The Briefing 01-18-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 18, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
In final days as president, Obama commutes sentence of traitor Bradley "Chelsea" Manning
Basic questions of crime and punishment and the larger issue of justice all came to mind yesterday with the announcement, quite shocking in itself, that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, had commuted the sentence of the soldier now serving in a United States military prison known as Chelsea Manning. Back in 2009, Bradley Manning, as the inmate was known then, was detached to Iraq, where he served as a low-level intelligence analyst with the United States military. But as we were to learn, being identified in the press as a low-level intelligence analyst did not mean that Bradley Manning had no access to very secret, highly classified information held by the U.S. military, information that if released would cause great harm to the United States and its allies. But that release did happen. Bradley Manning, as he was known then, released hundreds of thousands of pages of the most sensitive U.S. military information, posting it on the Internet in the name of the WikiLeaks organization. It led to one of the most famous criminal trials in terms of espionage in recent American history.
Bradley Manning pled guilty to numerous charges and was tried on others. Eventually, he was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in United States military prison. Shortly after his sentencing, Bradley Manning indicated that he was undergoing a transgender transition and would henceforth be known as Chelsea Manning. Since then, the press, the government, and the larger culture has largely played along, referring to the inmate as a “she” and identifying the former Bradley Manning now as Chelsea Manning.
Throughout the entire process, Manning became something of a cause célèbre for the left, a focus of a great deal of popularity and of cultural attention, and it was for at least three reasons. First of all, Manning was understood to have delivered an attack upon the United States military. That in itself was popular amongst many on the left who opposed United States military activities in the Middle East. Secondly, there was a great deal of attention, of applause, on the left for Julian Assange and for the WikiLeaks movement that he led. You would now note that that was before Assange and WikiLeaks were understood to play a part against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election campaign. But you’ll also note there was a third reason, and that has to do with the LGBT revolution and the fact that Chelsea Manning, as the inmate is now known, became a poster child for the gender transition movement and for legal and cultural pressure upon the United States military to accept transgender troops and to eventually pay for the gender reassignment surgery.
As we have seen over the last several years, the United States military is at the center, indeed it’s something of a vortex, in terms of the moral revolution. The reason for that is easy to understand. The United States military is one of the nation’s central institutions. If you change the military, you have a great deal of leverage towards changing the entire culture, especially in terms of morality and law. To put the matter plainly, if you can force the United States military to come to terms with the demands of the sexual revolutionaries, the larger culture is going to have to take notice, and that’s one of the reasons why Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, has been such a popular figure on the American left. And that’s one of the reasons why in recent days there has been a flurry of media articles in press attention about Manning’s request to the President of the United States for a pardon or a commutation.
Yesterday, late yesterday, the announcement of that commutation came down. The White House announced that the inmate now known as Chelsea Manning would have the sentence reduced from a sentence that would end only in 2045 to a sentence that could well end in as little as 120 days. At the same time, the President announced the pardon of General James Cartwright, formally vice chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had been convicted of a single count of giving a false statement to federal agents in 2012.
In explaining the announcements made yesterday, the New York Times suggested that this was a balancing act on the part of the White House. But the issue is really Chelsea Manning, as the inmate is now known, the inmate who is at the center of the controversy, shocking many, especially those in the military and in the United States intelligence community. There is tremendous outrage at the commutation, and that outrage is understandable. When Bradley Manning released all of those documents, remember hundreds of thousands of pages of sensitive documents, he exposed the friends of the United States and United States military forces to hostile action. Many people had to be extricated simply because in the documents that were released and posted on the internet their cover was, in effect, blown.
But one of the most interesting worldview aspects of this story is the fact that so many in the mainstream media used the verb “leak” to describe the act of espionage undertaken by Bradley Manning. The New York Times article that was posted last night referred to Bradley Manning’s conviction and said that it had taken place in terms of a context in which most who are convicted of leaking receive a sentence of 1 to 3 years. Manning received 35 years. But the word “leak” in this case is clearly an extreme euphemism—that is, it confuses the issue rather than clarifying it. Leaks generally do not put someone’s life at risk; they are not used by the enemies of the United States. They are not the subject of a conviction in a federal military court of aiding and abetting the enemy. The big issue here is not merely that truths were exposed and information that was both dangerous to and embarrassing to the United States was made known to the world, but the fact that the individual who did it was one who had sworn allegiance to the United States and had accepted a post in an all-volunteer military serving on behalf of the United States of America. It was an act of betrayal.
Perhaps the most shocking dimension of the announcement from the White House last night was the fact that Manning’s sentence has been reduced from 35 years to time spent plus about 120 days of transition. The shocking aspect here is that that basically eviscerates any kind of criminal penalty. And of course by many in the mainstream media and on the political left it was celebrated as the release of someone who has become a poster child of sorts for the transgender movement. It was also noted in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and others that this removes Manning from the federal military system, which will not have to take responsibility for what is announced as an upcoming gender reassignment surgery.
