Thursday, September 21, 2017
The Briefing 09-21-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, September 21, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll see that after the shock of an earthquake many of the most important aftershocks are theological. We’ll ask how sin does and does not explain natural disasters. We’ll look at a great class of worldviews at the United Nations as President Trump delivered his first address. And we’ll ask why all the allergy to sovereignty?
After the shock of an earthquake, many of the aftershocks are theological
It came just after 1:00pm on Tuesday, an earthquake, magnitude 7.1, the epicenter very near Mexico City, Mexico with a population of over 20 million, one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas on earth. And as we know, just in terms of its sediment and its landscape, one of the most earthquake sensitive places on earth as well. As of late yesterday, the death toll officially was standing over 235, according to the Mexican government. But that death toll is expected to rise ominously so, especially since so many of the excavation efforts are just barely underway. The heartbreak is evident. Perhaps the most heartbreaking single incident yet known in this earthquake was the near total destruction of a residential elementary school in the heart of the city. As Joshua Partlow reported for the Washington Post, the three-story school building had completely collapsed,
“this was really, really ugly, really bad.”
According to a hardware store worker whose children used to attend the school. Everything he said has fallen. As Partlow tells usa block away neighbors had strung up sheets of paper taped between a tree and a crosswalk sign with names of children who survived, suffered injuries or died. Nearly 60 children it is known have been transported to hospitals. One neighbor who was managing the notices, those different lists, her name Ellana Villasenor, she said,
“there are around 600 children at the school. We don’t know how many children are still inside. They were in classes. The school was full.”
As a stream of understandably anguished parents and relatives came to the school inquiring of their children, Villaseñor said it is very hard to have to point them to these two lists. She concluded,
“there aren’t words.”
How does sin explain natural disasters?
Of course, that’s true. There never are adequate words in the wake of this kind of catastrophe. Words simply cannot bear the weight of the agony and the pain that is now so painfully evident there in Mexico City. The president of the nation President Enrique Peña Nieto had that very day – that is Tuesday, the day of the earthquake – been speaking out of Mexico City at a commemoration of the 32nd anniversary of the massive quake that struck Mexico in 1985, killing an estimated 10,000 people. A team of reporters from the New York Times offered their own account in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, citing one woman who said that in Mexico City it,
“Felt like God is angry at us.”
That statement should remind us of the historical reality that in the aftermath of this kind of horrifying earthquake some of the most powerful aftershocks have often actually been theological. This was classically the case in the beginning of the modern age in the very dawning of what we know as the enlightenment in the year 1755 when Lisbon, Portugal was struck by what is now remembered as the great Lisbon earthquake. It is estimated to have been in a magnitude of 8.5 to 9, and it is expected now to have killed about 100,000 people there in one of the most populous cities of Europe at the time. This became a philosophical question, a great question mark over the worldview of many living at the time, including some of the most formative philosophical minds of the modern age. The most important of those was likely to have been Voltaire, the French philosopher, who after the Lisbon earthquake actually turned himself into a philosopher of infidelity, a philosopher of agnosticism and sometimes even a virulent atheism. By the end of his life and as you look at his legacy, Voltaire basically equals unbelief in terms of the modern mind.
But you also note in that woman’s statement from Mexico City, a statement of heartbreak that the immediate reflex is to understand not that there is not a God who has created the world and is ruling over it, but that there is. This is one of the most counterintuitive realizations as we look even at a comment like that, and we also understand that it’s not out of the ordinary. We as human beings desperately need to understand that the world is not an accident and that our lives are not accidental and that the cosmos is not merely unwinding in some kind of random pattern. We’re looking for meaning in that pattern. Jesus himself warned his own disciples from trying to over read that pattern. Jesus told the disciples that they should not try to assign any particular blame or moral fault to someone upon whom for example a building had collapsed. The larger comprehensive Christian and biblical worldview does trace all natural disasters, all calamities to sin but to the effects of the fall in God’s judgment upon the fall, and the corruption of the created order by human sinfulness.
