The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

It’s Wednesday, May 25th, 2022.

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

Part I

Moral Atrocity Beyond Human Comprehension as Deadliest School Shooting in Texas History Takes Place in Uvalde

The human mind, the human moral imagination, and human language are inadequate to describe what took place yesterday in an elementary school in the small Texas town of Uvalde. A gunman we are now told was 18 years old entered that school intending to create and to commit premeditated murder and to bring about a massacre.

He killed 14 students and at least one teacher. Others are wounded, so that death toll may actually mount. The staggering toll of these deaths underlines the fact that we now know this was the largest school-based mass shooting in Texas history. You have to go back in American history, all the way to 2012, and the killing of so many children, again, in an elementary school. That time in Connecticut, this time now in the State of Texas. The news is basically straightforward, at least in terms of what we know.

We’ve seen so many of these stories before. “An 18-year-old gunman,” the Associated Press says, “opened fire at a Texas elementary school. We’re now told that the Texas governor has confirmed 14 children dead. One teacher also dead.” The Associated Press then simply reported, “It was the deadliest shooting at a US grade school since the shocking attack in Sandy Hook, Connecticut almost a decade ago.” What are we as Christians to think?

First of all, we have to think with immediate concern for the people there, the families there in Uvalde, Texas whose lives have been changed forever. Not just those whose lives were ended, those precious children and that teacher, but talking about the families there, the community there. Uvalde, Texas is a small Texas community. It’s less than a hundred miles from the border with Mexico. It only includes about 16,000 people. Some of them are a part of our own extended family.

And thus, when you see a headline coming from a place like Uvalde, if you do indeed have loved ones there, your immediate thought is how much they might be in danger. And furthermore, you then recognize in a small town like this, everyone knows, if not everybody, then somebody who knows just about everybody in town. It’s a small community. And in so many ways, it shows the virtues of community life in the United States. It is quintessentially Texas.

I’ve had the honor of preaching at the First Baptist Church there. There is simply no doubt that there are wonderful Christian people there. It is also a picture of Texas, not only in the landscape, but also in the demography. Yesterday’s headlines came from Uvalde and those headlines are going to come for some time now, because this is a story that like the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 simply demands the nation’s moral attention. But it’s also very interesting.

It’s too soon to talk about what kinds of public policy issues the State of Texas will consider in the aftermath of this horrifying story. But the reality is that there is no human power who can put these lives back again. There is no human power who can put those bullets or charges back in the gun. There is no one who can totally adequately honestly explain even what was going on in this one human heart of what we are told was an 18 year old young man, who with murder in his heart went into that elementary school.

But you’re going to hear a lot of conversation. For one thing, you hear a lot of people say, “Well, when people suggest in response to this that our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Uvalde, that is simply not enough.” Well, I think we all know it is not enough. That’s one of the frustrations of human existence. There is no way we can fully resolve, that we can bring about full healing. There’s no way that we can put those precious young children back into their chairs behind those desks in that school.

In the United States, we also have a political divide. We have red states and blue states. We also have a national constitution that in accordance with the Second Amendment provides Americans with the right to bear arms. We also have a proliferation of arms throughout the United States in a way that troubles many people and assures others. But the point is, there actually is no real political solution to this problem.

As much as some people, and this also includes the orthodoxy of many in the Democratic Party and on the left, the answer would be restricting guns. Well, that is not an absolutely irrational plan. Even the most ardent gun rights defender would have to say there’s a certain logic to that, even if the logic is rejected. The problem is that when you look at actually coming up with legislation that would meaningfully prevent this kind of massacre, it’s really hard to imagine what that would be.

As of last night, for example, there was really no indication that these were the kinds of advanced weapons, the kind of automatic weapons that might have been covered by previous legislation, either at the state level or at the national level. You say at the national level, why did a ban on automatic weapons fail to be reenacted at the federal level? Well, there were several reasons, one of them is just political. The other is looking at the logic of the constitution and trying to define Second Amendment rights.

But the other issue was actually more straightforward, even though it is not often articulated, and that’s the problem in defining what weapons specifically would be forbidden. In reality, a slight customization, just a slight difference from the legal definition of the banned automatic weapons meant that in the end, automatic weapons or weapons that effectively operated automatically were not banned. You’ll often hear people on the right say, Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and that’s profoundly true.

The guns didn’t kill. It was a human agent, an 18-year-old young man who in this case was the murderer. It was he who killed, but he did use guns. In a fallen world, we need to recognize that one of the perplexities is that the same gun that can kill here might protect in the next situation just across the street or even in the same place. We don’t want an unarmed military. We don’t want an unarmed police force.

