The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, January 10, 2022

It’s Monday, January 10, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Another Munich Moment? The Threat of Putin’s Quest to Revive Russian Glory

If there is any moment in international relations in the 20th century with which no Western leader now wants ever to be associated, that can be summarized in the one word, Munich, that German city, where in September 1938, an agreement was reached between Great Britain and Nazi Germany that basically comes down to the word appeasement.

Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, “Seeking peace in our time,” he said, believed that he had come back from Munich with a piece of paper, the Munich Agreement, again, September 1938, that guaranteed the peace and survival, and security of Europe. Of course, it was at the immoral price of sacrificing the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. But the reality is that now Munich simply means the disaster, morally and militarily, of appeasement.

Why are we talking about it on January the 10th of 2022? It is because we are now facing what could be another Munich moment. And what’s really interesting is to see that even as diplomats from Russia and the Western nations, including the United States, will be meeting today, trying to avert, at least when it comes to the Western allies, trying to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reality is that Joe Biden as President of the United States and other Western leaders understand that history will judge them if they are found to have sacrificed a nation on behalf of what could be claimed as the survival of Europe.

But what’s really interesting is how this situation has changed just in the last several days. Now, one of the things we need to say from a historical and worldview perspective is that no two events in history are ever exactly the same. Munich as Munich in 1938 cannot be repeated, but the parallels are a real and prophetic warning to Western leaders as they are now dealing with another autocrat, another dictator, another leader who’s effectively a totalitarian, head of a totalitarian state, and one that has territorial ambitions.

What you have when it comes to Vladimir Putin is the desire to return to the grandeur and glory, as he sees it, of the former Soviet Union. And that means incorporating Ukraine back into mother Russia. He now has between 75,000 and a 100,000 troops masked there on the Ukraine-Russia border. And the question is, will he invade?

The reality is that will be very costly for Vladimir Putin, and to his credit, President Biden made very clear just over the last few days that the economic sanction that will be brought against Russia in the event of such an invasion will be catastrophic for Russia.

What we also need to see is that Vladimir Putin has basically decided to try to hold Ukraine hostage as he is making straightforwardly a series of demands, not only to the United States, but also to Europe, and he knows that NATO, Europe, and the United States cannot meet these demands.

It is certainly very important to recognize that European military leaders, not only the United States, but other NATO nations have made very clear that they are not intending to appease Vladimir Putin the way that Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolf Hitler, disastrously so. But at the same time, we are in a very ambiguous situation because Joe Biden is the same president under whose leadership the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan seems to have given Vladimir Putin all the indication he needed to believe that there would be no strong American response, because Joe Biden’s leadership of that exit from Afghanistan demonstrated that his main concern was just to get the troops out, regardless of the chaos that fell. It is certainly not coincidental that it was shortly after America’s humiliation in the exit from Afghanistan that Vladimir Putin began massing the troops, as he was looking territorially at Ukraine.

There are other things we need to note here, that Munich similarity is something that haunts Western leaders, but it’s something that Vladimir Putin may believe will play to his advantage because what you do have here is a very similar situation in which you have a dictator making demands, and at this point, he holds the military cards because here is the other issue we need to face. President Biden has indicated a certain weakness of negotiation and confrontation here by indicating that military options are not on the table.

Now, in one sense, that puts us in an even weaker position than Neville Chamberlain when he went to Munich in 1938. At least in 1938, there was the credible threat of military action. If that credible threat is taken off the table, it’s hard to imagine why Vladimir Putin will not believe that he has the advantage.

And in this case, what Vladimir Putin wants is assurances from the West, from the United States, from Western Europe, from NATO, that there will be no continued expansion of Western influence in what he sees as Russian influence territory. In particular, looking at Ukraine, Poland, what was formally made up of that world known as the Soviet Bloc.

Vladimir Putin has already basically just reclaimed Crimea, and that was also at the expense of Ukraine, and now he is threatening Ukraine itself. The other issue here is that Vladimir Putin is politically threatened by any kind of viable democratic government so close to Russia, which is of course an autocracy headed by none other than Vladimir Putin.

But that then raises the question of why Vladimir Putin decided to make this stand here and now against the West? This is where we need to understand it might have as much to do with what’s going on inside Russia as outside Russia and the rest of the world. And this just reminds us that if you are an autocrat, if you are a dictator, if you are a totalitarian leader, if you ever show the slightest weakness, you can count on the fact that someone will seize upon on that weakness.

Vladimir Putin has largely built his brand, his reputation in Russia as the master of a Russian vision of regaining Russia’s grandeur, Soviet glory, and he’s done so by taking many symbolic actions. He’s also done so by using Russia’s military in such an aggressive manner. Again, that plays well at home, even as it serves his international and territorial ambitions.

