reviewing so much of this literature, there is a pattern that we need to note and this is one that basically affirms the Christian worldview. It comes down to this: the alternative worldview of physicalism, now so enshrined in modern science, really wants to describe every single human state of consciousness or emotion as mere chemistry, mere physicality. But how in the world do you describe the love between a husband and a wife, between a parent and a child, between a brother and a sister, or even merely between friends as merely being the reflection of some kind of chemical or physical interaction? Taken just in terms of our own empirical experience that argument doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t make sense because it shouldn’t make sense.
Gospel hope and the false promise of sexual freedom: Florida city outlaws conversion therapy
Finally, while we are continuing to look at major media in order to understand how the world around us is thinking and the worldview by which it is thinking, we come to an article that appeared yesterday in the Sun Sentinel, the major newspaper of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The staff writer is Brooke Baitinger and the article is headlined,
“Conversion Therapy Banned.”
“Boynton officials outlaw treatments.”
This takes us to Boynton Beach, Florida, where as the reporter says,
“LGBT youngsters living in Boynton Beach are free to be themselves and love who they want to love without worrying about medical efforts to change them.”
Hold on to that amazing opening sentence. The reporter then goes on to say,
“The city on Tuesday became the latest municipality in South Florida to outlaw ‘conversion therapy.’”
She explains it is “a method aimed at converting a person's gender identity or sexual orientation.”
The Boynton Beach City Commission held the initial hearing and gave initial approval to the ordinance banning licensed professionals from trying to convert the gender identity or sexual orientation of LGBT youth. According to the Sun Sentinel, then, this means that Boynton Beach Florida has become only the latest in a series of municipalities in the state to have adopted this kind of law, along with the financial penalties for anyone who was found guilty of violating the law.
There’s a lot behind this we could talk about, for one thing, the entire issue of conversion therapy. Christians do not believe that any ultimate liberation or redemption can come by means of anything that is merely called therapy, but we also do believe that sinners can change by the power of the gospel and that that change can be comprehensive, even reaching into our basic orientations including our sexual orientation.
This does not mean that conversion to Christ or even a lifelong pattern of sanctification can produce what some of us might wish for in terms of a change in our orientation towards any particular sin, but it does mean that we cannot give ourselves to such sin, and it does mean that when you see a law like this, the worldview that is behind it is one that ultimately celebrates an activity in a set of relationships of sexual orientation that the Bible very clearly identifies as sinful. And that’s the real problem, that’s the real dynamic behind the story, and that’s actually made very clear in the article by the fact that it was an activist group known as the Human Rights Campaign that even wrote the law, the law that was eventually adopted at least in its first hearing by the City Council in Boynton Beach, Florida.
Furthermore, the claims about the abuse of young people are simply largely implausible in this article. It appears to be something of a piece of feel-good legislation on the part of the City Council that wants to make very clear by what’s called moral signaling that it is joining the LGBT revolution, and enthusiastically so.
But my main point in referencing this article is that amazing introductory sentence. I go back to it, because what we have here is the promise of sexual liberation and moral liberation for young people, just listen to the words again,
“LGBT youngsters living in Boynton Beach are free to be themselves and love who they want to love without worrying about medical efforts to change them.”
Just consider the enthusiastic chorus that appears to be resounding in that opening sentence, a sentence that announces that human happiness and peace has finally come to LGBT young people in the city of Boynton Beach, Florida by action of the City Council. Forget for a moment everything else that follows and flows from that initial sentence and just ponder this: one of the greatest heartbreaks of the sexual revolution is that it cannot, will not, ever deliver on its ultimate promises. It always promises what it simply cannot deliver.
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I’m speaking to you from West Palm Beach, Florida and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.