There is abundant evidence that we’re dealing with a very troubled individual here. That goes back to the act of betrayal, it goes back to actions that were documented at the trial before the release of the information, and it goes of course to all the events and controversy after Manning’s conviction. Major media reported two suicide attempts in recent months by Manning, and of course that should lead to our sympathy and concern and the realization that, of course, we are dealing with someone here who is horribly troubled. But that does not add up to the President’s commutation of the sentence. The reason for that is quite simple. In a sane and adequate system of justice, crimes are punished because of the moral action that is taken. In this case it was an act of betrayal, an act of betrayal against all of Bradley Manning’s fellow troops, an act of betrayal against the United States military, an act of betrayal against the United States of America, and an act of betrayal against all of this nation’s friends. If you commute the sentence of an act of betrayal on this scale, it is clear you’re inviting only further acts of betrayal.
Finally on this story, there is one further dimension of theological consequence, the announcement from the White House yesterday included both the words commutation and pardon. Those two words are often confused, but they are not synonyms; they don’t mean the same thing. By commutation the President reduces the prison length or the sentence, but the criminal conviction remains on the books. In a pardon, not only is the individual released from custody and from the sentence, but the conviction itself is removed almost as if it had never happened. Now when we think about what we are promised in the atonement accomplished by Christ, we are not promised merely the commutation of our sentence. We are promised instead full pardon for our sins. Between those two words stands an eternal and infinite difference.
Church of England Archbishops call for Christians to "repent" for the Reformation
Now shifting to England, The Guardian reported yesterday that leaders of the Church of England have called upon their church and all fellow Christians to repent of the sins of the Reformation. The headline in The Guardian yesterday:
“C of E archbishops call on Christians to repent for Reformation split.”
Yesterday on the website of the Church of England, the two highest-ranking archbishops of that church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu said,
“This year, churches around the world will be marking the great significance of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, dated from Martin Luther's 95 Theses protesting against the practice of indulgences, on 31 October 1517 at Wittenberg.”
“The Church of England,” they wrote, “will be participating in various ways, including sharing in events with Protestant church partners from Continental Europe.”
But the two archbishops then continued,
“The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed. Amongst much else these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church.”
But then the two archbishops took this turn, and I quote,
“Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.”
The archbishops said,
“All this leaves us much to ponder.”
“Remembering the Reformation should bring us back to what the Reformers wanted to put at the center of every person's life, which is a simple trust in Jesus Christ. This year is a time to renew our faith in Christ and in Him alone. With this confidence we shall then be ready to ask hard questions about those things in our lives and the life of our churches that get in the way of sharing and celebrating faith in Him.”
In the part of the statement that has received justly the most attention, the Archbishop said,
“Remembering the Reformation should also lead us to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions. Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them. This anniversary year will provide many opportunities to do just that, beginning with this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
“We therefore call on all Christians to seek to be renewed and united in the truth of the gospel of Christ through our participation in the Reformation Anniversary, to repent of divisions, and, held together in Him, to be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ.”
Now that’s the kind of statement that we might expect from the theological left in terms of the Reformation and its anniversary. But this is coming from the two senior leaders of the Church of England. The headline in The Guardian really gets to the point, are we truly to repent of the Reformation? Much of the background to the statement made by the two archbishops becomes clearer when we look at the words themselves. For one thing, when we look at their statement we notice that they are claiming that the Reformation caused a division in the church. At this point we have to ask a very hard question. It’s the hard question that was asked by the reformers themselves. We need to note that the reformers, including not only Martin Luther, but John Calvin and others, did not believe that they had any right to bring division in Christ’s church. That is not at all what they understood themselves to be doing. They had come to the point and that was not clear in 1517, but it became clear shortly thereafter, that the Roman Catholic Church was indeed not even a true church. It was not the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Martin Luther made very clear, the simple rationale for this had nothing to do, first of all, with the papacy and the hierarchy of the church, or even with Marian devotion or any number of other issues, but the fact that the Catholic Church as he knew it not only did not preach the gospel, but by its system of sacraments and by its teachings repudiated the gospel.
The formula that drove the logic of both Luther and Calvin and their colleagues was this: if there is no gospel, there is no church. Thus, the reformers did not understand themselves to be bringing division in Christ’s church—they would’ve agreed that would be a grievous sin—but rather they understood themselves to be establishing true gospel churches and reforming Christ’s church, churches undeniably established upon the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s very important to recognize that the reformers were not arguing that Christ’s church did not exist until the Reformation. As a matter of fact, John Calvin makes very clear that in Christ’s atoning work there had never been a time since creation when Christ did not have his church. As Luther would put it, the church was established formally and announced in Matthew chapter 16 when Christ said,
“Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The reformers also believed that there were many Christians within the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation, but that was simply because they had heard the Scripture or heard enough of the gospel that they believed. And yet, the reformers were also convinced that the church itself, that is the Roman Catholic Church, taught an anti-gospel, and thus was no true church. It was a false church preaching a false gospel. But then they went much further indicating that according to Scripture, not only was the papacy unbiblical, but it was abhorrent and the sacramental system of the church denied at every point the gospel in terms of its understanding of grace.
