The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, March 7, 2022

It’s Monday, March 7th, 2022.

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

Part I

Tracking Developments in Ukraine: U.S. Declines Zelenskyy’s Request for a No-Fly Zone and Putin Criminalizes Any Citizen Who Refers to Russia’s War in Ukraine as ‘War’

Once again, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominates the headlines, and today, with several interesting developments that have taken place over the weekend. Russia continues to target civilians. Attempts at ceasefires, even for a limited region for a limited time, have failed. Diplomatic efforts have similarly failed. Russia continues to be bogged down in an offensive that appears to be taking far longer than Russia had predicted, but the overwhelming might of Russia’s land army and its air forces are likely to prevail in the end. The people of Ukraine and the President of Ukraine continue to show a very clear picture of courage. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with members of Congress in what was supposed to be a closed meeting over the weekend, and you also had diplomatic efforts undertaken by nations, including the Prime Minister of Israel.

But as of last night, the war continues, and it continues hot, and there are still civilians in grave danger. There is every appearance and evidence that Russia continues to attack with missiles and rockets and other forms of warfare, indiscriminate targets, including civilian populations. But the really interesting developments that took place over the weekend include an action that was not undertaken by the United States and our allies, and an action that was undertaken by Russia. First, what didn’t happen? The United States and European nations did not declare, as President Zelenskyy had requested, a no-fly zone over the entire region of Ukraine, or for that matter, even a limited region.

Now, why is that important? It’s important because we can understand why President Zelenskyy would want European and American forces, NATO forces in particular, to declare and then to enforce a no-fly zone over his country’s territory, because in so doing, it would mean that it would be considered a legitimate act to shoot down any offensive aircraft that might enter into Ukrainian airspace.

So why did American and European leaders, who’ve done so much to try to encourage Ukraine, to defend Ukraine, and to get arms to Ukraine, why was there a resistance to, and for that matter a negative answer to, requests for the declaration of a no-fly zone? We need to understand that this is pointing to one of the basic rules of war. If indeed you declare a no-fly zone and you then seek to enforce it, you have become a combatant in war. That would mean that if the United States and its allies were to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and mean it, and then enforce it, would mean the United States and those NATO allies would be involved in direct warfare and combat against Russian forces.

So, that’s just not going to happen. President Biden made that very clear, European leaders have made it similarly clear, and we understand that there is far more than Ukraine that hangs in the balance of that decision, because if Russia and NATO forces were to come to direct warfare, there is very little confidence that that warfare could be kept under the threshold of a nuclear exchange. And then, horrifyingly enough, we would find ourselves facing the reality of World War III and a thermonuclear war. Now, you understand why the United States and NATO allies have not declared a no-fly zone. That’s what the allies and the Americans did not do.

At the same time, it’s very clear that Americans and other European nations are trying to get more aircraft, including offensive fighter jets, in the hand of the Ukrainians, and it appears the fastest way to do that is to try to get other former Soviet Bloc nations that have Russian made jets to give those jets to Ukraine in order for Ukraine to use them, the pilots are generally trained on those aircraft, in order to defend their nation. The United States is then offering, at least it is reported, to back order and to supply American made jets, and for that matter, perhaps European made jets, as a replacement for the Russian made jets that America’s allies would give to Ukraine. It’s unclear whether this will actually happen or not, but it is interesting to see the unity among so many nations, including some nations that were formally behind the Iron Curtain in opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and thus seeking to support Ukraine in its defensive actions.

But I said the big stories are actually what did not take place when it comes to America and our European allies, but also what did take place in Russia. What did take place? Well, the Russian Duma adopted legislation approved by President Putin that would criminalize anyone for violating by public speech or public the official line given by the Russian government about the war in Ukraine. For one thing, the government insists it’s not a war. It is instead a special military operation. It might be a crime that could lead to a sentence of 15 years for every occurrence if anyone, and especially anyone with a publication, anyone in the media, should use the word war or in any other way violate or contradict the official Russian government line about what the government calls this special military operation.

The New York Times reported the story this way, “Russia clamped down harder on news and free speech than at any time in president Vladimir V. Putin’s twenty two years in power, blocking access to Facebook and major foreign news outlets and enacting a law to punish anyone for spreading ‘false information’ about its Ukraine invasion with sentences of up to 15 years in prison.” That, again, according to The New York Times. The Times also reported, and I quote, “The text of the new law offered few details about what constituted an offense, but Russian journalists and Kremlin opponents take it to mean that any contradiction of the government statements on the invasion could be treated as a crime. Besides criminalizing the sharing of ‘false information,’ it makes discrediting Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calling on countries to sanction Russia, or protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, punishable by fines and years of imprisonment.”

