Monday, Apr. 9, 2018

Monday, Apr. 9, 2018

The Briefing

April 9, 2018

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

It’s Monday, April 9, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Tragedies in Canada and Syria expose differences between natural evil and moral evil

The Christian moral tradition has long made an important distinction between types and kinds of evil. The most basic dichotomy is between natural evil and moral evil.

Natural evil refers to events in nature, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes or beyond that, illnesses that would include cancer or viruses, the influenza that killed millions in the early 20th Century. Natural evil refers to events that can be extremely deadly and injurious, sometimes on a massive scale and magnitude but there is no way to explain this particular occurrence as it is tied to a specific moral act by a human being.

When we’re talking about a hurricane or a tornado we do not turn to fellow human beings and ask, which one of us is to blame. Now the Christian worldview does trace natural evil back to human sin in the Garden of Eden, back to Genesis three and the effects of the fall. As Romans chapter eight makes clear even the creation itself is groaning under the weight of human sin. That is all too apparent when we consider the range and the rapidity of natural evil around the world.

That’s set over against moral evil. Those are moral acts undertaken by human beings. Moral evil comes down to the fact that human beings cause great injury. We harm one another. It also gets to the point that human beings kill one another. As you’re looking at moral evil you still have to make a further distinction. This too is important as we are thinking about Christian moral reasoning.

The distinction within moral evil is between accidental and intentional evil. Now as you’re thinking of accidental evil or what at least at this point is believed to be an accident just think about the headline out of Canada. On Friday night a team of young hockey players on a bus was virtually wiped out in a horrifying accident in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The team was known as the Humboldt Broncos, a part of junior hockey in Canada. Of course, hockey is such an important part of Canadian culture.

This junior team was made up of players between the ages of 16 and 21. In this horrifying accident, 10 of the young players along with their head coach and at least two sports journalists were killed. A total of 15 on the bus died in the accident. It was a collision between the team bus and a semi-tractor trailer rig and it was the kind of accident that leads to carnage.

As of this morning the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had indicated that there is no active criminal investigation of the accident. Does that mean that there was no human agency? No. Of course, there were drivers of both vehicles. Does it mean that no one made a mistake? No, obviously some kind of mistake was made. It might turn out to be a mechanical matter, it might turn out to be just about anything.

At this point the crucial issue for our moral consideration is that there is no reason to believe that anyone had any such intentionality that would cause that accident on Friday night. It seems almost unbelievable that virtually an entire young hockey team could be wiped out in just a matter of seconds in one accident and we can fully understand why not only their friends, not only their family, not only their local community there in local Saskatchewan but the entire Canadian nation is mourning with them.

That mourning would take on a completely different moral context if it turned out that this accident had been premeditated, if it was plotted, if it was the result of a human evil that is traceable to a premeditated series of events set in place by a human agent.

Part II

Syria, chemical weapons, and Just War Theory: Why there is no way to underestimate man’s capacity for moral evil

That’s why we have to look differently at the most important moral story of the weekend and that is the fact that on Saturday night it is now believed that dozens of citizens in Syria choked to death after what’s been reported as a suspected chemical attack that took place as Ben Hubbard of the New York Times reports in the rebel-held suburb of Duma, east of Damascus. Aide groups by the weekend were blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the chemical weapon assault and Western governments were uniformly expressing outrage.

As of last night, the Americans had sufficient intelligence for the American president to point an accusatory finger at the Assad regime, blaming it directly for this attack that has killed at least 42 people by means of chemical warfare. The American president went on to assign direct blame also on the Russian government, the major financial and military backer of the Assad regime, and he specifically named Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Louisa Loveluck and Erin Cunningham of the Washington Post reported the story this way, “Syrian doctors and rescue workers said Sunday that dozens of people had died in an apparent chemical attack on a besieged enclave near Damascus as government forces escalated their offensive to recapture the last rebel strongholds near the capital.”

Now what are we looking at here? Well, first let’s look at the historical context because it’s very important and should be important to the American people and to American Christians. We’re talking about a seven year civil war in Syria. It is a civil war that has not only divided Syria, it has also demonstrated the absolute murderous grip on power that marks the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Assad when he came to power upon the death of his father was believed or at least was hoped to be something of a moderating figure in the Middle East but he has turned out, almost beyond imagination, to be even more murderous than his father. International agencies and the White House believe that the Assad regime has been behind upwards of 200 different chemical weapon attacks upon its own people.

Here we need to understand what we’re talking about. Chemical weapons are some of the most abhorrent, murderous, and indiscriminate weapons ever invented by human beings. There was a limited amount of chemical warfare in the ancient world but it was extremely limited because there was no modern chemistry. It took modernity and it took modern science and modern chemistry to develop and to nearly perfect the most murderous forms of chemical warfare.

Chemical weapons appeared on a global scene most importantly during World War One when it was to some extent used by both sides, especially during the long years of warfare on the Western front. The results of chemical warfare were so absolutely horrifying that every civilized nation after World War One has refused to use or to permit chemical weapons.

