The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, August 14, 2023

It’s Monday, August 14, 2023.

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

Part I

The Horrifying Fires that Killed in Lahaina — How Should Christians Think About Such a Disaster?

The horrible fire that largely destroyed the city of Lahaina on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian islands is now the worst human disaster since Hawaii became a state. The only rival would go back to 1960 when 61 people were killed in a tsunami. And even as the fire began, it became very clear that it certainly was not as had been claimed, controlled. An out of control inferno destroyed a town that has, of course, an incredibly historic role to play in the history of Hawaii.

And furthermore, the bigger issue just has to be always kept in mind, we are talking about a human tragedy. We’re talking about families grieving. An entire community basically decimated in terms of much of the population there in the innermost part of the city. We’re talking about a death toll that’s approaching 100. Every single human life is of infinite value regardless of what the insurance carriers may eventually put on a human life–regardless of what some kind of court, in terms of liability claims and tort law, may assign to one human life. We understand that every single human life is the result of God’s design and God’s gift, and thus, every single image-bearer is of immeasurable worth.

It’s one of the sad facts of living in a finite, fallen world that sometimes there has to be a price tag put on these things, but as Christians, we must understand that is always arbitrary. It never reflects the reality of a human being made in the image of God.

We look at this and go back to Tuesday of last week, and in some cases it was something that developed out of the blue. There were huge questions that came almost immediately, “How could something like this have happened so dangerously, so fast, with such deadly effect?

There were sirens and a complete siren system as warnings that should have gone off. There, of course, were warnings that could have gone off on cellphones. Remember, it was just not long ago that the cellphone messaging warning system in Hawaii falsely warned of a nuclear attack. Thankfully, that was a false warning. In this case, the cell system went down. Either no one caused the alarm to sound or, as is more likely, the electrical system and the grid necessary to make that kind of siren system go off, was simply out of operation before a warning could be issued.

We are talking about something that does stagger the imagination in terms of causality. How did this happen? Well, in the most immediate aftermath of the news coming about the fire, people were using two words, which usually aren’t put together in this context, hurricane and fire. And in this case, the hurricane by no means made a direct hit upon Hawaii. Not even close. It passed far beyond Hawaii, but its outer winds did reach Hawaii. At the same time, there were countervailing winds. You put that together, it creates a very windy, very dangerous situation, and it was coming at a time when there was already an enormous fire load built up in Lahaina there on Maui, and somehow there was a spark. Somehow, there was an ignition. And once the fire got started, in human terms, it was virtually impossible to bring it to an end until the fire had spent itself in terms of available fuel.

In worldview terms, the biggest issue is the loss of human life, the loss of human beings made in God’s image. That’s first and foremost. Then you have what follows in terms of that kind of human loss, human death, human disaster. You’re talking about grief. Grief that is experienced by human beings made in the image of God. And this isn’t a false grief, this isn’t a manufactured grief. This is the most genuine, legitimate, unavoidable grief that human beings can know. It comes in the midst of shock.

One of the things we learned about what it means to be human is that we can only take so much at one time. Our entire rational, emotional, intellectual system can take only so much of a blow at one time. We face challenges that can sometimes pile up in terms of enormity, that make it virtually impossible for human beings alone or together to cope with this without a significant sense of loss, even a significant sense of the inability to process what human beings are then experiencing.

Consider the residents of Lahaina: they’re looking at the smoldering ruins of their cherished and historic city; and add to that, of course, the knowledge that the death toll has already almost reached 100. Search and rescue operations–and at this point, mostly search operations–will likely add to a much larger death toll. And then you look at the fact, and there are many people who really aren’t talking about this out loud, you also have to add to the fact that in this particular disaster, a very, very small percentage of the victims has yet been identified, and the identification process is going to be particularly difficult. It is simply tragic. It is a matter of great mourning to hear the fact that authorities there in Maui are having to ask family members to bring DNA samples so that eventually bodies may be identified.

