The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, May 15, 2023

It’s Monday, May 15th, 2023.

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

Part I

The Subway Tragedy? Crime? Only Time and the Rule of Law Will Tell — Some Christian Considerations on the Death of Jordan Neely

The nation has been very interested in a story that emerged on May 1st of this year when a homeless man was killed in the New York subway. He was killed by an American military veteran who had put the man in a chokehold after several observers had said the homeless man had been making threatening gestures and statements and had been basically speaking loudly and yelling, acting unusually there in the New York subway system. Now, this is the kind of story that you could expect would be big news in New York City, but it’s actually big news elsewhere. But as we look at the story and as events have unfolded and further details have become available, it turns out really to be a very big story and it’s going to continue to be a big story.

Let’s say a couple things right up front. It is a tragedy when any human life is ended. It’s a tragedy when any incident like this happens anywhere, whether it’s in a subway in New York City or in a field somewhere in the American Midwest. The killing of a human being by another human being is a deadly serious act at minimum. It is outright premeditated homicide at maximum. In any event, we are talking about a human death and that is one of the most extremely consequential issues any of us can ever face. And as New York is trying to figure this out, the problem here is that the story is not entirely unusual and it’s not entirely unexpected. Crime in the New York City subway system is not a particularly new development, although especially in the aftermath of COVID, there’s a homeless crisis in New York and in other major American cities.

We’ve been following that and it turns out that the influx of thousands of homeless people into the shelters and into the areas there that involve the New York subway system, it turns out that’s a recipe for disaster that should be completely expected. But as this story unfolds, we’re talking about two very real human beings, one of them now dead, one of them now alive, although now arrested, under charge for having killed the other man.

Jordan Neely was the man who had been making some say accusations and threats. In any event, he’d been acting erratically and loudly, accosting passengers and those waiting for the trains in the New York subway system on that day, May 1st, 2023. The man who is now arrested for killing Jordan Neely is Daniel Penny. He’s an American military vet who according to press and police reports, put the other man, Jordan Neely in a chokehold and eventually the man died because of the chokehold.

Now, the legal issues here are just incredibly complex and that just points to some very deep worldview issues we have to think about here. First of all, we need to just state this is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy, and that leads to the question, is it a crime? Because there’s a moral distinction between a tragedy and a crime. There’s a moral distinction, most importantly, when you ask whether or not the man arrested in this case, David Penny was acting reasonably in defense of himself and others in this incident, or if he was acting unreasonably and thus with malice against Jordan Neely.

Was the death of Jordan Neely the result of citizen action preventing further violence on the basis of a credible threat, or was it something different? If it’s something different, in almost any case, it’s going to be a crime. If it was an action of self-defense or in defense of others, it could basically be construed not only as a good act, but under certain circumstances as an heroic act.

So what’s the distinction between a moral act that saved lives and a criminal act that will lead to prosecution and potentially conviction and jail time? Here’s where Christians understand, it has everything to do with context and motivation. It is not about the inherent dignity or humanity of either of the men who are headliners in this story. It is about whether or not in moral terms, Daniel Penny had every reason to put Jordan Neely in a chokehold that eventually led to the man’s death. Now, as I said, this story is a big story. You knew that from the beginning. It has become a political hot potato in New York City and elsewhere. You probably expected that too.

Politicians on the left, such as US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez there of New York, she said that the killing of Jordan Neely was nothing less than murder and should be prosecuted as such. Meanwhile, you have many people on the opposite political side who are saying this was a justifiable act of self-defense. It’s understandable in this context and was not only something that was justified, but something that ought to be celebrated in terms of a citizen taking responsibility here to protect other human lives. Well, which is it?

Well, for one thing, this is where we depend upon our system of law, the rule of law. We simply have no choice but to depend upon the fact that eventually the facts will come out in a courtroom after they have been thoroughly investigated. Both sides have the opportunity to present their arguments and thus a self-defense defense and also a prosecutorial charge, and eventually this goes before a jury of the defendant’s peers. In this case, remember, the defendant is Daniel Penny, a United States veteran. That is likely where he learned how to use the chokehold that eventually was used with apparently deadly effect against Jordan Neely.

But as I said, other details have been coming out. There are not only political charges and countercharges, there’s a lot of information in the background here, and a lot of it helps us to understand what is at stake in worldview terms. For example, in the understanding of the Christian worldview, we live in a dangerous world in which sinful people do sinful things and thus you have the necessity of society putting in place rules, regulations, sanctions, moral judgments, laws, courts, sentences, prisons, and all the rest in order to punish those who do evil and also to offer protection for those who do right. You look at that and you say, “Well, it’s pretty straightforward,” but understand just how messy this can get and just how cloudy many of these issues end up appearing, especially in a politically controverted age.