And for that matter, looking at much of the United States, just frankly, there’s the necessity given the fact that the police and law enforcement are far away of people having their own guns. And in reality, that Second Amendment right is a basic constitutional right. I’m suggesting that Christians armed with a biblical worldview actually recognize that it’s true that guns don’t kill people, but people do, but they often use guns.

And as you’re looking at this, that’s not an argument for gun control because I actually don’t think that works. I don’t think it’s constitutional, but it does point to a deep moral problem. The same gun that can protect here can kill there. And furthermore, that gun that protects only protects by the threat of a lethal use of force. Here, Christians come along to say we live in a fallen world and that fallen world includes human beings with evil intent.

It’s hard to imagine evil intent, so evil as the young men who went into those elementary schools, one in Connecticut, now one in Texas, and carried out such murderous rampages against very young children. As of the last several hours, it appears that this 18-year-old gunman was actually killed not by his own hand, but by police. Further investigation will verify whether that is true or not.

But assuming that it is true, it just points to the fact that the police had to use lethal weapons in a lethal way to end a lethal rampage. What a difficult world we live in, what a complex world we live in, what an evil world we live in. Thankfully, evil is not all that characterizes the world we live in. After all, there were brave police officers and others who sought to defend those children and to defend those lives. But at the end of the day, people wonder, how can we put an into this?

It is very difficult for us to come up with a morally satisfying answer to that. It’s not just because of the political limitations. That’s a limitation upon politics everywhere until Jesus comes. It’s not to say that there could be no policies that might help to restrict access of the wrong people to guns at the wrong time. But for that matter, there is virtually no one who would argue that anyone should give a gun to this young man under the circumstances. The problem is we lack the ability to read a human heart.

It’s going to be very, very interesting to find out if there was any credible sign that this particular young man intended to carry out anything like what we now know with the deep horror recognized in our own hearts of what took place in that elementary school in Uvalde, Texas yesterday. Another issue worthy of our consideration here just at this very early moment as our primary concern is to feel for, to sympathize with, and to pray for those families in Uvalde, Texas.

It’s also important for us to recognize that at least one thing that might have been done is to have prevented that young man from being able to enter that school with weapons. We’re likely looking at a situation where over time it’s going to become more and more difficult for people to gain access to schools like that, for what we now know are good reasons. Because after all, this headline did happen.

But we also need to recognize that such a reordering of our society behind wall after wall and barrier after barrier of safety and security as necessitated by this kind of attack, the truth is that we have lived for some time in the blessed situation where our communities are more intact or were more intact, where this kind of attack was far less believable, much less, far less predictable. Something is deeply broken in our society in a way that actually was not true just a matter of say a century ago.

It’s not that murder didn’t take place. It is just that crimes on this scale did not take place with this pattern, with this repetition in times past. And here’s where Christians come back to say, “Well, here’s something that is certainly true, human nature hasn’t changed.” So something has changed. One of the hardest questions for the United States of America at this point is trying to figure out what has changed and what we can do about it.

Part II

Is the Russian Tank Soldier a War Criminal? Thinking Through the War Crimes Trial of Russian Soldier in Kyiv

But next, we’ll turn to an issue that is oddly, but tangentially related to the story coming out of Texas. This one comes from Kiev in Ukraine, where, of course, a war is going on. Also, a war crimes trial just went on, the first war crimes trial of the Russian war against Ukraine. It was undertaken by a Ukrainian court in Kiev, and it ended up very quickly with a confession and a conviction and a life sentence against a 21 year old Russian soldier named Vadim Shishimarin.

He was a Russian tank unit sergeant and the court found that he had committed premeditated murder by shooting and killing Oleksandr Shelipov, a civilian in the village known as Chupakhivka. We are told that the trial took just about a week and it was ended when a three judge panel in that court found the young Russian tank unit sergeant guilty of that premeditated murder in the context of a war crime, the specific crime under the law of war international understandings built up over centuries when it comes to crimes.

In the context of war, the crime here was the premeditated murder of a civilian. We’ve talked about Christian just war theory. That’s how Christians throughout centuries have struggled with the question of when war is justified, and if a war is justified, how it is to be carried out. War is after all the use of lethal force. The Christian worldview understands that in a fallen world, warfare is sometimes necessary, but it has to be defensive. It has to be righteous over against an unrighteous aggressor.