In worldview terms, it’s also important to recognize that as physical beings made by God to exist in physical space, physical space becomes very important to us, very familiar to us. It becomes very precious to us in ways that Christians need to understand. We are, of course, meant for eternity and for another world, but it is the Creator of this world, the very same sovereign God who also filled this world with His glory and has made experiences of time and of space and of place and of people very, very important to us. And there’s a confluence of all of these and what we sometimes just summarize by calling home. And home can be a very small physical space, but it’s an intimate physical space for us. It’s a centering physical space for us.

We also have hometowns, we have home neighborhoods, we speak of state, and very importantly, we speak of nation and of people. And we recognize all of this really is important to us. It’s a part of understanding who we are and to whom we belong. And as you’re looking at the loss of those places, those homes, you understand that an awful lot of life simply disappeared in the vapor of all that smoke.

It’s very easy for us as Christians to say, “We need to carry our stuff lightly.” We need to understand that indeed Christians are called in general to be a pilgrim people. We are told that we are aliens in a fallen world, but at the same time, the Bible also recognizes what we might call a proper attachment to place. It’s very, very central in the Old Testament, very much a part of the Old Testament literature. Even in the New Testament, there is reference to home, there is reference to town, there’s reference to village, and this is not our ultimate home, but this is a home. It is important to us and it’s important to us, not only for the place and not only for the stuff, it’s important to us for the people.

But in terms of big theological questions, Christians understand that as we talk about the problem of evil and suffering, we necessarily talk about two different kinds of evil, namely, moral evil and natural evil.

Moral evil is perhaps exemplified, first and foremost, by something like murder. Premeditated murder is a moral evil. It is an act undertaken by a moral agent with moral responsibility, a moral judgment, a moral verdict. It is moral evil. But the world is also, in its fallen state, filled with natural evil. Natural evil is not brought about by any human decision. Human decisions don’t have anything to do with the world’s most famous earthquakes, don’t have anything to do with hurricanes and tsunamis, don’t have anything to do with many fires and other natural occurrences.

On the other hand, there is a mixture of moral evil and natural evil. It has to do with say, what a human being might do or human beings together might do in terms of making moral decisions that do affect something like either natural evil or more likely, the effects of natural evil. Which is to say even Jesus in speaking of the house that was built upon the rock versus the house that was built upon sinking sand, made very clear that sometimes even topography amounts to a moral decision. That wasn’t his main point, but it is an inescapable point in the background to that particular teaching of Jesus.

Think about something fairly recent. 2021, the fall of the Champlain Tower’s South complex, a condominium project in Surfside, Florida. It led to the death of 98 people and almost immediately people said, “That was unpreventable.” Others said, “No, it was preventable. No, there were even warnings about saltwater intrusion. There were warnings about the breakdown of concrete. There were warnings about an instability.” And yet, even as it becomes very clear to us that gravity was very much in operation here, the fact is that gravity was not taken to court. Human beings were taken to court for the failure to take appropriate action.

Now, even now, even now in Maui, there are those who are saying, “Look, there were warnings about all those wood structures in Lahaina. There were warnings about the fuel load of so much vegetation there on the island. There were warnings about the winds.” Anyone who’s surprised by winds in Hawaii doesn’t understand the entire system. And so, as you’re looking at this, even going back just a few years, there were very clear warnings about just the kind of fire that has now destroyed Lahaina with such a high loss and such a devastating death toll.

Why were actions not taken? Well, a couple of things. Number one, it’s not absolutely clear in every case what the cost-risk benefit analysis would be. If someone comes up to you and says, “There’s a problem in your building in terms of saltwater intrusion and in terms of erosion of concrete.” Is the appropriate answer to that, “We need to shore it up.” Or, “Get out as fast as you can.”? We need to tear the building down, that’s very expensive, and build a new building in its place, that’s very expensive. Even when you have a situation like that where you have consultants and experts, you might end up with human beings who say, “I think the best thing to do is A.” Someone else says, “I think the best thing to do is B.” When the building comes down, well, someone starts pointing the finger at someone else. Decisions that now look obvious did not appear so obvious at the time.

In a cost benefit and a risk analysis, what exactly should Hawaiian officials have done? Well, number one, the warning system clearly was inadequate. Number two, it is really clear that the fuel load there in Lahaina was beyond any responsible limit. Now, almost immediately, you have people who say, “Look, this is all about climate change.” At the very least we know it’s not all about climate change. Climate change may in the end turn out to be a contributing factor. I’m not going to make an argument that that’s impossible.

