The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

It’s Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

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

Part I

There are Always Bigger Issues at Stake in World Affairs: the Revelation of God, the Creation of the Material World, the Imago Dei, and the Morality of the Crisis in Ukraine

You will expect that we will very quickly get to the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory, and its annexation effectively of two Ukrainian provinces. But before we get there, we need to go back and consider some basic Christian worldview principles, some basic principles of the Christian worldview that enable us to understand our Christian intellectual responsibility in seeking to understand the world. Now, just to think with me for a moment, the Christian worldview begins with the first principle, which is the reality of the self-existent, self-revealing God. That is to say, the Christian worldview begins with God. It begins and it ends with God. But the point is that the very beginning, the first axiom of the Christian worldview is that God is, that He is self-existed, and that He reveals Himself to us. The only way we have to know Him is because He who created us reveals Himself to us. So we have no option for a worldview that doesn’t begin and end with a self-existent, self-revealing God.

But as we’re thinking about our current challenge, a second principle would be this: God made the world. He made stuff. And thus, the material world is both real and, because God made it, it reflects His glory. And so we give proper attention to the material world. We believe that stuff really exists. We believe that it doesn’t exist on its own but it exists because God has created it. But the Christian worldview is not an anti-material worldview. We do not deny that stuff exists. Indeed, we say that the stuff does exist and God made the stuff. He made all the material realities of the universe.

A third principle would be that God made human beings as the pinnacle of his creative act. We don’t say that because we infer that about ourselves, we say that because God stated it explicitly in Holy Scripture. We are the only creature made in His image.

But a fourth issue we have to remember is that we can never look at the world, and we can certainly never look at human beings, as merely material. That fourth principle would be that we have to always think of human beings as both spiritual and material realities. We are souls and we are bodies. We are in soul bodies. We are embodied souls. There is no clear distinction between the two that we can self-consciously recognize, but we do know that God made us as what in theology we call a psychosomatic unity. That is spirit and body, body and soul together.

A fifth principle is that human beings alone are morally responsible to God in a very clear way, which is to say that we believe that human beings are morally responsible in a way we would never consider a rock to be morally responsible, but also in a way we would never consider a puppy to be morally responsible or a goldfish or, for that matter, a gorilla.

Now there’s much more to the Christian worldview, but this reminds us that we begin by believing in a very real God who created a very real cosmos. And in that cosmos, He created very real human beings who are body and soul, who are really morally responsible. We’re morally responsible for every dimension of our lives. And that means that when you look at collectives of human beings, you’re not just looking at an individual, you’re now looking at, say, a nation, you are looking at collective moral responsibility.

So this means that in a general way, all of us in a society or in a culture bear responsibility for it. But we don’t all bear equal responsibility. Even in a situation where you have an electoral democracy or a constitutional Republic, even where you have a recognition of the consent of the governed, the reality is that there are people making decisions on behalf of other people. But we’re all making decisions on our own, and our own picture of our own nation and our own conception of national leadership is very important and it reveals a great deal about us.

As Christians have learned to think about these things, we come to think of power and influence as a matter of something like concentric circles. Let’s just apply that to Russia. In Russia, you have a genuine autocrat, someone very close to being a genuine dictator, that is Vladimir Putin. But Vladimir Putin can’t care out the government of Russia by himself. He can’t command the military in terms of all of its units personally. And so, there has to be a governing class and there has to be a military leadership. And there has to be an understanding of these concentric circles, a circle at the center and then a circle outside of that and then outside of that and then outside of that. The further you move outward, the less personal responsibility an individual has.

When you’re thinking about the morality of war, an individual soldier has moral responsibility but far less moral responsibility than the one who commands him in battle. Expand it beyond the military, and individual citizens of nations bear some responsibility. This was one of the excruciating issues that came to light especially in the aftermath of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany. To what extent were all Germans responsible? After all, at one early point, Adolph Hitler had gained power by winning an election. So if you’re looking at this, you understand that there is a sense of responsibility but it’s not equal responsibility, but it also means that we can never look at international headlines or even the headlines in our own nation without understanding that there are always deeper issues at stake. And we are always looking at issues that are inherently moral because human beings are inherently moral.

Now, we’re living in a time, especially in the very liberal West, in which many people believe that there is no objective basis for making moral judgements. This is the idea of moral relativism, but it’s also the idea of moral constructive. There are people around us, and that would include, at least we’re told, the majority of people who teach in America’s elite educational institutions. They no longer believe in a morality based on an objective right and an objective wrong. They instead believe that most morality is socially constructed based upon the ultimate idea of a common good.

