Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Briefing

May 9, 2018

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

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

Part I

As U.S. withdraws from Iran nuclear deal and reinstates economic sanctions, Israel and Saudi Arabia celebrate

One of the most anticipated announcements by an American president in recent years was made yesterday as President Donald Trump announced that the United States is unilaterally backing out of a joint accord with Iran, an accord that was intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The joint accord had on the one side the United States along with major European allies, most importantly Britain, France, and Germany. On the other side Iran, and Iran had been moving in recent years clearly toward the development of nuclear weaponry.

Now, you have to keep in mind exactly what that would mean. The acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons would be one of the most destabilizing possibilities in the Middle East and on the world scene. We’re looking at Iran and our minds immediately have to think about North Korea. In either case, a regime outside the bounds of international law acquiring nuclear weapons would be one of the most dangerous possibilities we could envision. When it comes to Iran, we also have to remember that this is a nation that has announced as a matter of national policy its determination to erase Israel from the map.

The joint accord from 2015 that was considered to be one of the foreign policy triumphs of the administration of President Barack Obama had on the one hand assurances from Iran that it would not continue the development of nuclear weapons and that it would submit itself to investigation and review by international authorities. On the other side, the three major European nations and the United States agreed to give relief to Iran from economic sanctions that had been put into place, precisely because Iran had been moving forward with the development of nuclear weapons.

But from the very beginning there were critics internationally and nationally, inside our government and outside the government, that had accused the United States and its allies of making a very bad deal. Even figures inside the Obama administration conceded the fact that the agreement as it was struck in 2015 offered no actual assurances that Iran was not moving forward with the capability of creating nuclear weapons. The 2015 agreement placed authority on an annual basis in the hands of the president of the United States to certify whether or not Iran was obeying the terms of the agreement and thus the economic sanctions would be suspended. The announcement that came yesterday from President Trump is basically an announcement that the United States has decided on its own to return to what’s called the status quo ante, that is the situation before the agreement, and that means that in some cases in 90 days, in some cases in 180 days, those economic sanctions against Iran will be put back in place.

Now, there are many background considerations here. One is the fragility of the nation of Iran. Formerly the representation of the Persian Empire, what you see in Iran now is a mere shadow of its former self. Iran is in a free fall economically. It is hardly able to feed its own people. The capital city, Tehran, is surrounded with continual smog leading to all kinds of health problems, and the nation is also facing a famine, a famine caused by the failure of its nation’s agricultural sector. Furthermore, the most important worldview background issue is the fact that Iran is a theocracy. It is an Islamic theocracy. During the years 1978 to 1979, Islamic militants driven by Shiite fervor took control in Iran toppling the shah of Iran and establishing a theocratic government under a council headed by the grand ayatollah.

But the most important issue in the background of worldview is the reality that Islam is divided between two irreconcilable groupings. On the one hand, the vast majority known as Sunni. Sunni Islam represents most of the Islamic nations, most of the Arab nations. For example, you just have to think of two nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But Iran represents the other opposing vision of Islam, and that is that which is often referred to as either Shia or Shiite. There are deep theological and historical differences between these two major divisions of Islam, but the most important thing to understand doctrinally at this point is that Shiite Islam, or the Shia, hold to a radical eschatology, an eschatology that includes an apocalypse, and that has made Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1978 to 1979 evermore dangerous, and that explains why the decision announced yesterday was celebrated not only by many in the United States, even as it was opposed by others, but it was celebrated by two nations in particular. Israel on the one hand, that makes immediate sense, but the second was Saudi Arabia.

Why would Saudi Arabia celebrate the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw the United States from this agreement with Iran? It is because it is not merely Israel that fears an Iran with nuclear weapons, it is the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, who share that same fear.

Was this decision announced yesterday by the Trump administration the right decision? Well, there is an active debate about that question, and furthermore this is one of those situations related to policy where we also have to concede that time will tell. History may be the verdict on whether or not this was the right policy, but we also have to keep in mind that what we know as human beings are merely the factuals. We do not know the counterfactuals. What does that mean? That means we know history as it actually happens. We don’t know how things otherwise might have happened.

