briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, March 24, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Solid Moral Case for Obeying Government Orders in the Pandemic: Obedience to Authority, Love of God, Love of Neighbor, and More

Yesterday I talked with a national reporter for one of the nation’s most influential newspapers and what we talked about was why people are asking such urgent questions in the midst of the coronavirus, COVID-19 crisis. My answer was simply this, we are made in God’s image and made in God’s image there are certain questions we cannot avoid.

It was back in the middle ages that Thomas Aquinas argued rightly, that human beings, made in God’s image cannot not know God. That’s an extremely important point. We may deny God. We may deny that we know God, but in reality for the same reason that every child knows that he or she is being watched, we do know that there is a Creator and we do know that one day we will give an account. All of this as we shall see in coming days as a part of the theological background that is now being dragged, often sometimes jerked into the foreground. Sometimes elegantly, sometimes inelegantly, but as Christians we’ve always got to be there to see what others will not see and to talk to one another about what others might not know to talk about.

One of the interesting things that has happened in recent days is that there are many people who are looking for a moral justification for the kind of orders for restrictive movement, the shelter in place orders and similar kinds of restrictions that are now rather the order of the day. Now let me look to a couple of headlines news stories. Yesterday’s front page on the New York Times included above the fold “Halting Virus Will Require Harsh Steps, Experts Say.” The subtitle in the article by Donald McNeil Jr. was this, “Near Total Cooperation From Public is Key to Isolating Clusters of Infections.”

One of the most interesting insights in the epidemiology of COVID-19 found in this article is that most of the most deadly breakouts have been traceable to some specific source of infection, some concentration of the contagion. But the most important issues in the headline, “Halting Virus Will Require Harsh Steps.” The steps are then enumerated in two full pages in the print edition yesterday.

But also in yesterday’s paper is a headline in an article by a team of reporters. It is datelined from New York City itself, which is right now the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. This headline: “Police Are Choosing to Tread Lightly in Dealings With Transgressors.” Who are the transgressors? They are those who are disobeying the shelter in place orders and other kinds of government policies intended to halt, or at least to slow the spread of the contagion. This particular article tells us that police in New York City are treading lightly by not using the heaviest hand of the law yet in trying to crack down on those who are violating the orders. And we know from both coasts and from many points in between that there seem to be thousands and thousands of Americans who are unwilling to abide by these orders.

Now as we also consider this, we need to ask ourselves what would be the Christian, biblical approach to understanding what our responsibility is and then generalizing beyond our Christian responsibility to what should rightly be understood as the responsibility of every citizen, of every single human being, of every moral agent in the midst of this kind of crisis. For one thing, we need to recognize something that many people may not have thought about. The category of quarantine, of this kind of isolation is actually found in the five books of Moses. In the book of Leviticus, chapters 13 and 14, dealing with leprosy, the children of Israel are given specific quarantine instructions. And as you look at those instructions in Leviticus 13 and 14, they are not exactly what we are hearing right now from health authorities in the United States, but they are hauntingly similar.

The point is the stop of a contagion, the stop of a spread of an epidemic or a pandemic like COVID-19. And Israel had a responsibility in obedience to God to do what God had mandated in an effort to try to isolate those who are infected and also to try to protect the children of Israel from this larger threat. This has obvious application to our situation today where the very same logic is in play. The same logic we find in the book of Leviticus is the logic that is now coming from the White House, it’s coming from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, it’s coming from the World Health Organization. But we do need to note, and at this point Christians should find this a matter of reassurance, that it is believed by many medical authorities that Leviticus 13 and 14 are the very first records in human history of the category of quarantine.

Now that raises some other issues. This particular text comes from an era that is centuries and centuries before any understanding of germ theory, infection, bacteria, or even the existence of viruses. This tells us something and it’s not so much about the ingenuity of Israel, what it tells us is that God, who had made covenant to protect the children of Israel as his elected nation, God himself had ordered this quarantine regimen upon Israel for the protection of his covenant people.

But as Christians looking to the New Testament, there’s not an exact parallel, nor do we need one, but rather we have an overarching set of principles. We could start with Romans 13 where we are told to obey those who were in rightful authority. And that means those who are in government authority over us. That certainly comes in play. It comes in play with the understanding that the only grounds for a disobedience to that authority is a matter of disobedience when it comes to the worship of the one true and living God. The kind of general orders that are now being found throughout our society are not in conflict with that commandment. We are not in danger of bending the knee to Baal or to Nebuchadnezzar by obeying the rightful instructions and policies of our government.

