Tuesday, June 26, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, June 26th, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why according to a biblical worldview civility is not just a political necessity
What's gone wrong with our culture? There are many diagnoses. Sometimes, the catalyst is a headline story that appears to be big. Sometimes, it's a story that doesn't get much attention, it appears to be small, but the composite picture as we put all of this together indicates that something has gone wrong with our society, something is toxic in our culture even if we have not exactly agreed upon the diagnosis.
One word used in a recent front-page article in the New York Times seems to be, at least in large part, an accurate diagnosis. The headline in the article by Peter Baker and Katie Rogers is this, "Incivility Infests a Nation Divided in the Era of Trump." Now, of course, there's political meaning even in that headline, but the most important word in the headline is the word "incivility." The argument is that incivility is now infesting a divided nation. There's plenty of evidence for that.
Just over the weekend, the news broke that the press secretary in the White House, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had been asked to leave a restaurant in suburban Virginia. The restaurant was known as the Red Hen. It seats less than 50 people. Evidently, the press secretary and her party were too much for the owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, who admitted to the press that she had entered into the restaurant after staff called her, telling her that Sanders and party were in the restaurant, but even as the party was enjoying cheese boards, as described in the media, before the entrée, the owner of the restaurant, who came to the restaurant after she was alerted to Sanders' presence, went up to her and asked to speak to her privately, eventually asking her to leave the restaurant. Her party also left at about the same time.
Oddly enough, the restaurant owner explained her actions by indicating that she felt driven by, "Certain standards that I feel we have to uphold such as honesty and compassion and cooperation." It's hard to imagine exactly how compassion and cooperation are to be interpreted in that light, and I'm not even asking the question as to whether there was a legal right for the restaurant owner to ask the White House press secretary to leave. The point is that this was an overtly political act, and it's the kind of political act that we are seeing all across the nation's political landscape.
That's troubling enough, but what we need to note is that there is a level and a vehemence and, yes, an incivility to this pattern that we have not seen in America, even in American political culture, for decades, indeed, for well over a century. Without doubt, the action taken by the restaurant owner in Lexington, Virginia, was a political statement. It was intended as a political statement. There's no way that the one who took this action could have imagined that asking the press secretary of the White House to leave her restaurant would be something that wouldn't gain national media attention. Of course, it would. Of course, it did.
Also, on Saturday, Representative Maxine Waters, a member of Congress from California, herself no stranger to controversy, called for the American people to "absolutely harass members of the President's Cabinet. Waters said to a political rally in Los Angeles, "The American people have put up with this president long enough. What more do we need to see? What more lies do we need to hear? If you see anybody," she said, "from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them."
Now, remember, it is she who used the word "harass." Later, she said, "And I want to tell you, for these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend him, they're not going to be able to go to a restaurant, to be able to stop at a gas station, to be able to shop at a department store. The people are going to turn on them. They're going to protest. They're going to absolutely harass them until they tell the president, 'No, I can't hang with you.'"
We have seen more and more of these kinds of stories in recent months. Just consider the controversy over comediennes Kathy Griffin and Samantha Bee. Not only that, but earlier this month in New York, at the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, actor Robert De Niro, who was supposed to be merely introducing singer Bruce Springsteen, actually launched into a political tirade. It only included two words that he then repeated, and the first word was about the worst vulgarity we can imagine not to be repeated here, followed by the name Trump. That was the entirety of his political message, and the message was unambiguous even as it was shocking even to those in Radio City Music Hall, but the Washington Post pointed out that a large number of the 6,000 in attendance rose to their feet and applauded.
Hollywood has been highly engaged in this kind of calculated and, often, manufactured outrage, and so have some members of Congress such as Maxine Waters, but this is not just the Hollywood left and it's not just Democrats, this is a bipartisan pattern we should note and, on the Republican side, the one person who is most responsible is the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who especially in his tweets has often instigated and, at other times, responded to this kind of outrage with an outrage of his own. After Representative Maxine Waters dared in public to call for the active harassment of members of the Trump Cabinet, the president responded by questioning the IQ of the member of Congress.
The article in the New York Times cited an academic, Christine Porath of Georgetown University. She's a professor. She's also the author of a book entitled Mastering Civility. She said, "Unfortunately, we've seen a decline in civility and an uptick in incivility." She went on to say, "It seems like people are not only reciprocating, but we tend to stoop lower rather than higher. It's really putting us in an unfortunate place." She went on to say, by the way, "We know that incivility is contagious. It's like a bug or virus. It's not only when people experience incivility, it's when they see or read about it."
