The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, March 6, 2023

It’s Monday, March 6, 2023.

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

Part I

Moral Clarity in a Morally Confused Age: Alex Murdaugh Sentenced to Life in Prison

There are few issues, more certain to reach the headlines than murder. And in particular a conviction for first degree murder and two murders, two convictions and two life sentences. That’s the case in a criminal trial that attracted worldwide attention located in South Carolina, in recent weeks.

Alex Murdaugh, and of course this is a part of the story, a fourth generation attorney and prosecutor there in South Carolina was found guilty of two counts of premeditated murder in the 2021 murders of his wife and one of his two sons.

The story began to untangle and by the time the arrest was made, it was very clear that Alex Murdaugh had a very deep and very serious dependency and addiction to certain forms of drugs. And evidently he was willing to do many things to support whatever other nefarious purposes he had as well as his habit. And that included what is now believed to be the theft of several million dollars from clients and colleagues in his law firm. And also, there is now suspicion that he was involved in other deaths leading to insurance settlements.

And as you’re looking at this, you recognize this is Shakespearean in its form. That’s why so many Americans were watching this. That’s why so much media attention was given to it. The average murder trial in a more rural area of South Carolina normally does not have live broadcast on cable news networks, but this one did. And I think from a Christian perspective, we need to understand why this particular crime and this particular trial consumed and attracted so much of the media oxygen in the United States in recent days.

Now, you might say it’s simply because it was sensationalism and salaciousness, and yes, it was there, although looking at this story, you do not have the sexual angle that you would have in many other major crimes. So scratch that one off the overt list of concern or interest here. But you are dealing with plain old premeditated murder, which is one of the oldest and most horrifying aspects of humanity, going all the way back to the Book of Genesis.

And here is where we need to look at a secular worldview, looking at this story and look at a Christian worldview considering this story and understand that like a Venn diagram, there is considerable overlap, but there are also areas in which the Christian and the secular worldview in a story like this not only converge in parts, but diverge in other parts.

Now, let’s think about the secular aspects of this story. First of all, in terms of how the secular press has considered it, how the secular legal system has dealt with it. And let’s just recall the fact that as you were looking at the complexity of human crime, we understand that murder is right at the top of the list.

And so we’re not turning to the 10 Commandments yet. We’re not turning to overtly biblical issues yet. We’re just looking at what the Bible describes as common grace, the moral conscience. We’re looking at the fact that society by society, there never has been a society that sanctioned premeditated murder.

Now, we understand there are many issues at stake here, but we also know that in the English-speaking world of which the United States is a part, that English-speaking tradition includes the tradition of English common law that built up over a process of centuries and produced a tremendous legal achievement.

One of the achievements is discrimination in the law. And by that we mean, the law discriminates between this crime and that crime. And so as you’re looking at the English-speaking tradition, you look at the English common law tradition, and now American civil law and criminal law. What you are looking at is the fact that we take murder very seriously.

Now, we might question whether we take it as seriously as Americans did in times past. But the interest in this trial makes very clear that Americans still take premeditated murder very seriously. And we certainly take seriously the premeditated murder by a father of a son and a husband of his wife. And furthermore, the Shakespearean level of all this has to do with the fact that you’re talking about an incredibly wealthy, unbelievably powerful family in South Carolina, and of course, just to add the additional biblical Shakespearean twist, it turns out that the prosecutor was the murderer.

Now, let’s think about that law tradition for just a bit. Premeditated murder, that means there are other forms of homicide. Homicide is the killing of a human being, homo-cide. But we understand that not all homicide is the same as another.

These days, the crime of homicide generally implies first degree murder, but just the word itself means the killing of a human being. But that raises the issue. Are there justified context in which a human life may be taken? And the answer to that is yes. And that leads us to our consideration from time to time on The Briefing of the ethics of war, and many other contexts in which we come to understand that what happens in the usual course of war according to the Christian moral just war tradition is not classified as murder, although that Christian biblical worldview takes any form of homicide with tremendous seriousness.

But at the same time, we also understand that the legal system itself at times renders a verdict in which a convict, convicted of a crime that leads to the death penalty in that conviction has his right to life forfeited by society in the name of preserving other life.

