The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, August 21, 2023

It is Monday, August 21st, 2023.

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

Part I

The U.S. Faces Natural Evil and its Consequences: Christian Considerations in the Aftermath of Lahaina and in the Midst of Tropical Storm Hilary

We speak of evil in the world, but it’s vitally important that we make a distinction between moral evil and natural evil. Now, natural evil doesn’t mean that there’s no moral responsibility. It means there is no direct or proximate moral responsibility. Why are we talking about such a deep thing on a Monday? It’s because this Monday is dawning with so many of these headlines confronting us. First of all, when it comes to natural evil, that’s evil in nature.

Now, many people say it’s just inappropriate to speak of a hurricane or to speak of some natural occurrence as if it has moral meaning. But as Christians, we understand that that’s true in the short term, but certainly not true in the long term. In the short context, what we mean is we don’t blame a hurricane on human agency. We don’t blame a hurricane. We name hurricanes by human names by the way, but we don’t blame human beings for causing hurricanes.

Now, you’ll notice that in the age of so many arguments about climate change, some people are actually arguing that humanity writ large has something to do with this, but nonetheless, putting that argument just to the side for a moment. We make a distinction between termites and earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes on the one hand and murder and deceit and robbery and dishonesty on the other hand. War is a moral category, not a category of natural evil. It’s also true as we shall see that the two categories of moral and natural evil, they sometimes get mixed up.

But first of all, let’s look at the headlines coming from California and from Mexico. The Baja Peninsula was first to feel the impact in terms of the landfall of the storm that had been known as Hurricane Hillary, but is now tropical storm Hillary–or at least something less than a hurricane. This is exactly what you would expect in terms of this kind of storm if it were to hit northern Mexico and Southern California, but the point is you don’t expect this really at all.

As a matter of fact, it’s been something like 80 years since such a storm has hit Southern California. The reality is, and I speak as someone with a lot of experience growing up in Florida, hurricanes in Southern California are not only rare, but these kinds of cyclonic storms in the Pacific landing in say northern Mexico and southern California, they encounter very different terrain. They encounter hills, even mountains, and those hills and mountains slow down these giant storms. Even as they tend to be a damper on the winds, they also slow the progress of the storm and that means a big danger of massive rain and flooding. Even as the wind continues to be a danger in southern California, it is the rain and the flooding that is likely to pose the greatest danger.

As of this morning, the storm is passing through California. We don’t know at this point how much damage has been caused, but we are clearly concerned for and praying for the people of California and the West Coast as they’re going to be dealing with this kind of storm. By some estimations in some of the desert cities in southern California, there could be enough rainfall to amount for what would be on average several years worth of rain in just a matter of hours, if not days.

Then we have to deal with the unfolding disaster, which just turns more tragic by the hour in Lahaina there on Maui in the state of Hawaii. We are looking at a staggering disaster in terms of the death toll now over 100. The scariest thing in all of that is that there are still more people missing. Indeed, a multiple of people missing, not yet identified, remains not yet found, perhaps never found. We’re looking at the fact that the firestorm in this case that was so devastating not only to the historic town and to so many areas on the island, but in particular the threat to human life, we now know that the temperature of that fire may have exceeded 2000 degrees at some points, and that means there are basically no remains to be found. This is something else we need to think of in terms of the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview makes very clear that we are not to despise the body. For that reason, even in burial practices where you find the influence of Christianity overwhelmingly, you have found a practice of burial, of respectful burial, and not only that but of burial with personal identity.

We need to think about that for a moment. We need to understand why Christians have acted in this way and we also need to understand why the absence or the lack of opportunity for that kind of grave, that kind of closure, it is a big challenge emotionally and morally for human beings. A lot of families in Hawaii are distressed, of course, first of all by the loss of life, and then secondly, by the fact that they may never be able to find identifiable remains and conduct what would be recognized as a burial service.

They can have a memorial service but not a burial service without remains or a body. This is extremely distressing. The reason Christians have a particular investment in this is actually multiple. It’s deeply grounded in biblical theology. It’s not just one point, it’s a series of truths revealed in Scripture.

First of all, we deal with the fact that the body is God’s creation. God created us, flesh. He breathed life into us after creating us out of the dust. We are God’s own creation, the only creature made in his image, and we are spiritual and we are body. Christianity in contradiction to so many other religious beliefs, so much paganism, Christianity makes very clear that the body is not to be despised.

The apostle Paul will speak of the body as sinful, but it is still, as he will also make very clear, well, for example, for Christians, it’s the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is to say our body is a matter of our sacred responsibility. That doesn’t mean we worship the body. We certainly don’t, but it does mean that we respect the body and it does mean, you might put it the other way, we don’t disrespect the body.

