briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, August 12, 2019

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

It’s Monday, August 12, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Did Jeffrey Epstein Escape Justice? The Headlines Say So, But Final Judgment Is Never Escaped

The astounding headline broke early on Saturday morning financier, Jeffrey Epstein had committed suicide in a New York jail cell. As the Associated Press reported, “The FBI and U.S. Inspector General’s office will investigate how Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent suicide while the probe into sexual abuse allegations against the well-connected financier remained steadfast.” The story continues, “Epstein, accused of orchestrating a sex-trafficking ring and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, had been taken off suicide watch before he killed himself in a New York jail. Attorney General William Barr on Saturday in announcing the investigation said he was appalled to learn of Epstein’s death while in federal custody.”

The attorney general said, “Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered.” Indeed, there are many questions. Looking at this story, it’s important to realize the timeline. We’re talking about a man who had been arrested just in recent weeks on renewed charges of sex-trafficking and the sexual abuse of women including underage women.

The story brings together the intersection of power and crime and sin and celebrity and wealth and politics. Lots of all, especially lots of money, especially in the initial reports. Jeffrey Epstein was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He owned one of the largest homes in Manhattan. He also owned a private island that became very key to the story when it is accused now by federal authorities that that private island was used for the sex-trafficking and assignations with underage women.

It is also very clear that Jeffrey Epstein had very powerful friends. Some of them appeared to at least have some idea of the dark actions in Jeffrey Epstein’s life and yet many continued to maintain those relationships. He appears to have bought influence in some of the most powerful institutions in American life, institutions including Harvard University. There are so many photographs of Jeffrey Epstein with the powerful, the well-to-do, the influential, of course, the rich, but also many people in elite establishments in national and international life, most importantly in the east coast elite. Some of those photographs and some of those very public connections came before and after Epstein had entered into a now infamous plea agreement with law enforcement officials for having sex with underage minors.

By the time the new sex-trafficking allegations and charges were brought against Epstein, he was at the center of what was described as a ring, a sex-trafficking ring, both for himself and for his powerful friends. In the headlines in the days just before his suicide, there were reports of the fact that Epstein had this almost doctor strange love, almost science fiction plan to share his own genes with humanity through means not to be described on this program.

Any number of very famous and influential figures were trying to distance themselves as fast as they could from Epstein, and many had reason to believe that even if no charges were made against them, the mention of their name or some kind of narrative in the course of the trial of Jeffrey Epstein could expose them to what could charitably be described as very negative publicity. Almost immediately, there was a moral response to the news of the suicide. The most immediate response in the mainstream media was the fact that Epstein had cheated justice.

The editorial board of the New York Times released a statement that said, “By apparently committing suicide in his Manhattan jail cell on Saturday morning, Jeffrey Epstein spared himself a lengthy trial that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life on federal sex-trafficking charges.”

They went on to report upon the investigation after the suicide announced by the attorney general and the Justice Department. The editors went on to say, “While Mr. Epstein will never face a legal reckoning, the investigations into his crimes and those of others connected to him must continue. His premature death shouldn’t stop law enforcement authorities from finishing the job they finally took up seriously years after they should have.”

The editors then made this statement, “The evidence against Mr. Epstein was overwhelming even more than a decade ago, but he evaded serious punishment then thanks to a plea deal with federal prosecutors who later suggested they were too intimidated by Epstein’s legal team to seek more appropriate sanctions.”

One of the things to note here is that this is an editorial by the editorial board of the New York Times, but the reality is that the Times and other major American media were largely unconcerned about Jeffrey Epstein until just the last several months. That may point, if nothing else to Epstein’s success in ingratiating himself with so many.

The main point of the New York Times editorial was that even though Jeffrey Epstein has evaded justice, the reality is that there are others who are likely to be implicated in an ongoing investigation that they demand should move forward, and indeed all the way to a successful conclusion. Keep in mind the headline of the editorial, “Jeffrey Epstein is Dead, His Victims Still Deserve Justice.”

Part II

The ‘Unfathomable Breakdown’ at a New York Jail: How Could They Not See Suicide Coming?

But the second most intensive focus came upon the big question, “How in the world could a suspect like Jeffrey Epstein in custody in one of the most tightly guarded professional jails in the United States, how could he have possibly been able successfully to commit suicide?”

The Associated Press reported it this way, “Epstein’s death raises questions about how the Bureau of Prisons ensures the welfare of such high profile inmates.” Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who’s a member of the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee wrote Saturday what was described as a scathing letter to the attorney general that, “Heads must roll after the incident.” In the senator’s letter he stated, “Every single person in the Justice Department from your main justice headquarters staff all the way to the night shift jailer knew that this man was a suicide risk and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him.”