Part II

If You Ride a Tiger, It Will Be Hard to Get Off — Kazakhstan Calls in Russian Troops

But here’s where we need to note that something else has developed just in the last few days. And in order to understand this, we have to go to the other extreme of Russia, and we have to look at the former Soviet territory of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, has basically been a nation unto itself.

It is of course, bordering Russia. It has very good relations with Russia and Russia has seen to it that the rulers of Kazakhstan are basically at least acceptable to the Russian power structure. But as you look at so many of the former Soviet Republics that are now nations, you recognize many of them are absolute and unquestionable economic failures, not so Kazakhstan.

The reason for that comes down basically to two things, oil and uranium. When it comes to an extraction economy, Kazakhstan is very rich. That’s why it has been a standout, something of an economic success, even as many of the other stands, as they are called in that region, have been economic failures. And this has also led to a rather significant achievement of political stability over a period of years, and that was under one main leader, and now his chosen successor. That successor it appears, has now turned against the leader who put him in power.

And it turns out to be a very interesting story. It started out in the Western area of Kazakhstan in recent days, with what at least was reported to the West as public demonstrations against gasoline prices. But in the aftermath of the event, it turns out it had to be something far larger than that, and this has now led to massive political and military actions throughout Kazakhstan.

For one thing, by the time Saturday morning dawned, the leader of Kazakhstan had invited in the Russian army and had given shoot to kill orders against protestors against the regime. The Kazakh leader who invited the Russian army in is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He came to power in 2019, and he was largely brought to power by the man who had held that power as a strong man in Kazakhstan for about three decades, that would be Nursultan Nazarbayev. He’s now, by the way, 81.

Tokayev clearly sees his regime, the entire Kazakh government, in danger of falling. And so he turned to Russia for help and Russia has now sent in army forces. That’s a very dramatic action as Valerie Hopkins of the New York Times tells us, “It is too soon to know for certain whether Kazakhstan’s moment of crisis will be a victory for Mr. Putin, who quickly responded to Mr. Tokayev’s request for help by sending troops as part of a Russia led effort to quell the uprising.”

Now, the next sentence is really important and insightful, “Moscow has a history of sending “peacekeeping” forces to countries that never leave.” And as the New York Times says, “Mr. Putin is intent on maintaining a sphere of Russian influence that includes former Soviet Republics like Kazakhstan.”

But as we look at what’s going on there, history really is extremely interesting. It’s always more interesting than fiction. And what we’re looking at here is the fact that Nazarbayev, the leader who came to power in the fall of the Soviet Union, came to power in Kazakhstan. Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81 years old, became a dictator of a familiar sort.

The familiar sort that emerged in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union was someone who was almost like a leader of organized crime. There had to be an ethnic identification. There had to be some kind of political experience in almost every case. There had to be some level of acceptance to Russian leaders, but perhaps what was needed more than anything else was the ability to operate in a context of what is probably best described as gangster capitalism.

This took place in Russia. That’s how Vladimir Putin came to power, largely backed by the oligarchs who had come to such wealth in the aftermath of the breakup of the failed experiment of socialism. People just began to grab like leaders of organized crime, assets, and they used them to their personal advantage. That’s why there are so many Russian investments in places like London and Paris, and New York. You have the oligarchs moving their money as much as possible outside Russia, in the case they have to flee themselves.

But after being in power for so long, Nazarbayev came to the conclusion that he did not want to die in office. Now, there may be many historical reasons why Nazarbayev have come to that conclusion, but one of them is that strong men very rarely die in peace. He evidently wanted to do something like that, and it may also be that he genuinely cared for the survival of Kazakhstan as a nation, and wanted there to be something like a peaceful transfer of power.

This is where things get really interesting, especially from a worldview perspective. Max Fisher, writing The Interpreter column for the New York Times, reminds us that when it comes to autocrats, “The perils of finally leaving office are often perilous indeed.” Max Fisher is right in describing this as the so-called strongman’s dilemma, “How to set up a successor without creating a rival, and how to leave a government able to outlast the leader without making themselves vulnerable.”

Why is this such a problem when it comes dictators, to strong men? Well, the reason comes down in almost every case to the fact that if you are a military strong man, if you are effectively a dictator, then there is no reason for any kind of healthy democratic, or even just governmental structures to operate beneath you, except as an extension of the criminal cronyism of the regime. That is to say, you can’t have a dictatorship and a functioning government that will outlast the dictator in almost any case.

