briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, October 25, 2019

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

It’s Friday, October 25, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Happy the Elephant Goes to Court: Lawyers Argue that a Bronx Zoo Elephant Is a Person Just Like You and Me

Big headline news has become to the end of the week about Happy the elephant. The Guardian of London reports, “Lawyers representing an elephant have argued in New York court that their trunked client be considered a person, in a fresh attempt to upend human dominance over this designation.” The designation that these lawyers are attempting to dethrone human beings from holding exclusively is the legal definition of what it means to be a person. According to the law, if you are designated a person, then rights have to be respected, and that’s exactly the argument being made on behalf of this elephant named Happy.

As The Guardian tells us, “Happy the elephant is, contrary to her sunny name, being detained by the Bronx Zoo ‘illegally,’ due to her personhood, and must be released, according to her self-appointed legal team.” Now when this news report refers to her self-appointed legal team, which by the way is not made up of elephants but of humans, this means that the humans have designated themselves as the elephant’s lawyers. The most important thing to recognize is just the obvious, which is that the elephant did not hire these human attorneys. So what we have are animal rights activists who are making the most important argument we could confront here, which is that even as human beings are persons, animals, especially highly intelligent animals, should be recognized as persons too. And the article tells us, if they are persons, we must then grant them certain rights. The lawyers are going into court in New York demanding that the elephant be recognized as a person and that as a person, the elephant must be granted rights, which otherwise have been exclusive to human beings. There is so much to unpack here.

But The Guardian goes on with the report, “The case’s instigator, an animal rights group, hopes it will effect a legal breakthrough that will elevate the status of elephants, which the group calls, extraordinarily complex creatures, similar to humans that should have the fundamental right to liberty.” How exactly are elephants similar to humans? They’re not similar to humans as bipeds, they walk on all four. They are not similar to humans in actually having consciousness as human beings have consciousness, but when we do look at elephants and observe them, it becomes clear that they are indeed highly intelligent creatures and that they have personality, and furthermore that they organize themselves into what can only be described as societies and family groups, and as we now know, elephants grieve. This has been very well documented. They grieve the death of fellow elephants.

There’s something very sweet about that, but here is where Christians have to think in very careful categories. And even as secular courts look to this question and even as animal rights activists continue with their activism and even as at least some now argue that at least some human beings do not qualify as persons while some animals do, the reality is that no court in the United States has yet taken this argument seriously because the moment that it does there is absolute chaos in the courts and of course we’re looking at a tsunami of other cases on behalf of animals that will certainly follow.

There is mass confusion here but the story is really helpful to us and giving us an opportunity to understand what is at stake. Just looking at the beginning of this article, again, we are told that this is, The Guardian tells us, an explicit “attempt to upend human dominance over this designation.” The designation of being a person. And we are also told that this animal rights group is looking to Happy the elephant and the case these attorneys have tried to bring on the elephant’s behalf as a breakthrough that will also lead to recognizing other species as persons as well, and recognizing that similarly to human beings, elephants “should have the fundamental right to liberty.” What exactly does the fundamental right to liberty mean? Well, in this case it means the right not to be in the Bronx Zoo.

The Guardian tells us more, “On Monday, the Bronx supreme court was the latest stage in what has been a quixotic pursuit of animal personhood by the Nonhuman Rights Project. Steven Wise, the founder and lead attorney of the group, has led a quest that is dogged, appropriately, as he has ruminated that dogs may be legal persons too. His quest is to confer personhood on a pair of chimpanzees and now on Happy the elephant.”

But as The Guardian acknowledges, he has yet to taste success. “In 2017, a New York appeals court ruled that Kiko and Tommy, two chimps in their 30s kept in captivity in the state, could not be considered persons in order to invoke habeas corpus, the right to avoid unlawful detention.” It turns out that Wise has also lost in the neighboring state of Connecticut back in August. A court there refused to deem as persons three other elephants, Beulah, Minnie and Karen. But this story just gets more interesting and we come to understand the logic of the animal rights argument and we come to understand that it really does have two blades, even as scissors have two blades, and they have to operate together.

One is to dethrone human beings as having any unique status when it comes to human personhood. And the other is to elevate animals. But when you look at this, it gets really complicated when it comes to exactly how they explain the background of Happy and Beulah and Minnie and Karen, remember those are all elephants, but then The Guardian tells us, “Wise is now arguing on behalf of Happy, an animal that scientists found can recognize herself in a mirror. The 47-year-old elephant, yes, the 47-year-old elephant, has spent almost all her life in a one-acre enclosure at the Bronx Zoo after being captured along with six other calves named Sleepy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Doc, Dopey and Bashful, in Thailand, that would be decades ago, and brought to the United States.”