That’s another one of the pressing moral issues here, we not only have the moral issue of the crimes alleged against Jeffrey Epstein and the complicity of so many, there is not only the moral issue of the fact that he has now committed suicide, there are also related moral issues questioning how in the world this could have happened. But notice the statement—it’s a very insightful statement—made by the Nebraska senator when he pointed out that with Jeffrey Epstein died dark secrets that shouldn’t have been allowed to die with him. That’s a very interesting statement. It’s important for this reason: in a situation like this with crimes so grave and so many unanswered questions, a criminal trial was really crucial to determining the truth.

Many people think of a criminal trial in the U.S. justice system merely as the last phase of a prosecution, but it’s actually more than that. In the course of a criminal trial in the United States and our justice system, there is ample opportunity for new information to be revealed in testimony given under oath. Furthermore, in the process of getting to the court action, there are all kinds of depositions. There is an incredible amount of testimony. There is an overwhelming investigation that would have taken place precisely because it was required for the preparation for a massive criminal trial. With the defendant dead, there is much less ability and much less momentum behind this kind of investigation.

The death of Jeffrey Epstein is not just a loss to the cause of justice in this world. It is also an enormous loss of intelligence, of information, of knowledge about the crime, the network behind the crime, the intent, the scope of all that was involved, the connections and individuals and identities. Much of that may now be lost. That’s why so many people inside and outside law enforcement are so upset about the fact that Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to commit suicide, and the word has to be “allowed.”

This represents an enormous breakdown of the professionalism of the U.S. Department of Prisons. A team of reporters for the New York Times told us yesterday, “It was Friday night in a protective housing unit of the federal jail in lower Manhattan and Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of trafficking girls for sex was alone in his cell only 11 days after he’d been taken off a suicide watch. Just that morning,” we are told, “thousands of documents from a civil suit had been released to providing lurid accounts, accusing Mr. Epstein of sexually abusing scores of girls. He was supposed to have been checked by two guards in the protective housing unit every 30 minutes but that procedure was not followed that night.” That according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of Epstein’s detention.

“In addition, because Mr. Epstein may have tried to commit suicide three weeks earlier, he was supposed to have had another inmate in his cell, but the jail had recently transferred his cell mate and allowed Mr. Epstein to be housed alone, a decision that also violated the jails procedures.”

In an article published in yesterday’s edition of The Washington Post, former U.S. Attorney, Harry Litman said, “For anyone familiar with Bureau of Prisons’s standard operating procedures, Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide is more than mysterious, it is unfathomable.”

Litman went on to write, “Epstein’s death almost certainly means that astounding blunders occurred perhaps by multiple personnel at the bureau of prisons. If any prisoner,” he wrote, “in the federal system should have been a candidate for suspicion of suicide, it was the high profile and disgraced Epstein. All administrative and structural measures should have been in place to ensure it could not happen and yet it apparently did.”

Describing the very well-known jail, the former U.S. attorney said, “It is a high rise forbidding administrative detention facility in the south of Manhattan, its population consists almost entirely of prisoners like Epstein awaiting trial in federal court in Manhattan. It has been referred to as the Guantanamo of New York for its stringent security measures. It is the facility of choice for notorious federal defendants often in special administrative segregation units having previously housed John Gotti, Bernard Madoff, Omar Abdel Rahman, and recently El Chapo. In other words,” he said, “it is the very place to put a high profile and potentially suicidal defendant such as Epstein.”

Litman went on then to describe the kinds of procedures that would be in place or at least should be in place for a prisoner such as Jeffrey Epstein. He also described the personnel at the jail, saying that we are not talking about inexperienced yokels. He says they’re the very best professionals in the correction industry. “So,” he says, “questions abound. The first, ‘Was Epstein on suicide watch and if not, why not?’ He was on it days earlier. Why not after there had been such a humiliating release of thousands of pages of accusations against him.” The second question, “How exactly did Epstein manage to kill himself and why exactly was it that he had access to the tools?”

Litman then went on to conclude, “It seems certain that when the facts are known, this will stand as one of the biggest black eyes in the history of the Bureau of Prisons.”

Part III

What Conspiracy Theories Reveal About Us: We Seek Meaning and Pattern for Good Reason

But then a third huge dimension of the story emerged with the conspiracy accounts that seemed to follow almost immediately the news of Epstein’s death and the response to the conspiracy accounts. This became a very interesting dimension. Charlie Warzel writing for the New York Times wrote, “Even on an internet bursting at the seams with conspiracy theories and hyper partisanship, Saturday marked a new chapter in our post-truth, choose your own reality crisis story.”

