Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Tags: Animals, Audio, COVID-19, China, Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Luther, Oscars
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, February 11, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Paradox of Totalitarianism: Crisis Grows for China’s Xi Jinping as Coronavirus Spreads
Americans are going to be thinking today about the state of New Hampshire because voters there are going to be going to the polls today in that state's first in the nation presidential primary.
There isn't much mystery on the Republican side. That's because Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee, but on the Democratic side there are huge questions looming, but we're going to have to wait until the results come in before that picture becomes better defined. Once they do come in, we'll be looking at them closely along with you.
But as we think about the major news this morning, we need to return to the reality and the challenge of the coronavirus. And as we're thinking about it, there are some other huge issues that are now coming to fore. First of all, the sheer scale of what is now considered to be a pandemic. By the way, yesterday there were headline news reports that the Chinese authorities were finally going to let in authorities of the World Health Organization. Now wait just a minute, how could it be that the Chinese government had held those particular experts at bay until now? Well, once again, if you are an autocratic totalitarian government, there is no other source of authority. But as the story continues to unfold in China, it continues to unfold in ways that are profoundly not flattering to that government.
For one thing, over the course of the last week, the young doctor, age 34, who had first sounded the public warning about the coronavirus and was harassed by the Chinese police and basically forced to issue a kind of apology for warning about the virus, he succumbed to the virus and leaves behind a wife and a five-year-old son and she is expecting another child to be born just in the next several months. That one particular death has sparked a considerable amount of outrage and unrest there in China because it appears to many to be basically a parable about the actual nature of the totalitarian regime. And that response has been seen in social media and in other arenas in China, the response unprecedented in recent decades.
But at the same time it is also becoming increasingly clear that if you are the head of a totalitarian government, then it's a double edged sword when it comes to this kind of civilizational crisis. For one thing, you have absolute power which gives you the authority to do just about anything you and your party will within the nation. And we are talking about the absolutely massive nation of China with hundreds of millions of people in the population. And as we've been looking at China in recent years, we have been seeing the increased consolidation of the Chinese communist party in power. We have seen that communist party monopolize all forms and sources of information and media. We have seen that government turn itself into a massive surveillance state. But the other side of the equation is that if you are a totalitarian government, there is no one else to blame. No one else to whom you can point to assign blame when there is this kind of government crisis.
Now, when we say government crisis in China, that doesn't mean that there is any likelihood that the Chinese communist party is going to have its stranglehold upon the government there in any way lessened. It does mean that at least to some extent, the people of China now have a new realization of the nature of their government and the limitations even of a totalitarian government in protecting the people in China against the kind of problem that is represented by the coronavirus pandemic.
But we also see something that is extremely telling in worldview terms. Let's remind ourselves of something. This is not just a one party state—the one party of that one party state is the communist party. And communism is not just a form of economics or for that matter of government policy. When you're looking at communism, it is rooted in dialectical materialism. It is rooted in materialism, which means that the only reality that exists is material reality. That's why when you see ideological communism, it is explicitly secular. It denies even the existence of a supernatural or transcendent realm.
As a matter of fact, those two words actually in worldview analysis are absolutely antithetical. Just think about it for a moment, totalitarian and transcendent. If there is a transcendent reality, if there is a God, if there is a supernatural reality then a totalitarian state is not, at the end of the day, the ultimate reality and arbiter of fact and truth.
But of course there is a transcendent reality and when you are looking at the kind of human crisis that is represented by this kind of plague, well, you are looking at a reality that cries out there has to be something more than the merely material world. But hold onto that for just a moment, because as we are thinking about this as a government crisis in China, I want to turn to a news story that appeared just recently in the New York Times in which one Chinese citizen simply asked the question openly, "What kind of government is this?"
This was in yesterday's print edition of the New York Times. The woman cited asked the question, "What kind of government is this? The news is always talking about how good everything is. They don't even care about the ordinary people." Well, it turns out, by the way, that her grandfather had died in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. And the New York Times tells us, "It wasn't just the government's slow response to the expanding epidemic that was infuriating, it was what felt like a denial of basic dignity."
