briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, June 11, 2020

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

It’s Thursday, June 11, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What’s Behind the Movement to Defund or Abolish the Police? More Than You Probably Think

The hashtags and the headlines are now coming at us: “defund the police,” “abolish the police.” One of the most fascinating aspects of our contemporary moment is how fast the cultural conversation can change, even pivot, and we’re seeing that right now. Major headlines about these issues of abolishing the police or defunding the police, just about in every major American newspaper, also throughout the cable news environment and the larger ecology of the media. Now, legislation is being proposed in both the House and the Senate. Some of the legislation, especially in the Senate, proposed by Republicans. Most of it right now is in the House proposed by Democrats. None of that legislation at this point is about actually abolishing police forces or defunding them. But that is not to say the argument is not real.

And even as the argument has existed for a matter of decades now, it existed previously on the periphery of the American cultural and political conversation. But all of a sudden, after the death of George Floyd and other events that have raised issues of the need for police reform, now all of a sudden the issues of abolish the police and defund the police are now headline news. There’s a long history here. Big issues at stake. We need to take a closer look. As we think about this kind of issue now very much on the front page and on the front lines of conversation, one of the things I want Christians to remember is that issues like this big argument almost never emerge out of a vacuum. They almost never emerge whole, that is, an entire argument all of a sudden inserted in a controversy or in a time of crisis.

That’s exactly what we’re seeing right now as the headlines emerge. But, again, the arguments are actually quite old. Furthermore, we need to understand how arguments like this make their way through society. By the time you see a hashtag, #defundthepolice or #abolishthepolice, on a protest sign on the street of an American city, that argument’s been there for some time. That vocabulary was not instantaneously made. In the case of the arguments about abolishing the police or defunding the police, you can look at articles in major law journals, you can look at books that have been published, you can look at the conversation in American legal circles, especially emerging from what has been known as critical legal studies, CLS. Critical legal studies is a very progressivist understanding of the law and is kind of the left wing. And that’s a moving target of course, but it has been for years now the left wing of American law. Critical legal studies applies critical theory to the law, arguing that the law as it exists is probably a form of oppression that needs to be completely rethought and reformulated in the name of human liberation.

Especially as it related to minority groups in the United States, particularly as it comes to African Americans, critical legal studies and critical race theory have intersected at the point of arguing for the abolishing of the police system, indeed almost the entire justice system as it now exists in the United States. But it didn’t begin particularly with the police and it didn’t begin with the larger justice system. It began particularly as addressed to prisons.

Angela Davis, a very well-known radical activist of the 1960s, in the year 2003, published an argument in which she called for abolishing the prison system, what she called the prison industrial complex. She addressed that argument to a legal system but behind it was an entire lifetime of activism. In a law article published at the Cardozo Law Review, that’s the law review of the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University in New York, Noah Gimbal and Craig Mohammad give a history of this abolitionist movement in the course of recent American history. But they go back to what they call a discursive shift, that means a shift in the language traceable to the prominent 19th and 20th century African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. He called for what he called abolition democracy, and of course this was in the period after the Civil War into the 20th century. He was calling for the logic of abolition to be extended far beyond the abolition of slavery. That language was picked up in the 1960s and beyond by activists such as Angela Davis. In her words, an abolition democracy would be represented by “the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete.”

In an article published just last year in the Harvard Law Review, Allegra M. McLeod, a professor at Georgetown, indicated her vision of an abolition democracy. Just a few pages into her article she writes this: “Justice in abolitionists’ terms involves at once exposing the violence, hypocrisy, and dissembling entrenched in existing legal practices while attempting to achieve peace, make amends, and distribute resources more equitably. Justice for abolitionists is an integrated endeavor to prevent harm, intervene in harm, obtain reparations, and transform the conditions in which we live.” Now, what should be abundantly clear is that in our times, this abolitionist argument hits at the very base of our society. It calls for a restructuring of the entire society, politically, economically, legally.

The call to abolish the police or defund the police is merely an extension of the argument to abolish the prison system. It’s also tied to a revolutionary critique of the entire society, including capitalism, modern representative democracy, the current rule of the United States Constitution. For example, you read a sentence like this, “Finally, such resistance involves addressing how mainstream economic practices and arrangements perpetuate violent theft every day in ways that can be thoroughly redressed only by democratizing political and economic institutions so as to prevent and respond to the highly unequal distribution of resources and life chances.”