But beyond this, when Jesus was asked in Matthew 22, “What is the greatest commandment?” Of course, you’ll recall, and we have to talk about this often, that Jesus went back to Deuteronomy 6 in order to say, well, he cited the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.” Jesus put it this way: We shall love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind.

But then he went on unexpectedly and unasked to speak of the second commandment. And he said, “The second greatest commandment is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” going back, let’s remind ourselves, to the book of Leviticus. So in the book of Leviticus, we not only have the very first quarantine, we also have that explicit instruction that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Furthermore, in the New Testament, Jesus generalized love of neighbor beyond the covenant community of Israel, and we would say beyond the covenant community of the church, all the way to the entire community of which we are a part. And the moral responsibility of that comes very much into view in the context of a pandemic and this kind of epidemiological crisis, this kind of contagion.

Love of neighbor means that we would not do anything to compromise, to weaken, or to endanger our neighbor. And that certainly means our neighbor’s health and that certainly means complying with all rightful orders, and for that matter even advice when it comes to seeking to control the spread of COVID-19.

But here’s something that Christians might not think about very often. If you go back to Leviticus 19 or if you fast forward to Matthew 22, one of the most interesting things is that the actual command is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now at points, we are often told as Christians that we are not to think first of ourselves and that’s true, but it is interesting that in this particular commandment we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to have a regard for our own lives. We are thus to have a regard for the lives of our neighbors as well. But here’s where Christians understand this is all a somewhat circular argument. Just consider the context of this pandemic. If we do not take care of ourselves and we fall sick, then someone will have to take care of us. And furthermore, we are at that point not able to make the contribution that we are to make to the common wheel, to the larger community. We endanger the entire community when we endanger ourselves. But having a regard not only for our lives as God’s gift, but for the lives of others, we would not want to endanger them in any way.

Here’s where we understand that our Christian responsibility comes from a far deeper imperative than anything that will come on the letterhead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are ample grounds in Scripture for taking actions that are self-sacrificial, but there are none for taking actions that are self-abusive.

Part II

How Is Social Trust Built and How Is it Destroyed? And What Does the Image of God Have to Do with It?

But then this takes us to another issue that Christians must understand at a deeper level than the world around us. TIME Magazine ran an article in recent days by Yuval Noah Harari entitled “Disease in a World Without a Leader.” The subhead: “Humanity Needs Trust and Cooperation to Fight the Pandemic.” Now, let me just state at the onset that I can hardly imagine anyone who has a worldview at greater contradiction to my own than Yuval Noah Harari. We’ll be talking about him more in episodes of The Briefing to come.

But what’s important to recognize here is that he’s actually right. He is right in arguing that humanity requires trust and cooperation. He goes on to say, “In order to fight the pandemic, actually we require trust and cooperation even to have human society itself.” Harari points to the danger of pandemics in our modern world, a danger far more complex than found in centuries before. He reminds us, “Epidemics killed millions of people long before the current age of globalization. In the 14th century, there were no airplanes or cruise ships and yet the Black Death spread from East Asia to Western Europe in little more than a decade, killing at least a quarter of the population.”

Now, the key issue there in timing is a decade, a decade to spread from East Asia to Western Europe. But later in this article, “In the century that passed since 1918, humankind has become ever more vulnerable to epidemics because of a combination of growing populations and better transport.” He mentions, “Today a virus can travel business class across the world in 24 hours and infect mega cities of millions.” But the most important part of Harari’s article is towards the end where he writes, “Today, humanity faces an acute crisis, not only because of the coronavirus, but also because of the lack of trust between humans.”

He goes on to write “To defeat an epidemic, people need to trust scientific experts, citizens need to trust public authorities, and countries need to trust one another.” Over the past few years, well, he blames politicians and others for undermining this kind of trust. But I want to step back and say, this is where my worldview as distinct from Harari’s worldview comes into play.