We’re then also told in the same report that President Putin had signed the law that “effectively criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war against Ukraine.” Again, the most interesting thing here, or the most revealing aspect of this law, is that Russia’s war against Ukraine cannot now be referred to as a war without bringing on the threat of criminal charges, and that means hard prison time. So here you come to understand that a repressive regime eventually simply has to control the news. And even as you see Russia’s government and Russia’s President undertake this effort to try to control the narrative, the reality is that given the news ecology of the digital age, it’s going to be very, very difficult for Russia to continue to maintain its line that this war isn’t a war, that it wasn’t offensive, it was defensive, and that, after all, Ukraine, when you look at the videos of violence, is attacking Ukraine.

It’s ludicrous on its face, and increasing numbers of the Russians know it, but it is unclear at this point that increasing numbers means anything close to a significant percentage of Russians yet, because to this point, the propaganda and misinformation engine of the Putin regime has been overwhelmingly successful. But again, in the digital age, it is hard to imagine that monopoly on information will continue. And when you see a regime, a government do what Putin’s Russian government just did, criminalizing even the word war and trying to control by repression the entire news media ecology, that’s not a sign of strength. It is a sign of desperation and it is a sign of weakness. Of course, it’s just blatant, bare knuckled repression. And it is perhaps something the Russians are going to have to understand by seeing it at home in order to understand Russia’s hard fist abroad.

Part II

‘Taking Dictators Literally and Seriously’: Putin Stated Clearly His Determinations over Ukraine — Will the World Learn to Take Dictators at Their Word?

Just a couple of other observations about Ukraine before moving to domestic issues. The Wall Street Journal over the weekend ran an important editorial entitled, “Taking Dictators Literally and Seriously.” Now, this gets to an interesting conversation in political reporting. There are those who have said that when it comes to political leaders, there are some you take literally, and there are others you take seriously. There are few you take both literally and seriously, but as the Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal rightly affirms, when it comes to totalitarian dictators with nuclear weapons, you had better take their words both literally and seriously. The editorial is summed up by the words, “Putin told us for years what he’d do. The West didn’t listen.”

The very same print edition of the newspaper, that’s The Wall Street Journal, over the weekend ran a massive and massively important interview with Robert Service. He’s a Russian historian, the author of major informative works on Russia over the past decades. Robert Service is a scholar who currently holds posts at New York University and the American Enterprise Institute. He’s 74 years old, he’s been watching Russia for a very long time, he’s Professor Emeritus at St Antony’s College at Oxford University, but here’s what’s really important. He points out that Vladimir Putin’s words, his threats, his plans against Ukraine, were hardly secret. And by that, he doesn’t mean they became evident with the amassing of all those troops and tanks on Ukraine’s border. Rather, as he points out, Vladimir Putin had been making clear going all the way back to the 1990s that he considered the situation in Ukraine untenable, and he had plans.

In 2007, Putin made a public statement at the Munich Security Conference, when he made clear that he was angry, indeed filled with a rage against Ukraine ever joining NATO. We are then told that in 2012, “He made it clear again that the Ukraine NATO question wasn’t negotiable.” Then we are told, “In July 2021,” now recall, that’s less than a year ago, “he wrote an essay that foretold the invasion.” Mr. Service sums it up saying “more or less that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and Mr. Putin had said so many times before, but as he points out, not as angrily and punchily and emotionally.” That is to say, Vladimir Putin, at least three times basically said that he wasn’t going to let Ukraine stand as a friend to NATO, much less as a member to NATO, and no longer as a part of Russia.

Those who are surprised, Mr. Service is saying, simply weren’t listening to Vladimir Putin. And that, to say the very least, turns out to have been a very big mistake. When it comes to dictators, The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board is right take them both literally and seriously. Take them at their word when they promise you in advance they intend to do great harm.

Part III

Two Contradictory Moralities Evident in One Nation: Two States (California & Florida) Present Polar Opposite Laws on Abortion Access in Preparation for Possible Overturning of Roe v. Wade

But next, we come back to the United States, and we consider the issue of abortion.