Counterfactual history is a vast literary enterprise. You have all kinds of books on what would have happened if the Nazis or the Japanese had won World War II. What would have happened if the Civil War in the United States had gone otherwise? What might have happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis had other decisions not been made? But human beings are merely able to know the factuals, and we don’t even know those factuals perfectly. We cannot know the counterfactuals.

One interesting theological point is this: Our biblical understanding of God is that God in his omniscience is totally always eternally knowledgeable, not only about the factuals but about the counterfactuals. This is a demonstration of what we as Christians refer to biblically as the sovereignty of God. God’s sovereignty is exercised in the fact that his will is affected through history in such a way that he does not have to judge what is the most likely outcome. He knows perfectly the outcome of every action of his will.

The announcement made yesterday makes clear that President Trump was persuaded, and here we need to note he was persuaded long before he was elected president of the United States, that the Obama administration’s deal with Iran was a bad deal, that it would not lead to peace, and it would not prevent Iran from moving ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. It’s also clear that European leaders, most importantly in England and France and Germany, differed with the president, but it’s also clear that the United States has a different relationship with both Israel and Saudi Arabia than is true of the Europeans.

The announcement yesterday is likely to be cheered in Saudi Arabia and in Israel, and by many in the United States, even as there will be many others who will say that the president has made a horrifying mistake.

Part II

Deal or no deal? Why the history of international agreements in the U.S. is marked by a partisan and worldview divide

But here in the United States, you see a division of worldviews when it comes to foreign policy. In one sense, it’s the same division that puts those European nations on one side and the United States under the Trump administration on the other side. But in the United States, many of the same issues are debated. It is the question about whether or not international agreements are the best way to restrain the international situation encouraging the right things to happen and making less likely the wrong things to happen.

What you have in the American foreign policy establishment, it’s an establishment that continues in those European nations, is the fact that there is tremendous confidence in the binding power of international agreements. But there have been problems with these international agreements all throughout human history, especially modern history. There is an agreement that was struck famously by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. It was called The Munich Agreement that he struck with Adolf Hitler that would supposedly restrain Adolf Hitler’s warrior impulses, but we now know of course that that agreement wasn’t worth the paper that it was printed on, and the man who signed that agreement has turned out in the verdict of history to have been revealed as a well-intended fool.

In the United States, a basic bipartisan consensus, including the majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the political circles, this consensus basically agreed that international agreements were a necessary, if not optimal, means of trying to ensure stability and world peace. But it’s not just the Iran agreement, but just about every single international agreement that leads to all kinds of controversy into the United States as to whether or not this is a good deal, who could have achieved a better deal, and what will be the eventual results of this deal.

When President Trump was running for election, he made very clear that he had already come to the conclusion that the deal with Iran was a very bad deal. He promised that under his administration a better deal would be struck, even if, he warned, that better deal was no deal. So there’s a worldview divide for all of us to see, and a situation like this is the best way to restrain evil, some deal or no deal. The argument for some deal is that there has to be some give and take and that when you have the very real threat of a nation like Iran developing nuclear weapons, perhaps the most you can hope for is to restrain or delay that development. The argument for no deal is that political naivety is just as deadly as bad intentions, that when it comes to a deal that everyone knows is not what it appears to be on its face, it is actually not honest and in the long term it is not effective to trust that such a deal will have any lasting meaning.

But then from the Christian worldview there are even bigger issues for us to consider. One is the morality of knowledge. How in the world do you step back from something you know? How do you, to ask it differently, un-know something that you do know? The reality is that human beings do not have the ability to un-know anything. Once we know something, we know it. Once a knowledge is gained, it is not lost. Even if someone does not know that knowledge and even if there is no active articulation of that knowledge, the existence of the knowledge still persists. What does that mean? It means that once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, it is impossible to put it back in. This is something that is simply a background truth in the controversies and concerns about North Korea, and it is a background truth in thinking about Iran.

Christians need to understand that the other big question that this entire picture raises is the question of how in the world we restrain evil, and what we’re looking at here is the sheer difficulty, if not the impossibility, of keeping a rogue state from acting in a rogue way. A rogue state is a state that is not correctable by international means that plays outside the boundaries of international rules, and that right now would apply to both North Korea and to Iran. So there is relief in Israel and Saudi Arabia and many other Arab capitals with the announcement made yesterday. There are many in the United States who are pleased with the president’s decision, and there are others who are absolutely convinced that it is a blunder. Time will tell, and dangerously enough it might not take much time to tell.