Now perhaps one could argue that if you go back to the 16th century, given the limitations of communication and everything else in that context, perhaps this had been just a massive misunderstanding. But all that was abundantly dismissed when the Catholic Church adopted the canons of the Council of Trent, calling an official council to answer the teachings of the reformers. In the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church declared itself to stand upon an understanding of the gospel that was antithetical to what the reformers believed was revealed in Scripture. Thus, by the time you come to one century after the Reformation that did begin in this sense in the year 1517, it was also transparent that the Roman Catholic Church had not only not been reformed in terms of its theology, but it established most of what the reformers had understood as an anti-gospel as the official teaching of the church.
Now in terms of repentance, there should be no question that both sides in the controversies of the 16th century and beyond at times acted in ways that were not right and did not meet biblical standards and were certainly rightly defined as sin. Wherever sin is present, one should and must repent of it. But what the archbishops seemed to say in their statement released yesterday was that the church should repent for the Reformation.
In one very interesting statement, you’ll recall that they lamented “the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the church.”
Well, there we have to ask the crucial question: The unity of what church? The reformers certainly would not have understood themselves to have been doing any damage to the unity of Christ’s church. But the archbishops seem to be saying on behalf of the Church of England that it was Christ’s church that was divided. And this is a huge problem. It’s a problem that puts the current leadership of the Church of England directly at odds with those who led the Reformation in what became the Church of England under Henry VIII and his successors. While the English Reformation did not go so far as the reformations led by Luther and Calvin, the Reformation in England was influenced highly by both, and the 39 Articles, as they became known, of the Church of England are a distinctly Protestant statement, a distinctively evangelical statement of the understanding of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The statement by the archbishops raises the inescapable question, for what exactly are we to repent? Are we to repent for the historic Protestant evangelical understanding of the gospel? Absolutely not. Are we to repent for an established commitment to the Reformation of the church according to Scripture? Of course, we must not. Are we to reject the claims of the church of Rome concerning papal authority, the authority of the magisterium, and the stewardship of doctrine in truth that is claimed to be held by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church? Of course, we must not. Must we repent of our steadfast opposition to the definition of the gospel that comes from the Council of Trent and has never been repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church? It stands today as official Roman Catholic doctrine and, of course, those who obey Scripture and love the gospel cannot possibly repent of faithfulness to Christ in these respects.
Another of the puzzling portions of the statement by the archbishops is where they call upon Christians to “remember the Reformation and to repent of our part,” they write, “in perpetuating divisions.”
Well, the Church of England right now is not obedient to the Church of Rome. Is the perpetuation of divisions for which we are supposedly to repent to lead the leadership of the Church of England to bring that church back under the Roman Catholic Church? To state the least, that’s unlikely. If you were to take the logic of their statement at face value, it would appear that what they’re calling for would be easily answered by the two archbishops getting on a plane, flying to Rome, and handing over the keys to the Pope.
This is the kind of statement that sows far more confusion than clarity. And by the way, while we’re thinking about this, we need to recognize that a great deal of what American evangelicals know and experience in terms of our faith and practice comes as an inheritance from the Reformation that took place in England, even in particularly the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer, initially at the hand of Thomas Cranmer, still establishes much of the language that even other non-Anglican, non-Episcopal evangelicals use in common everyday devotion, and of course in more formal occasions such as wedding ceremonies.
The evangelical movement as we know it in the United States as well as in Great Britain, particularly the English speaking evangelical movement, would not exist as we know it today without the massive influence of evangelicals within the Church of England. And we should be thankful today that fidelity in the larger Anglican communion, driven largely by archbishops not in Great Britain, but in particular in the so-called global south in places like South America and particularly in Africa, give us a great deal of hope in terms of the defense of the gospel in our own times.
We also need to recognize that within the United States of America, not only are there continuing faithful Anglican churches, but many continuing faithful Christians within the far more liberal Episcopal Church USA. For them, we should also be very thankful and on their behalf we should be particularly concerned about this kind of statement coming from the two senior leaders of the Church of England.
The Bible’s call to repentance is of course a key in central evangelical doctrine, and it was central to the Reformation, so central that repentance shows up in the very first thesis of Luther’s famous 95 theses nailed to the castle church door there in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, thus this year the 500th anniversary. The reformers, of course, were not without sin, nor are we, the heirs of those very reformers. But to state the matter boldly, we cannot repent of what was not and is not sin. And the Reformation itself was most particularly not a sin. Get ready for a particularly interesting and strategic year on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when all the issues that were at the heart of the Reformation and that conflict that emerged in the 16th century are very clearly making headlines once again.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.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’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.