One of the things that’s mentioned in this article in the New York Times is the fact that in most cases, within five years of an autocrat leaving office, the government system itself breaks down. There’s something like a revolution, regardless of the way the strong man leaves office.

Professor Erica Frantz at Michigan State University offers that five-year pattern. Regardless of how the leader leaves office in a dictatorial or autocratic system, the system that follows him, the structure, the leader that follows him almost never lasts more than five years. It was back in 2019 that Nazarbayev left office, and Max Fisher is right. When it comes to Nazarbayev, so long as he was in office, he knew how to play the game. Like so many leaders, he was “notorious for shuffling his government, promoting and demoting deputies to keep them off balance.”

But then in 2019, he did hand over power to a handpicked successor. There are some who think that Nazarbayev had been looking at the lessons of history, and he didn’t want to be one of those who was toppled in his elderly years in a coup, or someone who died in his bed only to have everything fall in around him.

And one of the things you note is that there are very few alternatives when it comes to trying to choose how an autocracy will perpetuate itself. Should it be by family? Well, Max Fisher makes the very interesting observation that there is only one autocracy dictatorship, only one totalitarian regime that in the modern world has survived in a familial sense. That is to say all in one family to a third generation, and that is North Korea.

All this is right now being fought out in international diplomacy and on the streets of cities there in Kazakhstan, but the New York Times is right when it says that current developments, “Cast doubt on Mr. Nazarbayev’s supposed solution and suggest the problem of strongman succession may be on some level irresolvable.”

Again, the Christian worldview explains why that is so, because the Christian worldview points to the danger of consolidation of too much power in one individual, even one branch of government, even one government itself, simply because of the doctrine of sin. That doctrine of sin tells us that we should be extremely leery of the concentration of power, and that by definition is what a strong man government represents.

It reminds us of the parable that was told repeatedly throughout his own historical experience by Winston Churchill, who spoke of the one who rides the tiger and then wants to get off. The problem is once you’re riding the tiger, you cannot get off without the tiger eating you.

By the way, one final note on Kazakhstan. I mentioned that it has a natural source of, of wealth, but it’s also interesting, The Wall Street Journal points out that the economic inequality in Kazakhstan comes down to the fact that 162 people… Now, I don’t know exactly how they came up with that number, but 162 people, and trust me, The Wall Street Journal knows how to count, 162 people own 55% of the total wealth of the entire country. And the country, by the way, not only has Petrodollars, but also produces 40% of the world’s uranium.

That may go a long way in explaining why Russia is right now involved in a military sense to both the West and the East. And when it comes down to what’s going to happen either in Kazakhstan to the East, or in Ukraine to the West, today as it turns out, could turn out to be a very crucial day.

Part III

Children, Pets, and the Pope: Falling Birthrates and the Christian Worldview

But next, as we went into the weekend, I said that I was going to turn to two big stories. One about Homer Plessy, and the other about the Pope and children and pets. We’ll start with the latter story.

Pope Francis got into trouble last Wednesday, when in one of his weekly audiences, he suggested that it was a moral wrong that so many modern people were having pets as their family, rather than having babies. The New York Times headline, “Pope scolds pet owners who shun parenthood.” You had many other major media across the world who trumpeted the of fact that the Pope had now transgressed into private territory by speaking of the fact that a decision not to have babies, and instead to have Furbies was theologically and morally inferior through the decision to have children, and then having those children and raising them.

The Pope spoke explicitly about this before. Back about 2014, the Pope had spoken of the shift towards pets and away from babies as, “A sign of cultural degeneration.” That’s quite a strong statement coming from anyone, but it’s really, really interesting to note, not so much what the Pope said, which by the way is profoundly true, but the response to what the Pope said, which is coming not only in terms of the substance of his comments, but also in the fact that the claim is that the Pope has here transgressed on territory, that has to be conceded to personal autonomy, to individual choice, and one choice is as good as any other.

Here we see again, the cult, the idolatry of personal autonomy, the idea that no one has the right to tell anyone externally, based on any kind of external authority, what’s right, and what’s wrong, or what is the purpose in life, or what’s the picture of the good life? Does it include marriage? Does it include children? Does it honor the family? The suggestion is that is simply now transgression.

We see here once again, the cult to personal autonomy, this idolatry raise its head in such a way that basically, so many people in the West complained. It’s as if they’re asking, who does the Pope think he is, the Pope? Now of course, the Pope is the Head of the Roman Catholic church, which includes hundreds of millions of people.

And he speaks authoritatively, or at least he is supposed to within the Catholic system. But you also have the fact that Pope Francis has been in so many ways, a generally liberal, or at least liberalizing Pope by offering a hint here and a hint there. He is basically liberalized in effect, so many of the moral teachings of the church, especially when it comes to modern issues of sexuality, but now all of a sudden, last Wednesday, he returns to what he had stated in 2014. And he was quite explicit in his comments.