The report goes on, "After grandfather Zang died, he was taken away like a dead pig or a dead dog." The Times says, "They still didn't know where his ashes were and had no time to think about funeral arrangements. ‘I can't even save the people who are alive. Now all we can do is beg the heavens, begging anyone else is of no use.’" Now, her reference there to the heavens probably has more to do with Chinese folk religion than anything else given that particular terminology, but you will notice that even that Chinese folk religion points to some kind of transcendent realm beyond the reach of a totalitarian state.
Furthermore, the entire argument of the article is the failure of a totalitarian state leading the woman to ask, "What kind of government is this?" And I pointed out that the basic worldview of that state, its basic ideology is dialectical materialism. It is that there is no supernatural, there is no spiritual, there is no theistic realm, period. And yet you'll see there are consequences to that. And the consequences in the case of the grief of this one family is the fact that the government, which has total charge of the entire system and of course that includes the health system and everything else, the government took her grandfather's body and evidently cremated it and no one even really cares at the end of the day about whether or not the family has any opportunity to grieve.
And you'll also notice that the woman cited in this article pointed out that the Chinese government still keeps on insisting that everything is great. "The news is always talking about how good everything is." But the same kind of message came through very clearly in a front page article in Sunday's edition of the New York Times in which the reporters, Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers tell us that Chinese president Xi Jinping has made himself conspicuously absent, even invisible at many points during the coronavirus crisis because clearly he does not want that crisis to be attached to himself, even though he singularly stands atop the totalitarian regime.
But it's also very significant that the Times reports that just three weeks ago the Chinese president said in public, and remember this as well after the coronavirus crisis has begun, "Every single Chinese person, every member of the Chinese nation should feel proud to live in this great era." He went on to say, "Our progress will not be halted by any storms and tempests.”
And yet, of course, it may well be halted. We may be seeing it halted right now because here's something else for us to consider: Even if you are a totalitarian regime, and even if you are committed to the existence of nothing but the material realm, even that material realm may have insidious surprises for you. Viruses are a part of that material realm and there is a virus that is spreading now so quickly in China and, of course, hauntingly beyond China as well that it has become a national crisis.
The president may be trying to put a happy face on the Chinese Communist Party and its supposedly benign reign within China, but the reality is it can't control this virus. It is responsible for its lack of response, but it can't control this virus. The virus is out of its control.
But also very interesting in worldview analysis is an article by Sui-Lee Wee and the headline of this article also in the Times is this: “Beijing's Prescription to Fight Virus? Buffalo Horn and Roots.” Well, the reporter tells us that the Chinese Communist Party, seeking to calm the Chinese people and at the limits of its ability to deliver modern medicine in response to the crisis is suggesting that the Chinese people also make use of traditional Chinese folk medicine. Here's how the report begins: "As it races to treat patients infected with the new Coronavirus, the Chinese government is seeing potential in a cocktail of antiviral drugs."
Listen to this sentence carefully. "It is also recommending the peaceful palace bovine pill, a traditional Chinese medicine made with the gallstone of cattle, buffalo horn, jasmine and pearl.” Now, some months ago on The Briefing, we talked about the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has been trying to harness the legacy of Chinese folk religion as a way of demonstrating a certain form of patriotism. But as we also noted, it is consistent with the Chinese Communist Party's effort to try to make Christianity appear Western and thus alien and these Chinese folk religions to appear indigenous and thus authentic.
But we are also told here that in this moment of crisis, the Chinese Communist Party is suggesting the use of these traditional folk medicine items including the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill, and we are told that there are those in China who are arguing that these kinds of folk remedies could be as effective as Western modern medicine in dealing with the challenge of the virus.
World health authorities expressed dismay at the turn to these traditional folk medicines as if they could actually be efficient and effective in dealing with the spread of a deadly virus. But nonetheless, in worldview analysis, there's a massively important section of this article. We are told about one traditional Chinese medicine practitioner at United Family Health identified as a top hospital for the affluent in Beijing who said that the medicines are safe, effective, and easy to get.
This traditional Chinese medicine practitioner said, "Western medicine does not have better answers to this virus. The Chinese people have experienced these sort of plagues many times in our thousands of years of history. If traditional Chinese medicine was not effective, the Chinese people would already be destroyed.” Well, there are multiple problems as we think in worldview terms here.
