Monday, Oct 29, 2018

Monday, Oct 29, 2018

The Briefing

October 29, 2018

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

It’s Monday, October 29, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

After Pittsburgh synagogue attack, Christians must be clear that any form of anti-Semitism is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ

This is a particularly sober Monday morning after a particularly deadly weekend, indeed week, in the United States. We begin, of course, looking at Saturday’s event in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Law enforcement authorities indicate that a man by the name of Robert Bowers entered that congregation at about 10:00 AM and began opening fire. The openly anti-Semitic nature of the attack was made very clear with the fact that Robert Bowers said that he wanted all Jews to die, that according to a statement that he made after he was wounded, a statement made to a Pittsburgh SWAT officer.

Paula Reed Ward, reporting for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, began the story this way, “After Robert Bowers was wounded in a gun battle with Pittsburgh SWAT officers and was receiving medical treatment he said he wanted all Jews to die and also that they (meaning the Jews) were committing genocide to his people. Those details,” said the reporter, “emerged early Sunday in an affidavit of probable cause charging Robert Bowers, age 46, with 11 counts of homicide,” along with other charges. The other charges include six counts of attempted homicide, six counts of aggravated assault, and 13 counts of a crime identified as ethnic intimidation. But those are state and local charges.

The federal charges amount to 29 different federal counts. Those were filed on Saturday night. They include 11 counts of a crime known as obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of a use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer, and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence. Police and press reports said that Bowers was armed with a Colt AR-15, as well as three Glock .357 hand guns. He put all of them to murderous use.

The Washington Post reported that the attack in Pittsburgh is likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. That begins to place this in some kind of context. And as we place it in that context, we also come to understand that when you’re looking at Pittsburgh and you’re looking at Squirrel Hill and you’re looking at the Tree of Life congregation, you are looking at American citizens gathered for worship on their day of worship, the Jewish Sabbath, and they found themselves confronted by someone who entered the synagogue with murderous intent and with murderous effect.

There have been numerous murderous attacks upon Christian congregations gathered for worship. Some of these have had a racial dimension, many of them have not. The reality is that we are looking at a fundamental existence of evil and a demonstration of this evil that defies the moral imagination of any morally sane human being.

Organizations that track anti-Semitism in the world and in the United States have demonstrated, they pretty well documented the fact that there has been a significant rise in overt anti-Semitism just over the last few years. This raises the specter of an issue that haunts the Christian conscience and western civilization, although it affects much of the world and has for many, many centuries. When you’re looking at anti-Semitism, you are looking at one of the oldest hatreds that has served as an infection in the bloodstream of humanity. You are looking at one of the most murderous hatreds that, of course, is reflected even in the storyline of Scripture, but continues right down to the headlines in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this weekend. And you are also looking at the fact that worldwide, when you’re looking at Europe and you’re looking at other parts of the world, when you’re looking especially at the Middle East, there is a particular anti-Judaism that has become very virulent.

And in the United States we have seen, for example, anti-Semitic messaging becoming part of disruptions in America’s public life, including the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Throughout much of the history of the Christian church, there has been a struggle with anti-Semitism, but this is where Christians must understand theologically and biblically what is at stake. Israel is central to God’s saving purpose for humanity. The promise of salvation comes, as we see in the covenant made with Abraham, that through Abraham and his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And of course ultimately, the promise of salvation comes through a Savior, who was born to a Jewish mother and whose Jewish identity is central to our understanding of who Jesus is as revealed in Scripture. The Jewishness of Jesus is not an accident, it is central to the identity of Jesus and the promise Christ is the promised Messiah. A promise given first to the Jews and only by extension, as the Apostle Paul makes clear, extended also to Gentiles.

We come to understand that the early church had to declare that it was not unusual that salvation would come to the Jews, that was declared to be God’s purpose, rather it is the extension of salvation to the Gentiles that has to be explained. And of course it is clearly explained within the New Testament. And of course, there is conflict even in the New Testament between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and eventually there is a separation between Judaism and Christianity.

But we need to note, the Bible is clear that God is not finished with Israel. Indeed, there are promises yet to be fulfilled, promises assured by the very character of God, and there is also promised a great display of the glory of God in an eventual turning of many Jewish people to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord.