We’re living in an age in which people on one side and people on the other side are offering charges and defenses sometimes without having any information available whatsoever. Christians understand that’s not responsible. Christians also understand that if we are committed to the rule of law, then we actually have to live by the rule of law, but Christians also understand that there is no earthly system. There’s no human system including the rule of law that is in any way guaranteed to come out with the right result every single time. That’s simply impossible in a sinful world.

The Christian worldview reminds us that we try to make it improbable and unlikely rather than impossible. Sinners have no capacity. Even sinners in elective office holding massive responsibility have no power to put an end to sin and its effects. But a government of laws is put into effect as a way of restraining sin and where necessary and it is necessary, punishing the evildoer. Of course, there’s a huge question here. Is Daniel Penny an evildoer or was he acting nobly, responsibly, rationally in defending his own life and the lives of others?

Well, here’s where you have other worldview dimensions that also come to fore. For example, you have those who are claiming that Jordan Neely was failed by the system. Now, what in the world or who in the world is the system here? Well, the system is a massive system, not only just about anywhere in the United States, but especially in a city like New York. It turns out that Jordan Neely was not unknown in New York to law enforcement and mental health authorities. You have people saying the system failed him. Now, you can make an argument that that clearly happened. If the system is supposed to prevent homeless men from being in the New York subway making threats repeatedly and getting arrested repeatedly in the subway, then the system failed. But here’s where we need to understand. The system in that case didn’t just fail Jordan Neely, the system failed the entire society.

Information that has come out in the last several days has made very clear that Jordan Neely was known, as I said, to law enforcement in New York City and to mental health professionals, and he was actually placed on a list of the top 50 homeless persons of concern in New York. But New York also has a massive crisis just in disorder and in the subways, there are many, many homeless people, particularly homeless men, who have sought refuge and have basically made the subway home. They’ve also made the subway a very inhospitable place.

Now, I just want you to think about this in rational terms. I just invite you to imagine this. Let’s imagine that you come up with the idea of a massive system of underground tunnels and effectively with trains running within these tunnels in order to serve the purpose of moving hundreds of thousands of people in a city like New York. It is a massive system. It’s one of the wonders of the modern world. You had modern cities that by the time of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were basically defined by, in terms of whether they were modern or not, whether or not they had such a system as what is known as the underground in London or the subway in New York City.

But I ask you to imagine that context in order to imagine just how much trust you have to put in the entire system to actually go ride one of those subways. And I have experience in writing on both of them, admittedly a good deal more in London than in New York, but nonetheless, you are having to invest a lot of trust in this entire system. Before you even get to the people who are now in these subways, you have to trust the people who engineered them and built them, in many cases, over a century ago. When you think about it, if you do think about it, that does require an enormous amount of trust.

But more to the point in terms of this headline story, you have to invest an awful lot of trust in people that you do not know, have never seen before, and likely will never see again. The teaming thousands of people who are in that subway system with you and even riding in some of those subway cars with you, and also waiting on those exposed subway platforms together with you. That also requires a great deal of trust, and I would argue an even greater level of trust than what is required looking backwards at architects and engineers. At least in those cases, you can look back at the historic experience that the subway systems have remained structurally intact over such a large amount of time. Morally intact is a different issue, and I think it’s fair to say that right now the system in New York is revealing itself to be in many ways not intact morally.

For one thing, police reports have indicated that there’s a considerable amount of crime in this entire system. Now, that’s not fair if you do not acknowledge that there’s a considerable amount of crime outside the New York City subway as well. The point is that you’re in a confined area and there is a particular vulnerability. And when you add homeless people to the mix who are often acting erratically and unpredictably, sometimes threateningly, you have a recipe for what just might become disaster. In New York City on May 1st, it did.

Part II

A Massive System Failure in New York: A Broken Society and the Struggle to Help Those Who Fall Through the Cracks

As we went into the weekend on Saturday, the New York Times reported that the man who died, Jordan Neely, “was on the city so-called Top 50 list, a roster of the homeless people whom officials consider most urgently in need of assistance and treatment.” The article went on to say, “Mr. Neely had been arrested more than three dozen times. Many arrests were for minor crimes like turnstile jumping or trespassing, but at least four were on charges of punching people, two in the subway system.”