He said, “Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children.” He said, “I know that’s funny, more or less.” He said, “I understand, but it is the reality,” and he made very clear, it’s not a good reality. It’s not a reality that comports with Catholic doctrine, that’s the Pope’s business, but I have to come behind and say, this is not a Catholic assertion. It is an assertion of biblical theology that God’s intention in creation is that human beings would marry and have children.

The first command given to human beings is, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” So much of the confusion of the modern era came down to speculation in the Western media as to whether or not the Pope has a pet or likes pets. There is no conversation in the Vatican about this Pope having pets. His predecessor had cats. But the issue here is not whether any individual has pets. I’m all for pets. The point is that Furbies are not babies.

Also in the background to the Pope’s declaration was the concern about falling birth rates and fertility rates that actually threaten the very existence of human society, as if that might be a problem. So many others in the West basically said, “This is up to individual choice,” which we just need to note, was never a part of human experience until very modern times.

The very modern idea that we could and should control our reproductive destinies, we could or should, or should not for that matter choose marriage or choose to have children. It’s just a matter of personal choice and personal autonomy.

That is a very, very modern idea. It’s a very unbiblical idea. It’s a very dangerous idea, and it’s also a very controversial subject. Just ask the Pope.

Part IV

A Brave Man Finally Vindicated: The Pardon of Homer Plessy

But finally, a reminder that justice matters, even if justice is delayed. Also a reminder that ultimate justice will be achieved by God because human beings are incapable of achieving it fully. What are we talking about? We’re talking about Homer Plessy. Homer Plessy was an African American man in Louisiana, who in 1892, dared to board a Whites-only train car in New Orleans.

Now, eventually he would be arrested for violating the Separate Car Act of 1890, car meaning train car in that case. He was arrested in 1892. He was convicted. He was fined. He took his case to the federal courts. It eventually went all the way to this Supreme Court of the United States, and the Supreme Court, by a 7-1, ruling handed down one of its most infamously atrocious decisions, in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson. Ferguson, John Howard Ferguson was the judge in Louisiana who had handed down the verdict against Homer Plessy.

Why are we talking about him today? It is because just in recent days, the Governor of Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards pardoned Homer Plessy. Now, Homer Plessy died in 1925. He was arrested in 1892. This pardon comes about 130 years too late. But then again, it’s not too late for the Governor of Louisiana to make this decision, to clear the criminal record of Homer Plessy, who after all, did nothing more, nothing else than to confront an immoral law by an act of civil disobedience.

In this case, insisting that he had the right to ride upon a Whites only train car that was departing from New Orleans. There’s the problem. This harkens back to the age of Jim Crow segregation, to legal segregation, mandated segregation in the United States, and that was based in an understanding of racial superiority and racial inferiority, that is a scandal not only to American history, but is a scandal to biblical Christianity. It’s fundamentally incompatible with the biblical revelation.

In his public comment, as he handed down the pardon, Governor Edwards spoke of the conviction of Homer Plessy saying, “It left a stain on the fabric of our country and on this date and on this city, he was speaking there in New Orleans. Homer Plessy said the Governor did more than his part to prevent the stain.

Back in November of last year, Louisiana’s Board of Pardons voted in support of the pardon and sent its recommendation to Governor Edwards. The Governor said, “The stroke of my pen on this pardon, while momentous, does not erase generations of pain and discrimination. It doesn’t eradicate all the wrongs wrought by the Plessy court or fix all of our present challenges. We can all acknowledge we have a long way to go, but this pardon is a step in the right direction.”

Finally, let’s just remind ourselves that justice will be accomplished in full on the day of judgment, and until then, we as human beings, and especially as Christians, have the responsibility to do our best to achieve real justice, biblical justice in this lifetime. We also need to recognize a final historical note. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case, that 7-1 decision is known as Plessy v. Ferguson.

It is one of the moral stains upon the Supreme Court of the United States, that case handed down in 1896. The point I make is this, that case begs for a reversal, as have other cases such as the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court. So I would add, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

I simply want to end on this. No one believes that the precedential value of the Supreme Court means that all of its decisions can or will stand. Some of them have to be reversed. Some of them have to fall. Plessy versus Ferguson is an example of one of those cases, one of those decisions that simply had to go, but it’s still on the books. It remains there even now as a part of the record of the United States Supreme Court. But the way we now look at the Plessy versus Ferguson decision is the way Christians must pray Americans of a future generation will one day look at Roe v. Wade.

So we hope, and so we pray.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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