Harari has made very clear in his writings that he come from a secular perspective, and even defines himself as something of a transhumanist. I’m coming from the perspective of a deep commitment to biblical Christianity. Thus, we’re coming from two different worldviews. He looks at the world and sees a giant sociological development, and it’s in light of that development that he sees trust between humans breaking down as a threat to modern society. But I have to raise the question, why would human beings trust one another? Isn’t that an interesting question? Why would we trust anyone?

Well, here’s where Christians have some distinctive answers to the question that others might not be thinking about. The first reason why we have the capacity of trust for one another is that we understand that we are made commonly in the image of God. We share the same divine image, and thus we have a respect for one another simply because every human being bears dignity and every life demonstrates the sanctity of God’s gift of human life, simply by the fact that God said, “Let there be life.”

But as we’re thinking about our social engagement, there are other reasons why Christians can explain the existence of trust and that means we can also explain how trust can break down. We also understand that a part of being made in God’s image is that we have a conscience. We have a regard, a moral regard, a moral capacity, we have an understanding that is not something that is merely learned, nor is it just what some might claim to be, some kind of pattern of evolutionary progression. Rather, we understand that God made us in his image as moral creatures and we cannot be anything other than moral creatures. And that means that we are assured that our neighbor actually has a conscience. That’s a very important issue.

This means that when we see someone walking up to us on the sidewalk or we’re considering a doctor when we’re looking at a roster of medical authorities, we’re doing business, just a routine business transaction, we actually do depend upon a level of conscience and trust. If we didn’t have that confidence, it would be virtually impossible to extend any kind of trust. We also come to understand as Christians in a biblical worldview that the network of community is also not an accident. God made us as communal creatures.

You’ll recall that even as you have Genesis 1, God makes us male and female and he establishes marriage. He establishes the mandate of reproduction and multiplying and filling the earth. And thus by the time you add Genesis 1 to Genesis 2—and remember it’s in Genesis 2 we are told that it was God’s declaration that it is not good that man would be alone—and then you have the creation of marriage and the foundation of the family, and beyond the family, kinship and tribe and community. And then we look to the Old Testament and we see God make covenant with Israel and give Israel as his gift, his law. And thus we come to understand also that even as he gave Israel the written law, so much so that it was Israel’s bragging rights before the other nations, that it had laws so good from a God so faithful, there is also a moral law written on the heart as Scripture makes clear.

You can see social trust when it is evident and you can see social trust when it is absent. And every society rises or falls on the level of that social trust. Years ago I can remember reading a memoir from a Soviet ambassador who had visited the United States and had arrived in Washington DC for the very first time, long after dark. He was being driven by a chauffeur through the dark streets of Washington DC. There were just a few cars on the road and he noticed something that absolutely shocked him in the very first moments of his visit to Washington DC. He noticed that even as there were very few cars, the cars that were on the road stopped for a red light, even in the middle of the night when no one was watching. This former Soviet ambassador just commented, “I could not imagine such a scene in Moscow, where people would get away with whatever they could get away with, certainly in the middle of the night when there was no policemen around.” There was something he noted different when it comes to the United States, than Soviet Russia.

And of course, that’s a matter of patriotic pride for us. But it also points to the fact that social trust is built up in the kind of experiment in ordered liberty and self-government that represents the United States of America, where we are citizens, empowered and respected citizens. It was quite a different thing under the totalitarian rule of the communist party in the Soviet Union, where human beings were officially nothing more than material objects.

And at this point I come back to reminding Christians that we need to do everything within our power out of love of God and love of neighbor to build social trust and not to destroy it, nor to weaken it. But this also raises huge questions we’d have to pose to those who hold to a secular worldview. How according to that worldview can you have a concept of human beings that actually does both require and build social trust?

Part III

What Is ‘Essential' in the Context of a Deadly Pandemic? The Diabolical Argument of the Abortionists

But finally, as we are thinking about social trust and our responsibility in the middle of this coronavirus crisis, it is interesting, as we said yesterday that many businesses are seeking to have their own enterprise characterized as essential, so that the enterprise can remain open in the midst of the crisis, even shelter in place orders.

But human nature being what human nature is, it is very interesting to look across societies and see what is and is not deemed essential. As the Washington Post reports, officials in Belgium had to restate the policy there, identifying not only grocery stores and pharmacies, but also French fry stands as deemed essential. For some reason the French fry stands, especially in Brussels and another Belgian cities are considered essential to the continuation of society.

