Monday, Nov. 12, 2018

Monday, Nov. 12, 2018

The Briefing

November 12, 2018

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

It’s Monday, November 12, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Two stories about death and evil—one moral evil, one natural evil—dominate weekend headlines out of California

Deadly fires in both northern and southern California dominate the news this Monday morning. As of early this morning, it appears that at least 29 fatalities have been recorded, making the current fires in California matching, at this point, the most deadly fire in California history. And we’re talking about a big state with a very long and sad history with fires.

The fact that fires are in the northern and the southern part of the state simply complicates the picture. Again, as of this morning, 29 fatalities. But even more ominously, law enforcement and fire officials in the state indicated that they expect the death toll will rise considerably simply because of the likelihood of additional bodies being found in the, get this, thousands of homes that have been destroyed by these fires. We’re talking about thousands of homes, we are talking about fires that have moved so quickly and with such deadly effect. And as you you’re looking at the news stories on this, it becomes very clear that the media are running out of vocabulary in order to describe the horror of these fires.

But even as in our prayer and our thoughts, we are concerned about the fires in California and the continuing threat of those fires and the destruction and the grief from those fires, we also recognize that a very different form of evil has also been in the headlines in California. Last week’s deadly massacre in a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California in which a shooter killed at least 12 people.

And as the nation is reeling from one headline to another and as the state of California, in such a tragic way, finds itself at the center of both of these stories, we need to recognize, as Christians seeking to think biblically and theologically, that the last week of headlines in California with these two huge stories about death and about evil, they outline the basic challenges of the problem of evil for all of us. For all of humanity and especially for thinking Christians.

Here we need to recognize that in the shootings in California and in the fires, we have the simultaneous deadly display of the two main forms of evil in the world. We refer to the shootings appropriately, along with other sinful acts, as moral evil. But we also refer to the events of the fire and other similar kinds of natural occurrences, that is occurrences in nature for which there is no direct human blame, we refer to them as acts of nature and they are furthermore referred to as natural evil.

There is some question philosophically and theologically about applying the word evil to anything that is merely an act of nature. We understand how inescapable and unavoidable is the word evil when we talk about someone entering into a place with deadly intent, opening fire and killing fellow human beings. That is moral evil. But is the word evil rightly applied to a tornado or to an earthquake or to a termite or a mosquito or a deadly disease or a tumor? Is that the right use of the word evil?

Well, this is where philosophers may differ, but they generally find no other option than to use the word evil simply because of the moral importance of what we are dealing with. But in a theological worldview, the answer is actually quite a bit easier because we recognize that even in the case of what might be called natural evil, the moral evil and the natural evil share in the nature of evil and they also share in the origin of evil.

We, as Christians operating from a Biblical and theological worldview, understand that there is no form of evil, there is no form of death, there is no form of destruction that is not immediately or eventually answered by the reality of human sin and the chaos set loose in the cosmos by human sin and God’s judgment upon human sin and his judgment being meted out even in a fallen cosmos that reflects the reality of our sin.

Now, there is a very interesting question to ask here, if you’re operating from a secular, non-theistic, materialistic, naturalistic worldview, how in the world do you deal with evil at all? And in particular, how do you deal with the question of so-called natural evil? If the entire cosmos is an accident and everything that happens within it simply an accident, if there is no design and there is no purpose because there is no Designer or Purposer in the universe, then how in the world do we call anything morally significant, much less morally evil? That’s a very important question, but again, Christians can answer that question because we understand that even people who believe that they are fully secular, they are still, because they are made in God’s image, they’re still moral creatures and they can’t avoid the moral question, moral intuitions, and moral judgment.

The face of moral evil, that is evil by a human agent, a responsible human agent, that’s very clear in the story from Thousand Oaks. The The New York Times story begins by telling us that the killer, wearing dark clothing and a dark baseball cap, set off smoke bombs to create confusion. Note the premeditated nature of all of this. Then he began shooting before, in the very end, turning the gun on himself. He had only one purpose and that became very clear, to create murder and mayhem and he did, to an extremely deadly and tragic effect.

The story from Thousand Oaks is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking because it is a picture of human sin. It is a portrait of the descent into even murder, and furthermore, a murderous intent that included premeditation that all too often has marked humanity and we should note, all the way back to the book of Genesis when Cain killed Able and all together too frequently throughout the remainder of human history, right up to the present, right up to last week’s headlines.

We need to notice something else about that tragedy in California. There is no question, even as you look at the mainstream secular media coverage, that there is the absolute assumption that this is moral action, that this is a morally responsible person, and that this is a morally reprehensible act. There’s no one who is asking any question against that, who is even questioning the basic presuppositions of that judgment because there is no way you can possibly have any credibility questioning any dimension of that moral responsibility or the inherent evil of what took place.

