Wednesday, March 29, 2023
It's Wednesday, March 29th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Search for Motive and Explanation in a Deeply Divided America: The Transforming Narrative of the Nashville Shooting
Our hearts continue to be directed to Nashville, Tennessee, to the families involved with the Covenant School there, and in particular, the six families suffering such heartbreaking loss after Monday's murderous attack. We of course are also looking to the Covenant Presbyterian Church there, which is the mother congregation to the school, a Presbyterian church in America congregation faithfully preaching the gospel there in Nashville.
And now of course with wounded hearts, heartbroken families, including the family of the pastor of that church whose nine year old daughter was killed in the attack on the Covenant School on Monday. We know that there are six families grieving beyond our imagination, three of them grieving the deaths of children. We know that all this was the result of a mass shooting that was intentional, premeditated, and planned, undertaken by a 28-year-old former student at the school named Audrey Hale.
There are so many unfolding issues in this story and so many questions all of us want to have answered. And of course, all of this in the glare of what is now becoming an extremely complicated story. It is explicitly complicated by the LGBTQ revolution and the way our culture is trying to lie to itself about so many issues and dilute itself about others. But what is so beyond contesting in this story, beyond any doubt, beyond any debate, is the fact that we are looking at the premeditated murder of six people, including three very young children. And there is at least, and we should be thankful for this and we should not fail to observe it, there is at this point a very deep and widespread, if not absolutely uniform, consensus that this kind of act is unquestionably evil.
Now, one of the worldview issues we need to consider here is that that kind of moral judgment depends upon an entire system of moral judgment. It depends upon the existence of absolute moral truth. You cannot have a crime like this and say it is just somehow in some way immoral. It is against the moral grain of the universe, but in a way that sets it apart from all others. Now, it's a part of a moral universe in which there are righteous acts and there are unrighteous acts, there are good acts and there are evil acts. This is an act that can only be described as incalculable, but undeniable evil.
That puts to the lie the entire worldview of moral relativism. You cannot consistently argue in the classroom that all moral judgments are relative to time, space, and culture, and then turn around and say this kind of murderous rampage is just undeniably evil. It's objectively evil. It is, we Christians should understand, objectively evil, but that's because it is a part of an objectively moral universe grounded in an objective and absolute truth established by the creator who after all did not merely create the world or even merely create human beings, but made us in his image as moral creatures knowing the difference between right and wrong.
But as clear as those categories are, it's abundantly clear that other fundamentally clear categories are being, well, clouded. They're being unclarified you might say. They're being deliberately confused as a part of an ideological agenda. And that ideological agenda is part of a larger moral rebellion. And here we're talking about the LGBTQ issue, and in particular the T, transgender. The new gender ideologies that say you can discover yourself, you can declare yourself, you can identify yourself as something other than your biological sex. And that's exactly what is playing such a large role in the story. We can actually track this more closely even than we could yesterday.
Yesterday on The Briefing we saw the switch that took place and the illustration was the Associated Press coverage. The Associated Press had reported that the shooter in this case was a woman, but the woman clearly began to disappear and instead simply became the shooter. You had this in other news reports and other wire services as well where people came back and said, "Look, it was a woman reported first, but not so much reported now." Now this becomes really complicated with an article by Emily Schmall that appeared in the New York Times and it ran relatively early.
But the thing to note is that it was updated on Monday afternoon. That's after the trans issue became pretty well identified with this story. You had this reporter in this particular article in the New York Times reporting that female mass shooters in the United States, in her words, are "extremely rare." They are extremely rare. The particular article here also mentioned a criminologist, Jillian Peterson of Hamline University who said, "While there have been women and girls who have fired guns at school, this is the first female shooter to kill four or more people."
So is this the story of a female shooter? Well, Christians know yes, it is. That's now been very clearly identified. But is that the way it's being reported in the press? Well, not so much, at least not now. It was, but then it wasn't. And the reason it was but now it isn't is because of the media's obsession with the transgender ideology. Basically, the surrender of mass elites in our culture. To the transgender ideology, the new gender ideologies in general in which you can declare yourself by your personal pronouns or by your somehow sexual minority status, you can identify as a woman even though you are a man. You can identify as a man even though you are a woman.
Now, this also just points to something else, very sad in this story, which is the inevitable incoherence of even talking about this story once the categories are so horribly mixed. But then we have to ask the question, so just how central should we understand this dimension to be to the entire story? How central is this to the storyline, to our understanding of this horrific crime? And this is where the Nashville police chief actually made an interesting statement by mentioning that this mass shooter had left a manifesto and that the transgender dimension, according to the chief of police, might be a part of this story. "There is a theory to that. There is some theory to that," he said.