It has to be as a last resort after all efforts to maintain peace have failed. But at the same time, once war is commenced, one of the most important principles is that there is to be what according to Christian just war theory, which actually takes the form of a Christian moral doctrine, is to be the principle of discrimination. That is to say lethal force is to be used against combatants, not against civilians. It’s very, very sad to look at this situation.

After all, you’re looking at a man in his sixties who was killed for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time talking on his cell phone. You’re also looking at the fact that the Russian aggressors in this case were represented in this small village by a tank unit, and it appears that that tank unit barely had any adult supervision. You’re looking at soldiers who are very young. One of the most haunting pictures from this particular story is the fact that this young tank sergeant, who’s 21 years old, looks, if anything, five or six years younger.

He looks like a child behind the Plexiglas in which he has been encased throughout the process of this trial. When he was accused of the crime and brought into the court, he basically confessed almost immediately, claiming, however, that it wasn’t his intention even as he shot his gun at the encouragement of his tank mates saying it wasn’t his intention actually to kill the man. That didn’t appear to be plausible. He was convicted.

Prosecutors sought a life sentence, and it was a life sentence that was handed down against this young man. Well, why are we talking about this today? Well, we’re talking about it because once again, it shows the brokenness of the world. And yet at the same time, the responsibility that falls to human beings to try to achieve justice. What is justice in this situation? The complexity of that is underlined by the fact that this 21 year old young man didn’t send himself into Ukraine.

He was sent in by the command of another, ultimately under the command of a dictator. That would be the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Does this 21-year-old young man bear responsibility for the invasion of Ukraine? No. He does bear responsibility for whether or not he carried out his duties in a way that is in accordance with the moral law.

And as you’re looking at international law on the issue of war crimes, it is really interesting, not for that matter surprising to Christians, but it is very interesting how dependent upon long Christian moral teaching and doctrine that international consensus is. For one thing, how do you explain that evil is objectively real and not just something that’s a social construction? It’s not just that we dislike war crimes. It is that war crimes are evil. As I said, government bears a responsibility to prosecute those who do wrong.

That’s affirmed in the scripture, not only in the entirety of the Old Testament, but in the New Testament. And in particular, in a text like Romans 13, where it is the function of government is God’s gift to us to punish the evil doer. Was this tank sergeant in a Russian uniform, in a Russian tank, a criminal? Well, it turns out yes. He violated the law. Are there likely to be mitigating circumstances? Well, yes. For one thing, the civilian who was shot was carrying a cell phone.

Why does that make a difference? It is because the line between combatants and non-combatants isn’t just at this point, who’s riding in a tank and who’s wearing a uniform, because there is reason for those Russian soldiers to believe that the man may have been using a cell phone to call in their location in order to identify them for attack. Does that mean that the killing of this man was justified? No, it doesn’t.

It does mean they were living in a situation in which the laws of war are becoming more and more complex, more and more difficult to unpack. Just consider the reality that as you’re looking at this war, it has showcased the fact that the landscape of war has changed remarkably. Look at the use of drones. Look at the use of all kinds of automated intelligence. Look at the distance between so many people fighting this war.

It is not like the pictures you remember from war movies of World War II in the main with tanks facing tanks at close range. No. We’re talking about a lot of weaponry that has been very deadly, but at a considerable distance. But in a fallen world, there’s more for us to consider here. If Ukraine can and did hold a war crimes trial, then Russia may well claim the right to do so also. And then it becomes something like a tit for tat. It becomes something like warfare just carried out in courts.

Even as we just saw in the surrender of the soldiers in that steel plant and Mariupol, it may well be that the Russians tried to put at least some of those Ukrainian soldiers on trial for war crimes. Vladimir Putin is known for using that kind of form as a way to get back at his enemies and to claim a moral equivalence.

There are some who are suggesting that the way this particular trial might actually end is not with this 21 year old young Russian spending the rest of his life in a Ukrainian prison, but rather some kind of prisoner exchange that would take place after there is some kind of end to the Russian war against Ukraine. And then you look at it and you say, “Well, how is that different than the end of World War II?” Well, it’s different in a big way. For one thing, World War II ended with a very clear winner and a very clear loser.

You look at the allies on the winning side. You look at Nazi Germany, and in particular, looking at the European theater on the losing side, thanks be to God, and similarly, when you think about the allies and the Pacific theater against Imperial Japan. And in both of those cases, there was an international war tribunal that took place after war had ended in both of those theaters of World War II. But then again, there were huge moral questions raised about those trials.