This is a really serious story. Just consider the next paragraph, and buckle your seat belts a bit. “Happy and Grumpy cohabited until 2002, when they were relocated to an enclosure with two other elephants, Maxine and Patty. This arrangement turned sour when Maxine and Patty fatally attacked Grumpy. Happy has never been able to live contentedly with the duo, with a recent reconciliation attempt ending badly.” Now we are treated to an elephant soap opera, there in the Bronx Zoo. A soap opera in which two of the elephants killed another of the elephants, but this isn’t raised in the article.

But let’s just consider the importance of the question. If indeed elephants are to be recognized as persons, then in this case, wouldn’t these two killer elephants be recognized as murderers? Following the logic of the Nonhuman Rights Project, where is the district attorney ready to bring murder charges against the two killer elephants and on behalf of Grumpy, the elephant who was murdered? Don’t let the irony of the elephant’s name escape you. Now, of course, as we look at an article like this, we do recognize that Christians understanding all of the creatures that God made as being important to him, a part of the goodness of creation as God declared his creation to be good, even as the creator clearly exalts in these animals, we do have a responsibility even as an exercise of the dominion and stewardship assigned to us to take care of these animals and to care about their welfare.

There could be genuine issues as Christians would recognize attached to Happy the elephant, there in the Bronx Zoo, moral issues about the welfare of the animal and how the animal is treated and respected as an animal, but Christians have to keep primary the categorical distinction between human beings, every single human being made in the image of God, and the animal kingdom, which does reflect God’s glory but is incapable of glorifying God consciously.

Part II

Where Do Rights Come From? Understanding What Is at Stake When Animals Are “Granted” the Same Rights as Humans

The Guardian goes on in an interesting turn to report, “Polling of Americans has shown strong support for granting animals the same rights as humans, with the concept also backed by some philosophers who argue that animals have moral standing and shouldn’t be considered merely as property.” The paper continues, “US courts, however, disagree and critics have claimed unintended consequences of animal personhood, such as the potential erosion of rights of disabled people, and difficulties defining which animals deserve rights and who speaks for them.” That is one of the most important sets of sentences I have seen in a very long time. We need to pause for a moment and look at those words more clearly.

First of all, we are told that polling of Americans has shown strong support for granting animals the same rights as humans. What would that kind of strong support be? I looked at several studies documented and easily available, easy to find, they have indicated that as much as about a third of Americans have argued that animals should be recognized as persons, but in reality the question is vague and like so many surveys on these important questions, there is no reason to believe that the American surveyed had any idea what they were really being asked about, not to mention the consequences of this kind of confusion.

But nonetheless, what was also stated here was that polling of Americans has shown strong support for granting animals the same rights as humans. Now, wait just a minute. Here is something fundamental that seems to be missing from the entire understanding of The Guardian, but it’s not just that, it is actually demonstrating an absolute corruption of the rights understanding that is prevalent in our culture. The Senate spoke of granting animals the same rights as humans. The problem most importantly in the language is the verb, granting.

The Biblical worldview does not affirm that human beings can grant anyone rights, nor that any secular or human source has granted us rights. We do not believe that government grants anyone rights. Rights come from being made in the image of God. Rights belong to persons simply because human beings are persons and those rights belong to every single human by God’s decree, and the role of government, the important role of government, is not to believe that it can or has granted rights to anyone but is rather to respect and recognize rights that had been granted by the creator. That by the way is the very language of the Declaration of Independence.

It doesn’t state that the new American nation is going to grant rights that Britain had denied rather it established that the rights are unalienable and they are granted by the Creator, endowed by the Creator. But I want to affirm the importance of the fact that The Guardian refers in that next set of words, to the potential erosion of rights of disabled people as an unintended consequence of animal personhood. That is profoundly important and it’s because there’s a fundamental category problem revealed here. There are those who are openly making the argument that personhood is to be attributed to and recognized in individuals who are worthy of that personhood, who achieve some kind of capacity or consciousness or some requisite level of intelligence or ability for that matter, but that is absolutely deadly.

Human beings made in the image of God, do not eventually either fail to achieve rights or achieve rights, rather they are granted those rights by the Creator and no government has either the power to grant them nor the authority to take them away. There is a huge problem in the abandonment of the biblical worldview of humanity when you have people like Peter Singer, of all things, infamously Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, who has gone so far as to argue that some human beings are not persons because they lack certain capacities and some animals are. He has gone so far as to argue that some human toddlers should not be recognized as persons, but that some highly intelligent pigs should be recognized as persons. The only problem I have with that sentence in The Guardian’s report is that it refers to this set of consequences as unintended.