The report by Ben Hubbard in the New York Times tells us that rescue workers have reported finding at least 42 people dead in their homes from apparent suffocation and activists there in Syria have been circulating videos of lifeless men, women, and children sprawled out on floors and in stairwells, many with white foam coming from their mouths and nostrils.

That appears to be the almost absolutely positive indication of the use of chemical weapons. In this case, the chemical weapon is believed probably to have been a form of chlorine. We need to remember that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons so many times in the past. Just last year in 2017 Syria was known to have used a horrifying nerve agent called sarin on one of the communities that was held by rebel forces and President Trump in response called forth a rather significant military action against Syria stating that the United States and the civilized world simply could not stand idly by as the regime used chemical weapons.

One of the most important aspects of Christian moral thinking is what is known as just war theory. It is developed over 20 centuries of reflection by Christians based upon the Christian worldview, upon Christian moral reasoning, and upon the biblical text. The very purpose of just war theory is to try to determine when a war might be necessary and legitimate and once a war is understood to be legitimate, how it should be legitimately or justly conducted.

One of the main principles of just war theory is that there can be no use of indiscriminate weapons. There is no weapon so murderously indiscriminate as the chemical weapon.

The Assad government did not hear target combatants or even those who were carrying military weapons but rather it targeted a community that represented one of the last outposts of opposition to Assad. Assad’s way of breaking the will of this community was to use a chemical weapon, which killed not only men and women but also children. Some of them merely on the stairs of their homes.

There are other background issues here of importance and one of them is the fact that there are long-term moral consequences to bad decisions. One of the most important of the bad decisions in this case was the decision early in the Syrian conflict that was made by the then-president of the United States Barack Obama.

President Obama warned Assad identifying what he called a “redline” that the Syrian government forces must not cross or there would be military response. The Syrian dictator and his forces did cross that redline and President Obama did nothing. Add to that, the fact that the then-US Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2014 on Meet the Press, “We struck a deal”, that means with the Assad government, “Where we got 100% of the chemical weapons out.”

Less publicly, Secretary of State Kerry said to his own staff upon his exit from that role in the State Department, “Unfortunately, other undeclared chemical weapons continued to be used ruthlessly against the Syrian people” and the then-Secretary of State also went on to say that there was a second problem. This was made clear by Kathy Gilsinan writing for the Atlantic. That second problem is the fact that the agreement did not include weapons that were based in chlorine. That is suspected to be the very kind of weapon that was used against the Syrian enclave of Duma on Saturday night.

The story in Syria deserves our attention as thinking Christians because we should understand that what we are seeing here breaks every civilizational rule. It breaks the Geneva Convention. It breaks every principle of the United Nations. It breaks every law of the international system but you’ll notice that none of those arenas, none of those agencies, none of those entities was able to stop this murderous dictator in Syria from killing his own people.

What took place this weekend in Syria is not natural evil. This was not something that just happened. This wasn’t an earthquake. This wasn’t a tornado. This wasn’t a tumor. This was an intentionally murderous act undertaken by a head of government who holds on by dictatorial power and who is so ruthless in holding onto that power that he will kill his own people even using the most despised weapons on Earth. Just how low can human beings sink into depravity and evil? This headline out of Syria reminds us there is really no way to overestimate the human capacity for moral evil.

Part III

Secular world grapples with the reality of evil even as it lacks the basic categories for understanding its meaning

Next, we need to understand that the existence and meaning of evil represent one of the great theological and apologetic challenges to our age or to any age. Thus, we need to also recognize that even a secular culture has to deal with evil even if it lacks the fundamental categories that would allow for an intelligent and meaningful conversation about the existence of evil and what it means. It was interesting that in just the last couple of weeks there has been a discussion about evil and it is broken out in a rather interesting place. Actually, in more than one interesting place. It is broken out in the New York Times and in the Washington Post. Two newspapers not overly known for dealing with explicitly theological issues.

The first article that started what became this conversation between two major American newspapers, it appeared in the New York Times in the middle of March by Robert Leonard. The title of his article? “Why Gun Culture Is So Strong In Rural America”. Leonard is making the point that gun culture and the larger issue of the restraint of evil reveals deeper worldview considerations and he’s trying to point to the fact that many people in what he identifies as rural America, in this case this would mean the great heartland of this country, that many people who hold to a defense of gun rights do so because of a distinctive view of human nature and human sinfulness.

Leonard writing in the New York Times trying to explain this worldview to secular outsiders wrote this, “To understand why many conservatives in rural America believe this you must start with first principles because the argument ultimately isn’t about guns. It runs even deeper than the Second Amendment.”

He went on to write in a 2015 campaign during the Iowa caucuses JC Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma, spoke about perspectives on original sin. “It helps illuminate” said Leonard, “The differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good so when good people do bad things something in society, in this case guns, needed to be controlled.” Now I’ll simply inject there or blamed.

Then Leonard continues to write, “Republicans think the fault lies with the person, the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.”