There is a storyline of Scripture that also points us in eschatology, not to a new secular city, but rather to a New Jerusalem. That points to the continuing importance, not only symbolically, but in substance of God’s promises given through Israel. Promises that are given, not only through Israel, but also to Israel. The Christian church thus must understand that there are two great illustrations of God’s providence throughout history. One is the survival of the Jewish people and the other is the survival of the church. And here we have to understand that the survival of the Jewish people can be explained only throughout history by the fact that they are continuing to be a part of the sovereign intention of God.

To assert the truth as clearly as possible, any form of anti-Semitism is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ and incompatible with the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, makes very clear that we are to feel gratitude to the Jewish people and to understand that it is we, as Gentiles, who have been grafted on to the promises made to Israel. It is not Israel that is somehow grafted on to the promises made to the Christian church. Ultimately, the gospel of Jesus Christ points to the singularity of the saving work of Christ and to the fact that salvation comes only through the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and the confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and as Lord.

Part II

How do we place the evil we have witnessed over the past week in the larger context of history and a Christian worldview?

The Christian church holds, not in tension but rather in promise, a sense of protection for the Jewish people. Where you find the Christian church most faithful, you find the Christian church most respectful of Israel and most protective of the Jewish people. And you also, where you find the church most faithful, find the church asserting and affirming the dignity of every single human being.

But even as the murderous rampage in the synagogue there in Pittsburgh rightly dominates our concerns on Monday morning, we are reminded, quite sadly, that the entire previous week was a week without precedent in American history.

On Friday, just the day before the attack in Pittsburgh, authorities arrested a man in Florida, Cesar Sayoc, arresting him for being the person behind the mailing of pipe bombs to numerous figures identified by the commonality of their opposition to President Donald Trump.

Included among his intended victims was former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Democratic Presidential nominee and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Kevin Roose of The New York Times reports, “By the time he was arrested in Florida on Friday, charged with sending pipe bombs to at least a dozen of President Trump’s critics, Mr. Sayoc appeared to fit the all-too-familiar profile of a modern extremist, radicalized online and sucked into a vortex of partisan furor. In recent weeks, he had posted violent fantasies and threats against several people to whom pipe bombs were addressed, including Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. His vehicle, a white van plastered with right-wing slogans, came to resemble a Facebook feed on wheels.”

We were not surprised to understand that Mr. Sayoc had had previous run-ins with the law, as The Wall Street Journal reports, at least one arrest in 2002 in Miami for threatening to bomb a local utility.

Another team of reporters for The New York Times, datelining their story from Aventura, Florida, began with these words, “Cesar Sayoc was a volatile nobody desperate to become a somebody. He styled himself as a bodybuilder, entrepreneur, member of the Seminole tribe and exotic-dance promoter in the status-hungry beachfront world of South Florida. In reality, Mr. Sayoc, a fervent supporter of President Trump who has been charged with mailing pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, was a bankrupt loner who spewed anger and spent years living in and out of a van, according to court documents and interviews with people who knew him.”

The paper goes on to say, “He went on racist, anti-gay tirades at the Fort Lauderdale pizza shop where he worked as a night-shift deliveryman in 2017.” The story goes on indicating the fact that there were many people who were already troubled by Cesar Sayoc, long before he came to the attention of federal law enforcement authorities. And, of course, it came to the attention of the entire nation.

Now, we need to note a couple of things before we leave this particular story and move on to even other headlines, and that has to do with the fact that we need to recognize with gratitude the civilizational achievement of the fact that law enforcement found him so quickly. According to major news media, he was identified by federal authorities as early as Thursday, the arrest came on Friday. And the arrest came before any of the bombs were actually detonated, before there was any physical harm to anyone.

That does nothing to mitigate or reduce the moral responsibility of the individual or as it might turn out, individuals, who are behind the planned attacks. But it does point to the fact that we should be grateful that you had mail inspectors, you had a system of law enforcement, you had secret service, the FBI, postal inspectors. You had an entire civilization that was at work, and we need to note actually worked, preventing any of these attacks from being successful.

As is almost always the case, even a plot of some sophistication involves imperfection. And as The Wall Street Journal reported in its front page article over the weekend, it was a single fingerprint taken from a mail bomb sent to Representative Maxine Waters that helped investigators get a break in solving the terror plot. It was not only, as we came later to understand, that single fingerprint, it was also DNA that was found by federal investigators within the materials mailed to the intended victims.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the week, right here in Louisville, Kentucky, there was another murderous crime. In this case, there was an apparent racial intent. That was made clear first of all in the racial identity, the African-American identity of the two victims. The victims were Vickie Lee Jones, age 67, and Maurice E. Stallard, age 69.