That's a very interesting way by saying there's some theory of that to saying, "Yep, that is something that is playing into this story. We're not sure exactly how or to what extent yet." Now this leads us to the question of motive. And you just have to understand that human beings made as moral creatures by the creator, we cannot help in the face of even such a staggering crime. You might say especially in the face of such a staggering crime, we cannot avoid asking the motivation question.
Now the motivation question means what's the motive? What was the reason, the logic, the rationality behind this particular premeditated crime? And by the way, it was so premeditated that the shooter in this case had devised maps of the school, and remember she had been a former student at the school and she took those maps and used the drawings of the facility to plan in detail her murderous attack upon the school. By the way, another footnote, Nashville law enforcement authorities have indicated that they are certain there was a second intended target, but the security there may have deterred the assailant in this case.
But again, going back to motive, here's something Christians understand. We do have this hunger to understand motivation for sin, particularly sins on such a murderous level. But at the same time, Christians know that we are not wrong to demand such an answer, to want such an answer, to feel a moral urgency to seek a motive. But at the end of the day, sin is never explicable merely in rational categories. There's always something deeper. There is a deeper rebellion here than human reason can explain. And of course, there is the other reality that a finite human mind cannot be fully comprehended even by another finite human mind. A sinner can understand sin in one sense but cannot get fully into the head of any other sinner.
Another thing we need to realize as Christians is that this insatiable hunger to understand a motive is another way of underlining the fact that the creator not only made us in his image, but he made this creation, the entire cosmos, a moral reality. There is no way to escape that moral reality. We open our eyes and it's there. We close our eyes and that moral reality is still there.
Yesterday in the discussion about this crime on CNN, there was a fascinating conversation about motive. CNN reporter Laura Coates sought to make the point that the hunger for an understanding a motive is not a desire to justify the crime. An interesting argument, and by the way, she's absolutely right about that. She's even perhaps more right or more accurate in making that argument than she understands.
The Bible gives us ample permission, and for that matter, a deep understanding of why we must have a motive, why we cannot rest until we know some kind of motive. But at the same time, the Bible also makes clear to us that motivation is not justification, and that's because sin has no justification. If it is sin and we know that this is horrific unspeakable sin, if it is sin, then by definition it is not justification. It is not justified. There is no justification for it.
But we are living in a confused era. The moral confusion means the loss of a lot of basic moral categories. The basic moral category of justification on the one hand and motivation on the other hand, that's very clear to the Christian conscience. And again, I am saying Laura Coates was absolutely accurate in her statement. What's most interesting is not that she made it, it's not even most interesting how she made it. The most interesting aspect of this is that she felt she had to make that explanation because too many people hearing the description of some kind of motive for the crime would say you're trying to justify it. No, she's absolutely right. Understanding motive is not to accept that motive as justified or justification.
Very quickly, and this took place especially yesterday, there was another transformation in the story that had to do once again with the LGBTQ dimension. In this case, here's the way this will play out. It will play out in such a way that so many people would be making the argument that if indeed there is a transgender angle to this, it is not because there's any problem with transgender or those who claim a transgender identity, it's because of the oppression of a conservative society that will not accept people simply on the basis of that identification. That's an increasing logic we're going to find.
It was found just yesterday in the pages of the Los Angeles Times where in that paper, a report on the shooting put the focus clearly on what was described as, "A growing culture war over LGBTQ rights." The paper also noted quickly that conservative legislators in Tennessee recently, and this is a quote, "banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth and bard drag queens or other male or female impersonators from performing anywhere near children."
Now, that kind of language doesn't appear in that kind of story with that kind of speed without people just ready to say, "Look, if you are looking for a transgender issue here, the issue is not transgender identity. It's not the new gender ideologies. It's not the denial of the fact that a male is a male and a female is a female. It instead is a conservative society that is just not willing to go along with the program and instead is creating a context of hostility to LGBTQ people." This article in the Los Angeles Times actually went very quickly to say the big story here is a potential backlash against those who claim a transgender identity.
Another dimension of this ties many of the considerations we have already mentioned together, and that comes back to that article that ran in the New York Times by Emily Schmall, which was headlined It is Rare for a Woman to Commit a Mass Shooting. As I said already, one of the interesting things about this article is that it was updated after the transgender issue was already a part of the public conversation. The article just states straightforwardly over and over again that this is unusual. This kind of shooting stands out precisely because women and girls in the main don't do this.