That's how the virus spreads, and here's where we need to understand that the secular understanding of incivility is not unimportant, but it can take us only so far. We need to consider the word that's being used here. It's not a very strong word. Acting in a way that is civil is not exactly a high threshold.
Civil behaviors, civil language refers to the very language that is minimally needed in order to maintain civilization. The root word "civil" is easily translated into the word "civilization." You can't have civilization without certain civilizing forms of behavior, certain civilizing norms that indicate who deserves a voice and a place within the society and who is to be marginalized simply because of incivility, but when you're talking about members of Congress and the president of the United States and those who are in charge of the culture manufacturing industries seeming to try to one-up each other in incivility, there is no end to this virus, but it's bad enough that the society is seeming now to thrive on outrage.
It's bad enough that parents may have the instinct to put their hands over the ears of their children just because of the news programming, but it's also the case that we are subverting the very norms that make civilization possible, but as we look at our own nation, we have to understand that America began in the kind of incivility that we are seeing today, but it had to outgrow that incivility and develop its own civilizing norms in order to achieve the kind of sustainable democratic culture that has marked this nation, its rise and its stability and its prominence on the world scene.
Going back to the Colonial and Revolutionary eras and the beginnings of American democracy, candidates and political parties and political figures would often hurl the worst insults toward one another and would plant rumors. One of the most common of the rumors would indicate that there was a question of legitimacy in the nature of the individual's birth. Questioning parentage led to questioning patriotism, and there were some original questions about who was born where and why it matters and who was high born and low born and what kind of language and what kind of acts were undertaken by certain political figures. This was all a form of vitriol that fed so much of the early energy in American democracy, but America had to get over those patterns. Otherwise, there would be no stable democracy.
Some of the Founding Fathers, as we know, they were instrumental in developing those norms, none more so than George Washington, the first president of the United States. Washington sought to embody a kind of public character and public culture in which the president of the United States and, by example, others in America's political culture would rise above that kind of incivility and would never be seen to act in a way that would embarrass the young nation, but even as a secular review of American history will indicate the instrumentality, the absolute necessity of developing these kinds of baseline civic and civil norms in order to have a stable democracy, Christians have to take the argument further because the scripture takes it further. In particular, the New Testament takes it further.
It turns out that, in a biblical understanding, civility is not just about political norms. Civility is about our Christian witness. Just consider the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Romans 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Now, you'll notice that is a command given by the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul for the church.
I repeat, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." That's a very, very important verse, and it's affirmation of individual responsibility is absolutely crucial. Paul says, "If possible, so far as it depends on you." We may not have the ability unilaterally or individually to create a civil culture, but at the very least, so far as it depends on us, we should be agents of that civility rather than incivility, living peacefully with all, and that "with all," it does not just mean "in the church." It means "with the entire society."
Likewise, 1 Peter 2:12 indicates that Christians are to, "Show proper respect to everyone." That kind of respect is not just a democratic necessity and a civilizing norm. It turns out to be something important in demonstrating our personal Christian character and our commitment to Christ.
To put the matter as plainly as possible, there isn't much future for a democratic experiment in self-government in a constitutional republic if that political culture is debased so much so that going to a department store or a gas station or a restaurant is an overtly political act and is understood to be, in reciprocity, also a political act to serve someone at a restaurant or to allow someone to buy gas or to allow someone to shop at a department store.
But as rightly concerned as American Christians are with the maintenance of democratic norms in order to stabilize our political system, we also have to understand, as the Apostle Paul and Peter make clear, there is an even higher issue for our accountability. Christians are certainly called to a higher standard than mere civility, but some days it's important to recognize we've been called to no lower standard, and that's important to affirm as well.
Obsessed with death: Secular society forced to search for meaning when confronted with the reality of mortality
Next, at any given time, it's important to take note of the obsessions of the culture around us and, as the New York Times Sunday edition made clear, one of the current obsessions of American society is death. That Sunday edition of the paper ran a major headline story. Here's the headline, "The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life." The subhead is this, "Death cafes, death doulas, 'Ask a Mortician,' DeathLab — once the province of goth subculture, death," according to reporter, John Leland, "is having a moment in the sun."
A closer look at the article indicates that what we're seeing here one of the recurring patterns of obsession with death and with mortality that marks the human condition, and it's particularly acute in a secular culture. Why? Because death and mortality raise questions the secular worldview can't answer, it can't handle.