At this point, I’m not sure that’s fair. At this point, it is very hard to argue that those consequences are unintended. During the time of the Weimar Republic, it was the German government between the two World Wars, the German medical establishment tried to establish a category of Lebensunwertes Lebens, life unworthy of life. Of course, it had immediate deadly consequences in the Third Reich.

The most important issue for Christians in this headline news about Happy the elephant is understanding how confused our society has become. Clarity and for that matter, human dignity, hang on the fact that we recognize according to scripture, that every single human being is a person made in the image of God and thus possesses the rights granted by the creator and the status determined by the creator every single human being does, regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of ability or disability, regardless of IQ or any other criteria, and regardless of a sense of self, even for those who may be fundamentally mentally incapacitated, they are still human beings made in the image of God. Every single human being is. And at the same time no nonhuman is. But finally on this headline story, let’s just remind ourselves that Happy the elephant doesn’t understand the issues at stake and can’t, but we do and we had better.

Part III

Divisions in the Anglican Communion over LGBT Issues: Sydney Archbishop Glenn Davies Faces Opposition After Courageously Defending Biblical View of Marriage

Next, we’re going to shift to Australia. Last week I talked about the address given by the Archbishop of Sydney, that’s of the Anglican Church in Australia. That’s Archbishop Glenn Davies. And I spoke of his courage in speaking to the synod of his church stating, “My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views.” But he continued, “Do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture.” The Archbishop of Sydney was speaking courageously about the definition of marriage and the biblical ordering of human sexuality and with a courage that has been rare and frankly should have our attention immediately. The Archbishop stated that it is those who are trying to get the church to abandon the plain teaching of Scripture who should leave, but as you might expect, there has been a backlash and that backlash is itself very instructive.

Andrew West reports once again from The Guardian in London, “For a man renowned for his civility, the language was blunt. During his annual speech to the Anglican Church’s Sydney synod, Archbishop Glenn Davies told supporters of same-sex marriage to ‘please leave us.'” But we are told that the backlash has been fierce, “In pockets of the hall, there was also discomfort, if not with the core sentiment then with the tone. Davies has long been frustrated,” said The Guardian, “By what he believes is the excessive liberalism or tolerance of other Australian bishops towards same-sex relationships, especially among clergy.” Don’t let a word of that sentence escape you.

The headline in the first news report in The Guardian about the Glenn Davies synodical address had the headline saying that the message “has Anglicans rattled.” The Anglican Church in Australia is itself divided over this question. There are pro-gay marriage bishops and archbishops, and of course you have Archbishop Davies there in Sydney. As I mentioned last week, the Sydney Anglicans are pretty well known worldwide in the Anglican communion as to use their own words, Guardians of Orthodoxy. But this article in The Guardian actually and very healthfully goes beyond even just the question of same-sex marriage and the division in the Anglican Church there in Australia.

Just listen to this. “The Sydney diocese is also on the cusp of dominating the Australian Church. It’s evangelical theological college, Moore College, is a powerhouse churning out a couple of hundred graduates every year,” and the whole point of this section of The Guardian is that the Archdiocese of Sydney is now perhaps becoming the future of the Anglican Church in Australia because it and it’s college, Moore Theological College, are pouring out conservative evangelical graduates and by contrast the schools and the diocese that have more liberal leadership, they’re simply not. They can’t keep up.

For example, the next sentence, “Other colleges with more liberal or pluralist views of Scripture, such as Ridley and Trinity in Melbourne, simply cannot match the numbers.” That’s really important for us to recognize. The stunning thing is that The Guardian in London recognize the importance of this pattern. It’s something we also see in the United States. Liberal theological institutions, seminaries, and divinity schools, have largely been evacuated of those who are studying for the ministry or they are being populated to whatever extent they are with declining enrollment by those who are at seminary to do something other than in the main local church ministry. And we can understand why.

If you don’t believe in the Christian faith and the faith once for all delivered to the saints, then why in the world would you give yourself to ministry? Why would you go through the arduous process of theological education? The answer as a story we talked about from the New York Times, reported some time ago, is that there are some who are looking to theological education of a liberal variety just in order to have some kind of education in spirituality or to have some kind of more socially inclined ministry. But even then, the numbers are small. Now we’re told the same thing is true in Australia. It is the theological institutions that hold to the Christian faith, the theological institutions that fly boldly biblical conviction, they’re the theological seminaries that have students. Trust me, I’m in a position to know.