A few paragraphs later, McLeod writes, “Abolitionist organizers understand their work to be related to the historical struggles against slavery and its afterlies against imperialism and its legacies and more recent practices of racial capitalism and against immigration enforcement and border fortification.” Again, all of these issues put together.

She cites professors Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in their book, The University and the Undercommons, who say that what they’re calling for is not so much “the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” Again, there’s great honesty here about what is at base in these calls for abolition, and the call for the abolition of the police or abolish the police is just a part of this larger argument.

Now, again, it’s been relegated heretofore, mostly to law schools and to the margins of our cultural conversation, but now it has all of a sudden leapt onto the front pages of our newspapers. In intellectual honesty, we need to understand the very basic and fundamental nature of the argument. It is arguing that the American experiment is so broken that it must be replaced with something entirely new, with a society, they argue, that would not need prisons much less have them. And in that very same paragraph, by the way, went on to say a society that would not need the wage. That means a non-employment based understanding of how to distribute wealth and income. If your intuition is that some form of Marxist analysis is behind this, you would be entirely right, and again, that’s very clear. It’s absolutely evident as you look at the academic arguments.

But that’s not to say that everyone who is now using the hashtag even understands the argument in its comprehensive sense. As you look at the conversation in America right now, the conversation under the hashtags #abolishthepolice or #defundthepolice often comes down to two different forms of argument.

One is the words themselves, actually abolish the police or defund the police, take the money away. Offer no budgetary support to the police, starve the police into non-existence by offering no financial support. The other argument is reform the police, a very pervasive reform, a rather comprehensive reform. But still, it’s an argument between destroy and replace on the one hand and reform on the other hand. But the same language is being used so you have to be very careful about what is actually meant.

That’s going to play out very interestingly in the 2020 presidential election. Just two days ago, the front page of the New York Times had an article about the defund the police movement. The subhead is this: “Biden Stopping Short of Call to Defund.” Very interesting. Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States has been moving steadily to the left. He’s hardly recognizable in political terms as compared to the Joe Biden who was vice president, much less for decades in the Senate, or even the Joe Biden who began the 2020 presidential election cycle. That’s the dynamic right now in the nation. It’s certainly the dynamic in the Democratic Party.

But when it comes to adopting actual policies that will become a matter of public consequence in the presidential election, Biden can’t afford to actually stand by the policy of abolishing or defunding the police, because the American people, once they actually see such a policy, would consider the policy insane. And so instead, you can see right now the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and the top office holding Democrat in the country right now, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, offering and assuring that they will comprehensively reform the police or offer a comprehensive police reform legislation and executive strategy but they’re not going to side with the language of actually defunding or abolishing the police. But, at the same time, that’s not to say the arguments aren’t being driven behind them. Because they certainly are.

They are right now outside the actual political plausibility of the United States Congress or anyone who would be elected President, but they are behind the intellectual energy that is now driving so much of our national discourse. And these kinds of ideas are increasingly common and especially increasingly influential in law schools and the larger American academic discourse, that is to say what students hear on college and university campuses.

Part II

Huge Worldview Issues Behind the Calls for Transformation of the Justice System

But at the most important level of Christian worldview analysis, let’s leave the politics for a moment and understand the ideas that are behind this, that are driving this, the assumptions, the presuppositions that make this kind of hashtag plausible, this kind of ideology possible. Let’s consider this. A part of this has to be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher, who argued that you have a basically noble individual who was nonetheless corrupted by society and if you could just reform society sufficiently then you would produce good human beings. The argument here is that human beings are basically born morally good and what you have to do is avoid society corrupting them. Now, that’s a very influential argument. In one sense, it has been the main argument of the moral and political progressives through the course of the last couple of centuries.

But then you have to understand that that runs directly into conflict with a biblical worldview, a biblical worldview that upholds human dignity, asserting and affirming that every single human being is made in the image of God, but also reminding us that every single human being is a sinner. We do not sin because society traps us in systems of sin. We don’t deny that that’s true. But, rather, we are sinners already. We are sinners because Adam, our federal head sinned, and because we are conceived in sin, as we read in the Psalms. This is the biblical doctrine of depravity, the biblical doctrine of original sin. And during the time of the Enlightenment, figures such as Rosseau argued that, that was a toxic idea of negative humanism that needed to be removed and eradicated for human beings to come of age. So, even at this point, we’re looking at a huge issue of the collision of the biblical worldview with so much Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment wanted to hold up in its humanism the good human being that just might be corrupted by a bad society, that just might be reformed no longer to corrupt those noble good human beings in which you would have perfect humanity or a utopian humanism.