The very same day the Wall Street Journal reported, “Mr. Neely had grappled with mental illness for several years and was homeless according to his family’s lawyers and had moved in and out of treatment programs.” Mr. Neely, the story continues here, “pleaded guilty in February to assaulting a 67-year-old woman in 2021. Mr. Neely was placed into a treatment program, but a warrant for his arrest was issued after he failed to appear in court.” Now, the lawyer for the Neely family said that Mr. Penny, the man now arrested on charges of putting the man in a chokehold that led to his death, the lawyer said that Mr. Penny wasn’t aware of that record when he restrained Mr. Neely and “it shouldn’t have any bearing on the case.”

Now you understand how that information and whether it is known or unknown by the jury could have a massive effect on the outcome of a criminal prosecution of David Penny that turns out to be, I think all of us would recognize, very significant information in moral terms. But the point made by the lawyers for the Neely family is that Daniel Penny didn’t know all of that. He had to make his decision based upon a rational understanding of what was happening at that moment in that place and time on the New York City subway. Eventually, the argument’s going to come down to that.

On the other hand, this information about prior arrests and not only that prior violent acts, certainly gives credence to whatever Daniel Penny may argue was his impression of the threat level at the time. But as I said earlier, we have to begin by asking ourselves if we do or do not believe in the rule of law. If we do, we have to let the rule of law, the system of law work its way and we’re going to have to wait to see how this story turns out. But at this point, we do have to come to some moral understanding of what happened and some moral understanding of the arguments coming from both the left and the right on this issue.

So now we have to turn to further developments on this story that emerged just yesterday, and this tells us a very great deal about the moral confusion in our society. And let’s be clear, there should be no moral confusion on whether or not Jordan Neely was a human being made in the image of God and whether or not his death is an absolute tragedy. Of course it is, but we’re also looking at a massive failure of a system, and we’re looking at a massive failure of a system that actually had this man on a list of 50 persons of greatest concern and that had actually had the man in custody over and over and over again, and had actually seen the man declared guilty of a crime of violence, and yet they seem to have lost him in the entire system. And all of that, whether or not it makes its way into courtroom testimony, is a matter of tremendous moral importance.

What we’re looking at here is a massive breakdown of a society. And this is where we need to understand that it is simply implausible that you could have thousands upon thousands of persons who have basically exited from the rules of society still operating in some sense within the physical dimensions of that society and even within the confined constricting space of a subway. Something is basically wrong in this country when you have such a widespread problem and is basically acknowledged. And it has to be acknowledged. The man was actually on a list of the 50 persons of greatest concern, and yet the entire system seems to be absolutely shocked when the story ends tragically.

But as I said, there was an interesting turn that took place over the weekend. The New York Times ran an article yesterday with a headline: Subway killing fuels scrutiny of police’s presence. Now, when you look at that, you have to recognize we really are living in strange times. When something like this can happen and the nation’s most influential newspaper runs an article, which no doubt really reflects conversation there on the ground. And when you’re talking about the subway, under the ground in New York City, where you have the suggestion that all of this controversy and all this crime taking place in the New York City subway system might point to the fact that there are too many police involved rather than too few. That would seem to be an almost irrational understanding, and yet that’s something that’s being openly argued.

Reporters Ana Ley and Chelsia Rose Marcius reporting for the Times tell us, “The push to saturate New York City’s subway with police officers last year was supposed to make the system feel safer after a sequence of shocking crimes rattled commuters and discouraged many from using public transit. Months later,” the reporters tell us, “officials say the surge in police presence has yielded some favorable results: Ridership is rising and major crimes are dropping since the initiative intensified in October.” But then listen to this, “But after a passenger choked a homeless man to death on the subway nearly two weeks ago, a familiar debate has emerged over whether more police officers are the solution to subway violence, especially when they confront people who are mentally ill.”

Now, we’re going to have to bring this consideration to a conclusion for now, but we do need to understand that when you have the suggestion that the problem might be, when it comes to crime, the problem might be too many police rather than too few. And when the suggestion is that the police need to be basically replaced with something like mental health professionals, you just have to ask yourself how serious this conversation really is. How in the world would you deploy mental health officials in a subway system? Down in the context in which this confrontation took place, who were supposed to make a difference? But of course people would say, that’s not what we’re arguing. We’re arguing that the intervention should have come before, and then we have to raise the question, well, how exactly would you explain how it didn’t?

Here you have a man now dead, who had a very long track record of engagement with the police, with the legal system, with criminal charges, and even with acts of violence. He was put by the city on the list of the top 50 of concern, and yet there he was in the subway. Yes, this is a problem of a system. No doubt, Christians understand that, but it also points to the impossibility of putting together a system on the other side of absolute civilizational breakdown.