What we see in this article more than anything else is the fact that the secular worldview is grasping with some way to deal with death and, at least in one sense, it is trying to cope by turning death into something positive, but, nonetheless, as we often see in articles like this, the truth comes shining through even as you look at the kinds of arguments that are made here. The fact is you can't turn death into a positive experience, and the article makes very clear some of the nonsense that human beings will turn to in trying to deny the obvious.
The article tells us about Shatzi Weisberger. She's a former nurse in New York City who has turned her now full-time attention to death and to helping people to think about and prepare for death. The opening scene is in the common room in her apartment on the Upper West Side, and we are told that in the corner of the room was what's described as a biodegradable cardboard coffin, and on the coffin were written handwritten messages in colored marker. "Death is only the beginning," was one of those. Also, another addressed to her, "“Go Shatzi. Shatzi, many happy returns ... as trees, as bumble bees, as many happy memories."
Ms. Weisberger, by the way is 88 years old and, according to the New York Times, she's found something of a second calling in what is labeled the positive death movement that's described, this is interesting, "As a scattering of mostly women who want to break the taboos around discussions of death."
There is a decidedly female angle to this story about the positive death movement, and that's revealed even in the fact that one of the issues of modern invention about death are the so-called death doulas, and you'll recall that the word "doula" has become increasingly common in an assistant under the birth of a child for a mom, but, now, we are told that human beings may need a doula not only on the way in, but also on the way out.
Speaking of the new positive death movement, Leland reports, "Some connect through blogs or YouTube channels. Some gather at monthly death cafes. Some find more institutional grounding at the DeathLab at Columbia University's architecture school or the Art of Dying Institute at the Open Center, identified as a six-month program touching on everything from green burials ... bonus, we're told they're cheap ... to certified training for end-of-life doulas." Now, that raises the interesting question as to who in particular would be the authority to certify training for end-of-life doulas, but if you ask the question, you're probably answering it yourself.
Later in the article, Leland tells us that if we're looking for an historic moment with the birth of the positive death movement, he says it is 2003, "When a social worker at a New York hospice center became disillusioned by the care that the medical staff were able to give to dying patients and their families." Leland goes on to say, "The social worker, Henry Fersko-Weiss, saw what doulas did for women during and after childbirth and then asked the question, 'Why couldn't dying people get the same level of attention and emotional support?'"
In a statement that sounds quite confusion in its underlying worldview, Fersko-Weiss said, "There are tremendous similarities between birthing and dying. There's a great deal unknown. There's a great deal of pain and a need for support for the people around the person who is going through the experience."
The article also cites Joanna Ebenstein, identified as a graphic designer in Brooklyn. She said, "We just don't know what to do with death anymore. It's this big, scary thing. We don't have a set of rituals around it that contains it or gives it meaning. Ours is the first culture to pathologize an interest in death."
Actually, Ebenstein is on to something even if this isn't totally accurate. We are a society that has been for a considerable number of decades trying to deny death, trying to forestall death, trying to put death out in the future so far that we don't have to think about it, trying to cosmetically enhance death, trying to basically euphemize or modernize death, but death refuses to bend to our consumer demands or our needs for emotional satisfaction.
She points to the distinction between current American culture and other more traditional cultures, but the fact is, in its own way, every single culture has to struggle with questions of death and mortality. If you look through human history, some of the weirdest traditions, some of the most bizarre practices, some of the most dark moments and some of the greatest artistic achievements have been associated with the reality of and the fear of death.
Some of the most basic questions that must be addressed by every single human being have to do with the meaning of life, and the meaning of life is, for mortal human beings, defined by the knowledge of death. Our mortality not only establishes the fact that we are temporal beings who are on planet Earth for a temporary period, it also raises the basic questions about the meaning of our lives with the reality of birth and death both largely outside of our control.
It's also interesting to note that several of these secular critics of the American way of death in our modern society are clearly on to something. We have, indeed, changed the way Americans deal with death. We have professionalized it. We've tried to anesthetized it. We tried to remove it from public view. Whereas the process of death and even the viewing of the body and the mourning with the family took place within the context of the family home, now, it is something far removed, and it is something that is often, just to put it bluntly, out of sight, if not completely out of mind, but when you look at this article, it's quite sad to see how a secular society is responding to that kind of redefinition of death with an obsession about death with these death doulas and death cafes and with DeathLab, did you catch it, at Columbia University's school of architecture of all things.