In the English common law tradition, distinctions between say first degree and second degree murder have a great deal to do with premeditation. And so malice aforethought is the language that comes from William Blackstone and his commentaries on the laws of England back in the 18th century.

Blackstone, who by the way was very well known for his Christian convictions as well, was basing that legal definition on the work of Edward Coke, a British legal theorist or I should say an English legal theorist, who had massive influence on the founding of the United States of America, and on the thinking of the founders. In other words, there’s a distinction to be made here. There are killings and there is then premeditated murder. And what matters is that term from the Old English, malice aforethought.

In today’s legal context, in most states, first degree murder or premeditated murder, first degree homicide requires not only the killing of a human being with some level of premeditation, but also what are defined as aggravating circumstances and those may differ state by state. But the point is the state makes clear distinctions when it comes to crime. And when it comes to crime, murder is at the very top of the list of the most serious crimes. And then within murder, premeditated murder with malice aforethought is at the very top of the list of the most heinous and evil and awful of all human crimes.

Now homicide, first degree murder in this sense, murder with malice aforethought. It is such a serious matter that we need to understand that it shows up in the Book of Genesis very, very early, even as Cain murders Abel, as a reminder of what is at stake. And just a few chapters later in Genesis 9, the Lord gave to Noah what we know as the Noahic Covenant. And in the Noahic Covenant, on the other side of the flood, God made certain promises to Noah and through Noah to all humanity, the sign of the rainbow and that part of the covenant, but God also made very clear that murder, which is the intentional killing of a fellow human being is a first degree sin in this respect.

And something that every civilization has to understand is a first degree crime, precisely because it is an effort to destroy not just a human life but the image of God. And so here’s where Christians understand, our understanding, our conception of homicide is much more serious than that undertaken by any civil court, but it also should tell us something rather comforting that God’s common grace, his creation grace is demonstrated in the fact that the never has been a society that thought murder was a small matter just no matter of significance.

Every society takes murder seriously. And by the way, you can’t have a society if you don’t take murder seriously. But it’s also very, very interesting to us that in that instinct of even say a society far at odds from the logic and the revelation of scripture still comes to the seriousness of homicide.

One of the things that tells us is that the imago Dei comes with an element of conscience, in which it is simply now natural to human beings, as in the product of creation order that we instinctively take murder seriously. And that has a great deal to do with why so many Americans gave so much attention to this trial.

But of course you add to that those other elements, wife and son. The indication of previous murders in which he is a suspect, the context of this massive theft and embezzlement of all this money. And of course, the fact that here you had a man who was solicitor that is basically the district attorney for this county in South Carolina.

His father had held the same role. His grandfather had held the same role, his great-grandfather had held the same role. And now in the court where he had been the prosecuting attorney and had put so many murderers away, it is he who is the defendant and now after the verdict and the sentence is indeed the convicted murderer.

It’s very interesting to note that the sentence in these two murder convictions came so quickly. So on Friday of this past week, the judge there in Walterboro, South Carolina sentenced Alex Murdaugh to two life sentences without the opportunity of parole. Judge Clifton Newman not only handed down the sentences, but he took a very long time to explain the seriousness of the crimes.

The judge said that Murdaugh’s shifting stories, and by the way, one of the key issues in evidence that led to his very quick conviction, the jury deliberated only something like three hours, was the fact that his son whom he murdered, had taken a recording of his father being present with him, at the same time the father had directly indicated he was not present. So in a sense, the son and making the recording offered testimony that convicted his father of his own murder. Alex Murdaugh had to go into the courtroom, had to be on the stand and admit that he had lied to authorities. And by that time it was pretty clear that the jury was moving towards a conviction.

Now, by the way, there’s another big issue here, which is the fact that this was a jury, it required a jury. Don’t take that for granted. As we think about the English-speaking, the American constitutional and legal system, we need to understand that trial by a jury of one’s peers is an immense civilizational achievement, and when you look at this kind of consensus that tells you about the strength of the evidence.

But as Christians, let’s just talk about this explicitly as Christians, it also tells us that even a fallen, very secular, increasingly confused in moral term society, there’s a bit of crystal clarity from time to time. And so as Christians watching those around us, let’s just understand there’s something important in that clarity.