The words used in headlines include the headline story in the November 9 edition, that is the print edition of the The New York Times, in which the headline says, “Thirteen Dead in California Rampage.” That would be the twelve the shooter killed before killing himself. Notice the word rampage. That’s a very interesting word. Is it appropriate in this case? Yes, it is. The word implies this kind of overwhelming murderous intent, this kind of violence that was set loose, in this case in a country music bar, and the word rampage not only fits the headline, it is sustained by the body of the story.

But then that raises a very interesting question. I hold in my hands right now the print edition of several newspapers dealing not with the rampage in the Thousand Oaks bar, but rather with the fires in both northern and southern California, but particularly the campfire in northern California. The word rampage was used in the headline about the mass murder, but I want you notice the words used in other headlines that also reveal a very significant moral dimension. For example, The New York Times print edition on Sunday, November 11, includes this headline, “Ruthless California Wildfires Move Fast, Leaving a Trail of Despair.”

Notice especially the first word in that headline, the first word was ruthless. Is that an appropriate word to apply to a fire, no matter how deadly? The dictionary definition of the word ruthless means without pity or compassion. And we understand it’s a very negative moral judgment. But in what sense can we make a negative moral judgment about a fire? In what sense can a fire, defined as a natural occurrence, go forward at any speed in a way that’s described as genuinely without pity or without compassion? Of course, what the headline is trying to communicate here is the absolute deadly effect of the fire. It is non-discriminating. It is burning both the rich and the poor. It is deadly in its effect. The flames will burn anyone and will bring equal death and injury to anyone. We understand the use of the word, but it’s very important to recognize that the word technically does not apply.

So, hold that thought. We have to ask the question, why would we use that kind of word? The previous day’s edition of The New York Times, in the print edition, had the headline, “From North to South, California Does Battle with Furious Wildfires.” Again, listen to that modifier, furious. In what sense can we describe a storm or a fire or an earthquake or some kind of natural disaster as furious? The use of that word raises the same question as the use of the word ruthless a day later in the same newspaper. But then USA Today, on that same day, on November the 11th, ran a headline, “Raging Wildfires in California Largely Uncontained.”

So, in The New York Times, we went from furious to ruthless to USA Today saying raging, those are all words that imply conscious moral responsibility, conscious moral intention and moral agency. But we’re not talking about human beings here, we’re talking about fires and we’re using the same kind of language that you might see in another context describing a hurricane or a tornado or an earthquake or even a tumor.

Here again, Christians have to step back and say, we really do understand what is happening here. We use the word rampage when it comes to the killings in Thousand Oaks and then we use the word raging, furious, ruthless about fires in both northern and southern California. Those moral words are not used in exactly the same way. But what’s the key insight, what’s the key biblical or theological insight for Christians? It is this, moral language, as it turns out, is unavoidable and it’s inescapable, even for people who will turn around and argue there is no real moral issue at stake here. Because the effect of these fires is something that can only be described in moral terms. Because we, as Christians, understand, again, we are made in God’s image and thus we are, as a part of that, moral creatures, inherently moral.

But I think there’s even more to this because I think even though there are many people around us who want to insist that they really do believe that the universe is a cosmic accident, that it is without design, that it is purposeless, I don’t think they can even consistently hold to that viewpoint when it comes to vocabulary. Why? Because there is the knowledge in every single one of us, again because of the Imago Dei, because of the image of God, that human life is so significant and evil in this world, even if merely in effect, even if the direct cause is something that appears to be merely natural like an earthquake or a devastating fire, a hurricane, or a tornado, we recognize that there must be a deeper moral issue at stake. And here the Biblical worldview takes us right back, not just to Genesis 1 and to Genesis 2, but to Genesis 3 and the reality that is affirmed in Romans 8, that the entire creation is groaning under the weight and corruption of sin.

And finally, when it comes to the killings in Thousand Oaks, you will notice that even in an age of increasing confusion over the very essence of morality, even in an age in which there are some who want to argue for a relative morality or a moral relativism, there is no one making, at least in public, even the slightest relativistic statements about the moral consequence and the moral nature of the killings in Thousand Oaks. The use of the word evil comes naturally, it comes inherently.

Moral relativism, or anything that even comes close to moral relativism in this context, would appear, even in a secular context, as sheer moral insanity. But here, Christians, we need to remind ourselves and we need to remind the listening world that if morality isn’t relative in this case, and it assuredly is not, it isn’t relative in any other case either.

Part II

Amidst charges and counter charges of election fraud, we still don’t know the outcome of major elections. What does this reveal about the nature of democracy?