This is why when you find Christianity and its influence increasing and spreading, you find burial practices aligning with and corresponding to Christianity, to the Christian understanding of two things. As I said, first of all, it starts with creation. It starts with the image of God and human dignity. It starts with the fact that the body is not to be despised even as in a fallen world. It is very much marked by sin.

It’s because for Christians, we also understand that this body is going to be in some sense not the same body as our resurrection body, but it’s going to be continuous with it. The same thing is true when you consider Jesus and his post-resurrection appearances before the ascension, he was in body. Now his resurrection body was different and there is even clear testimony in Scripture to the fact it was different, but it’s still a body recognizable as a body.

You just look at this and you recognize that Christianity and our burial practices, the fact that there has been a very clear tradition of treating the body with respect to burying the body with dignity, and here’s what’s crucial, where possible, identifying the grave. That turns out to be really important. It’s not just a matter of psychological closure, some kind of therapeutic effect.

The identifiable grave has something to do with the fact that we understand that there is a continuity of personality in terms of the person who lived on earth, and we often put the dates right there on the headstone 1913 to 1994. That tells us at about that person, but it also says for Christians that the body is waiting. The body is waiting for the resurrection yet to come.

Now, you go back to look at burial grounds from the early eras of Christianity. Guess what? You’re not able to read many of those headstones if indeed you could find the headstones, if you could find the markers. Many of the identifying marks are simply gone. Nonetheless, what still bears attention is the fact that what’s revealed here is respect for the body in anticipation of the resurrection, which is to come.

Now, the Bible’s very clear about what happens in terms of the resurrection and the judgment to come, the promise of everlasting life for those who are in Christ. But it also just reminds us of the fact that to be human is to take death with great seriousness. Indeed, it’s no pun to say with grave seriousness. Every society does so in its own way. Burial customs reveal the worldview that it basically marks a culture. We also understand that there’s the need for closure that comes with the funeral and that closure, most commonly–this isn’t absolutely true, it’s not universally true in every case–but most commonly throughout the Christian tradition, it certainly has included the presence of the body in the service and the burial of the body as an extension of that service.

Now, the Bible is also clear. The power of God is such that even if a body falls into the sea, if it’s simply dissipates into atoms and molecules, as everybody eventually will if the Lord tarries, the reality is nonetheless, on the day of resurrection, the body will appear once again. Our future in terms of God’s promise is not a disembodied future, but an embodied future.

We understand that right now there are many families in Hawaii who are just desperately, desperately searching for the remains of their loved ones. At this point, it’s extremely unlikely, and this has been acknowledged by emergency and rescue personnel, it’s extremely unlikely that further persons will be found alive. But there still is an enormous operation to try to find the human remains and the bodies. Even simply to account for who is actually dead having died in the fire. Where did they die, under what circumstances? These are huge questions.

There will be a lot of investigations, but as Christians, we need to understand as we are praying for the people in Hawaii and concerned for them, there is something that Christians understand at the deepest level that is going on there–a search for remains, which is a lot more than a search from your ashes and atoms and molecules. It’s very personal and Christians understand why that is the way it has to be, very personal.

But I began by talking as we often have to speak in terms of the distinction between moral evil and natural evil. In the case of the fire in Lahaina, which was it? Well, nature was involved not only in terms of the combustible material and the plants, but also in terms of the winds. Remember, it was an offshore hurricane that did not hit the island, but nonetheless, the winds extended northward to the island. That had a huge impact on the speed and the velocity and the deadliness of this fire, but at the same time, were human factors involved?

Well, let’s look at it this way. You have the law enforcement and rescue officials there in Hawaii, public health officials, state government officials saying that the likely reasons for the fire come down to two. It could have been a cigarette or it could have been more likely a problem with electrical wires, and in particular, the power wires by which electrical power was taken from the system to local homes and businesses. It is considered most likely that it was a problem with those wires and cables, big power lines that caused the fire.

Now, is that natural evil or is that moral evil? The reality is it might turn out to be a mixture of both. And that’s also just another way of making very clear if we’re honest, that even in the context of what is undeniably natural evil, say a hurricane or a tornado, you look at all kinds of things. There are still a myriad of moral decisions that show up when human beings show up because human beings made in the image of God are moral creatures, and we can never totally escape moral responsibility. We don’t blame anyone for a hurricane, but we sometimes do blame people for actions and decisions taken in the course of such a storm, in the aftermath of such a storm that come with moral consequences.

We understand that we can just never totally escape moral responsibility. Even in the case of natural evil, we’re moral agents in the middle of a natural occurrence. In a fallen world, you also understand that there’re all kinds of factors that come into play here. Who’s blaming whom, finger pointing, who’s pointing to whom? When it comes to liability, well, you have political liability, you also have economic liability. You have all kinds of issues that are certainly going to come to the fore, which is a reminder that in a fallen world, nothing on this scale is uncomplicated. It remains virtually forever. It remains permanently complicated because there’s no way human beings can with total moral satisfaction even come to take these things apart and understand them completely.