And again, you might say, “Well, that’s sensationalism.” Well, if there’s anything worth being sensational, it’s a murder trial on this scale with so many moral complications that actually it would be more difficult to explain a lack of public interest in this trial, than an abundance of such public interest.

I want to mention as a Christian another angle. There’s a hunger for justice within us. Now, this is something that may help to drive the television ratings. It may explain an awful lot of the headline writing. But just from a biblical perspective being made in God’s image, just understand that means that we have a moral conscience that cries out for justice when such a horrible injustice has been done.

I was very interested to see several secular observers of the trial after the rather quick deliberation of the jury, the bringing back of the guilty verdict, and then the life sentences at the end of the trial. Many in the secular press were saying, “Look, this is going too fast.” But it’s a matter of accumulating evidence. It’s a matter of the fact that human beings made in God’s image, and this involves everyone watching the trial, everyone thinking about the trial, but most importantly, those who were assigned the responsibility to follow the evidence as jurors.

It’s very clear that the evidence was overwhelming and it was compelling. Two life sentences without the opportunity of parole, by the way, and you might ask, and I think this is a very legitimate question, why did the prosecutors not go for the death penalty? Well, there are other trials to come and there are other issues of justice to confront. And even though I think there’ll be many people who said the prosecutors made the wrong decision, this will allow those other trials to go forward and at least perhaps to bring some closure in those other trials because there’s another issue.

In a fallen world, prosecutors often have to make very difficult decisions about which charges to bring as part of a larger moral context, and it’s impossible to know exactly what went through the prosecutor’s minds and that deliberation. But what they have said is that they wanted the jury to be able to move towards, a conviction that was very clear and then a life sentence without the opportunity for parole, because this particular defendant now a convicted criminal, is going to spend the rest of his life not only in jail, but answering these other legal charges and indeed what is expected to be hundreds of criminal counts.

So just to bring this consideration to a conclusion, it tells us something comforting on the one hand, that there was a deep sense of moral urgency that a murderer be convicted of this kind of crime. That tells us something good about the society around us. Interest in this kind of murder. Well, you can actually expect that there would’ve been, in a different context, a similar level of interest in murder at just about any time in human history, especially with the circumstances.

The sadness, the tragedy and all of this, as Christians understand is that the secular world looks at this and says, “How could anyone do this?” And this is where Christians just need to speak up and say, “We don’t have a good psychological explanation for that. We don’t have a good therapeutic or criminological explanation for that. All we have is a biblical explanation for that.” The heart is desperately wicked. Who can know it?

Part II

Join Us On the Way of the Dodo: Episcopalian Priest Encourages Church of England to Embrace Full LGBTQ Inclusion

But next, we’re going to turn back to a still developing story. This has to do with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion being put into turmoil by the decision of the bishops of the Church of England that they will not change the law and policy and doctrine of the Church of England to allow priests of the Church of England to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, but on the other hand, they will bless those ceremonies. If that logic makes any sense to you, my response would be my favorite expression from my late grandmother, “Well, bless your heart.”

But the confusion in this is a longstanding part of the experience and the doctrine of the Church of England. Now, remember, this is England’s established church, but it has been an increasingly liberal church in doctrinally, foggy, and confused the church for a matter of well over a century.

And this latest position, by the way, the Financial Times in London notes that it will please neither conservatives nor liberals in the church because it is like the Dr. Seuss character, the Zode who split his pants because he doesn’t know what to do with the fork in the road. This is an absolutely insane posture, and it’s easy to look at this and say, “Well, thanks be to God. My church, my denomination is not in that confusion.” But it’s actually very important to look closely at that confusion and understand it for what it is.

Now, the Financial Times is going to help us with that. The Financial Times published in London, much like a British or European edition of the Wall Street Journal. It offered over the weekend, this headline, “Episcopalian Lessons for the Church of England.” Okay, brace yourselves.

So Episcopalian in this sense refers to the Episcopal Church in the United States, which is in its mainline form, very liberal form, a continuation of the Anglican tradition in the United States. Now, conservatives have been fleeing the Episcopal Church for decades now, and have actually formed new Anglican churches and new Anglican groups within North America, but this is coming from a writer still in the Episcopalian Church, so think gothic cathedral with rainbow flags out front.