Perhaps you will not be surprised that the French had been guaranteed as essential, not only access to cheese, but also to wine. But the Washington Post also mentions that in the Netherlands, marijuana, cannabis has been identified as essential and thus those operations can remain open including dispensaries. Germans had been told that they can still do something essential to being German, which is renting and buying bicycles. And there is an exemption even in hard-hit Italy for print newspapers to continue in their print cycle.

In the United States an interesting list of essentials coming state-by-state, includes the fact that in New York liquor stores are considered essential and in San Francisco and other locations, marijuana is also considered essential. The Mayor of San Francisco, London Breed said according to ABC News, “The Department of Health today clarified that since cannabis has medical use, dispensaries will be allowed to operate as essential businesses just like pharmacies are allowed to do.” Not even getting into the contentious issue of legal medical marijuana, the fact is that legal recreational marijuana is the law in California and the dispensaries are open not only for qualified medicinal purposes.

But the saddest commentary of all in the midst of this is state-by-state reports that abortion providers are also claiming to be essential, and abortion is even being deemed as essential, an essential service in the midst even have a shelter in place order.

For example, in Ohio, the attorney general is in a face-off with certain abortion clinics. He cited the dictates of the Ohio health director, a dictate against all nonessential surgery and telling the abortion clinics to cease elective abortion operations. But the abortion clinics responded by saying that abortion in and of itself is essential. But the president and CEO, two different people at Planned Parenthood of greater Ohio and Planned Parenthood of the Southwest Ohio region, responded by insisting that their doors would remain open for abortions.

The two said, “Abortion is an essential, time-sensitive medical procedure as medical experts like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology have recognized.” Again, you had NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Executive Director, Kellie Copeland terming abortion, “An essential health service.”

One State Senator, Nickie Antonio said this: “Every woman who seeks an abortion knows it’s an essential, time-sensitive procedure, especially in states like Ohio, which has drastically limited the window when abortions are allowed. It is inexcusable,” she said, “that our state’s attorney general would play politics with a global pandemic.” But just consider what’s being claimed here. Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other organizations are claiming that an abortion for any reason, or no reason, at any point during a baby’s gestation is essential. They’re officially, explicitly, publicly using the word. They are claiming that a woman’s right to an abortion right now, for any reason or no reason, is a demonstration of essential medical care.

Now, frankly, it’s impossible not to see this for what it is. It is the culture of death, insisting even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, that the one thing to which it is most committed is the culture of abortion, abortion rights, the celebration of abortion, redefining abortion as essential. In the midst of this pandemic it’s hard to imagine a more horrifyingly revealing statement than this, and it’s not just a statement. It is demonstrated in the fact that these Planned Parenthood clinics, not only in Ohio, but particularly in the New York area, are bragging that they have had more business than ever.

Meera Shah, Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood in the New York City suburbs said, “Our doors will stay open, because sexual and reproductive healthcare is extremely important and we have to ensure access to it.” Notice the moral force of her argument, that is her attempt to try to turn the morality of the culture of life on its head and instead to insert, emphatically, the moral logic of the culture of death.

Meera Shah, again the Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood in the New York City suburbs of Long Island, Westchester and Rockland, went on to say, “Everyone is still showing up, you know, because somebody wanting an abortion is still going to want an abortion despite there being a viral outbreak.” That’s incredibly telling. Here we are told that the desire for an abortion outweighs even the threat of a pandemic, and furthermore, the moral reality that that pandemic represents a threat to human life itself. Here, abortion rights are celebrated. They are absolutely demanded as essential, even in, explicitly in, the context of a deadly pandemic.

And furthermore, something else we have to watch is the opportunism that arises in something like this where you have abortion providers saying, “Oh, this is now the demonstration of the fact that we need to allow abortion by telemedicine, because the pandemic is just teaching us, revealing to us, the necessity of having a telemedical approach to abortion that doesn’t require even a physician in the room with a woman seeking a medical abortion.” That means primarily one by medication.

It’s eccentric that in Belgium, French fries are described as essential. It’s a little more ironic that in San Francisco, cannabis is defined as essential. But it is nothing than diabolical that in the midst of this pandemic, in certain places such as New York and Ohio, but certainly elsewhere as well, you have the claim that a woman’s access to abortion is essential. If you’re looking for evidence of the crucial distinction between the culture of life and the culture of death, you need look no further.

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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