Next, as we are understanding issues of vast worldview significance, we’ve often discussed the fact that the midterm elections last Tuesday are a giant morality worldview, war shock test in effect of the worldview of the American people. And here’s the troubling thing, we actually don’t know, as of this morning, the outcome in some of the most crucial races. We thought we did or at least some people thought they did. It was claimed at one point that every one of these elections was clear, but when it comes down to what we know this morning, well, in Georgia, we still don’t know who was elected Governor, not at least according to the official declaration. In Arizona, we still don’t know who was elected United States Senator, and that, again, is awaiting a final count and a final declaration.

The situation is even worse in Florida. Floridians don’t know who was elected Governor, they do not know who was elected Senator, and they don’t even know who was elected Agriculture Commissioner in that state. All three of those offices are now the subject of a recount. A recount to one degree or another, and then you have the charges and the counter-charges of political involvement. The charges of that kind of involvement were made first by the Republicans in all three cases, who claimed victory having an advantage in the votes, at least at some point on Tuesday and continuing through subsequent days. And you also had charges coming from the other side that it is wrong to make the charge of some kind of wrongdoing without what’s declared to be adequate evidence.

But trying to think through all of the smoke in the aftermath of the election, the first thing Christians should understand is that there is no way that any of this is not tainted by politics. There is no way that even an election process, even in a nation as sophisticated and as longstanding in its democratic traditions as the United States, can be free of politics. There is no way to take politics, political motivation, political ambition, and even venal political plans out of the political process, because an election is a political process.

Even when it comes down to those who have the responsibility for elections, in most cases they are elected officials, or at least they answer to elected officials. And those elected officials are generally just as partisan as other elected officials, they have a vested interest, they have a stake, they have a preferred candidate, and also, as you look through American history, there have been charges and counter-charges and there has been evidence from time to time of an actual tampering with the electoral process.

And you are also looking at the fact that even the slightest incompetence at this moment raises all kinds of questions about what is really going on. It is by no irony that we look to Broward County, Florida as the county that must go down in recent American history, and here I simply have to say, it’s the county that I knew as home for some time, the county in which I went to high school, it is the county that has proved itself to be repeatedly incompetent at holding elections. You look at the 2000 election, remember the hanging chads in the presidential election of that year, and now look at the spectacular display of the breakdown of a credible electoral process in Broward County.

Republicans are charging that the officials in Broward County, democratic election officials, and the lawyers who have accompanied them, are simply going to keep on counting until they get enough votes in order to declare victory over the Republican, who was ahead as of the polling on Tuesday night. The Democrats are responding, it is the responsibility to count every vote. But of course, that then raises the question, what is and is not a legitimate vote? All of this is laden with politics, all of this is laden with worldview significance and it is a reminder of just how messy an experiment in representative constitutional republican democracy can be. It’s messy because we as human beings are messy.

Political electoral shenanigans in the United States have sometimes, almost decisively, changed history. Just consider the 1960 presidential election and questions about the balloting process in Cook County, Illinois. That may have been absolutely determinative in the election of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential election.

Robert Caro, the magisterial biographer of President Lyndon Johnson, proves beyond any reasonable doubt that in the 1948 senatorial election in Texas, the forces behind Lyndon Johnson simply arranged after the voting was over to find exactly the number of ballots necessary to put Lyndon Johnson over the top in that election.

Christians should be on the front lines of arguing that every voter who has the opportunity to vote should vote and that every vote should count, but as Christians, we also have to understand that sometimes that very language can be used as a smoke screen for votes that should not have been counted because they should not have been recognized as real votes. Making that determination is never morally, not to mention politically, easy, but that’s why we have election officials and that’s why, if confidence in those officials is shaken, it can be virtually devastating to confidence in the democratic experiment in self-government.

Part III

On 100th anniversary of end of World War I, Christians must reflect with humility on the legacy of the Great War

Finally, Christians with humility and intentionality need to reflect upon the 100th anniversary yesterday of the end of World War I. We remember that that war ended, insofar as it ended at all, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1918. That was 100 years ago yesterday at 11:00 am, Paris time. That war, which is now called World War I, has also been called The Great War, or even the war to end all wars, which it most assuredly did not.

The peace that was declared on Armistice Day in 1918 turned out to be a false peace, it did not hold. As a matter of act, that false peace gave birth two decades later to even greater conflagration and even greater tragedy in what we now know as World War II.

The 20th century, in so many ways, began in the year 1918. As Brian Stanley, in his new book on Christianity in the 20th Century, points out, the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914, is often now invested with the status of the real beginning of the 20th century. Or even, he says, of that indefinable entity, the modern world.