We look at it from the distance of history and we recognize those trials were righteous. They were demanded by the cause of justice, but there was no understanding of how exactly an international body could carry out such tribunals, not to mention such sentences. There were those who were worried at the time at the end of World War II that even those war crime trials against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, they might be failures on two counts.

Number one, because so many, as one of the judges says, of the rats simply left the ship before they could be tried, but also because it set a precedent for other international bodies just to set up what they would call a war crimes tribunal and perhaps achieve justice and perhaps not even actually seek it. There is, by the way, an international body known as the International Criminal Court. There’s an international war crimes tribunal.

But the fact is that the United States, by the way, also Russia, are not parties to that treaty precisely because there is the very real threat that it could be used not in a legitimate way, but in a way to basically rob nations of their legitimate sovereignty in dealing with these issues and in protecting themselves. You look at this and you say, “In a fallen world, shouldn’t there be a better way?”

Well, the story of the 20th century, in fact, you can go back far beyond that, but in particular, the story of the early decades of the 20th century, through the period of say the 1960s, was a period of unusual optimism that somehow international bodies could be put together who would put an end to war, an end to violence, an end to say yes, war crimes, an end in one sense to international evil.

You look back at it now, and you recognize that a treaty to say that nations would war no more looked really good on paper and sounded really good to the ear, but it didn’t hold even for just a matter of years. Some of the very people and the very nations who were signatories to that treaty ended up facing each other in the most cataclysmic war of human history. You may wonder as Christians where I’m headed with this, and it’s not towards evading responsibilities, not that we have no responsibility.

As I said, civilization bears the responsibility to seek and to execute justice as best we can. The problem is as best we can is never good enough. It is never good enough to prevent all evil. We have responsibility to seek to limit evil. We don’t have the power to end it. We want to bring about an end to war, and yes, sometimes war can be averted. Sometimes war is actually fought by other means than guns and missiles and rockets and planes. But at times, war actually happens.

And at times, war is not the worst alternative. Rather, a failure to rise up against an aggressor might be far worse. Just imagine what the world would’ve looked like if Nazi Germany had been victorious.

Part III

‘Imagine the World If Nazi Germany Had Been Successful’: The Christian Contribution of Just-War Theory in a World of Seemingly Interminable Evil

Coming back to the United States, one of the longest running programs in the history of television was famously known as Law and Order. It was very creative, an attempt to put together a program that would show first law enforcement detectives at work, the police doing their job and making an arrest, and then showing the prosecution and the work of the courts.

Law first, then order. The show has recently come back. I haven’t watched the newer episodes, but the point is Law and Order is a fascination to us because of our yearning for law and order. It’s a yearning we know is not just there by a civilizational impulse. It is there because God made us in his image. And as a God who is totally righteous and totally just, he puts a desire for justice, for law and order in our hearts. But here’s an interesting point about that series.

It did have, and perhaps now does have one of the longest runs on all of television history. Why? Because the material is endless. So many crimes, so many crimes to solve, so many criminals to prosecute, plot after plot and often the storyline in Law and Order basically tracked by a few months headlines that actually took place in the news, the reality is that in a sinful world, those stories just keep coming. Also something else to watch, those plot lines often come with a horrible repetition.

Our quest for law and order that sometimes means we’re glued to the headline, sometimes glued to a television screen, sometimes so repulsed by it all we can barely lift our heads, the fact is all of this points Christians to the reality that justice is not ultimately illusory, that it is not ultimately unreachable, but it is reachable only by the Prince of peace, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, who will come and execute justice in his own way, which will be perfect and total, comprehensive and final.

Until that time, we have to struggle with seemingly insurmountable complexities in a world of seemingly interminable evil, as well as good. Our task as Christians is to understand that this is not news, even as it springs into the news headlines day after day. Sometimes our main responsibility is not to try to explain all of this, or even to understand all of this, but like Job in the Old Testament, sometimes we just need to tear our clothes and grieve.

That grieving too will not last forever, but in this life, in this existence, it is real and it’s real right now in Uvalde, Texas. We end where we began today with prayer for the grieving people of Uvalde, Texas, prayer for that community, prayer for those people, prayer especially for the days ahead. We also pray for God’s protection over all people everywhere. We pray for God’s righteousness and justice to be manifest even in this fallen world as best human beings are capable.

It also reminds us that we are to pray as Christians are instructed by Scripture always to pray, “Even so, Lord, come quickly.”

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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