briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, April 6, 2020

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

It’s Monday, April 6, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Limitations of Global: Lessons from the United Nations in a Pandemic

It is certainly accurate to say that those of us alive in the year 2020 have never experienced anything like the COVID-19 crisis. This is something new in our lifetimes, in our experience. You would have to go back at least a century to find any challenge that faced humanity like COVID-19 which is not only now a global crisis, but particularly in the United States that now leads the world in reported cases of COVID-19 and in reported deaths.

At the end of last week and into the weekend, President Donald Trump in a very sober tone warned the nation that the next two to three weeks are going to be extremely difficult. Extremely difficult because of the scale of the challenge. Extremely difficult because of the reality of a deadly virus. Extremely difficult, and if anything, that’s an understatement when you look at a map of the United States and you see the trajectory of cases and deaths upward.

Everywhere we look, the fundamental realities of human life have changed, our patterns of employment and socialization. Children are not in school. You just go down the list and you come to understand we are now living in a time that is going to challenge us in every conceivable way. And the president was very clear about this, so was the surgeon general of the United States referring to this challenge as our Pearl Harbor. Over the course of the weekend, we saw governors and other political leaders facing the nation on one program or another suggest that this is our World War II. This is our Pearl Harbor. This is our 9/11. This is the bracing summons for this generation.

But we also need to understand that in the larger context, there are huge issues of worldview significance that are swirling around. For one thing, I just referred to the president of the United States. I didn’t refer to governors and other political leaders, I referred to the surgeon general of the United States. Right now, the people in the United Kingdom are basically most concerned about their fellow Britons. When you look across Europe, it is more or less the same thing, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, nation by nation. Italy and Spain have been particularly challenged. Then you come to the United States and once again we come to understand how much worldview does matter.

But consider for example, the New York Times headline from yesterday, “UN Leader Describes a Grave Threat, but the Security Council is Mum.” Rick Gladstone is the reporter on this case and the report turns out to be really interesting, extremely telling. As you think about it, just about no one has been looking for help from the United Nations. I refer to the United Nations often. The ideology behind the United Nations was a hope for some kind of secular platform on an international basis that would lead to world peace after the horrors of the 20th century and in particular two World Wars.

But the problems with the United Nations have been very clear from the start. For one thing, it was started with a certain kind of optimism that was unwarranted, given a Christian or even a realistic understanding of humanity. It was also based upon the proposition of human rights without any foundation other than humanity itself. And as we’ve seen over and over again, humanity is incompetent to ground human rights in our own authority. Nationally, internationally, community-wide, individually, it doesn’t work unless there is an absolute transcendent authority, a Creator God who has endowed us with those rights, then those rights are merely as good as any government or organization will accept them to be at any given moment.

From the very inception of the United Nations, there have been grotesque violations of its charter even undertaken by those who were signatories to the United Nations, including some who have served on the Security Council. There’s another thing to keep in mind. When you look at the United Nations general assembly, it basically has almost no authority. You’ll look at that massive auditorium there in New York located in the modernist headquarters of the United Nations on Turtle Bay, and you see all those flags. You see all those different ambassadors from their nations to the United Nations, but the general assembly has almost no authority. Almost all of the authority is vested in the big powers who have permanent seats on the UN Security Council.

The UN Security Council even hires the UN Secretary General. But one of the greatest problems with the United Nations from the start is that when you are looking at those permanent seats on the Security Council, they first went to the winning side, the major nations who won World War II and that meant of course, Britain, and France, and the United States, but it also came to mean the Soviet Union. Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and it would also include Communist China.

One of the compromises required for the entry of Communist China into the United Nations in the last part of the 20th century was the expulsion—no one actually used that term—of Taiwan, which had been a member of the United Nations. But from the beginning you had nations that were involved even on the Security Council, the USSR in particular, who routinely violated the human rights commitments that were the very foundation of the United Nations. Just think about the fact that right now North Korea continues as a member of the United Nations general assembly.

But the point is that no one in the United States and few people anywhere in the world should reasonably look to the United Nations for rescue in the midst of this pandemic. Rick Gladstone reports, “The leader of the United Nations has called the coronavirus pandemic the most challenging crisis since the organization’s founding after World War II. But the Security Council, its most powerful arm, has been conspicuously silent.”