For one thing, given the resources of Chinese traditional folk medicine alone, there would be no concept of a virus. The virus was a scientific discovery and it is a fairly recent scientific discovery in human history and it emerged from the practice of modern empirical Western medicine. Now, this is not to say that Western science technology and medicine have benefited by no contributions from other cultures. It is to say that only in this one cultural context did modern medicine emerge, and whether or not Chinese folk practitioners are going to argue the case one way or the other, the fact is that modern medicine is the only effective answer to the nature of the virus and how to deal with it.
And there's something else to note here and that is that modern Western medicine did not emerge from a context separate from modern Western science and culture and from the vision of ordered liberty and the rational universe that is central to Western civilization and is the explicit inheritance of Christianity from the formative eras of Western civilization.
But also as we're looking at this, we need to recognize that there is a basic hypocrisy built into this kind of messaging from the government. What's that hypocrisy? Well, I guarantee you that those who are in a position of power in the Chinese Communist Party are not looking away from modern Western medicine when it comes to their own health or the treatment of their own loved ones, especially when it comes to something like the threat of the current coronavirus.
This is also not to deny that there may be some kind of alleviation of symptoms that comes from the wisdom of this kind of folk medicine. That's entirely conceivable. But the very language that this practitioner used is a language that is dependent upon modern medicine, including the very notion of a virus. But this does at least show the contrast clearly—the contrast between modern medicine and antibiotics and on the other hand, the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill.
But as we think about the coronavirus and the larger worldview issues, there are two aspects we also ought to note at this point. One of them is that when you are looking at this kind of pandemic or epidemic or plague, you are looking at a context for the exaggeration and concentration of human nature in all of its greatness and in all of its horror. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, just consider the fact that when you concentrate human experience down, when you put human beings under extreme stress, then human beings turn out to be incredibly human. And that brings out many of the virtues that are demonstrated by God's grace in humanity: generosity and goodness and mercy and care. But it also brings out under that pressure many of the most hated and feared vices amongst human beings, selfishness and beyond that all kinds of vices that are demonstrated in response to this kind of crisis situation.
Well, just consider the fact that it is not only a medieval village in a time of plague that may experience the heights and the depths of human nature, but you also consider the fact that another headline tells us about the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had to return to its port in Yokohama and now has become a giant 17 level quarantine ship in which, as we are told in the media, those who are basically imprisoned in one sense quarantined on the ship, keep watching ambulance after ambulance come to the pier and take away their fellow passengers.
They also speak hauntingly about the claustrophobia and about the fear that comes in hearing the coughing from right down the hall. All of this just demonstrates that human beings are sometimes put into these contexts of extreme pressure. Plague, one of the ancient enemies of humanity, is one of those pressures—pestilence, disease.
How Should Christians Respond to Plague? Martin Luther on Serving Christ by Serving Your Sick Neighbor
But this also reminds us that Christians have had to struggle with some excruciating questions in the context of pestilence before. For example, it was on August 2, 1527, that a case of plague appeared in Wittenberg, Germany. That of course was ground zero for the Protestant Reformation. Wittenberg was the city of Martin Luther and it was in Wittenberg that he had nailed those 95 theses to the castle church door, the event that is often cited as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This is 10 years later, from 1517 to 1527. The plague came to Wittenberg.
Now remember that Martin Luther was also the head of an institution in the university teaching preachers, preparing pastors. There were other students, Wittenberg was a university city as well as at one point also serving as a military garrison. What would be the response to the emergence in 1527 of just one case of the plague?
Well, civic authorities already experienced with the plague sent the university students home. Now that sounds very commonsensical, and there were other civic actions that were taken. And remember that in 1527 you are still centuries away from the discovery of modern germ theory and also the development of the knowledge of viruses. But nonetheless, it was well understood that this was a deadly and contagious disease. And at one point the plague killed well over half of all of those who were infected with it. So how would Christians respond to the plague?
Here's an urgent question. Should Christian pastors stay in a community, in a village in a time of plague? Martin Luther argued that they should, not that that could bind the conscience of every pastor in every situation, but he said that pastors ought not to abandon their people in a time of pestilence. He said this in a letter, "This I will know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone," Martin Luther continued, "would want to be bold and fearless. Nobody would flee, but everyone would come running. If," Martin Luther said, "you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well. You have your sick neighbor close at hand, go to him and serve him and you will surely find Christ in him."