In case you're wondering what a death café is, if not to go to one, then to avoid one, Leland explains, "Death cafes as a formal institution, began in East London in 2011, in the basement of a man named Jon Underwood, who quit his job as a business development director to create small gatherings where strangers could drink tea, eat cake and talk informally about death and dying."
Now that sounds pretty sad. Human beings are gathering together in groupings in order to drink tea, eat cake and talk informally about death. What does that tell Christians? It tells that the reality of death is something that brings human beings to the need to converse, to a desperate search for meaning and to answering questions that simply will not comfortably remain unanswered.
A secular age has numerous obsessions. On the one hand, you've got a certain form of a desperate ecological obsession, and that shows up here with the desire for more ecological or friendly green patterns of death and of burial, but we also note how, in a secular rather desperate context, much of that can be transformed into a new form of spirituality.
One person cited in the article actually went so far as to say, "I also feel that decomposition is deeply spiritual. One of the things that draws people to this work is that we don't have a basis in religion. That's why a lot of people are becoming part of this death positive movement."
Good luck with that. Good luck with trying to define death as positive, and good luck even as you are denying any "basis in religion" and arguing that decomposition is deeply spiritual. I think it's safe to say that even a casual observer, the decomposition of any form of biological life [inaudible 00:20:22] profound evidence that whatever is happening, it isn't spiritual.
There's also something very revealing in this statement by Shatzi Weisberger. That's the 88-year-old former nurse with which the article began. She said, "I really want to experience my dying. I don't want to die in a car crash or be unconscious. I want to be home. I want to be in my bed. I want to share the experience with anybody who's interested." She said, There's so much more to share, but I don't want to go on. No, I really do want to go on," she said.
Notice that message. "I don't want to go on," and then corrected quite quickly, "No, I really do want to go on." There is that yearning. It's a deep, undeniable yearning, and this is where Christians have to understand the power of the gospel as the only adequate answer to that yearning. That yearning can be satisfied only in Christ.
As the gospel makes very clear, it is by Christ's substitutionary atonement on the cross and by his resurrection from the dead that we have the promise of everlasting life, but the Bible also tells us on the front end that our mortality is due not to the fact that we are inherently mortal creatures, but because of the reality of sin and its consequences.
One of the interesting revelations in this article, again, the truth shines through if you're looking for it closely enough, is that many of the people cited in this article who say that they do not believe in life after death, they can't avoid using the language that implies existence after death, and even if the society around is increasingly trying to grapple with questions of death and, sometimes, it seems absolutely obsessed with death, we have to recognize that death raises questions we really can answer and provides an opportunity for conversation we dare not miss.
Supreme Court punts on one of the most important issues facing the court this year
Finally, yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States basically ducked the question. It punted. It avoided rendering a decision on one of the most important issues facing the court this year. It has to do with the fact that a florist in Washington State was found guilty of violating the rights of LGBT persons by refusing on the basis of her Christian conscience to create floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding.
Earlier this month, the very same court handed down a very important 7-2 decision in the case of a cake baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding in the state of Colorado. In that case, in that 7-2 majority, the court indicated that the Colorado legal process demonstrated an anamus against Jack Phillips and his Christian beliefs.
In the decision that was a non-decision handed down yesterday, the Supreme Court told the legal authorities, most importantly, the courts in Washington State, to review the case of Barronelle Stutzman in light of that case having to do with Jack Phillips in the 7-2 decision handed down by the Supreme Court, but if that sounds encouraging, it is not necessarily so. There was no question about the demonstrated religious animus against Jack Phillips in Colorado. The officials in Washington State are likely now to argue that they came to their conclusion against Barronelle Stutzman without demonstrating a similar kind of religious animus.
It's interesting from a worldview perspective to see how the court is handling or, in this case, really not handling these issues. In that 7-2 decision, in the case about the cake baker, it was often and rightly described as a narrow decision. Several people asked the question, "How can a decision handed down 7-2 be narrow?" It's not because we're looking at the narrowness of the vote, it's because we're looking at the narrowness of the argument.
In the language about Supreme Court decisions, "narrow" means that it will have a very narrow application. It doesn't make a very broad point, and when you see the case now in Washington State about Barronelle Stutzman, it is clear that that narrow case may not apply in this situation, or at least the Supreme Court set up the fact that an argument will be made to that effect.
The bottom line is that the Supreme Court of the United States looking at these two cases has still failed to hand down clear guidelines indicating how they consider the protection of religious liberty to be possible in a situation that is now marked by a sexual revolution.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You could 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.