Monday, June 1, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, June 1st, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Necessity of Stability and Trust in the Achievement of Justice: Unrest and Mayhem in the Streets of American Cities
It was only a week ago that the video went viral, the video of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis, arrested by Minneapolis police and on the ground with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on the back of his neck. Of course, the video went viral because the arrest turned deadly when George Floyd died, and the image of that police officer holding his knee to the back of George Floyd's neck is now indelibly ingrained on the American mind.
But by the time we come to the end of the week and even to the early hours on Monday morning, the big story is the fact that lawlessness has broken out on the streets of major American cities. The front page of Sunday's edition of the New York Times expressed the situation this way: "The nation woke on Saturday to extraordinary images of chaos and unrest from outside the White House gates to the streets of more than two dozen besieged cities as outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis traversed a razor's edge between protest and civic meltdown."
But by the time we come to early Monday morning, the fact is that lawlessness has now broken out on the streets of major American cities for several nights, and the situation shows no sign of calming down. If anything, what we saw in scenes, for instance, from Washington DC last night, and confrontations very close to the White House, indicate that the entire situation has taken a very troubling turn. Of course, I am speaking to you from Louisville, Kentucky, where for the last few nights we have heard helicopters overhead because there has been unrest in the streets that has led to looting and at least some violence with shots fired on at least some of those nights.
And Louisville is, of course, the epicenter of outrage and upset over the death of Breonna Taylor, a young African American EMT who was killed in her own apartment in the late night as police exercised a so-called no-knock warrant and in the exchange of gunfire between police and Taylor's boyfriend, Taylor was killed, shot several times by police bullets. That was back in March, that took place some weeks before the events in Minneapolis and, of course, that video and all of this comes, of course, under the pressure cooker context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We've talked about that pandemic representing a great stress test on the economy and institutions. It's also a stress test on human beings. It's a stress test on the entire society. It's a stress test that includes people both on the police force and those who are on the streets. The pressure is already intense. And what we are witnessing right now in the United States is that pressure reaching a very deadly and threatening point.
In Minneapolis itself the situation had reached the point where the governor had mobilized the national guard and had taken over security for the Minneapolis streets. And, of course, it's not just Minneapolis. When you talk about the twin cities, you're talking about both Minneapolis and St. Paul. And as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a front page article in its weekend edition, the situation had now reached the point where law enforcement officials and just about all of the affected cities are threatening a far more severe police action. It's going to be very interesting to see if that happens and what is the result of that kind of police action.
It was clear from many media reports, especially early in the unrest, that law enforcement officials in some cities, along with the city's political leadership were taking something of a hands off approach, but that didn't turn out so well. And that could have been predicted. But even as, in the words of the New York Times, the nation and many of its cities have been on that razor edge between protest and civic meltdown, the reality is that the situation is extremely complex. For one thing, even the video shown on the cable news networks and other media will reveal that many of the people on the streets of the cities involved in the mayhem may have very little tie to the city itself, or even to the larger area.
Minnesota authorities have indicated that about 80% by their count of those involved in the riots in Minneapolis and elsewhere within that state have come from out of state, and officials going all the way up to the United States department of justice have indicated that there is good reason to believe that there are leftist protestors who have joined in on these protests and the rioting. The motivations and agitations behind all of that are no doubt complex, but the results on this street are at this point absolutely threatening.
This is where the Christian worldview reminds us that when we are looking at chaos in the streets, we have to understand that this cannot lead to any good effect. It never has, and it never will. In the United States, the act of political protest has often led to constructive political change, but rioting never has. And the more widespread and the more violent the rioting, the more negative the political effects have been over time.