But sometimes even as we’re looking at a disaster like this in Mexico City with all of its heartbreak, we can also understand that there was a predictability to this and that purely natural factors help to explain why in earthquake in Mexico, specifically in Mexico City, might be more devastating than one found elsewhere. For example, as the Washington Post reported and I quote,
“Mexico is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes: The country is in a region where a number of tectonic plates butt up against one another, with huge amounts of energy waiting to be unleashed.”
The story continues, Mexico City is partially built on old lake sediment, which is much softer than rock. The seismic waves, says the Washington Post, can be amplified traveling through the sediment, and they cited as authority, Don Blakeman, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey. He explained that the fact that Mexico City is built upon this old lake sediment means that the damage is likely far worse than in areas on more solid ground. Of course, there is a parable in this as well. As we remember, Jesus teaching his disciples about the contrast between the man who built his house upon a rock and the man who built his house upon the sand. But at this point our hearts and our prayers are directed to all those in Mexico, especially in Mexico City, particularly we think of those parents lined up not only outside that one school, but anywhere where they’re trying to determine and to come to understand the condition of their own children. It’s also deeply humbling to all of us wherever on planet earth we are found to recognize that the earth under our feet is not nearly so firm as it seems.
Clash of worldviews at the U.N. as President Trump addresses General Assembly
Next, earlier this week at the United Nations, no less, there was a very clear unavoidable clash of worldviews. As the New York Times, Mark Landler reports in his front-page story.,
“President Trump, in declaring Tuesday that sovereignty should be the guiding principle of affairs between nations, sketched out a radically different vision of the world order than his forebears, who founded the United Nations after World War II to deal collectively with problems they believed would transcend borders.”
Later in the article, Landler writes,
“But more important than how he defined sovereignty was Mr. Trump’s adoption of the word itself — language more familiar to small countries, guarding themselves against the incursions of larger neighbors or defying the judgments of a global elite, than to a superpower that fashioned a web of global institutions to enshrine its national interests.”
The New York Times and other major media zeroed in on specific portions of President Trump’s address, including these words,
“I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
In a second front-page article on the same daily edition of the Times, Peter Baker and Rick Gladstone,
“The president’s tone carried real-world implications for the future of the United Nations and the escalating confrontations with international outliers. In the space of 42 minutes,” the reporters tell us, “he upended decades of rhetorical support by the United States for the collective philosophy of the United Nations as he defended his America First policy. He repeatedly extolled ‘sovereignty’ in a setting where the term traditionally has been brandished by nations like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea to deflect criticism.”
In terms of worldview analysis, it is clear that the most interesting aspect has to do with vocabulary, which of course points to something even more fundamental. The vocabulary word of the day, sovereignty, Landler in the continuation of his front-page article spoke of President Trump saying that he used the words sovereign or sovereignty 21 times not that anyone was counting. A similar account, you find in the Washington Post and other major media. Evidently they were listening closely. President Trump said our success depends on a coalition of strong independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world. As Landler summarized, strong sovereign nations, the President said, keep their citizens safe and enable them to prosper economically. Strong sovereign nations can join together to fight common threads and constitute the irreducible building blocks of world institutions like the United Nations. Landler than tried to explain,
“Mr. Trump is hardly the first leader to invoke sovereignty as a credo.”
Its roots, he explains, go back to Roman times. It has been elaborated in agreements like the peace of Westphalia which gave rise to the principle of non-interference in a country’s internal affairs. And he says it has been litigated to the 20th century upheavals like the communist revolution in China. Yet Landler tells us,
“Some foreign-policy experts said Mr. Cox definition was problematic because he applied it inconsistently.”