Frighteningly, Stallard was in the grocery store with his 12-year-old grandson, intending to help his grandson to get materials for a school project. The grandson and the grandfather, we are told, were particularly close. The 12-year-old was Stallard’s first grandchild.

And yet, as the story unfolded, it became clear by testimony and by the pattern that the shooter had entered the supermarket intending to target African-Americans. He shot and killed two African-Americans and having an opportunity to shoot a white person, who was also at the crime scene, he said, “Whites do not shoot whites.”

The suspect in this case was also taken into custody on Wednesday. He is Gregory Bush, age 51. He was charged on Thursday with two counts of murder and ten counts of wanton endangerment.

The horrifying story tells us of a 12-year-old boy who saw his grandfather shot in cold blood. It tells of us of the boy then running out of the grocery store, crying for help and then disappearing for some time until law enforcement officials determined that a kind observer in the supermarket’s parking lot had taken the child to his home.

And so, just looking at developments here in the United States, over just the last several days, any morally serious person has to understand we are looking here at what can only be described accurately, theologically, and biblically as evil. But we, as Christians, understand that this is not the first time that we have seen evil. We understand how we place this within a larger context, not only of human history, not only of American history, not only of human experience, but in the great cosmic story of the Christian gospel revealed in Scripture.

And this does not make the story any easier to handle. If anything, it demonstrates the even deeper moral significance of these events, of the racism and anti-Semitism, the reflected in these attacks of the murderous intention that is so infected humanity of the hatreds that are so intractable throughout the human experience, and this points us once again to the fact that there is no ultimate deliverance until we are delivered by Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. There is no resolution to these issues fully and totally until there is the establishment of the kingdom of Christ in full.

And yet, of course, that does not diminish to any extent our responsibility as individuals, as Christians, as American citizens, to confront the moral truth, to oppose moral evil, and to do whatever is possible to protect human life. It is because we believe, not only on the basis of some kind of assertion of human dignity in a secular frame, but rather by the biblical worldview understanding the dignity and sanctity of every human life, we must contend against evil, not only in its murderous form, but in any violent form. In any form that subverts or attacks human dignity and the respect that human beings must have one for the other. Not because of our common humanity, but because of our common creation in the image of God.

It is for that reason I bring up an article that appeared in the immediate aftermath of all of these events. It’s by Max Boot, again it appeared in The Washington Post. Boot begins by saying, “I am so sad. I am so heartbroken. What is happening to our country?” He then asks, “How can we live in an America where a gunman can barge into a synagogue and open fire, reportedly screaming ‘All Jews must die’?”

“How,” he asks, “can we live in an America where someone — the FBI,” he says, “has arrested a Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc — can send pipe bombs to, among others, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?” He goes on to identify others, Maxine Waters, financier George Soros, former CIA director John Brennan and CNN.

“This is not,” he says, “what America is about. We are,” he writes, “a country dedicated to freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion. We are a nation of immigrants from all corners of the globe brought together in mutual dedication to the ‘self-evident’ truths ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ All ‘men’ means,” he says rightly, “in the language of the 18th century, all people of whatever gender or color or creed. There is no exception,” he says, “for liberals or Jews or critics of the president.”

Now, what he said is, of course, absolutely right. But the context into which he’s speaking this has to be defined. For one thing, it is not true that this is a sudden eruption of violence in America’s political life or our national history. That’s just not accurate. And believing so or declaring it to be so is not morally helpful in this context.

It is clarifying to understand that in the last several days, even in the last couple of years, there has been an escalation of partisan division in the United States and there has been an increasing distance amongst political parties and the two polarities in America’s moral and worldview and political life. It is right and accurate, necessary to underline the fact that political leaders have a moral responsibility, not just in light of these kinds of attacks, but in general terms by virtue of the stewardship of their office and influence. That’s all important. But it is not accurate to act as if somehow a common commitment to the Constitution is what will restrain evil. That just doesn’t fit the Christian worldview. That’s a very insubstantial and inadequate foundation on which to build the necessary respect the human beings will have for one another.