The United States Constitution guarantees the right of the populous to a redress of grievances. That is a way of communicating to government at every level that there are grievances that the government must hear. That's not only legitimate, that is guaranteed in the United States Constitution. But at the very same time as Christians, we have to understand that Constitution and any exercise of ordered liberty requires two things that are both threatened by this kind of rioting and lawlessness. The first is a stable order in which justice can actually take place. And the second is the kind of trust, societal trust, that is also a precondition for any effort at achieving even approximate justice. If you take out stability, if you eliminate order, and if you erode social trust, the accomplishment of justice becomes nigh impossible.
Christian certainly understand the demand for justice. That's a very important and pervasive biblical theme. But the Bible and the biblical worldview also make clear that an understanding, a biblical understanding of human dignity and of the order that is required for a stable society, that requires certain preconditions, that order and stability and trust are absolutely necessary. This kind of lawlessness, rioting that is not legitimate protest it actually diminishes the opportunity for any kind of legitimate protest to have a constructive effect.
And furthermore, something else we need to watch with very deep worldview implications is the fact that as you were looking at any effort at ordered liberty, at self-governance, such as what you see in the constitutional order of the United States, it requires the fact that there is a certain order, all of those preconditions in place. If you destroy those preconditions, then you destroy the very opportunity to try to move towards justice.
So it's not just that our constitutional order requires stability and trust, it is also that justice requires stability and trust. Justice can only come about by a just system applying just laws in a just manner. That becomes impossible when the streets melt into mayhem.
It's interesting to look at the argument made by columnist Charles M. Blow in the New York Times. Blow is a man of the left. He's very liberal in his politics. He's also an African American who has written often about issues of racism in the United States.
And he says, "When people feel helpless, like there's nothing left to lose, like their lives already hang in the balance, a wild, swirling, undirected rage is a logical result." Now we should note that that is not an illogical argument, but we do need to note that if that despair is met by only further despair, then there is no hope of rescue whatsoever. But it's also clear that at least some of what's taking place in the streets of America is not a wild, swirling, undirected rage. It is actually quite directed.
And Charles Blow actually in his own way gets right to that point in his next sentence, "You destroy people's prospects, they'll destroy your property." Now, there can be no doubt that Charles M. Blow actually refers to a very deep sense of despair that has afflicted millions and millions of Americans and much of the African American community here in the United States. There can be no doubt that there is a deep frustration even to the point of despair in many American neighborhoods and communities, for that matter in many American homes. And there are many American Christians, African American Christians, black Christians in this country who are deeply troubled and are also heartbroken by the situation in the United States over the course, especially say of the last several decades and intensely the last decade itself, the last 10 years, a decade of tumult and of trial in the United States.
I don't question Mr. Blow's despair, but he writes this: "American violence is learned violence. It's the American way. White people in America have rioted, slaughtered, massacred, and destroyed for centuries. Often directing their anger and violence at black people and Native Americans to take what they had or destroy it to unleash their rage and assert their superiority, to instill terror, to maintain power.” He refers to this past Sunday as the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race riot. But then he says, "White riots have often historically targeted black people. While black people have rioted to protest injustice." On either side, he writes racism is the root and we have refused to sufficiently address it. Now that chicken is coming home to roost."
The problem is that even as Charles Blow indicates a massive sense of moral outrage, there is no means of moral rescue in his argument. It just leads to a further cycle of despair and recrimination from which there is no secular rescue. There can be no doubt that there are strains and patterns in American history that certainly undermine the trust that is necessary in society, particularly between African Americans and the much larger white population in the United States. But it is also the case that America is an experiment in ordered liberty that allows for the redress of grievances and also allows for a system of justice to make progress.
And one of the signs of that progress is the fact that the vast majority of Americans, virtually all major political authorities in the United States and an incredible number of law enforcement authorities have universally condemned the action of the white officer that led to George Floyd's death. Trying to understand Charles M. Blow's column, when he writes, “You destroy people's prospects, they'll destroy your property,” one of the problems and the pattern of this kind of lawlessness in the streets of America is that when this kind of mayhem breaks out, when you're looking at the property that's destroyed, yes, it includes many of the properties owned by major American corporations and businesses, but it also means, an even disproportionally destructive impact upon the very members of the community on whose behalf, the rioters claim that they are rioting.