Allergic to sovereignty? Media reacts to President Trump’s U.N. speech
Now the worldview analysis comes down to this, in one sense, it’s a matter of math. In his first address to the United Nations as president in 2009 President Barack Obama used the word sovereign once. President Trump used the word sovereign or sovereignty 21 times. Is that just a matter of a ratio of 1 to 21? Of course not. The more important reality is that there is clearly, unmistakably a massive chasm between the worldview of President Barack Obama and the worldview of Donald Trump when it comes to their world picture, their worldview, when it comes to their understanding of America and its role in the world, and their understanding of the United Nations. And of course it comes down to vocabulary, the use of that word sovereignty. Dare we say it? Used by President Trump 21 times? Well, the current foreign-policy establishment, which represents a bipartisan consensus that goes back decades, has been rather allergic to using that word.
Illustrative of this is the editorial page of the New York Times. The editors wrote in response to President Trump,
“Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging, considering he once condemned it as useless and having no place in his ‘America First’ vision. But his references to the body as a collection of sovereign nations seemed intended for his base, most of which applauds Mr. Trump’s nationalism and much of which suspects the United Nations is bent on establishing a world government.”
Now just in terms of worldview analysis, one of the things we should note is that here you have the fact that this reflex does not even serve the editors of the New York Times very well. Their worldview would be more palatable to Americans in general if they did not appear to be so absolutely, virulently allergic to the word sovereign or sovereignty. The defenders of that bipartisan consensus in foreign policy must recognize that a lack of attention to American sovereignty is exactly what has led to a groundswell of populist concern and much of that is directed at the United Nations. The Wall Street Journal, which is very much a part on its editorial page of that same very clear foreign-policy bipartisan consensus, criticize President Trump for what it declared as the President’s cramped view of sovereignty – that is his view was not comprehensive or expansive enough.
In terms of the Christian worldview, we have to understand that sovereignty has been defendant as a notion appropriate to the very role of a nation, necessary for a nation fulfilling as a government its Romans chapter 12 responsibilities. And furthermore, sovereignty has been an essential foundation of our understanding of how states relate the one to the other. As a matter of fact looking back to the history of Christian reflection upon international relations, sovereignty has not been a singular conception, but it has been an absolutely necessary conception. Just consider, for example, the Christian tradition of trying to determine when war is just or unjust. The just war Christians have affirmed must be undertaken by a sovereign nation in either the defense of its own sovereignty and thus its own people or the sovereignty of a beleaguered nation attacked by others.
As represented for example by President Obama, the elites in the Western world have been increasingly committed to a very internationalist vision, and they have thus become rather uncomfortable to say the very least with the word sovereignty. But voters in Great Britain just in 2016 and the United States and elsewhere indicate that there is a basic moral instinct on the part of the voting populous to defend the sovereignty of their own nations. Again, that’s not enough, but it is essential. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal was at least honest enough to remind its readers that the collectivist worldview that is at the very base of the United Nations has not proved to be effective. You looked at the editorial page of the New York Times in its editorial. You would think that collectivism had been the great wonderworker of the last half-century or so. But of course that isn’t the case. As the editors of the Wall Street Journal conceded,
“This is another hard truth. The U.N. was founded on the promise to provide what Mr. Obama often called ‘collective security.’ But the U.N. has nearly always failed in that duty amid Russian vetoes at the Security Council, as during the Cold War and this decade in Syria, or out of indifference as in the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s.”
The candor in that editorial statement of the Wall Street Journal is rather amazing when they say that the United Nations,
“has nearly always failed in that duty.”
Finally on this issue, Gerald Seib, a prominent columnist writing the Capital Journal column for the Wall Street Journal points out that the worldview and the foreign-policy approach represented by President Donald Trump has been seen very influentially in American foreign-policy history before. It is known as realpolitik. That basically comes down to an understanding that the role of the United States and of other nations is to see the world as it actually is. As President Trump said in a statement of pragmatism to the United Nations General Assembly,
“We are guided by outcomes, not ideology.”
An arena like the General Assembly of the United Nations is always a great contest of ideas, especially so Tuesday and especially worth our attention.