Now, that moral worldview is woefully inadequate and it immediately shows itself to be so when you talk about something like, say, the abuse or murder of a child. As soon as you say that, you do know, even if you reject the idea of an objective morality in which there is an objective right and an objective wrong, you do know that it is objectively wrong. It is wrong throughout the entire fabric of the cosmos. It is wrong because it’s wrong not just because society has decided that it is in our mutual best interest to agree that it’s wrong.

So while all of that before turning to Ukraine? Well, it is because we just need to begin by reminding ourselves we are talking about morality. We’re talking about whether or not it is right or wrong for an aggressor state to simply annex territory of a victim state. We are talking about whether or not it is right or wrong, not just in terms of a human moral judgment but in terms of something that is absolutely right or absolutely wrong for freedom to be quashed and for one nation simply to claim the territory of another nation by military force and by political coercion.

And here again we’re watching some very interesting developments because, of course, by the time the news broke on Monday of this week, it was clear that that massive army that now totaled something like 150,000 troops, all the tanks and missile platforms and all the rest that were there on the border of Russian and Ukraine, there were Russian troops on the Russian border with Ukraine. They were clearly threatening. But we did find out what Vladimir Putin was going to do and what he has now done at least first. We don’t believe this is all that Vladimir Putin is going to do with all those troops and all those tanks. It would be irrational for him to have all that armament on all those soldiers there for just this action.

But we do know what he did first, and this is based upon how he has coerced and made his way in the past. He simply used a political maneuver with military force in order to claim that these two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, they’re in Ukraine, are actually now independent nations and they’re to be considered allied with Russia. They are to be considered a part of greater Russia. And the Russian army is now entering those provinces that they have now simply claimed by conquest. And he has the nerve, of course, to call those Russian invading troops peacekeepers. Of course, they are.

Part II

The View of the World History Through the Eyes of Vladimir Putin: the Legacy of the Autocrat, the Drive for a Greater Russia, and the Reclamation of Russian Glory

But those two provinces in the Donbas region. And by the way, you hear these words, you wonder where that comes from. It comes from Donetsk, and that’s a river as well as a region, and basin as in Donbas, Donetsk’s basin. But that is simply an amalgam that speaks to a coal basin. And you’re talking about a region that is rich in coal. You’re talking about a region there in Eastern Ukraine that borders Western Russia, that Russia now claims as a part of its imperial past, and what you have, of course, is stage one. And it makes no sense without a stage two and a stage three. So if Vladimir Putin has finally played out his hand, but he did so while he also offered a very clear manifesto delivered in a speech that lasted for a full hour in which he gave not only his understanding of the current situation and his current imperialist claims, but he also made clear his understanding of the world.

For about an hour, he presented the world, the world according to Vladimir Putin. He began by speaking of Ukraine as not even a real country. He said this, “I would like to emphasize once again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us, it is an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual. It is our friends, our relatives, not only colleagues, friends, and former work colleagues.” I’m going to interject here. He speaks of this as a former KGB agent lamenting the breakup of the USSR. But he goes on to say that these are our relatives and close family members. Now, he’s speaking of that, you can hear the kind of emotional language he’s building up, and he said, “Since the oldest times, the inhabitants of the Southwestern historical territories of ancient Russia have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. It was the same in the 17th century when a part of these territories was reunited with the Russian state and even after that. It seems to us that in principle we all know this, that we’re talking about known facts. However, in order to understand what is happening today, to understand the motives of Russian actions and the goals we have set, it is necessary to say at least a few words about the history of the issue.”

And then he went on to claim that Ukraine was simply invented by Russia. The speech did go on for an hour, so I can make reference to only small parts of it, but I have to make a descriptive reference of the whole. It was Vladimir Putin’s understanding of the world in which he basically says that he is willing to forego Leninist communism in order to regain Soviet glory, the glory of what had been the Russian empire and later became the Soviet Union, and all of that was lost after 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union which he sees as an epic world disaster that came with the humiliation of Russia and the separation of Russia from the other Russias. That would be its larger provinces, its sphere of influence, what we have said the Russians called the near abroad.