On the other hand, another columnist at the New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote a column that was published in the Sunday print edition entitled, “The Case Against Riots.” He wrote, "In the origin myth of post 1960s liberalism, all the defeats that the Democratic party suffered in the years of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were owed to the party’s heroic support for civil rights, which rectified a great injustice, but opened the way for the Republicans to build majorities on racial backlash."
Douthat then writes, "Like most myths, the story contains pieces of the truth." But as it indicates, it's only pieces of the truth. But he points to the fact that when unrest broke out in the United States in 1968, it did lead to the law and order candidacy of Richard Nixon winning over Hubert Humphrey, the then incumbent vice president of the United States. Douthat cites the rightly identified center-left writer, Jonathan Chait as citing research that was done by Omar Wasow at Princeton University, and as Chait summarized the findings, "The physical damage inflicted upon poor urban neighborhoods by rioting does not have the compensating virtue of easing the way for more progressive policies. Instead it compounds the damage by promoting a regressive backlash."
Now, again, the important thing to recognize here is that Ross Douthat is on the right. He's citing Jonathan Chait, who is on the left, but the point is that the net result of the rioting set loose in 1968 to state the matter as clearly as possible, was counterproductive to the declared political aims of the rioters. I am simply citing that argument to say it should be expected that that would be the case. Rioting destroys order, rioters destroy stability. This kind of unrest and mayhem in the streets undermines trust. And without those preconditions, you cannot have the achievement of justice.
And of course in any equation, trust has to go both ways and it can be destroyed in more than one direction. And over the course of American history, even the history of the last several years, we have seen many developments that have minimized that trust. But at the same time, if we don't have that basic trust, then there is nowhere for us to go. No society can exist without it. We have to take every step to build it, every step to enrich it, every step to establish it, because there is no alternative.
We also have to understand that the system of laws itself, and so often recently on The Briefing, we've had to come back to the necessity of and the achievement of the rule of law and point out that the rule of law means just that. It means that the law is an instrument of attempting to achieve justice. But the rule of law means that the rule of law must be exercised justly.
What Does Third Degree Murder Mean? Understanding Distinctions in the Rule of Law
The rule of law indicates that in the justice system of the United States, yes, police are most often involved in making arrests or law enforcement officials, but they do not bring the charges in court. In general terms, any serious charges are brought by a higher legal authority, a prosecutorial authority. In Minneapolis, the most important charges in this case were brought by the county attorney. And on Friday, the county attorney there, charged the officer whose knee was on the back of George Floyd's neck, Derek Chauvin with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Now we need to watch this situation very, very closely. Let's take a closer look.
On the one hand, you had immediate outrage that this former police officer, Chauvin, who had already been fired by the police chief there had been arrested only for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Now to some it might sound like third-degree murder means that the judgment was that George Floyd, as a victim was of less worth in dignity than another victim whose death and murder might've led to a first-degree murder charge. But the degree of murder in this case as homicide is defined, is not defined by the victim, but rather by the context and the intentionality of the crime.
Here's where Christians must understand the horrible nature of homicide. The Bible could not be more clear. You shall not murder. And of course, even as you're looking at the Bible, you understand that homicide has its horrifying sinfulness. And the fact that it is the termination of the life, the taking of the life of a fellow image bearer of God. Every single human being is of the same dignity and of the same worth and have the same value, precisely because we are made by the same Creator equally in his image. And thus, every one of us bears the same dignity and that dignity must never be denied. It must never be slighted. It must never be reduced. It must never be hidden.
In the case of this arrest, as we think in terms of the rule of law, there are several realities that are operating here. For one thing, you have prosecutorial authorities who want to achieve two things. These two things are very important. On the prosecutorial side of the rule of law, the goals are to achieve convictions that will stand. The goal is to achieve on the part of the prosecutor on behalf of the people . . . Remember that the trial is in the name of the people. It's “The People vs. Derek Chauvin” by the time this gets to trial. And the prosecutorial authorities are going to try to go for the most significant criminal charge that will lead to a conviction that will stand.