And so right here before us in what is supposedly a secular consideration and controversy in the headlines are some of the biggest theological issues that any of us can face, theological issues that Christians must clearly understand and identify. These would include the limitations of our knowledge, our even partial understanding of factuals, and our absolute ignorance of counterfactuals. These issues would include the sovereignty of God over against the very limited power even of a nation that claims to be in its own way sovereign, the United States of America. At play here are questions about good and evil and the fact that it is extremely difficult to restrain evil when you have someone or a state that is determined to do evil. You have the background reality that theology always matters, and it matters so explicitly when you’re talking about a regime that has declared itself to be a Shiite Islamic theocracy. And of course it involves the theology and morality of knowledge, the knowledge so important for us always to remember that when something is known, it cannot simply be unknown.

It is no accident that the fruit that was forbidden Adam and Eve in the garden was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Once that fruit is eaten, it cannot be uneaten.

Part III

In anti-Semitic speech, Palestinian leader seeks to deny any claim by Jewish people of inheritance in the Holy Land

But next, as we continue always thinking about the consequences of ideas and reminding ourselves that the worst ideas have the worst consequences, the most vile ideas have the vilest consequences, we turn once again to the Middle East. Headline news story in The New York Times “Palestinian Leader Incites an Uproar with Incendiary Speech.” Isabel Kershner reporting from Ramallah in the West Bank tells us the Palestinian leaders long rambling speech was laced with deeply anti-Semitic tropes, including that the Jews of Europe brought persecution and the Holocaust upon themselves because of usury banking and their social function. “Israel,” he said, “grew out of a European colonial project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.”

And then The New York Times tells us, citing a widely discredited book from the 1970s by Arthur Koestler entitled “The Thirteenth Tribe”, he pointed out that Ashkenazi Jews were descended not from the biblical Israelites but from the Khazars, a Turkic people who converted to Judaism in the eighth century, end quote So what’s going on here? Here you have Mahmoud Abbas, who is the head of the Palestinian Authority, using some of the most vile and historically repugnant anti-Semitic arguments, arguments that don’t emerge merely in the 20th century but in the 20th century emerged most murderously. The New York Times might have done its readers a service by explaining that in that third point raised in the introduction to the story what the leader of the Palestinian Authority was seeking to do was to deny any claim by the Jewish people of an inheritance in the Holy Land.

The argument that the Ashkenazi Jews are not actually Jewish but descended from Turkic peoples is one of the most repugnant, but far more repugnant is the idea that the Jewish people brought the Holocaust upon themselves. The New York Times, which cannot be accused of having an anti-Palestinian bias, when on to report that, “But instead of stirring international sympathy for his cause, he stirred outrage. The furor following his speech underscored what many critics view as the increasing irrelevance of Mr. Abbas, now in his 80s, the bankruptcy of the organization he leads, and the chasm between his stated goal and any imminent prospect of the Palestinians achieving it.”

Now, the tensions between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the Middle East are long standing, and the arguments they make are inherently contradictory, arguments over who has the right to the land, arguments over history, arguments over genealogy, arguments over politics. Well, it’s a continuing argument, and it is often a deadly argument.

The Palestinian peoples often complain that they had been mistreated and those claims of mistreatment are often true. The Palestinians have been horribly mistreated throughout history, most mistreated we should note by Arab nations. The establishment of Israel as a Jewish nation in 1948 did displace many more Palestinians, but the reality is that as a people they had been displaced time after time by nation after nation, even by many of the nations that later would claim to be pleading their case.

Israel has not been innocent in its dealing with the Palestinians, but Israel is not facing friendly neighbors. Israel is facing a number of nations surrounding it which have pledged themselves to the non-existence of Israel, and many within the Palestinian leadership have joined that same pledge. That was especially true during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s of the organization known as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and that is largely the precursor to the Palestinian Authority, the government, so far as it is a government, that now exists amongst the Palestinians headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.