Even as you’re looking at the fact that Hawaii’s been experiencing a drought and you point to a pattern, let’s just say an argument can be made. But when you look at a disaster like this, we need to remember that disasters very similar have happened throughout human history, long before there was any discussion of human caused climate change. The reality is that when you add that kind of fuel load to that kind of wind and that kind of say, wooden structures that largely characterize an historic town, you are looking at a very combustible situation. And when that combustion takes place and the winds continue and the fuel load is that massive, that fire’s going to burn.

And one of the most tragic things we need to recognize is the fire can burn and it can spread very, very fast. It can spread so fast that you have that horrifying image of those cars, those vehicles on that main road there in Maui, where people were trying to make an escape, and the fire was faster than their vehicles in traffic. Many of those people simply had to get out of those vehicles and get into the Pacific Ocean to avoid imminent death. It came upon them like a storm.

We began the summer with the reports of these massive fires burning out of control in Canada, the smoke of which was affecting major American cities, coming down as far as the central and southern United States. Even in cities like Washington DC, and Manhattan in New York, they were having to change their way of life for a few days because of smoke from fires in Canada. Even as this has been one of the longest scourges of mankind, we need to recognize that fire has been our enemy from the very beginning, even as it has been our friend.

You look at fire and you recognize the very same reality that can cook our food and warm our homes is the reality that can set a fuel load on fire with terrifying, horrifying effects.

We’ll be tracking this story together and it’s going to take some time for us to know the full measure of the loss and the full measure of the accountability in the midst of all of this. But we also need to remember something as Christians, and that is that it is not incidental. That even in the Scriptures, especially in the Scriptures, the image of fire is used as a reality to warn us of impending divine judgment. You go back to the time of the Bible, people then clearly understood the danger and the threat of fire and the metaphor of fire as divine judgment.

We may be living in a secular age, but even in a secular age, it’s hard not to think of the words of James Baldwin. It’s a biblical refrain. It’s a word of warning. As he said, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.”

Part II

It’s Narco Traffickers versus Civilization and a Battle Against Anarchy: Ecuador Shaken After Presidential Candidate Assassinated After Squaring Off with Illegal Drug Industry

But next, as we shift to what’s clearly moral evil, I just need to remind us all that the only answer to how both moral evil and natural evil emerged is human sin. It was human sin that brought about the cleavage in the entire cosmos, that as Genesis 3 makes clear was God’s judgment upon the entire world for our sin in Adam. The second thing we need to understand is that moral evil is that which we first think about as we think about the effects of sin, and that takes us to headline news coming out of the Americas.

As evening fell last Wednesday, 12 shots were fired at a presidential candidate in Ecuador, killing this candidate in a political assassination that was targeted as a part of narco-terrorism. The involvement goes back not only to politics and organized crime there in Ecuador, but the drug trade and the mafia, including of all things, the mafia from Albania, very much active in this picture. Report in the New York Times put it this way, quote, “The 12 shots fired on Wednesday evening killing an Ecuadorian presidential candidate as he exited a campaign event, marked a dramatic turning point for a nation that a few years ago seemed an island of security in a violent region.”

The story goes on saying, quote, “A video of the moments just before the killing of the candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, before his death had been confirmed. And for many Ecuadorians, those shots echoed with bleak message, their nation was forever changed.” Ingrid Rios, identified as a political scientist there in Ecuador said, quote, “I feel it represents a total loss of control for the government and for the citizens as well.”

Now, Ecuador is located there in South America, it’s located on the continent’s western coast, and it like so many other Central and South American countries has had a very, very difficult history. However, in more recent decades, Ecuador has been considered something of a stable nation in the midst of large instability in the region. Now all of a sudden, that instability’s come to Ecuador. When you’re talking about this kind of targeted political assassination, we need to recognize that this particular candidate had dared to call out the narcotics trade, had dared to call out the drug cartels.