But as you're looking at third-degree homicide or murder in the state of Minnesota, it's really interesting to look at its background, which by the way, goes back to English common law. What is third-degree murder? Well, it's not the murder of a third-degree person. We should be very clear about that. There are no first and second and third-degree people. Not according to Scripture, not according to the United States constitution. But when you are looking at the crime of third-degree murder, as you look at the common law and as you look at the statutes of the State of Minnesota, it has to do with a criminal action that is undertaken by someone who acts with reckless unconcern and indifference towards actions that he or she should know in advance will be likely to lead to the death of a fellow human being.
It's really interesting that the word that appears in the law for this kind of third-degree murder is actually a word that is deeply theological. It is “depraved.” The law defines this kind of criminal act leading to the death of another human being in terms of “depraved indifference.” This is not just indifference. This is depraved indifference. This is a sinful indifference. Notice the fact that the law declaring itself to be secular can only be so secular.
And as we're thinking about the process of justice, there remain open questions, even in the case of the death of George Floyd, including, will the other officers be arrested? If so, what will be the crime upon which they are arrested? Will the United States department of justice move with federal charges? There are still huge open questions, and none of those questions can be answered instantaneously. And as Christians, when we're thinking about the sin of racism, we have to be very clear. We're not just talking about what takes place in an individual's heart, in this case an arresting officer and his colleagues. We also have to talk about the context and about how sin works its way, even through policies and the legacies of those policies.
The Responsibility of Statesmanship: Words Are Needed That Unite, Heal, and Build Trust
But before bringing The Briefing to an end in this morning's edition, we have to deal with another dimension of the awfulness of the last several days and this includes tweets made by the president of the United States. Just after midnight on Thursday night, the president issued a tweet that included the words, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” But whether or not the president knew that those words had a history, they certainly do. In 1967, Miami police chief, Walter Headley offered those words as a threat. And he furthermore, back them up with police action. He said in a separate statement that he did not fear charges of police brutality. All of that is remembered as a part of America's moral conscience.
The president qualified his statement later saying that he did not intend to call for violence against the looters or for that matter, most importantly, the protestors, but nonetheless, the words did echo through American history as words often do. One of the requirements of statesmanship and leadership is to measure words carefully. And in the midst of this kind of national trauma, to speak the words that lead to peace and justice and order and trust and not to the words that minimize them. That responsibility falls upon every single human being. But as the most important elected officer of our constitutional order, that responsibility uniquely falls on the president of the United States.
I'll simply make an observation of American history and that is, that the American people have demonstrated over and over again that they will forgive political leaders for mistakes. But there's very little evidence that the American people over time will forgive a major political leader who depends upon elections for being mean. Mistakes are one thing, but the perception of being mean is something that does not lead to electoral success nor to effective statesmanship.
I'm praying for peace and order to return to the streets of the United States. I am praying for actions, not only words, but actions that lead to increased trust throughout the United States, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood. I'm praying for this, even in the context, especially in the context of these days, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that makes everything more difficult than it otherwise would be. I'm praying that the gospel of Jesus Christ will shine forth as the only message of rescue from our human predicament, whatever that predicament is.
But I'm also hoping that all Americans of goodwill will reach together to try to achieve the kind of just society that we all dream of and that we should all be working for. I'm praying for my African American brothers and sisters in Christ to bear an incredible responsibility of history and of urgency and of concern for so many in their own churches and communities that go beyond what any of us outside that community can understand. I'm praying for both words and actions that will lead to righteousness, peace, justice, and yes, progress in making our society what we all know that it should be, and must be, and can be.
We've got to find a way to bring our society and the American hope and American dream back from the brink. The alternative is just too horrible to imagine.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on 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.