Now as you're looking at this, you recognize that every story, every major story in our society is quickly put to some kind of narrative. It's actually often put to a contest of narratives. What is this about? How do we explain it? Well, you have party A in the culture who says, "This is the story. Here's what's important. Here's how it should be told." And over here is someone who says, "No, this is what happened. This is the story. This is how it should be told." All this is not at this point to try to adjudicate the matter, although we will clearly do that in days ahead. But rather to say, we need to understand that's exactly what's going on. This contest of the reality of the story and how these events are to be explained and how the facts are to be told and interpreted, all of this is now contested territory in a deeply divided America.
But even as we look at the great cultural divide in the United States on so many of these issues, and even as we observe how predictably all of this is erupted so quickly, indeed immediately, not only in the aftermath of this unfolding story but in the midst of it, the other thing Christians have to understand is that we know that the main issue here is and will always be the six families that are grieving the loss of loved ones, three sets of moms and dads who are facing the loss of a nine-year-old child, three families facing the loss of adult caregivers and leaders at the school.
In Nashville, there is a grieving church. Indeed, there are grieving churches, but in particular the Covenant Presbyterian Church, a PCA congregation there. That's a conservative evangelical Presbyterian church there in Nashville, Tennessee.
We also need to note that even though all six of these families are grieving loss, this is a church that is suffering not only the loss that has come to its school and to its congregation, but to its pastor where the pastor and the pastor's wife and brothers left in the family are now deeply grieving the loss of a nine-year-old daughter and sister as well.
‘Take Heart, I Have Overcome the World’: Hope for the Christian in a Dark, Fallen World
That raises another question. How in the world does anyone deal with this? It's one thing to ask that question at the psychotherapeutic level. It's another thing to ask that question at the Christian level, at the level of the Christian faith.
That's why an article that I published today at World Opinions reminds us of this text from the gospel of John 16, Jesus said in verse 33, Jesus said to his disciples, "I have said these things to you that in me, you may have peace." Jesus went on to say, "In the world you will have tribulation." That is to say, in this world you will have trouble. But remember Jesus said this, "But take heart, I have overcome the world."
There is one and only way that believing Christians can understand these events, can face this kind of horror, can experience this kind of heartbreak or even care for other believers experiencing this heartache in an even more direct way. There is no way that Christians can live this life without understanding that in this world, our own savior told us you will have trouble. But we are not left there.
Jesus went on to say, and let's be unspeakably thankful for these words that follow, Jesus said, "But take heart. I have overcome the world." That is the only way that Christians can face this world. It is because Christ has overcome the world.
Crime and Rehabilitation?: San Quentin Prison Set to Become a Rehabilitation Center
I want to shift now to a consideration that is related, and that is how Christianity, how the Christian faith looks at the fundamental reality of crime and the imperative, or at least you would think, the imperative of punishment. Crime and punishment, one of the most famous moral themes in all of human history. And most particularly in modern Western literature, crime and punishment.
Those issues, that dynamic has certainly raised with news coming out of California that the state of California is going to remake, remodel, reform its famous or infamous prison known as San Quentin, the state penitentiary there in California. Now that's news. It would be news in any effect. And by the way, it's a very old prison and it has long suffered from many problems.
But the biggest problem here is of course the social problem of crime and the realization that there are a lot of criminals and you have to have a lot of prison cells to hold a lot of criminals. And then you have the huge questions of crime and punishment. What kind of punishment fits what kind of crime? What kind of sentence is appropriate for what kind of circumstances?
But the big story coming out of California is not just that the state of California intends to remake San Quentin, but it intends to shift San Quentin, it's state penitentiary, away from being a prison for punishment and more to being a facility for rehabilitation.
Now, looking at this, the story appears to be pretty fresh. It appears to be so new that people in California think maybe prisons are a bad idea. Maybe punishment is not such a good idea. Maybe society doesn't get much out of punishment. Maybe society could get more out of rehabilitating wrongdoers and criminals.
The article that appeared recently by the Associated Press on California's plans begin this way, "The infamous state prison on San Francisco Bay that has been home to the largest death row population in the United States will be transformed into a lockup where less dangerous prisoners will receive education, training, and rehabilitation under a new plan from California Governor Gavin Newsom."
The article continues. "The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. The more than 500 inmates serving prison sentences there will be moved elsewhere in the California penitentiary system. The prison houses about 2,000 other inmates on lesser sentences."
Now, there's a lot there, but you know there's some language that we ought to take a closer look at because it tells us a whole lot. One of the things that tells us is that the idea of rehabilitation isn't at all new. One of the things we need to understand is that the word penitentiary was itself a revolutionary word in the history of prisons, in the history of crime and punishment. The word penitentiary rather than the word prison was already supposed to point to rehabilitation rather than mere punishment. So what happened? Now you need to turn a penitentiary into a rehabilitation center.