And even as the organized crime syndicates and the drug cartels want to turn basically Central and South America into one great haven and platform for the drug trade, the reality is that you cannot have a civilization, you cannot have a legal order, you cannot have a system of justice if you’re going to have the entire culture taken over either by the drug cartels and the mafia or by the threat of those very same agents of evil.

This underlines something very, very important to the biblical worldview, and that is this: human flourishing requires human culture, human civilization. That kind of human civilization is only possible if there’s a foundation of a sustainable order–if there’s some system of justice. This is often referred to with two words basically, law and order. If you’re going to have a functioning society, there has to be some level, some operational level of trust, of law and order, some form of the development of social capital. There must be families predicated upon marriage. There must be neighborhoods. There must be safe streets. There must be a way of conducting safe business. There must be a level of trust, otherwise people can’t leave their homes. Everything simply becomes a matter of feudalism, and that eventually devolves into absolute anarchy.

One of the principles of biblical theology is that anarchy is the symbol of absolute godlessness and lawlessness. Civilizational order is what human beings are called to achieve. Now, civilizational order is itself, as we just said, it’s an achievement, it’s not a given just in the chaos of human sinfulness. But I want to speak particularly to Christians in the richer nations, including nations such as the United States of America. The buyers, the market, the consumers for these illegal drugs are largely found here, not there in Central and South America.

Those who are the purveyors or the criminal syndicate masterminds, they are all involved in this, and there’s so much evil involved in this just because of the nature of organized crime and the way that culture is built. There is terror, there is danger, there is murder, there is mayhem right in the center of it. But we need to recognize that if there were no market for these illegal drugs–a market that is largely in the United States and in other wealthy nations–there would be no reason for these criminal syndicates to get involved.

Part III

The Albanian Mafia is Controlling Crime in Ecuador? The Complicated Battle for Law and Order in a Fallen World

And by the way, I mentioned something else, and that is that when you have this evil context, evil breeds evil, and evil also attracts evil. So, you have a situation in which there’s already organized crime in Central and South America, but I mentioned the mafia from Albania being identified by law enforcement in multiple countries as being a major player in all this. The Albanian mafia? How does that happen? Look at a map, if you have to look it up, Albania is not in Central or South America. It is in South Central Europe. And you look at it, its proximity to Italy. Italy’s proximity to Sicily might explain some of the mafia structure here. It doesn’t explain how the Albanian mafia saw this as a great opportunity, but that’s what happened. The Albanian mafia, highly structured, highly disciplined, highly targeted, saw an opportunity to move in on the Central and South American drug trade, and that’s exactly what has happened.

So, if you say, “Okay, I want to know the difference between moral evil and natural evil.” Natural evil is an earthquake. Moral evil is the Albanian mafia now moving in to seize the drug trade because of an insatiable appetite in North America and because of opportunity they see to displace other crime syndicates they consider to be less lethal, less amateur, less efficient. They’re more efficient criminals, more effective criminals, at least in their own mind, and at this point they have displaced others. If there’s a context in which the Albanian mafia decides to move from Albania to Central and South America, that tells you something about how evil works in the world. That evil wasn’t caused by an earthquake.

But if you think about it for a moment, it tells us something else as well. It tells us that politics really is important, so important even to the Albanian mafia and the criminal syndicates in South America, that they intervened in a presidential election to kill a candidate they saw as a threat. That tells you politics is sometimes a matter of life and death, as it was in this assassination, but politics, it turns out to be very important.

If you have a president, you have a legislature, you have judges who are bought and paid for, they’re friends of the criminal syndicates. That’s one thing. If you have those who are trying to oppose the criminal syndicates, you have another thing. And guess what? The criminal syndicates don’t want that thing.

One final thought about this, the leaders, the rulers of the Roman Empire were absolutely certain that even as they had mayhem on the periphery of the Roman Empire, the empire could survive because after all, the violence, the mayhem, the disorder was on the periphery. Let’s just remind ourselves that theory didn’t work out so well. Disorder on the periphery, if tolerated, eventually becomes disorder at the center of the civilization. Americans who say, “Well, what happens in Ecuador stays in Ecuador.” Those Americans don’t know the lessons of history very 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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