Now we began by talking about those principles of Christian biblical thinking including human moral responsibility. Vladimir Putin is entirely responsible for his actions, and like so many autocrats seeking to gain conquest, they simply lie. Vladimir Putin lies about history here. Now, he’s not lying entirely. As I’ve explained on The Briefing, there is a history here, but it’s a history that Vladimir Putin is contorting through the lens of his own personal ambition. It is a history that is tailor-made and completely constructed in order to offer a justification to the Russian people, if not to the world, of why Russia is taking these actions.

But there’s something else that Americans generally just don’t understand. Europeans also share in that lack of understanding. And by that, I mean modern Europeans living today and modern Americans living today who did not live through the 20th century. We often wonder, why do people, why do nations, why do political leaders act differently than we would act? Than we would expect our government leaders to act? Than anyone could act in the Western world and get away with it? And one of the answers has to be that different cultures have different expectations about leadership. Let me just remind you of one chapter in Russian history that turns out to be really, really important right now. The first ruler to declare himself the Czar of all the Russias was a Czar by the name of Ivan the Terrible. That’s how he’s known. No doubt you have heard of Ivan the Terrible.

His rule was in the 16th century, from 1547 to 1575. Ivan was the prince of Muscovy, think Moscow, but he had ambitions for a larger Russia. And he also understood by his own theory that Russia had to be led by an autocratic, strong man, by a ruler of steel. By the way, Stalin actually means steel, and he would refer to himself as the Man of Steel in the midpoint of the 20th century. So Ivan the Terrible was a Muscovy prince who declared himself to be the ruler not only of Russia but of larger Russia. He declared himself the Czar, which means the king emperor of Russia, the autocratic ruler. And he established an understanding of Russia that continued through other phases that are understood as Russian glory, Peter the Great, Katherine the Great, and he would come down to what is still remembered by some as the claims of Soviet glory as well.

Now, by the way, because I think you will be interested in this, when Ivan the Terrible gained the name of Ivan the Terrible, we need to understand that this is at least in part a translation issue. He was terrible. He did rule by terror. But in the English language at the time of Ivan the Terrible, terrible in English actually meant something closer to the formidable or the invincible. Now, there was a moral aspect to this. There was an aspect of a very sinister and very autocratic rule. But nonetheless, Ivan the Terrible was remembered by the Russian people not with terror but with national pride. By the way, many Russian leaders throughout history, including some known as the great, just think of Peter the Great, they put down insurrections and they destroyed their political enemies sometimes with mass acts of murder in order to use terror as an instrument of the state. And of course, that became perfected in the most evil way during the time of the KGB and the Soviet Union.

Many Christians and others in the West look at the actions of Vladimir Putin in Russia and just wonder, “How does he get away with that? Doesn’t he worry about what the world thinks?” And the answer is no, he primarily thinks about what the Russian people think. That’s what he’s worried about. And he’s thinking about the fact that Russia has no future, in his view, unless it becomes a greater Russia and regains at least a large part, if not all, of the territory and the prestige as he sees Russia as having during the time of the USSR. No one understands this better than Walter Russell Mead of the Wall Street Journal. In a really important article entitled Why Putin Is Outfoxing the West, he writes this, “Mr. Putin is first and foremost a gambler, who is accustomed to taking large risks against long odds with a cool head. He is not infallible by any means, but he has years of experience in taking calculated risks, define the odds, and imposing his will on stronger opponents. Like Napoleon Bonaparte,” writes Mead, “he can surprise and outmaneuver his opponents because he is willing to assume risk they would never consider. And so to attack in times and ways they can neither imagine nor plan for.”

This is exactly what Vladimir Putin has been doing for his entire term, or now his terms in office. This is what Vladimir Putin had communicated to the West most importantly in the year 2015 when he made very clear that as he saw it, Russia had adequate resentment and adequate history in order to claim the recapturing of territories that in his view had been lured away to the West after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and during the course of the 1990s.

Part III

Where Do We Go from Here? What Do We Do Now? Disappearing Options on the World Stage

Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times also offers a very interesting assessment when he writes about the message that Vladimir Putin is sending not only to Ukraine but to other portions of the world that had formally been a part of greater Russia. Speaking of Ukraine’s flirtation, as Putin would have it, with the European Union, with the United States, with the West, with NATO, he has Vladimir Putin saying to Ukraine, “You fell in love with the wrong guy. You will not run off with either NATO or the European Union. And if I have to club your government to death and drag you back home, I will.”