Now, what does he mean by silent? He means silent. The article goes on, “Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez has pleaded for a unified global response as many nations turn inward and seal each other off in an effort to contain the virus. He’s also called for a halt to all armed conflict so nations can focus on the crisis.” Now, if you did wake up and find yourself the general secretary of the United Nations, this is almost assuredly the kind of argument you would make. It’s also the kind of argument that almost no one in the world listens to.

The next sentence in the New York Times article, “But without the supportive muscle of the 15 member Security Council, the only UN body empowered to authorize military and economic coercion to back its demands. Mr. Gutierrez’s calls have been widely disregarded.”

An outside observer, Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch said, “The Security Council has been entirely missing in action on the pandemic.” He said, “We’re in a situation widely recognized as our most urgent security issue with a large portion of the global population on lockdown and the Security Council is incapable of doing anything.” You would think that perhaps the Security Council of the United Nations, since humanity is facing the greatest threat since the formation of the United Nations would at least say something even if it did not do anything.

The New York times reports, “The most immediate and important step the council could take would be a declaration that the virus represents a threat to peace and security as it did six years ago during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Such a designation,” says Gladstone, “which carries the force of international law, which signal the council’s resolve to defeat the pandemic and give Mr. Gutierrez’s requests much more weight.” But the whole point of the article is that hasn’t happened.

The main point from a Christian worldview perspective that I want to raise here is simply to understand that we’re seeing another demonstration of that basic Christian principle known as subsidiarity. That is the Christian principle that tells us that the greatest truth, the greatest preservation of humanity, the greatest affirmation of what it means to be human, human rights and human dignity, occurs at the most basic level of civilization. That means first of all, marriage, family, neighborhood, community, village, town, city, county, state, national government, and in that order.

This is where Christians understand that no matter how powerful a government might be, no matter its coercive power and its cultural influence, it cannot raise a child. It cannot heal a wound. It simply does not have that ability. It is too abstract and it is too big. The greatest flourishing in the lives of children comes when they are raised within the context of the most flourishing family, which is based upon a biblical definition of marriage.

Out from that would come concentric circles, which would include the extended family and then of course Christians would understand that immediately after the family and it’s smaller and larger sense, you also have the church, the family of Christ, which cares for one another in a way that is altogether more competent than anything that can be undertaken by government.

Government itself, we understand, is one of God’s gifts, but we also come to understand that the larger a government is the more all-encompassing its claims and its powers, the more dangerous a government becomes, especially in the context of our understanding of human sinfulness and of human depravity, of the corruption of sin and the corruption of power.

The New York Times, by the way, as a newspaper is very much a part of that larger international vision, a very cosmopolitan vision of an international community and this article reflects the frustration on the part of that particular section of cultural leadership, the frustration that the United Nations does not have a louder and more unified voice in the COVID-19 crisis.

But another of the worldview principles that we are seeing right now lived out before us, is that people act most nobly when they act on behalf of the good of their neighbor. Now of course, Jesus made very clear that everyone on Earth is our neighbor, but proximity does matter. You hear this in the language of political leaders and medical leaders right now, including the messaging coming from the White House that we need to take responsibility in order to protect one another, and it’s a very costly responsibility. Our entire economy right now is basically on hold, but the rationale for doing that is the preservation of human life, trying to slow the spread of the virus and as we now hear, flatten the curve.

Part II

“Failure Could Set the World on Fire”: The Pandemic and World Leadership

But then next, I want to make reference to an opinion piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. It was by Henry Kissinger entitled, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter The World Order.” If you are an American of a certain age, the name Henry Kissinger basically becomes something of a gold standard of reference to international relations to foreign policy, especially as undertaken by the United States. Henry Kissinger started out as a foreign policy advisor to then candidate Richard Nixon in 1968. He became the national security advisor for president Nixon and eventually held both the position of national security advisor and secretary of state, which is the primary position in a president’s cabinet in the Nixon administration. He continued as secretary of state into the administration of President Gerald Ford.

Prior to entering government service, Henry Kissinger was very well known as a popular and influential professor at Harvard University, but he first came to the United States in 1938 as a young Jewish man fleeing Nazi Germany. He eventually joined the United States Army and fought in the 84th infantry division during the Battle of the Bulge.