Part II

‘You are Nobodies, and Your Name is Nothing.’: Moral Evil of War Rises to the Surface of the News as Russia Turns Criminals Into Cannon Fodder

But next, we turn to what is unquestionably moral evil, and in this case, we’re going to be talking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what is now referred to as the Ukraine War. Yesterday, the New York Times ran a tragic headline. It’s this; “Dead and Hurt in Ukraine War Nearing 500,000.” We just need to stop for a moment, take some moral scale in mind as to what we’re talking about here–500,000, half a million. You look at that and compare it to World War II, it’s nowhere near the death toll. Of course the war at this point is nowhere near over.

But in terms of other military conflicts, the Ukraine War is now entering into a different category of significance when it comes to the death toll, the casualties. We’re talking about mass casualties, we’re talking about a half a million people. We’re also talking about the fact that of course you have another number, which is persons who are displaced, civilians, whose lives have been impacted, whose homes have been destroyed, villages have been occupied.

But this story also turns in some very interesting directions, and this is not just one report from one newspaper. Various and multiple reports coming from intelligence agencies, from news media, from governments around the world that indicate that there are some issues of huge moral and worldview significance in play here. Number one, we are talking about half a million casualties, and that figure is only going to increase. It’s also important to recognize that these numbers are, you might say lopsided.

Even though it was Ukraine that was invaded by Russia, Russia has experienced a far higher number of casualties and battle deaths. Now, Russia’s a larger nation. It has a larger population and it has a larger armed forces, and Russia has been the aggressor here. Russia is basically acting as a state that appears to have very little regard for the human dignity and the sanctity of human life of its own citizens, and in particular of its own soldiers.

At this point, it is thought that the number of deaths on the Russian side in the Russian military is now greater than 120,000. Now, just think about the fact that there are towns in the United States, large towns in the United States with something like that kind of population. You’re talking about over 120,000 deaths, 170,000 to 180,000 injured, and some of those injuries are just absolutely life-changing and horrific.

The Times Report puts it this way; “The Russian numbers dwarf the Ukrainian figures, which the officials put it close to 70,000 killed and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. But Russians outnumber Ukrainians on the battlefield almost three to one, and Russia has a larger population from which to replenish its ranks.”

Now, we look back at the 20th century. Former US National Security Advisor and historian Zbigniew Brzezinski referred to the 20th century as the century of mega death. When you look at the Second World War and the related atrocities in terms of the Second World War, you’re looking at a death toll that might number in the hundreds of millions of persons. So I mean, we are looking at something unprecedented in human history.

You add the two world wars together, the casualties both in terms of the death toll and those who were grievously wounded, we’re talking about something that defies the human imagination on every ground. But we are looking in the 21st century at Ukraine as the first major war that involves European powers in such a context, and it is turning into a very bloody affair indeed.

First of all, for Christians, this just makes very clear that war is a deadly business and it has to be taken with deadly seriousness. In this case, serious moral arguments are required to explain that Russia is the aggressor. There’s a lot of history behind that, but Russia’s also demonstrating a very, very low regard for the value of the lives of its own troops.

Just to give one example that is made very clear in the intelligence reports and military analysis, it comes down to this: when the United States is engaged in a military conflict, the rules of engagement by which the US military operates requires that field hospitals and medical personnel, the resources for medical treatment for those who might be wounded, they have to be very, very close to the battleground. They have to be very, very close to the battle front, and the front can’t, at least in terms of policy, get far ahead of those resources.

You’re not going to find anything like that when it comes to the Russian army. You’re not going to find anything like that when it comes to that kind of provision. Now, there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is just political. The American people would never support a war effort or an administration that treated the lives of American soldiers with disrespect. There would just be a lack of political plausibility. You’d have a change of Presidents, and thus commander in chief, when there is a next election. There would be political accountability.

You don’t have that in an autocracy, whether it’s the autocracy of Czar Peter the Great or the autocracy of Vladimir Putin. But on the Russian side, there’s another part of the story that demands our attention, and I’ll give credit to the Times. I criticize the New York Times. I’m going to give credit to them for the quality of their reporting. The front page article that appeared also last week, here’s the headline: “Once convicts, they’re fodder in Putin’s war.” Subhead: “As criminals, we are not human to them.”

A pair of reporters in this front page article in the Times tell us what we already knew in general terms, and that is the Vladimir Putin and the Wagner Group… a lot of history there, but just think of the Wagner Group is a private dimension of the Russian army. They’ve been going into prisons and basically saying, “Look,” to harden criminals, convicted criminals, “you are going to join our war effort. You’re going to put on a uniform and you’re going to be a soldier.” At the beginning of the war, it was often styled as a choice given to convicts. They could say, yes, we want to sign up for this. It’s an opportunity for us to gain our liberation.