The biblical worldview starts in a very different place and defines human society and human nature in a very different way. It begins with human beings, yes, made in the image of God, human beings as morally responsible agents, but human beings as conceived in sin and born as sinners. Now, as you extend this to society, society becomes more dangerous, of course, because human sin is thus amplified throughout the structures of society. But at the same time, the society as God has designed it and given to us, the means of common grace even of government and community become more important as restraints upon sin. That redefinition or recontextualization of sin and wrongdoing or of criminality is fundamentally made clear in that article in the Cardozo Law Review by Noah Gimbal, a law professor, and Craig Mohammad, who is serving a life sentence in prison.

They write, “This understanding of violence as an individual moral failing undergirds the logic of the criminal legal system in the United States.” So, again, they’re saying that the current criminal legal system in the United States, which they want to replace with something entirely different, is based upon an understanding of violence as an individual moral failing. Now, is that right or is that wrong? Well, it’s largely right, because our society looks at criminality primarily as an individual wrongful act, an individual moral responsibility. That’s why we put individuals on trial for crimes. That’s why we put individuals in jail. That’s why, by the way, individuals sit on juries and individuals vote in elections.

Now, operating from a biblical worldview, we do not deny that there is more to the picture than an individual. Just consider the fact that you might have a teenager who’s been in a criminal gang. Yes, there is individual responsibility, but there is also a communal context. But, of course, the argument being made here is based in Marxism, which says that it is the entire society that is to blame for any kind of criminality. It’s not an individual issue of responsibility. Thus, it is wrong to put that individual in the prison industrial complex, as Angela Davis called it. It’s wrong because the individual is not the primary wrongdoer, the society is. Now, again, this is an article published in the Cardozo Law Review. The other article I read was published just last year in the Harvard Law Review. This is becoming an institutionalized ideology in American law schools and extended as another form of a similar argument throughout American academia.

Now, again, let’s just remind ourselves, as Christians, we do not deny that the picture is larger than the individual. We don’t deny that there are contexts and communities that can be involved in wrongful behavior. We’re not arguing that the law is even always right or that a jury always brings the right verdict or that a judge always hands down the right sentence. That is not our argument. We are arguing that it isn’t wrong for a society to hold individuals as morally responsible and it isn’t wrong to have a legal system that must necessarily operate that way. This helps us to understand that behind the abolish movement is a lot more than abolishing any current structure of a policing system.

And this is where Christians have to understand there really are massive issues here. We’re reminded, by the way, of the very interesting fact that in Romans 13, where we find a very clear mandate for government as the apostle Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit speaks to, let’s remind ourselves, the Christians in Rome, which meant the emperor’s law and the emperor’s courts. In that context, Paul made the argument that the government exists by God’s command for the purpose of punishing the evildoer and rewarding the righteous. In Romans 13:3, we read, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who was in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer. Therefore,” verse five, “one must be in subjection not only to God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Once again, we understand, that as Romans 13 makes clear, as the apostle Paul makes clear, we have an individual responsibility. Now, as Christians understand sin, this does not mean that we do not understand the reach of sin to go beyond the individual and to be represented even within society.

But behind this argument of abolishing the police, abolishing the prisons, and abolishing the justice system is as these law review articles and the books on similar things make very clear, the arguments we are hearing are for a total revolution when it comes to American society. Not just American society, you could say Western society. But you also note that it is based upon utopian presuppositions that somehow we could produce a society, that to go back to the words, will no longer need the prison. There is no way that the Christian worldview can be squared with actually removing the government’s law enforcement and justice system responsibility. There’s no way. Now, that’s not to say that we should not do everything possible to reform the police system, the prison system, the justice system so as best to ensure righteousness and equality and justice. We should do those things. But there’s a vast difference between revolution and reform, and that’s one of the most basic arguments that we are witnessing right now in contemporary America. We had better pay attention to understand which argument we are actually hearing.