But it is interesting that The Guardian has found this whole situation so interesting, that first article that we mentioned reported by Andrew West had to do with controversy over Archbishop Davies address in Australia, but then just a couple of days later, Harriet Sherwood religion correspondent for the paper wrote another article in which a British bishop has rebuked Archbishop Davies of Australia and has instead argued that the church should respond with tolerance and acceptance towards LGBTQ persons and frankly the issue of same-sex marriage.

Sherwood reports, “A senior Church of England bishop has expressed regret at comments by the Archbishop of Sydney that supporters of marriage equality should leave the Anglican Church.” The paper continues, “Reflecting sharp divisions within the global Anglican communion over LGBT issues, the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, said: ‘I regret that the archbishop of Sydney seems to want to exclude people rather than to engage with them within the wider Anglican family.'” Well, let’s just remind ourselves of the history of the Anglican communion on these issues because it’s so instructive just to say since 2003.

Remember that, about that time, the Episcopal Church, then one of the largest and most influential churches in the Anglican communion, ordained an openly gay man as bishop. This led to a fracture in the Anglican communion. We saw very courageous bishops and archbishops, especially in Africa, but also a handful of North America and as we’ve seen in Australia and elsewhere, stand bravely against this violation of the clear teachings of Scripture. This also led to the development of a group known as GAFCON, something of an alternative communion for Anglicans who are going to hold to a biblical definition of marriage, and furthermore, even two very core Orthodox doctrines essential to Christianity.

The Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican communion headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who at least has a symbolic leadership role in the Anglican communion worldwide, it is also divided on this question, but even as Britain has moved forward to legalize same-sex marriage, the belief is that it’s church will eventually do the same, the Church of England. And we can understand why when you look at bishops such as the Bishop of Liverpool.

In response to Archbishop Davies, the Bishop of Liverpool said, “I’m glad that other parts of the Australian church are engaging in dialogue with Sydney and are advocating for a greater inclusion and a wider and more diverse church. It’s good to be in the same communion with all these people.” But biblically minded Christians understand that you’re not actually in communion if you do not hold to the same faith. And by all appearances, the Bishop of Liverpool does not hold to the same faith as the Archbishop of Sydney. There are important code words used in the Liverpool Bishop’s statement about a wider and more diverse church, greater inclusion, not to mention engaging in dialogue.

In this context, all of those mean escaping the inevitable responsibility of the church to uphold the clear teachings of Scripture. But this is where the historian in me has to come back with a lament, but also a helpful and instructive lesson. By looking back to the very first bishop of Liverpool in England, the indomitable John Charles Ryle, he was the first bishop because even as the industrial revolution was leading to a burgeoning population in much of England, including Liverpool, there was the need for an expansion of the Church of England and the establishment of the new diocese of which he was the very first bishop, and he was bishop there for 20 years, between 1880 and 1900.

Bishop Ryle was a paragon of biblical orthodoxy and one of the most important leaders in the entire history of the Church of England in the evangelical tradition. In one of his most important books entitled Knots Untied, he defined the evangelical faith. He began with the first principle, the first leading feature he said of evangelical Christianity, “The absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, and the only judge of controversy.” That was clarity at the end of the 19th century rather than the confusion that we now hear with the kinds of words about engaging dialogue and inclusion and diversity from the current bishop.

But then consider where Bishop Ryle continued. He said, “The second leading feature in the evangelical faith is the depth and prominence that assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.” Continue, “The third leading feature,” he said, “Of evangelical faith is the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the nature of the salvation he has produced for man.” In beautiful gospel honoring language, the first bishop of Liverpool declared, “Its theory is that the eternal son of God, Jesus Christ, has by his life, death and resurrection, as our representative and substitute, obtained a full salvation for sinners and redemption from the guilt, power and consequences of sin, and that all who believe in him are, even while they live, completely forgiven and justified from all things, reckoned completely righteous before God, and are interested in Christ and all his benefits.”

The fourth leading feature of evangelical faith, he said, “Is the high place it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man.” And the fifth and last leading feature he said of the evangelical faith, “Is the importance it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Spirit in the life of man.” Sadly, just imagine how different it would be if the current bishop of Liverpool taught and believed and led like that. Just imagine with me in conclusion, the geographical distance between Sydney in Australia and Liverpool in England is enormous, but consider also that the theological distance between the first bishop of Liverpool and the current bishop of Liverpool is even greater, far greater, and therein lies the tragedy.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Asheville, North Carolina, and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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