This is also where thinking Christians need to understand and help Americans to understand to pause for just a moment and recognize the people who are the suspects identified as carrying out these murderous attacks and intended attacks are not well described as rational political actors. That is to say, we have not developed a political system in this country where rational political actors, responsible persons representing either the Democratic or the Republican party or any respectable political position have entered into this kind of violence. That’s important for us to understand. In some societies, it is political actors who are directly involved in this kind of violence.

But then we have to ask the question, then what is the responsibility, perhaps even the culpability of political leaders, elected and otherwise, in light of the kind of responsibilities of moral leadership. And this is where we need to understand that we are looking at a current moment in the political landscape of the United States where there are multiple failures across the political spectrum when it comes to setting the appropriate limits upon political discourse. And, at the very top of that list has to be the only individual who sits in the White House, in the Oval Office, resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There is a unique responsibility invested in the American presidency. It’s not only a legal and Constitutional political responsibility, it is also a moral responsibility.

Part III

Politics, while inevitable, cannot carry the weight of the moral challenge America faces

And here’s where Christians need to look one another in the face and remind ourselves that we need to restrict the use of the word ‘evil’ to what is genuinely evil. We should not describe our political opponents as evil. We should not describe those who hold to a different political system, to a different partisan affiliation, or to a different policy proposal as evil.

We are dealing with issues in which good and evil are at war, we are dealing with political issues right down to the sanctity of human life and matters of life and death. But it simply does not fit the moral circumstances of the political moment to suggest that someone who opposes us is doing so out of a partisan evil. That’s, of course, not to say that evil never has a place in our political discourse. But evil, as a term, has to be reserved for genuine moral evil, not for mere political disagreement. Even virulent political disagreement.

Christians must also understand that political leadership invokes moral leadership. The two are ultimately indivisible. That kind of moral leadership becomes exceedingly important at this kind of moment. And this is where we need to call upon and to expect all of our elected leaders, beginning in the White House but extending to Congress and throughout the entire political system, to respond to the events of the last several days and to the challenges of the moment we now face with a moral seriousness and a moral leadership that is incumbent upon their office and is invoked in their responsibility.

The vilification of political enemies comes quite natural to political combat. And let’s be clear, politics is combat. The higher the stakes, the more intense the combat. Thus we should not be surprised that on both sides of the political spectrum you have the vilification of one’s political opponents. But that vilification must not be extended to the use of the kind of language and signaling that sets loose in America’s body politic an uncertainty about the appropriate boundaries of political disagreement.

Sadly, as we look across American history, we understand that in the very beginning, violence was a part of the American experience. Just remember the fact that we are a nation birthed in an armed revolution. We need to remember that the American government and American leaders at every level have had to respond to the challenge of violence throughout American history. Let’s just remember, as we fast forward to, let’s just say the experience of many now living, that 50 years ago in 1968, we were looking at a situation in the United States that was measured by overt political violence, even more violent than what we are seeing today. We should be thankful that at this point we have not seen some of the tragic events of 1968, but that does not make the tragic events of 2018 any less tragic. It does, however, humble us for making the immediate assumption that somehow something has happened in the United States that has never happened before.

It is a very sad commentary upon the state of affairs, not only in the United States, but in humanity, that following the events of last week and particularly of last Saturday, there will be an immediate political debate. All of these issues will be considered and will be contested within an essentially political framework. This is where Christians must insist that politics, though inevitable, is not able to carry the moral freight of this kind of challenge.

Given the American Constitutional order, for which I am thankful, it is hard to imagine any era in which it is easy in American politics to establish the appropriate limits of democratic disagreement. That’s going to be a challenge in any era. It’s been a challenge in the United States from the very beginning of our experience as a nation. But that doesn’t make the challenge less important, it makes it only more important because the stakes are always going to be higher. This kind of historical contextualization doesn’t mean that Christians grieve any less, if anything, it means that Christians grieve all the more.

This is where we have to insist it’s not just a matter of an attack upon America’s democratic institutions in our political system, it’s an attack upon human dignity. That’s a far deeper issue. But that problem didn’t emerge in the year 2018, and for that matter, it didn’t emerge even in 1776. It emerges far earlier in the human story. As Christians understand, it emerged as early as Genesis 3.

And so with humble hearts, Christians reserve the word evil for genuine moral evil. But that’s exactly what we have seen in the United States just over the last several days. And so now we use the word evil without hesitation because that’s what it is. And biblical Christians know how to name evil for what it is, not because we are so morally wise, but because the Scripture is so clear.

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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