The late Yasser Arafat when he was head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had come to terms, at least publicly, with the existence of Israel, which led to him sharing part of the Nobel Peace Prize. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said referring to the speech by Abbas, “Apparently the Holocaust denier is still a Holocaust denier.” The New York Times offered not merely a news story, but also a full editorial entitled “Mr. Abbas’s Vile Words.” The editorial began this way, “Feeding reprehensible anti-Semitic myths and conspiracy theories in a speech, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shed all credibility as a trustworthy partner if the Palestinians and Israelis ever again have the nerve to try negotiations.” The editorial went on to summarize the speech saying, “Speaking to the Palestinian legislative body, Mr. Abbas said the mass murder of European Jews in the Holocaust was the result of the victims’ financial activities, not their religious identity and anti-Semitism. He said, ‘So the Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe was not against their religion, but against their social function, which relates to usury, that is unscrupulous money lending, and banking and such.”

But then the editors of The New York Times echoed the statement made by the Israeli prime minister when the editors wrote, “Mr. Abbas’s anti-Semitic tendencies are not new. In the 1980s, he wrote a dissertation that seemed to question the widely accepted Holocaust death toll of six million Jews.” So The New York Times has come to the conclusion that Mahmoud Abbas is a failed project. The editors wrote, “He has weakened government institutions that are essential for a future state and refused to call new elections, thus overstaying his term by many years and preventing younger leaders from emerging. He has also failed to unify the Palestinians in the West Bank where his Fatah faction dominates with those in the even more desperate circumstances of the Gaza Strip where Hamas holds sway. Even in this gloomy climate however,” the editors wrote, “Mr. Abbas’s vile speech was a new low.” The editors concluded, “Palestinians need a leader with energy, integrity, and vision, one who might have a better chance of achieving Palestinian independence and enabling both peoples to live in peace.”

Once again, The New York Times has done a pretty good job of describing the moral issues at stake, and for that we should be thankful, but what’s missing here is some documentation about what is really meant by overstaying his stay. To put that in perspective, just understand these words: The Palestinian leader is currently in the 14th year of a four-year term. You heard it right. He is currently in the 14th year of a four-year term. That means that even though he was elected as leader of the Palestinian Authority, he has overstayed his election now by virtually a decade.

Christians looking at this story need to understand what is happening in the Middle East and the dynamic between not only Israel and the Palestinians, but the larger complex of issues in the Middle East. But we also need to understand that there is always more here than meets the eye, and when it comes to the Palestinian peoples, we need to remind ourselves that amongst the Palestinians would be many, many people who would claim to be Islamic, but there would also be many, many people who would be identified as Christians. There are longstanding historic Christian churches that are very much a part of the Palestinian community, and many of our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering under these conditions.

But this is where Christians reading the scripture and reading history come to understand that the claims about who owns this land have never been uncontested. When God gave his covenant people Israel the land, he told Joshua and the people who would enter the land that it was already inhabited, and that they would have to fight for it. Israel and Judea in the Old Testament found themselves continually at war against neighbors who wanted to erase their existence. By the time you come to the New Testament, it is Caesar Augustus who is calling the census. Why? Because the Roman Empire has taken control and the possession of Israel. For centuries, the Jewish people have been looking for rescue, have been looking for vindication, and had been looking for one who would overthrow Rome and its oppression.

Then we have to pass through the age of European empire when Britain and France claimed control of most of what we now know as the modern Middle East, and then we come to the 20th century and to a story from the middle of the 20th century, a fact that is often unknown by many Americans, and that was that the Islamic leader of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory during World War II known as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had entered into an explicit pact with Adolf Hitler to eradicate the Jews. The establishment of Israel in 1948 by action of the United Nations was one of the most controversial and one of the most consequential acts of the 20th century, but rival claims to the land, claims that are historical, claims that are illegal, and claims that are immoral are profoundly not new. But the repugnant statements made by the leader of the Palestinian Authority are a reminder to us that the vile reality of anti-Semitism is never far from the surface.

One final issue as we’re thinking about the difference between Europe and the United States, the editorial absolutely condemning Mahmoud Abbas appeared in The New York Times. Try to find a similar piece in a major European newspaper.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can find me on Twitter by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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