The headline in his article: “Epstein Suicide Conspiracies Show How Our Information System Is Poisoned.” Later Warzel wrote, “At the heart of Saturday’s fiasco is Twitter, which has come to largely program the political conversation and much of the press. Twitter,” he goes on to say, “is magnetic during massive breaking stories. News junkies flock to it for up to the second information, but early on there’s often a vast discrepancy between the attention that is directed at the platform and the available information about the developing story. That gap,” he concludes, “is filled by speculation and, via its worst users, rumormongering and conspiracy theories.”

We should note that indeed this story about Jeffrey Epstein is one particularly primed for the emergence of conspiracy theories. Of course it is. We should also note that some of them have come from both the left and the right. Some have come from seemingly every direction imaginable. The president of the United States lamentably got involved in some of this himself also on Twitter.

Similarly outrage, Monica Hesse writing for the Washington Post points out that, “The fact that Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide means that all the charges against him because there never will be a formal conviction in a jury trial.” She goes on to say, “Because of this, we are all robbed of the ability to have such clarity and instead you’re going to see reporters and historians refer to the fact that Epstein allegedly committed these crimes because there is no criminal conviction.” That’s a very significant moral point.

But it’s also very interesting that in her outrage at Jeffrey Epstein, Monica Hesse also points to the fact “less than 48 hours after his death were already moving away from what the story should be about, we’re already moving into a land of conspiracy theories. Jeffrey Epstein,” she concluded, “doesn’t deserve to be a conspiracy theory.” What he deserves, according to Monica Hesse, is to be remembered throughout history for the horrible sex monster and criminal that he was.

Part IV

Why Do We Yearn for Justice? What Explains the Impulse? What Are Our Hearts Really Telling Us?

So what are Christians to make of all of this? What do we see beyond the headlines? So much moral content is in every dimension of this story and the dimensions that aren’t even revealed yet. I’m going to argue for three great worldview issues of our proper concern.

The first is the deep human yearning for justice. You see this in the fact that so many people immediately upon this news cried that we had all, and especially the victims, been robbed of justice in the fact that Jeffrey Epstein had evaded or escaped justice by committing suicide.

And of course, when it comes to the human justice system, that’s absolutely right. The record will never now show that Jeffrey Epstein faced these charges, was tried by a jury of his peers, and found guilty. That is indeed a great and tragic loss for the human system of justice and for our yearning for justice, but that raises massive questions.

Where does that yearning come from? Why is it universal? Why is it pre-cognitive? That is to say, you don’t have to think a great deal about this news to understand a deep loss, a moral loss to humanity. There never will be that trial, there never will be that public accounting, there never will be what in human terms is that kind of moral and legal certainty that Jeffrey Epstein had been found guilty of these crimes.

There never will be that satisfaction for his victims, but remember in the U.S. justice system, the crime is against the people of the United States, or in a local jurisdiction, the people of that jurisdiction or state. It’s not just a crime against the victims who were the direct victims or now it’s often stated survivors of the crime, but rather it is the people. Trials are held not in the name of individual citizens, but in the name of the people.

Where does that yearning for justice come from? Actually, I don’t know how in the world according to a secular worldview, you would explain or account for that yearning, much less the fact that that yearning tends to point in very clear directions of right and wrong, universally understood. How? Of course, in the modern evolutionary worldview, everything has to be explained by means of evolution, including our moral sense and sensibilities, but that doesn’t even seem intellectually plausible and it’s certainly not going to be morally satisfying.

This is where Christians understand that that yearning for justice comes not just from the fact that we are all created by God and every single human being made in God’s image. Something Christians often do not sufficiently think about is the fact that that image of God means that we have an innate moral knowledge that comes from God’s own justice, his own attributes. We are driven by a yearning for a quest for justice, even a moral demand for justice because God is just, not relatively just but infinitely and perfectly just, and even in his fallen creatures made in his image, there is still, though corrupted, the residue of that impulse for justice. That’s why it’s there, that’s why it’s real, that’s why it’s pre-cognitive before we even have to think about it, and that’s why it’s universal.