Part III

The Task of Reckoning with Historical Symbols: NASCAR Announces Ban on Confederate Flag

But next, yesterday, big news broke telling us that NASCAR, following the example of the United States Marine Corps, is banning the Confederate flag, in the case of NASCAR, from its races, events, and properties. Dan Gelston reporting for the Associated Press tells us, “NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its racist and properties on Wednesday, formerly distancing itself from what for many is a symbol of slavery and racism that had been a familiar site at stock car events for more than 70 years.” Later in the article, we are told, “Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lone black driver, called this week for the banishment of the Confederate flag and said there was no place for them in the sport. At long last,” we are told, “NASCAR obliged.”

In a statement released Wednesday by NASCAR. The organization said, “The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors, and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.” The short statement from NASCAR offered no indication of how the organization is going to enforce this new policy but it was very loud and announcing this new policy, and of course it’s timed in the middle of all kinds of current American controversy, especially over race, racism, and injustice.

And as you’re looking at this, you have to realize that we are reminded of the power of symbols. We’re also reminded of the fact that symbols can mean different things to different people. This raises the complexity and the moral difficulty of dealing with some of these issues, especially in a society as large as the United States and a society as divided as the United States. The point made by NASCAR is that it is now wrong. It’s immoral. You can’t make this argument as anything other than a moral argument. It is immoral, it’s wrong, it’s out of bounds to display the Confederate flag. Thus, it is not going to be displayed at NASCAR events or on NASCAR properties.

Now, I think the policy is entirely understandable in America at this point, especially in the year 2020. Issues have been building for a very long time. Let’s just say that somehow you could step out of our knowledge of the United States and act as if we are a visitor here, this would be about the only situation in any historical memory in which there is the widespread display of a battle flag of an opposing or enemy force against the United States of America and its armed forces. And yet, that’s exactly what the Confederate battle flag is. Now, that’s not to say that that’s what it means to all the people who use the Confederate flag as a patch or a bumper sticker or a flag. That’s not to say that they are declaring themselves at war with the United States of America. It’s not to say that they want to enter once again into battle against the armed forces of the United States of America. It’s not to say that they even intend to make a racial statement by the display of that flag. But the reality is that it still is what it is, it still has that historical rootage and right now there are millions and millions of Americans who say they cannot see it without seeing a call for a return to the enslavement of African American human beings or the continued mistreatment and application of injustice to African Americans.

We’ll be talking more about this as we consider matters of controversy about statues and names and all the rest of the things that are involved in dealing and reckoning with America’s history and even understanding how to tell history and how to understand and interpret the present through the lens of history, how to deal with contemporary events, with historical accuracy and responsibility. Those are huge issues.

But just consider the fact that if you were an outsider to the United States, it would appear bizarre that there would be so many applications and demonstrations, so many displays of a battle flag that was in its origin and in its essence at the time, a statement of defiance against the United States of America. Now, of course, that raises the issue of the Civil War and slavery and reconstruction and the lost cause and segregation. It raises all of that, but it doesn’t raise it in the minds of everyone who’s ever displayed that flag or who might display it right now. But they need to understand that it does invoke all of those issues and a long legacy of injustice and memory in the minds of many of our neighbors. And if you are operating in the public square, and NASCAR is operating in the public square, then eventually you’re going to have to have a policy related to these issues. Even when you have no policy, that is, in effective, a policy.

But this raises some other issues. This is, in particular, a battle flag that raises the valence or the importance of the issue, and it’s contested territory. What we need to pray for right now is Americans talking to each other reasoning with one another, even speaking of our deepest beliefs and convictions to and amongst each other, rather than simply arguing over symbols. But we can’t avoid the symbols. But NASCAR right now is doing this as a corporation, is doing it for its corporate interests. It’s doing it because corporations make very clear decisions about their profitability in the future. NASCAR is risking, right now, alienating a huge part of its own constituency. It’s making the bet as a corporation that it’s the right thing to do as it looks to the future. Will that turn out to be true or false? Well, commercially that’s hard to say right now.

But this raises one final issue about symbols. When they are raised to this level of controversy, the importance of symbolic meaning is only increased, which is to say that displaying a Confederate battle flag now is in one sense an even more emphatic statement than displaying it, say, in the first of this year or in 2014 or in 1966. The context is important. NASCAR might be acting out of political correctness or opportunism. It’s hard to tell. But the fundamental truth is we all have to reckon with history, and that’s a call that Christians understand. We also understand that reckoning is never simple, nor is it ever easy.

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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