Now it is known, it’s not really being presented as a choice at all. The article begins, “In a month spent at the front line, Alexander, an ex-convict serving in the Russian Army, hadn’t seen a single Ukrainian soldier and had barely fired a shot. The threat of death came from a distance and seemingly from everywhere. Sent a guard against a potential river crossing in southern Ukraine, his hastily formed unit made up almost entirely of inmates endured weeks of relentless bombardment, sniper attacks and ambushes. The marshy flat terrain offered no cover beyond the burned out hulks of cottages. He said he had watched dogs gnaw the uncollected corpses of his comrades. He had drunk rainwater and scavenged garbage dumps for food. Alexander claims that of the 120 men in his unit, only about 40 remain alive.”

So there you’re looking at something we did see in the 20th century, we did see in the Second World War. That is some of the totalitarian powers simply forcing men into armed service, doing so at the point of a gun and then treating them as nothing more than battle fodder. Another member of Alexander’s unit said this quote, “I’m running around with an automatic gun like an idiot. I haven’t made a single shot. I haven’t seen a single enemy. We are just bait to expose their artillery positions.” That message comes from a man named Dmitri who the Times tells us is now dead.

Alexander made another statement; “Every day we live like on the top of a powder barrel. They tell us you are nobodies and your name is nothing.” Another truth affirmed by the Christian worldview is that it is often in conditions described as in extremis in the Latin. That means in extreme situations, situations such as war. That’s when you find out what people really believe. That’s when you find out what people are really made of.

Just about every war movie tries to make that point, but in the actual crucible of war, what you often discover about people is that they have no regard whatsoever for others. In this case, you have the totalitarian government, autocratic government in Moscow that is going into prisons, scooping up inmates. Now, remember, they’re inmates, and so that means in terms of the minds of many Russians, they’re nobodies, and yet they are human beings.

They’re being forced into combat, a combat they don’t understand, they’re not prepared for, they’re not trained for. As this one man now dead said he was given an automatic weapon and he ran around like an idiot, never seeing the enemy. But the enemy is firing and the death is coming, and that man, according to this very report is now dead. But as we end this edition of The Briefing, I want us to return for just a moment. Maybe you heard what I said there.

Let’s return for a moment to one of the statements made by Alexander, this young Russian who had been a prisoner and was conscripted against his will into the army, and was put here in a situation in which he surrounded by death, in which he says they simply treat us as fodder for killing. He said something and I read it. He said that what the Russian leadership basically says to us, he says, “They tell us you are nobodies and your name is nothing.”

Let’s go back to what I said about the Christian worldview and our understanding even of death and burial. The name is important. That’s why in cemeteries, we are very much concerned to put the name with the grave. Now, that tells us something about how we consider not only death, but how we consider, how we estimate the value of a human life. Now, this man who’s very much alive but is being basically thrown to his death is being told you’re a nobody and your name is known by no one. It’s nothing.

That’s an amazing statement, and in moral terms, it’s sadder than sad.

Part III

Camp David and the Lessons of History: U.S., Japan, and South Korea Expand Security and Economic Ties in First Leaders Summit Between the Three Countries

It’s also important to recognize as we close that in a dangerous world, very interesting things happened. One of them happened just in the last few days. It happened at Camp David, the American President’s Retreat, where the President of the United States invited the leaders of Japan and South Korea basically to come together in a three nation agreement that is caused by the imminent threat of military action and aggression coming from communist controlled China.

It’s easy to look at that and say, well, that’s just another meeting of political leaders. Just another gathering at Camp David, just another agreement and perhaps even a treaty, but it’s more than that. You have to understand that in a fallen world history matters. The history of Japan and the history of South Korea matters a very great deal. In that situation, it is Japan that in the 20th century and even before, was an aggressor against Korea in such a way that many people had estimated there could never be any kind of lasting peace, any kind of common effort on the part of Japan and Korea. Yet it basically happened just over the last few days at Camp David in an agreement that was joined by the American President.

Now, why did that happen? Was it because of the persuasiveness of Joe Biden as President of the United States? Well, he did call the meeting, but the reality is it was the persuasiveness of an aggressive China under the control of the Communist Party that changed the moral equation for both Japan and Korea, and in two ways, you might even say three ways. Way number one, they’re giving a lot more attention to national defense, defense spending, and military readiness than ever before. Number two, they are standing together, the two nations with the United States. Number three, they’re standing with the United States, which is to say they’ve went to Camp David.

They didn’t go to Moscow, they didn’t go to Beijing. They know where their friends are. They know where Liberty is honored. They showed up at Camp David in the United States at the invitation of the American President and in the scale of history, once again in both history and morality, that really does tell us something.

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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