As a thriving modern civilization, we need cities like New York. New York needs a subway system in which commuters can move around the city. We need all of this to work, but just understand even as you have to have trust in the engineers and in the architects who built the system, you have to have trust in those thousands of people you don’t know and you will never see again with whom you are sharing that confined space with all kinds of opportunity for things to go wrong.

It takes a lot of trust just to live in a neighborhood. It takes exponentially more trust to go with neighbors you don’t know down deep under a city in a subway.

Part III

The F.D.A. and “Discrimination” — New Blood Policy Spotlights the Moral Revolution

But next, as the nation went into a weekend, there was another headline news issue that should have our attention. In this case, the Food and Drug Administration put out a new policy in which blood donors will no longer be screened by sexuality. That is to say by sexual orientation, or when it comes in the most part to sexual behavior itself. Christina Jewett reporting for the New York Times tells us, “The Food and Drug Administration announced on Thursday that it had formally ended the agency’s wide-ranging prohibition on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, a long-standing policy that had been denounced as discriminatory.”

Let’s just look at that opening sentence, “A longstanding policy that had been denounced as discriminatory.” Let’s just remind ourselves, where did that policy come from? That policy came from the context of the AIDS crisis in which what was eventually identified as the HIV virus had killed thousands of gay and bisexual men based upon a transmission that was explained by their sexual behavior.

To be honest, I’m going to have to talk about the story from the FDA and don’t worry, I’m not going to use some of the language in the government policy. I’m going to raise the moral issue, and the moral issue is this: What kind of society are we if a policy was changed because it was denounced as discriminatory when it has an extremely clear, easily understandable medical rationale? And in this case, if anything has a clear and understandable medical rationale, it is the fact that there are certain sexual behaviors primarily among homosexual men and those who engage in similar activities that will lead to a greater possibility of transmission, not only of the HIV virus, but of many other contagions as well. Remember also the very important fact that the blood itself was a major carrier of the HIV virus.

And then you look at the story and you recognize that the issue of this ban by the FDA on receiving blood donations from gay and bisexual men, it’s in the lead of the story that this longstanding policy “had been denounced as discriminatory”. Now, let’s just raise the issue of the word discriminatory. Was this policy discriminatory? Of course, it was. The insinuation in that sentence, which is the lead to this article, is that if it’s discriminatory, it’s wrong. Christians have to understand that’s a nonsensical, dishonest, irrational argument. People have to discriminate all the time.

Now, that means basically knowing that this is this, the A is A and B is B, A is not B, that’s the very essence of discrimination. Discrimination means that you discriminate against the rattlesnake being in proximity to your child. That’s discrimination. You might not have the same response if you were looking at a rabbit. That is not however unfair to the rattlesnake.

The example I use when I teach Christian ethics and moral theory on this score is just using the issue of a babysitter. Parents would be considered to be immoral if they did not discriminate or make moral distinctions in terms of deciding who they will and will not trust to take care of their young children. Not to make a discrimination on the basis of any number of rational necessary issues would be considered morally wrong, but when discrimination is used in this context, it is used as if to imply wrongful discrimination.

So at the very first we just need to back off and say there are at least two kinds of discrimination, the right kind and the wrong kind. The right kind would be being careful about hiring a babysitter. The wrong kind would be about legally sanctioned racial segregation in the schools. One is the right kind of discrimination, the other is the wrong kind of discrimination. Then we come to the real question, was the FDA’s policy restricting blood donations from gay and bisexual men the right form of discrimination or the wrong form?

Now, what this really shows is that if you make an argument long enough, certainly coming from sexual minorities and especially looking at the LGBTQ activism community, if you make an argument long enough, eventually government bureaucracies just give up or give in. And in this case, of course, this is entirely predictable given the directives of the Biden administration.

But we are told that the FDA has a new policy to be put in place, and this new policy doesn’t ask about sexual orientation or sexual identity. It asks about sexual partners and sexual behavior. Now, understand what we’re dealing with here. This means that all persons who volunteer to donate blood are going to be asked questions, and I’m not going to tell you what the questions are. I’ll simply say they are enormously invasive and graphic. That’s to avoid the questions that the FDA had been asking in the past.

Now, could there be a rationale for justifying the updating of this language? I’m not a medical specialist, so I’m not going to make the argument yay or nay. I’m simply going to say there is the acknowledgement here that this has come after sustained political pressure after the longstanding policy “had been denounced as discriminatory”.

Now, if you wonder if there’s a real distinction between rightful and wrongful discrimination, just volunteer to give blood and listen to the new questions you’re going to be asked and you’re going to have to answer. Evidently, we’re becoming that kind of society as well.

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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