In this case, a tale of two states. The two states are not chosen at random. Both of them have been in the headlines on the abortion issue just in recent days, but let’s just look at the contrast between these two states and understand the deep ideological and moral divide over abortion in the United States. What makes these two states similar is that they have very large populations and a lot of coastline, but other than that, the states are politically and morally very, very different. We’re talking about the two states, California and Florida.

In recent days, both of these states have made headline news on the issue of abortion. The Los Angeles Times reports, concerning California, in last Friday’s edition, “Bill that means legislation may expand abortion access.” The subhead in the article, “California Democrats pitch countermeasures as other states adopt restrictive policies.” So the headline in the Los Angeles times about California’s government is that the government is considering expanding abortion access in one of the most liberal states on abortion in the union. At the same time, Florida’s legislature over the course of, say, the same few days, actually adopted legislation that will mirror the Mississippi law, currently before the Supreme Court, limiting, indeed eliminating, the possibility of abortion after 15 weeks of gestation. That is the 15th week of pregnancy.

These are two huge headline stories, but they really do represent not just two different states and two different approaches to legislation and abortion, but two absolutely contradictory moralities in one nation. Now, for one thing, this just points to the fact that when the federal government adopts this kind of legislation, it may add actually be forcing one policy on the United States that isn’t at all representative of the nation. That was certainly true in 1973 of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The situation before Roe v. Wade, that is prior to January of 1973, meant that there were different states in different regions of the country that had different legal approaches to abortion. It was the Roe v. Wade decision that forced a basically pro-abortion reality on the entire nation. But let’s just consider, let’s just imagine that Roe were to be reversed, that Roe were to disappear, and if so, then you can see once again that America would have two different approaches to abortion.

Indeed, there are some arguing that there would be not two Americas, but three Americas. The three Americas are a pro-abortion America, states where abortion would be overwhelmingly legal, and in some states like California, where abortion would basically be not only legal, but paid for by taxpayer funds. And then there would be other states, in which abortion would be illegal or severely restricted. And then there might be a third America, which includes at least some states that might be somewhere in between those two alternatives. But right now, we’re talking about two Americas as represented in two states, California and Florida. Even as the oral arguments in the Dobb case were heard by the Supreme Court, at least some in California, and California is dominated by the Democratic Party, and for that matter, it is overly weighted by the left wing of the Democratic Party, you had those who were in California’s government arguing that California should become a refuge state when it comes to abortion.

It should become a state in which abortion would basically be a destination service. People would come to abortion from more restrictive states, and there are those within California’s legislature who want California not only to welcome all those who may want to terminate the unborn life within themselves, but to offer to women that they would actually pay for abortion. They would cover this with taxpayer services or with private donations. On the other hand, you have other states that are restricting abortion, and just in the last several days, Florida legislature has now adopted, it was the House first and then Florida Senate, and the bill is now being forwarded to Governor Ron DeSantis for signature, it is a bill that is mirroring the Mississippi law that is before the Supreme Court in that Dobbs case. And thus, the Florida law would be ready to go into full operation restricting abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy as soon as the Supreme Court would hand down that decision.

The Supreme Court hasn’t done so yet, to be sure, but what you see in Florida is the mirror opposite of what you see in California, and that’s the big point. In Florida, the big issue is seeking to restrict abortion, if not to outlaw it altogether. In California, the urgency is to expand so-called access to abortion. Interestingly, the California law, at least a bill that was discussed in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, identified as “one of several introduced this year by California Democrats, who have been preparing countermeasures to expand abortion access for those who live in and out of the state,” this particular bill would allow nurse practitioners to undertake abortion in place of a doctor.

One of the figures in California made a comment in this article, “I think if you had asked me 30 years ago if I’d still be talking about defending Roe v. Wade and fighting for abortion access in 2022, I would’ve said, ‘I certainly hope not,’ but here we are.” We would simply turn that into an opposite statement and say, thanks be to God we’re still debating this, and we must be very thankful and very prayerful about the decision the Supreme Court will hand down, because Christians understand nothing less than life or death is hanging in the balance. The confluence of these two stories about two different actions undertaken by two very different states points out that the United States is a nation, but as you look state by state, there are very different political and moral realities.

The California government is overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, and that includes the legislature and the governorship with Governor Gavin Newsom. On the other hand, the Republican state government is overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans, and that includes the state legislature and the Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. Both Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, and Ron DeSantis, the Republican Governor of Florida, may well have national ambitions, including presidential ambitions. And even as now, they serve as governors of two very different states in moral and political terms, also in partisan political terms as it turns out, they would represent the very same thing if you could just imagine a presidential election year in which Gavin Newsom might be the Democratic nominee and Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee.