But this leads to a further dimension of that truth, and that is the fact that no one ultimately evades justice because no one is going to evade the justice of God. Christians know that’s true but we also need to reflect upon the fact that this means two things that even many Christians don’t often consider. One is the fact that this is not true only of those accused of heinous and infamous crimes who seem to evade the human court of justice. It’s true for every single one of us. It’s true for every single human being. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But it also points to the fact that without an eschatological worldview, then we really are left with a story that seems to end in inadequacy, in brokenness, and in futility, in frustration. Because in reality, even if Jeffrey Epstein had been convicted of these crimes, even if he had been sentenced to 10,000 years in jail, there is no way even that sentence would be adequate, and of course he would never be able to serve that sentence.

In reality, this case just points excruciatingly to the fact that we as human beings, if left in a purely temporal frame of reference, are doomed. This is where Christians understanding that we live in an eschatological worldview that is a worldview that points to a reality beyond this reality, a judgment beyond any human judgment, the eschaton, the last things that will include the absolute perfection of the justice of God.

In that judgment, every single human being will be found guilty in deserving of the full measure of the wrath of God, and there is only one escape and that is that those who are in Christ are safe because, united with Christ by faith, Christ then stands as our advocate, and furthermore his wounds are our plea. That is to say, his atonement accomplished in full is the absolute perfect and sufficient penalty for our sins. He paid the penalty because we cannot.

Those who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ have their sins forgiven. That is not to say they will not be judged, they will be judged, but they will be accounted to Christ in that double imputation. Our sin imputed to him by the Gospel, his righteousness imputed to us.

The second huge dimension of Christian worldview thinking related to this story is the responsibility of government, the responsibility of government to conduct a police investigation, to arrest persons based upon evidence, to conduct a criminal trial, to keep a defendant ready for that trial, unable to be killed by forces outside or to find the exit by suicide inside the jail cell. Government failed in this case. It failed colossally, it failed publicly, it failed in ways that are seemingly unimaginable. And when government fails in this kind of responsibility and so graphically and publicly so, then there is outrage that is often turned into questions that lead to the third big issue, which is conspiracy theories.

Why conspiracy theories? Well, there are some basic reasons. Number one, we as human beings do not like unanswered moral questions, we want our questions answered, thank you. We want to know who did it. We want to know how it was done. We want to know what the evidence was. We want to know. We want to know were there others involved. We want to know who was responsible. It’s not wrong to want to know. It may be wrong to want to know salacious details. It’s not wrong to want to know. We do not rest well in our conscience with unanswered moral questions, and there are massive unanswered moral questions in this case.

Secondly, we do not accept cognitively complex coincidences, that’s just something very interesting about human beings. We can often handle a simple coincidence, it might puzzle us but we can handle it, maybe even a couple of simple coincidences, but a series of complex coincidences trouble us tremendously. That series is very problematic. It begins to gnaw at us because it just doesn’t make sense given the construction of our intelligence and our consciousness that it could be possible that there could be a series of complex coincidences.

Now upon reflection, intellectually, we realize there could be, but we’re looking for a pattern. Our intelligence given to us by God is a pattern-seeking intelligence. And so morally, our minds seize upon this reality: there were very many wealthy, rich, powerful people who had a great deal to lose if Jeffrey Epstein ever was to go to trial. Now, seemingly they have an exit. Their names are not going to come up with the criminal trial. Their stories are not going to be told.

Senator Sasse was right that one of the great moral issues in this news is the fact that with Jeffrey Epstein died many dark secrets that many powerful people want to keep very, very dark and very, very hidden. So given that reality, that moral reality, you can understand why so many people are baffled by a series of complex coincidences. They just don’t seem to make sense.

The third issue about conspiracy theories is that sometimes they turn out to be true. Most often they turn out to be false, but sometimes they turn out to be true. And conspiracy theories are incredibly difficult to refute. Sometimes they are simple circular reasoning. If you don’t accept the argument, then you’re just a part of the conspiracy or you’ve been duped by the conspiracy. The only escape in our human context from the context of baffling and sometimes competing conspiracy theories is enough weight of truth to clarify, to put the conspiracy theories to bed or for that matter sometimes to affirm one and to invalidate the others or some combination thereof. The reality is we are truth-seeking creatures, we are pattern-seeking creatures, we are moral satisfaction-yearning creatures. God made us that way.

And finally, as we’re thinking about that yearning for justice, that is explicable, explainable only by the reality of the image of God, what it means that also made in that image we are meaning-seeking and pattern-seeking creatures, we have to see that that’s all summarized in the fact that we are also truth-seeking creatures for the same reason that we yearn for justice because God is just, we yearn for truth because God is true. So many dimensions of the human reality and of the human predicament made very clear in this one massive headline story still, of course, unfolding.

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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