Kissinger became the main prophet of what became known as realism in American foreign policy. Realpolitik going all the way back to relations between Western nations in the 18th century. But Henry Kissinger also became known as one of the founders of the modern international order as we know it. It is extremely interesting to look at this article by Henry Kissinger, who soon will be 97 years old. He’s still writing opinion pieces for newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. He wrote, “Sustaining the public trust is crucial to social solidarity to the relation of societies with each other and to international peace and stability.”

He then writes this extremely important paragraph, “Nations cohere and flourish on the belief that their institutions can foresee calamity, arrest its impact, and restore stability. When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, many countries, institutions will be perceived as having failed. Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant. The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus. To argue now about the past only makes it harder to do what has to be done.”

What gives those words particular poignancy is the fact that Henry Kissinger did see so many of the horrors of the 20th century. He was born just after World War I and as I said, he fled Nazi Germany as a young Jewish man in 1938. He knows what it looks like when a civilization collapses. He knows what it looks like when evil becomes the regime. Henry Kissinger, in his realism here affirms something that Christians understand in our biblical worldview, and that is that civilization is an achievement. It is one of God’s gifts, but it is also very fragile. It requires certain prerequisites, certain preconditions including security and order and trust. This pandemic threatens all three: security, and order, and trust. As Kissinger writes, “The coronavirus has struck with unprecedented scale and ferocity. Its speed is exponential. US cases are doubling every fifth day. At this writing, there is no cure.”

It is also interesting to see Kissinger who is such an advocate for internationalism, continue making that argument, but he does begin with the United States and only then turns to the international order. He calls upon the United States to shore up global resilience to infectious disease. He then goes on to call for the nations of the world to heal the wounds to the world economy. Finally, he says, “safeguard the principles of the liberal world order.” By “liberal” there he means committed to liberty.

Here’s something else the Henry Kissinger gets right even from his secular worldview, and that is the fact that in the aftermath of this pandemic, we are going to face an intensified global battle of ideas. Kissinger writes, “The world’s democracies need to defend and sustain their enlightenment values.” Well, there’s the problem. I believe that Henry Kissinger has that kind of trust in enlightenment values. But what we’ve seen over and over again is that there is disregard for those enlightenment values as nothing more than a cultural achievement of the West. One of the things we need to know is that the communist party in China has no interest in all in Western enlightenment values.

Here’s where Christians have to understand that our basic worldview has to be based in Scripture and it has to come from the reality of the self-existent, sovereign Creator God. We can celebrate and affirm wherever those truths are cherished and affirmed, but we must argue from the very beginning that they cannot stand on their own, alone, as if posited in air.

But I have to say, again, it’s absolutely amazing that someone is almost 97 years old, is still thinking this clearly and writing so powerfully. He continues with this conclusion, “We went on from the Battle of the Bulge into a world of growing prosperity and enhanced human dignity. Now, we live in an ephocal period. The historic challenge for leaders,” he said, “is to manage the crisis while building the future.” His last line, “Failure could set the world on fire.”

Yes, indeed. Failure can well set the world on fire.

Part III

Quiet Grief in China: The Communist Party’s Worldview Exposed

But then next, this leads us to consider the radical dichotomy between the worldview of the West and the worldview of communist China. Just to take two examples in contrast. As you look at the newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, it is very interesting that just about every major news outlet in the Western world has written about the horrifying dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis in China, which as we come to understand in the midst of that officially atheistic, materialistic state is a spiritual crisis above all else.

The battle of ideas globally of which Henry Kissinger spoke is referred to in a headline in recent days in The Wall Street Journal, “China Asserts its Claim to Global Leadership, Mask by Mask.” The point of this article by Philip Wen and Drew Hinshaw is that the communist party in China is now arguing that its authoritarian form of government is far superior to the government of the United States, our separation of powers, our messy democracy, our insistence upon democratic legitimacy, our federalism with the governors having so much power is an inherit liability. They are arguing in the midst of this pandemic for other nations, particularly nations in the so-called non-aligned world to align with China over against the West in general and the United States in particular.

The kind of messaging coming out of the Chinese communist party was made clear in this article in a statement that was released by the Chinese embassy in France. “When the epidemic started to explode everywhere, it was China who the whole world asked for help and not the United States, the ‘beacon of democracy.’”

Andrew Small, an expert on European-China relations at the German Marshall Fund of the United States said that he thinks that almost as soon as the crisis started, the Chinese “had a propaganda battle to win on this.” A constitutional Republic based on democratic values is inherently less efficient in the short run than a totalitarian autocracy.