The writer of this particular column in the Financial Times is identified as Episcopal priest and Rector of All Saints Church in Brooklyn, New York, and that would be Steven Paulikas. And he writes that the Church of England might find some moral support and a sense of a way forward by looking at the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Now, the Episcopal Church has been pro-LGBTQ for the better part of the last generation and has been pushing hard on all of these issues. The rainbow flag I mentioned out in front of the gothic church or the gothic cathedral is not a joke, it’s a reality. And as you’re looking at the messaging coming from the increasingly liberal and leftist Episcopal Church in the United States, it is consistently trying to get out ahead of any new letter that might come in the series LGBTQ.

But here you have an Episcopal priest writing to the Church of England after its embarrassing midway position saying, “You might as well go the whole way.” He said this, quote, “We have an encouraging little secret we’d like to share with our cousins in the Church of England. The Episcopal Church ordains openly gay and trans people with no strings attached, officiates same-sex marriages (not just blessings) and unequivocally affirms all trans people, including children.”

This writer goes on to say, an Episcopalian priest, quote, “We still have a long way to go on our mission of full inclusion, but our experience has taught us something fundamental, LGBTQ Anglicans are pretty boring.” In other words, this writer says, “It’s no big deal. Everybody’s going to get over it. Just go ahead, go all the way in full LGBTQ inclusion. Don’t just bless same-sex unions. Officiate at them and furthermore, ordain everybody.”

Now, here’s what this Episcopal priest doesn’t say, and that is that there are so few Episcopalians left after this revolution. Most of them just left. The Episcopal Church in the United States has been in a free fall in terms of its membership. So much so that a matter of a decade ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the unforgettable headline, “The Episcopal Church Goes the Way of the Dodo.” And by that they meant headed for extinction.

And now, you have a priest in the ever dwindling Episcopal Church in the United States telling the Church of England, “Hey, come on in. The water’s fine. Come all the way over, join the sexual revolution with gusto, and you’ll discover that LGBTQ people are rather boring.” That’s the word he used. Why did he say that? Well, it is because if you take all conviction out of the equation and you just turn the church into some kind of glorified country club and you just make the church exactly like the world, of course it’s rather boring.

Because if you’re trying to keep up with moral progressives in the culture, well, you’re going to look boring because you can’t live up to being on the cutting edge, but the Episcopal Church in the United States wants to be just behind the cutting edge. Wherever the culture goes, there they will follow.

And all this is just to say that the Church of England is actually likely to find its way to following the Episcopal pattern, but they’re going to do so with great losses. As we look at other reports, you also have the fact that the Anglican bishops and archbishops in the so-called Global South, and that means most importantly, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, South America in particular. It turns out also by the way, add at least some of the diocese in Australia.

It turns out that the Anglicans in the Global South are so upset about even the halfway measure taken by the Church of England. They see it for exactly what it is, that they have now officially said, that they will no longer recognize the head of the Church of England, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury as the primate or the head of the Anglican communion.

I just want to say, I hope all Christians everywhere understand what a cataclysmic event, or at least a headline worthy event that is. We’re talking about a communion that had been relatively intact for centuries, and yet we simply have to notice the courage and the clarity, especially of many African bishops and archbishops who said, “We aren’t going along with that because it is directly contrary to scripture.”

When you find a statement of clear biblical affirmation coming from an international church leader in the midst of this kind of controversy, pay some attention. The head of the Church of Uganda in Africa, that would be Archbishop Stephen Samuel Mugalu, he said this, “I want to talk about the position of the Church of Uganda. There have been many questions about it in light of this terrible decision of the Church of England.”

This is what the Anglican Archbishop and Uganda said. Quote, “First, from the first page of the Bible in the Book of Genesis to the last page of the Bible in the book of Revelation, it is clear that God’s design for human flourishing is that we are part of a family, a family that is defined as one man and one woman united in holy matrimony for life, and God willing, a union that produces children.” He then said, “God’s word has said, the only context for sexual relationships is in the context of marriage of one man and one woman.”