That's an incredibly beautiful Christian testimony that is a great example of Christian theological reasoning. It is a classic illustration of the best of Christian pastoral advice. Martin Luther did not say that any pastor who would flee would be demonstrating unbelief, but he did point out that serving in the name of Christ means serving our neighbor, including our sick neighbor, even when that might lead to our own infection. That's a very hard message. It had to be a very hard letter for Martin Luther to write, but he did as well as his advice. He stayed in Wittenberg even as they sent the university students home. He did not abandon his people. He did not abandon his pulpit.
The same Luther who would famously write in his hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”: “Let good and kindred go. This mortal life also"; the same Luther who said in the same hymn, "The body they may kill, his truth abideth still"; the very same Luther said that pastors ministering in a time of plague should not be afraid of what he described as “a few ugly boils.” Imagine writing that in 1527.
Distinguishing Between the Use and Misuse of What God Has Given Us: A Look at Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscars Speech
Finally, listening for just a few moments about the acceptance speech given by Joaquin Phoenix at Sunday night's Oscar ceremony, he received the Oscar for best actor and he gave a speech and that speech was something else. In what was described by Vox as a “sprawling acceptance speech,” he spoke about social inequality, the cruelty of the food industry, systematic inequality, and as the press said, even cancel culture.
But I want to look at the actual words that he spoke. He spoke about a commonality that he claimed for the entire Oscar's audience. Then he said, "I think whether we're talking about gender inequality or racism, or queer rights, or indigenous rights, or animal rights, we're talking about the fight against injustice, against the belief that one nation, one race, one gender, or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity."
Now, as Christians think about all of that. I just want us to focus for a moment where he spoke about one species. As I said, one of the deadliest confusions is the confusion between the human being and the other creatures that God has made. We are a creature. God made us. We're a creation, but we are not just the same as the other creatures. There's a fundamental distinction that is central to the biblical worldview that is there in the very first chapter of the Bible. It tells us there is this difference. You dare not blur or confuse it.
But that confusion is writ large in Phoenix's acceptance speech. He said, "I think we've become very disconnected from the natural world. And many of us, what we're guilty of is an egocentric worldview, the belief that we're the center of the universe. We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk that's intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal."
He continued, "I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think we have to sacrifice something to give something up. But human beings at our best are so inventive and creative and ingenious. And I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop, and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentience beings and to the environment." Sentient there means conscious. And of course, the biblical worldview makes very clear that there is a certain consciousness in non-human creatures, but that's very different than the consciousness that God gave to human beings.
It's human beings who refer to the animals as animals. The animals don't refer to human beings as human beings. It is human beings who have the gift of language. It is human beings who are distinct in having a God-given responsibility of the use and the stewardship, and yes, even the dominion—that's an inescapable biblical word—of the rest of creation. That fundamental distinction is absolutely central. And by the way, the distinction there is actually explicit in Genesis 1.
Now in his speech, Joaquin Phoenix condemned the exploitation of animals, but this is where Christians have to join in and say, given the responsibility of stewardship assigned us by God, we should be and must be against the exploitation of any aspect or any part of creation. But the problem is that there seems to be a confusion in so much of the modern secular mind between use and misuse.
Now, reporter Aja Romano of Vox tells us that Joaquin Phoenix had raised similar issues including veganism when he received, on January the 12th, The Critic's Choice Award. He said then, "I'd like to thank the awards for going plant-based and trying to offset our carbon footprint. It's a really amazing message." A week before that, while accepting the golden globe for best actor in a drama, he also talked about tackling climate change and affirming veganism.
Vox also explains that the specific target of the criticism of Joaquin Phoenix to a very adoring Hollywood audience was modern factory farming. That might be the case. And by the way, Christians should be open to any convincing evidence that there can be any better way of exercising stewardship and dominion. We should be open to those arguments.
But this does bring us back full circle because even though it is very easy to condemn modern factory farming, we also need to recognize that the alternative to it includes the problem we see in China with the Chinese wet markets where, as you now know, health authorities say that if instead the Chinese people had been receiving food through the kind of industrial standards that you would find in the West, well, there wouldn't have been the context for the coronavirus to develop in the first place.
Christians should always be open to an argument about how we can better exercise the stewardship that God has assigned to us. But we also have to insist upon that distinction between use and misuse. And that means that this morning you should feel no guilt about pouring that milk onto your Cap'n Crunch.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information about the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.