But this takes us back to something that is key not only to the founding of the idea of western nations, but also to our understanding of ordered liberty and even what we would call an experiment in democracy in self-government. Eventually, if the people are in control, they will make their will known and they will find out the truth. That’s going to be impossible under the rule of the communist party in China, which has been lying to its own people and lying to the world from the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis.

Just consider headlines such as this one from Bloomberg, “China Concealed Extent of Virus Outbreak, US Intelligence Says.” This is in reference to reports now available generally to Western governments and even to many in the media from organizations in the United States such as the Central Intelligence Agency.

CNBC ran an article with the headline, “China Hid Extent of Corona Virus Outbreak, US Intelligence Reportedly Says.” But then I refer to an article that ran in the times of London by Philip Sherwell that begins, “Chinese laboratories identified a mystery virus as a highly infectious new pathogen by late December of last year, but they were ordered to stop tests, destroy samples, and suppress the news according to a Chinese media outlet.”

So effectively what the communist party in China is trying to do and evidently with remarkable success is to rewrite history right before our eyes. But I do want to credit the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic for doing a pretty good job of not letting the communist party in China get away with it. There have been two very big articles published at the New York Times in recent days. One of them was published on Saturday on the front page. Here’s the headline of the article. “Survivors Fume as China Insists on Quiet Burials.” The article begins referring to a young Chinese man whose father had died of the coronavirus. He was given very little time or space to grieve. “He said officials in the central Chinese city of Wuhan had insisted on accompanying him to the funeral home and were waiting anxiously nearby. Later, they followed him to the cemetery where they watched him bury his father. He saw one of his minders taking photos of the funeral, which was over in 20 minutes.”

Now, if you’re looking for a distinction in worldview and you want to understand how ideas have consequences then just consider the government minders in the communist party trying to enforce as low a profile as possible on Chinese funerals in deaths from COVID-19. And this is not about crowd dispersal, this is about ideological warfare.

As the team of reporters for the New York Times tells us, “For months, the residents of Wuhan had been told they could not pick up the ashes of their loved ones who had died during the height of China’s coronavirus outbreak. Now, that the authority say the epidemic is under control, officials are pushing the relatives to bury the dead quickly and quietly and they are suppressing ongoing discussion of fatalities as doubts emerge about the true size of the toll.”

Later in the article, the Times tells us, “The ruling communist party says it’s trying to prevent large gatherings from causing a new outbreak, but its tight controls appear to be part of a concerted attempt to avoid an outpouring of anguish and anger that could be a visceral reminder of its early missteps and efforts to conceal the outbreak.” Those same public displays or discussions of loss could also, according to the article, “feed skepticism over how China has counted the dead.”

Now, in worldview analysis, just keep in mind that the Chinese communist party is officially atheistic. It’s materialistic. It denies that there is any supernatural reality or God. It denies that human beings have any soul. Thus a human body is nothing more than atoms and molecules. Then Sunday’s edition of the Times ran a lengthy article by Yangyang Cheng who’s a particle physicist at Cornell University. She begins writing, “My mother believes that God and the Chinese communist party will defeat the coronavirus.”

But what becomes very clear in this article is that this Chinese lady still in China, the mother of the writer still believes in the power of the communist party. Yangyang Cheng writes, “The government issued textbooks simple as they were,” she’s speaking when she was a child, “contained all the answers about how to tell the good from the bad and what gives life its meaning. The party is good. Disobeying it is bad. Serving one’s country and its people is the most noble form of living.” She then writes this, “But for all its tales of revolutionary martyrs, patriotic education does not teach how to grieve.” Nor does Yangyang Cheng seem to know much about how to grieve. She identifies herself as an atheist.

We’ll be talking about this more in the future but just at this point that the Christian worldview affirms grief and defines it in two incredibly important ways. Number one, grief is real because the loss is real because human beings are real and they really matter. But the second affirmation is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of Christ alone transforms our experience of grief.

Thus Paul would write to the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “But we do not want you to be uninformed brothers about those who are asleep that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We do grieve. Christians genuinely grieve, sometimes heartbreakingly grieve. But in the power of the gospel, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

Just consider this: the atheistic communist party in China can affirm no hope so it can acknowledge no grief. The biblical worldview acknowledges grief, but even more than that, it points to an absolute hope. As believers, we’ll hold onto that truth, especially now.

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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