Archibald T. Robertson, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, known as A.T. Robertson, the great Greek and New Testament scholar of his day, wrote that on that day the old world passed away. Modern history, he said, began on that date.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who would later serve as national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, referred to the 20th century as the century of mega death. As we reflect upon the end of World War I, 100 years ago yesterday, we need to recognize that killing, killing fellow human beings was a technology that was radically expanded during World War I.

The killing apparatus before World War I was limited in contrast to what would be set loose thereafter. World War I was the first great war in which machine guns and high powered weapons were used against one another as armies faced each other. And, of course, World War I represents that giant waste of humanity in the awful reality of war that reached its depth in the trench warfare on the western front for which World War I is mainly remembered. A war that was declared as the war to end all wars, and took at least 17 million casualties, but simply gave birth to an even greater conflict, an age of greater mayhem and mass murder in the generation yet to follow.

We also, as Christians, need to understand that World War I was a massive event with consequences for worldview and consequences for Christian theology. So many people in the 19th century, including so many Christians, predominately liberal Christians, began to trust in human progress. They began to actually claim that human beings were developing morally to such an extent that there was moral improvement in the human race. Civilization, especially European civilization, was cited as evidence of just how reasonable and how morally good human beings had become. But it was those very civilizations, those very nations of western civilization that set themselves against one another in this battle and went to war over absolute nonsense. Eventually, killing 17 million people, all in the name of a civilized society.

This led to a great moral questioning in western civilization. A process of questioning that has continued to this day. We need to note that in Europe, World War I, in so many ways, meant the collapse of the romanticized liberal Protestant theology that had gained so much ground in the 20th century. We also need to note, that did not mean a return to Biblical Christianity. But it did point to the absolute implausibility of the idea that human beings were, year by year and generation by generation, becoming more moral, morally improved.

In the United States, that very same conflict, World War I, led to the great warfare between the modernists and the fundamentalists, as they were known, between liberals in American Christianity and conservatives in American Christianity. And it’s also interesting to note that the war known as World War I also set the stage for a vast worldview battle in the United States over the question of evolution. Why would be that be so? Well, it’s because that romanticized humanism of the 19th century, so characteristic of liberal theology in Europe and, in many cases, also in the United States, was based upon the embrace of Darwinism and the idea of a forward movement of evolution. A moral evolution, along with a biological evolution.

Conservative Christians in the United States seized upon the evidence of the horror of World War I in order to say, “You want to know what Darwinism produces? Just look at the killing fields, the trench warfare of Europe.”

I again go to Brian Stanley’s new history of Christianity in the 20th century, when speaking of the United States after World War I’s conclusion, he wrote this, “Fundamentalists and modernists were provoked to bitter warfare with lasting consequences for the geography of Protestantism in North America, as elsewhere. Evangelical and liberal versions of Protestantism were already beginning to pull apart before 1914. But after 1918,” he wrote, “their trajectories became more radically divergent.”

There were, of course, centennial observations and commemorations in Europe on Sunday, and especially the most important took place in France. Germany was represented there, so was the United States of America. The United States entered the war in the last several months, but entered the war decisively. It was an awkward position for Germany, this kind of anniversary always is. But for most Americans, we should be reminded that for that nation, World War I, as well as World War II, remains an unsettled moral question.

We, as Christians, should also remember how hinges of history really do matter. We think of the end of World War I 100 years ago, by the way, we are told that the last living veteran of World War I died in the year 2012. He had to be very old. We need to remember that this one war, described as World War I, utterly reshaped the world as we know it. At the beginning of that war, there were empires and crowned heads throughout Europe that marked what was considered to be the settled landscape.

At the beginning of World War I, there was a Russian empire. By the end of World War I, the Russian Czar had not only abdicated, but been murdered. By the end of the war, the German empire had fallen, the German Emperor had abdicated. The Habsburg Empire, one of the great settled facts that had held Europe together, it disappeared. And so did the Ottoman Empire, that massive Islamic Empire headquartered in the city now known as Istanbul, and that empire virtually fell apart at the end of World War I.

World War I also set the stage for the Balfour Declaration passed in 1917, that British statement that recognized the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in the Near East. That became the nation of Israel. And you also had the fact that the end of World War I explains why the United States, which ended the 19th century as a significant world power, but certainly second in rank to the British Empire, began by the end of World War I to become the dominant nation on earth, a position it holds even to this day, explainable only by events such as what happened at the end of World War I.

The secular world around us recognizes the importance of dates and the emotional and historical poll of anniversaries, but eventually just has to believe that history is one thing after another. For Christians, it’s never merely one thing after another. It’s a part of the unfolding plan and purpose of God, and it’s history that teaches us lessons that the secular mind simply cannot understand, but we dare not miss.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from West Chester, Pennsylvania, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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