From prison to penitentiary, to rehabilitation center. What in the world's going on there? Well, prisons are very old in human history, but here's something we need to note. Most prisons in ancient history, indeed most prisons until fairly recent times, were not places where people were sentenced for committing crimes. In most cases, they were merely institutions to hold prisoners for trial and eventual sentencing, or they were places to hold debtors. And so you had debtors prisons where people were in prison presumably doing some kind of labor or at least being imprisoned until they could pay a debt. Now, you should understand that kind of prison because it is very much the background of much of Jesus's teaching in the gospels, including several of his parables.
But as you're thinking about prisons, by the time you reach the early modern age, the suggestion is that you ought to have something as a shift from the death penalty in too many cases, and corporal punishment, meaning that people were punished in their bodies. They were chained or they were put on chain gangs and organized labor. In such a way, people said, "That's not a humane way to deal with crime and punishment."
And so instead, you should have centers where people are sent in order to live out some kind of sentence or serve some kind of sentence in a civilized context. And then by the time you get a little further into the early modern age, there were those who said, "No, this is a moral issue and the problem is a moral problem in the human heart." Prison isn't going to solve that moral problem because after all, you're going to put prisoners with other prisoners. What do you expect?
But that actually more criminal plans will come out of this. You put a prisoner in the context of other prisoners, then you're putting someone who's already susceptible to bad influence in the midst of even worse influence. And by the way, that's not a stupid argument because that's actually what happens in a lot of prisons.
But what a lot of people aren't hearing when they use the word, and that becomes very clear that this is the case in California, the people speaking of the California state penitentiary don't recognize that the word penitentiary is actually a theological word. It's a theological word that was brought into the idea of crime and punishment by reformers who were seeking to make that system more Christian and for that matter, to make prisons in the criminal justice system more humane. What was the argument? The argument was that a place of imprisonment should be redefined as a place of moral realization and moral improvement that would bring about, you say where's the theological word? It's penitence as in penitentiary.
This idea in that wave of prison reform was to try to Christianize in one sense. Certainly to humanize and to moralize crime and punishment in such a way that someone who comes in having done wrong will be put in a context in which they wouldn't learn how to do moral wrong or be encouraged in wrongdoing or merely just punished for wrongdoing itself, but rather that there would be a moral change brought about in the heart, in the character of a prisoner so that they would be brought to repentance. They would be brought to penitence. They would feel badly for what they had done. And feeling badly for what they had done they would turn to moral improvement and never do such a thing again. They would never have a brush with the law again. They would never break the law again.
In an event that was sponsored by the state to talk about the unveiling of this new vision for San Quentin, a former warden of the prison said this, "At San Quentin, we believe people can change and they can grow. If given real opportunity and effective tools, people can discover their true potential and transform their lives and become very productive members of our society."
Now, what we know as Christians is that that isn't necessarily in every case wrong, but we also know that even as environment plays a part in all these things, just changing the environment isn't going to make a fundamental moral change in those who are confined. There's not going to be any word for it. People are not going to be invited to San Quentin even in this new understanding. They're going to be sentenced to San Quentin.
And furthermore, even as we understand that it's not impossible that some people in that context will be brought to the point where they would see crime for its reality, they would understand sin and its consequences and they would turn from sin and sin no more, that is to say in this case, break the law no more, the reality is that it's hard to believe that even liberal reformers who are calling for and into what they call the carceral state and all the rest, it's really hard to believe that they believe that just changing the context or the assignment or even the name of an institution is going to change the fundamental moral reality that makes prisons necessary in the first place.
Now, sometimes in an account like this, looking at a story like this, you run across something that tells you that the people who are saying these things, they don't have full confidence in what they're saying. And I just want to remind you of how this began and I want to take you back to the beginning of this account by the Associated Press and point out that the most hardened criminal sentenced to the longest sentences and categorized as most violent and dangerous, they're not going to be at San Quentin anymore because they are going to be transferred to other California state prison institutions, which is to say that the state of California is going on record to say that we believe that criminals can be treated differently in such a way that we can hope for rehabilitation rather than just a long prison sentence.
But it's at least important to note with honesty that they said that after having moved most of the most serious offenders out of the institution in the first place before they rename it.
The Associated Press report seems in a weird way to acknowledge this fact with these words, "San Quentin, California's oldest prison, has housed high profile criminals such as cult leader, Charles Manson, convicted murderers, and serial killers." At least at this point, the state of California, they wants to say it's going on the record to argue for rehabilitation rather than imprisonment. It's at least important to note that the state of California is not making that claim about a lot of prisoners, including those just mentioned in the types of crimes in that paragraph.
Or to put it differently, the state of California is going on the record to say it believes in the possibility of rehabilitation, but not for everyone.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information about Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.