That shows you the great worldview divide in America. Not just in two states, not just in two governors, but in two very different legislative approaches to abortion, and as we think about our challenge as Christians in the United States, we understand that challenge is national, but that challenge also must be translated into action and influence state by state. California and Florida, different and contrasting as they are, are just two of the fifty where those contending for the sanctity of human life have to be found very hard at work.

Part IV

SCOTUS Votes to Reinstate Federal Death Penalty in Boston Marathon Terror Case , but President Biden has Threatened to Block Any Executions — What is at Stake?

But next, as we talk about life and death, the Supreme Court of the United States on Friday handed down a ruling that stated that the death sentence against Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be put back in place. This is a federal death penalty case. There’s an interesting story, even behind the fact that was a federal sentence, and it has to do with a fact that even in the aftermath of that horrifying terror attack in the United States that killed and maimed so many people, blowing human bodies apart at the Boston Marathon, even as it turned out that there were two bombers involved in the case, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the reality is that by the time an arrest was made, the arrest was only of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, because his brother Tamerlan had been killed by an automobile driven by Dzhokhar as he was trying to get away from police, and the killings in this case involved not just those who were killed as a direct result of the bombs themselves, but also a police officer who was killed seeking to apprehend the two bombers.

Here’s the interesting twist. Even though there would’ve been state felonies involved, to say the very least, the state of Massachusetts does not have a death penalty, and the overwhelming public outrage, the sense of morality, even in the public there in Boston, even in the state of Massachusetts, was that nothing less than the death penalty would fit this crime. The state had eliminated the death penalty. The federal government stepped in, and in a federal trial, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty of 27 deadly counts of felony crimes, and he was sentenced to death. But attorneys on appeal argued that evidence had been withheld, the judge had given inadequate instructions to the jury. A federal appeals court basically upheld that defense argument, but in a 6-3 ruling on last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States said that the errors that might have happened in the trial were inconsequential when it came to the fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had admitted to the crimes and that the jury had been well informed by evidence and argument and by judicial directives in handing down the death sentence.

So the Supreme Court, by that 6-3 vote, put the death sentence back into place. Now, even as that is reported, you also have the reality that President Biden has announced that federal executions would be paused if not ended during his administration, and there’s no way that a death sentence can be carried out when the White House is in opposition, and doesn’t, through the Justice Department, allow that sentence to be carried out. Jen Psaki, who is the White House Press Secretary, said after the ruling by the Supreme Court that the President “believes that Tsarnaev should be punished, but has deep concerns about whether capital punishment is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our justice and fairness.”

Once again, you see a major moral divide in the United States. It’s not exactly the same divide. It would break down not exactly as the breakdown would take place on the states over the abortion issue, but pretty close. The map would be overwhelmingly similar, and also you have a similarity in logic. The left argues for the elimination of the death penalty, arguing that it is a heinous and atrocious and inhuman punishment. Clearly, by the way, it was not considered such at the time of the framing of the Constitution, because all of the states involved in ratifying the Constitution had the death penalty in place for crimes at that time, and they have continued on. But in biblical terms, it’s important that Christians understand that the death penalty is not primarily about vengeance. It is about punishment, but it is also about underlining the particularly heinous nature of homicide, the killing of a human being.

In Genesis 9, where God decrees the death penalty for intentional murder, he does so saying that if man’s blood is shed by man’s hand, then that man who is the murderer forfeits his own life. That underlines the sanctity of human life. Now, to be sure, that logic has been lost on many in a post-religious post-Christian and increasingly secular America. No doubt there is great moral confusion over the death penalty. No doubt the death penalty can, and at times has been, applied without all of the requisite kinds of moral protections, which by the way, you also find in the biblical presentation of the death penalty, as it was given in the law of Israel, enormous protections and enormous evidentiary requirement. But nonetheless, a society that will not execute anyone for anything is a society that no longer has the moral clarity to say there are some persons who have turned so murderous in society that no society can survive with them alive.

Remember that according to the biblical worldview, murder is a particularly horrifying crime, particularly because it is a crime against someone who bears the image of God. It is a crime against an image bearer, and thus, you see why these two stories belong in our conversation together, because that image of God, that we so clearly understand from scripture as defining all of humanity, is what makes the conversation about abortion and about the death penalty linked in theological and worldview terms.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking you from Orange County, California, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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