The most important consideration for our purposes at the moment is that this opinion writer in the New York Times says that there are basic worldview issues that are at stake and the most important of these worldview issues, even in the contemporary controversy about gun violence and gun control, is the understanding of human nature, whether or not human beings are basically good, born good, or whether human beings are basically sinful and born sinful.

There’s certainly more to this divide than that single theological issue but there is also certainly not less than here meets the eye. In response, E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote an article with the headline just days later “Liberals Are Well-Aware Of The Capacity For Evil”. Dionne goes on to say there are searing political and social divides in our country, those divides that Leonard referred to as a basic divide of the level of worldview.

He goes on to cite Robert Leonard, he goes on to cite his argument, “Writing in the New York Times” says Dionne, “Leonard argued that differences come down to radically opposed understandings of human nature, about as sweeping an explanation” said Dionne, “As you’ll get.”

Dionne, who is not only an influential columnist for the Washington Post but is also as liberal Catholic influential in other circles, that would include Catholic circles, and in the mainstream media in his conversation and appearances, especially on the cable news networks, Dionne went on to say that Leonard is wrong, that liberals do believe in moral evil.

Dionne wrote, “Extreme optimism about human nature is not in fact central to the liberal creed. On the contrary” he wrote, “Especially since the 1930s and ’40s, liberals have been acutely aware of our fallen nature and our capacity for evil.” He went on to write, “The Holocaust, the gulag, the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the staggering death total of World War Two made thoroughly sunny perspectives about human goodness obsolete.”

Dionne then wrote, “The horrors in this period gave birth to a different kind of liberalism distilled in the thinking of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr”. Later in the article Dionne, who was a Rhodes scholar, who earned a doctorate of philosophy degree in sociology at Oxford University, and who currently teaches at Georgetown University, went on to identify himself as an original sin liberal. He said, “I agree with Leonard’s friends and neighbors that human beings can do terrible things and that accountability is part of justice.”

Again in the article he identifies himself as an original sin liberal but we should note something that I read in a very strategic sentence. He identified the shift in the liberal worldview with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Now the first thing to recognize is that Niebuhr did have an out-sized influence in American society and American thought.

I mentioned him last week because of his influence on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In this case it’s E.J. Dionne dealing with issues of human sinfulness who says that the liberal worldview was shifted. It was revised by the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr did indeed point to the capacity of human beings for evil. That’s the very word that E.J. Dionne uses here.

What we also need to note is that Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology was not an Orthodox Christian theology. That was made clear in Niebuhr’s most important book on evil. Niebuhr did stand out for many of the liberals of his day because of his affirmation of the human capacity for evil but that does not mean that he defined original sin in anything like the biblical categories.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics was released in 1932 and it demonstrates the problem here. The title of his book was Moral Moran and Immoral Society. That human capacity for evil even in the worldview held by Reinhold Niebuhr was not traced to the fact that human beings are inherently sinful but rather to the fact that when you have a sociological experiment with human beings, when human beings are gathered together, the capacity for evil is multiplied, given the sin of arrogance and pride, and this can turn murderous.

The title of the book makes perfect sense. Moral Man and Immoral Society. The biblical teaching about sin doesn’t begin with moral man and then get to immoral society. It begins with human beings as sinners.

Dionne was certainly right to point back to the moral cataclysms of the 20th Century, including the gulags and the Holocaust. He was right to point back to the 20th Century, that century which the late Zbigniew Brzezinski described as the century of mega-death.

I think Dionne is wrong to describe contemporary liberal thought as having much of a category for original sin. I think it’s clear that most of those who hold to a more liberal worldview in this country, certainly a secular worldview, really don’t have any category for sin. They do have a category for wrongdoing.

There’s nothing like sin as the revolt and rebellion against a holy God. What’s left is human misbehavior, which must be due to something that happened to us, not something that begins with us. The biblical worldview doesn’t affirm the reality of moral humanity and an immoral society. It points to the fact that society is made up of sinful human beings and that’s why society is sinful.

The biblical worldview certainly does affirm immoral society but it also affirms immoral humanity. The headlines out of Syria remind us that we can’t look back merely to the 20th Century, that century of mega-death, we have to take responsibility for life in our own times, in this century.

The biblical understanding of sin means that even as we all bear individually and corporately, in the case of these headlines nationally and internationally, a responsibility to restrain evil the reality is that evil steadfastly refuses our ability to restrain it.

This simply affirms what we must always understand, which is that even though we have that responsibility this task is greater than anything we individually or corporately can muster. This reminds us of the fact that we are awaiting not a decree from the United Nations but the return of a savior.

It’s simply not enough to say that we believe in moral man and immoral society. We actually believe that all we, like sheep, have gone astray. We’ve gone each one to his own way. We actually believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

This is why we also have to say to the watching world that evil isn’t going to be successfully restrained and it certainly is not going to be defeated by any action of the American government or any international agency. It’s not going to be defeated by the United Nations.

The final defeat of evil will come only when the one who rides a white horse appears with a sword from his mouth to judge the nations. Christians can face any horror, we can face any headline, because we know that day is surely coming.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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