But something else Christians need to think about is the fact that what you do see here is the danger, underlined once again, of an autocracy, of an autocrat in power, of what amounts to a totalitarian government and a military state, and not only that, but a military state unbound by modern conceptions or Christian conceptions of how a society should work, how a government should work. You’re talking about a man who really is the singular leader of virtually every dimension of Russia. And we understand that given the Christian doctrine of sin, that is an extremely dangerous and inherently deadly proposition. Thus, whether you’re talking about American presidents, whether it be Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, or for that matter, Donald Trump or Barack Obama or Joe Biden, what they think and what they decide has a very important role to play in world history. But they don’t get to decide anything in America’s constitutional order that Vladimir Putin gets to decide unilaterally all the time, just as that picture showed in Monday’s address when he was sitting alone in that vast hall behind a desk simply speaking to Russia for Russia as Russia.

Thomas Friedman began his essay with these words, “When a major conflict like Ukraine breaks out, journalists always ask themselves, ‘Where should I station myself? Kiev, Moscow, Munich, Washington? In this case,” writes Friedman, “my answer is none of those. The only place to be for understanding this war is inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head.” That’s right, he said, “The only place in which we can find an understanding for what’s going on in Ukraine is not in Ukraine, it’s not in Russia, it’s in Vladimir Putin’s head.” Friedman then summarizes, “Putin is the most powerful unchecked Russian leader since Stalin. And the timing of this war is a product of his ambitions, strategies, and grievances.”

And that takes us back to Ivan the Terrible, because what’s most important for our consideration is that Russia finds pride in Ivan the Terrible. Russia has historically found pride in Ivan the Terrible, even in the terrible part. The Russian people have bought the story from Vladimir Putin that he’s liberating these regions from Ukrainian aggression, and furthermore, that he is simply returning to Russia what was Russia’s from the beginning. And he’s going on to speak of liberation. He is speaking of invading troops as peacemakers. But it’s very clear that this is all about Vladimir the Terrible, Vladimir the Formidable.

Finally, we have to go back to yesterday when President Biden announced rather significant sanctions to be taken against Russia and in particular, here’s the odd part, against the two regions that have now been effectively annexed as a part of Russia, Russia declaring that they are in effect independent nations. That’s clearly a half step, that’s not where this picture’s going to end. But it makes the Biden administration look ineffectual. And it also underlines the fact that having said that this would not ever lead to arm conflict between the West and Russia, basically Biden and other Western leaders, but in particular President Joe Biden, telegrammed to Vladimir Putin that he had every bit of room to be as terrible as he wanted to be without facing any real military resistance.

But the situation was also complicated by the fact that the 45th President of the United States decided that he would speak about this crisis, and what he effectively seemed to do was to pat Vladimir Putin on the back for his brilliance in the move. Speaking of watching Vladimir Putin give his speech, the former president said, “I went in yesterday and there was a television screen. I said, ‘This is genius. Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So Putin is now saying it’s independent, a large section of Ukraine.’ I said, ‘How smart is that? And he is going to go in and be a peacekeeper.’ He used the word independence,” said Trump, “and we’re going to go out and we’re going to go in and we’re going to help keep peace. You got to say that’s pretty savvy.”

Well, here’s the problem, looked at one way, this could be a rather sarcastic assessment of Vladimir Putin’s effective outmaneuvering and outfoxing the West. Vladimir Putin might right now be tactically, if not strategically, yes, outthinking the West and furthermore frustrating the West. But Western leaders and those who are statesmen on the world stage can never speak of something like the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory merely in terms of the tactical. It has to be put in the context of the moral. There must never be an understanding that this is merely something to be evaluated tactically. Christians bear the responsibility always to evaluate morally. Christians understand that if you’re talking about Vladimir Putin, the Immoral or you’re talking about Ivan the Terrible, all the words matter, every single one of them.

But finally, we simply have to wonder if President Joe Biden in his leadership of this crisis has at that point brought the United States and our allies, brought the entire Western world to the point that given the sanctions that he announced yesterday, we have done just about everything we can do because he has announced we will not move to any kind of military action. We are now in a position in which it appears that President Biden has led us to the point where he has shot all the bullets in his gun. If this is indeed a global version of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, it appears that at this point we are in big trouble and maybe out of bullets. At the very least for ourselves, for the world, and for the people of Ukraine in particular, we have to hope and pray not.

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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