Now, I just want to just contrast here very quickly, the Archbishop of Canterbury in that weird, absolutely unjustifiable, ridiculous halfway position, and the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda that seems to find his way to say, “The Bible’s really clear about this.” And if we have to take our stand with the Archbishop of Canterbury or with the Scripture, we’ll stand with the Scripture. God bless him.

Part III

A Parable of the Transience of Human Existence: Ancient Antioch Destroyed by Turkey’s Earthquake

But finally today on The Briefing, I want to deal with a headline that takes us back in history, takes us back in Christian history and reminds us of the transients of all human civilization. And of the fact that everything that human beings build eventually rust, falls apart, decays, and sometimes just outright falls.

In the headlines about the massive earthquakes that have shaken so much of Eastern Turkey and the nation of Syria. In light of all the devastation and in all the loss of life, something had not been really noticed until recent weeks and even especially in recent days, and that is that among the cities that were destroyed is a city known as Antakya. And Antakya might sound to you like a city from the biblical revelation. Antakya means Antioch.

As we now know, the earthquakes that shook the area, most significant of them on February the 6th, and then another one in March that brought even further devastation, the city of Antakya is now largely if not permanently destroyed. Let’s talk about it for a moment.

It was a city that was established about 300 BC by one of the lead generals under Alexander the Great. It’s at one of the crossroads of the Near East and the European land mass. It became a city that eventually would be the third-largest city in the Roman Empire. By the time the Apostle Paul is about his missionary journeys, and by the time the early church is spreading out in those missionary endeavors, Antioch became in many ways a home base. And then of course, we have something else that Christians will understand.

In Acts 11:26, the scripture tells us it was an Antioch that believers were first called Christians. And so even as we think of ourselves and we describe ourselves as Christians, the first city on planet earth where followers of Christ were described as Christians, it was in the city of Antioch, now the city just recently destroyed Antakya.

So we’re talking about a city that had been the third largest in the Roman Empire. It was the first place where followers of Jesus were described as Christians, and by the way, that’s no small thing, is it? You have to call believers something. What shall we be known? Eventually, it was non-Christians who named Christians because of the centrality, the gospel of Jesus Christ and the declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord. And so the names right, let’s own it.

But as you think about that, you also know that Antioch shows up again and again in the Book of Acts and in the Holy Scriptures. It had a very important part to play in Christian history, but it’s just a reminder to us that all civilizations pass, that all cities, even those declared to be permanent. Think of Nineveh and Tyre, or think of cities that represented empires, and you could mention Babylon or you could mention Rome, and you recognize that these headlines, these historical occurrences, even these two recent earthquakes remind us that nothing human beings build will ever last forever.

This is one of those historic developments that deserves Christian attention, and I think not even just a little bit of Christian reflection. One question is this, even if the city is rebuilt, if there is a new Antakya, will it be a new Antioch? If it has very little resemblance to the past other than real estate, will it still be the same place?

There’s no good answer to that question, but there is a good point to be made here, I think, and that is that we build cities and indeed, given the dominion mandate in the Book of Genesis, we need to build cities. But cities are not unproblematic and cities are susceptible. We may build massive walls and say that we have built a city that will last forever. Just think about the claims of Imperial Rome, that Rome is an eternal city. There are no eternal cities except one, and that is Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem, and in the kingdom of Christ.

And we are to yearn for a city that will not be destroyed, that moth and storm cannot corrupt nor harm. But we’re yearning for that city, we’re yearning for a holy city, and it’s a righteous Christian hope and an assured hope. It is a persistent biblical theme to know that as the Bible tells us, we are yearning for a city that has foundations whose maker and builder is God. That is not our earthly city. Even though, we’re thankful for them, we seek the flourishing of the city. We seek to bring hope to the city, take the gospel to the city just like you see in the Book of Acts, at the end of the day, every single human city will pass away.

When it comes to the city of Antioch, Antakya, it was sooner rather than later, but it still did stand from 300 BC until just a matter of days ago. If we think our cities are permanent, we fool ourselves. We are yearning for an eternal city, and the builder of that city is God.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking before a live audience in Kingsburg, California, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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