The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 7, 2023

It’s Thursday, September 7, 2023.

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

Part I

Europe's Incendiary Problem: Debates Arise Over Burning of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark

The nations of Denmark and Sweden have both been basically riven by controversies over the burning of the Quran, and over whether or not such burning should be legal. Are they legally protected, constitutionally protected forms of free speech? Or are they acts of blasphemy that should be punished by the society, and even by the judicial and prosecutorial branches of the government?

These are big questions, and these questions are not just limited to Sweden and Denmark, although those two countries in Scandinavia right now are very much front and center. In both countries, there has been a pattern of recent public burnings of the Quran that has led not only to controversy inside those two nations.

We might take note of that, we might even talk about it, but it’s different when this becomes a global matter. And in particular, increasingly a matter of Islamic nations claiming that these two northern European nations. By the way, both of them have some form of official state religion that would be an established form of Christianity, but both of them are also incredibly secular. Both of them in Western terms, are very much committed to very, very liberal understandings of free speech and expression, or at least they have been.

What we see now, is a head-on collision between the Islamic world and those two Scandinavian countries. It’s going to be a very important issue for all of us to watch, because there are global lines of argument that are developing here. We need to look at those lines of argument and understand what is at stake. First of all, we’re talking about the burning of a book. Now, just looking through human history, that has not gone well.

You look at the burning of the books, whether it’s The Bonfire of the Vanities going back to the medieval period, or it is the Nazi burning of the books. Or the more ceremonial and controversial burning of books in the United States, one side or the other, that has not really led to lasting social change. If nothing else, it appears to be an act of desperation, which is well, to risk a pun, incendiary, because that’s exactly what people burning books are trying to do.

It’s not a private statement of some kind of concern. It is a public statement of outrage. When it comes to the material form of a book, let’s just think of a book as print on paper that is surrounded by covers, two covers. Looking at a book, we know what a book is. When you burn a book, you are saying something. It’s not just like setting to fire a phone book or just a stack of paper. There’s something important going on there and we all recognize it.

But some of you are probably coming to an obvious question and that is why would we be talking about this particular issue arising in Sweden and Denmark? What would be going on there? Well, that requires us to telescope back just a moment and recognize that over the course of the last several decades, populations of Muslims, or persons from Muslim-dominated nations, have been moving to European nations, including Scandinavia.

Those nations have not only in some terms had rather liberal-free expression of free speech rights, they’ve also had quite liberal immigration policies. That’s not just because of their national politics. That’s also because these nations are a part of the European Union. The European Union comes with some rather significant legal entanglements. That, at least in part, explains why you have Muslims living in Denmark and in Sweden.

But then you ask, “Well, if the Muslims are living there, why would these outrages, according to Islam, be taking place?” It is because these are deliberate acts of provocation. That’s what’s intended here. These are intended to provoke and they have provoked outrage, not only in Sweden and in Denmark, but furthermore, throughout much of the world and in particular, the Islamic-dominated world.

To understand how this works, how the system or the cycle, the circle of provocation works, you have someone in some cases who was formerly a Muslim, who in a city like Copenhagen in Denmark or Uppsala in Sweden, decides to burn a Quran. A public act, an acts of provocation, it does provoke. It provokes demonstrations there in Sweden and in Denmark, but here’s what you also have to know. It provokes demonstrations in the Arab world and even beyond the Arab world, in other Muslim-dominated cultures.

It catches the attention of world leaders and that would include the president of Turkey. That means all of a sudden, we’re in a global foreign relations or foreign policy crisis, because just think of where the world is right now. Think about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, think about the expansion of NATO, and recognize that Denmark and Sweden have changed their foreign policies. They’ve changed their disposition even towards NATO, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

One of the big questions right now is when Sweden can join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, because that is something Sweden very much wants to do. That requires the affirmative vote of Turkey, and Turkey is now officially outraged at what Sweden has allowed. You look at this and recognize this is something that is going to point to some fundamental questions, such as do Denmark and Sweden believe more in free speech rights or do they believe in protecting their interests, both for domestic tranquility at home–that is avoiding those kinds of protests and controversial headlines–and trying to avoid Muslim outrage beyond even global outrage when you look at the worldwide Muslim population? You have two very progressive, very liberal Western nations who are having to make some fundamental decisions. Denmark has indicated that it intends to move forward to some extent, with adopting a law that would make it a crime to burn the Quran in public.

Now, this runs just directly into contradiction with the fact that Denmark has been very famously and with great self-awareness, extremely proud of its extremely liberal-free expression laws. Now when it comes to Denmark, by the way, the nation is not considering a law that would isolate out the Quran. Instead, it is going to adopt a law it says that will criminalize the public burning or desecration of a holy book.

Now, isn’t that interesting? Because that would put the Danish government in the position of deciding which books are and are not holy. Which books could be burned without criminal significance and which books could not, those are presumably holy books. Now, when you’re looking at a nation like Denmark or Sweden, they’ve got a couple of ways to go here. One would be to say we are historically Christian nations.

When you look at the last say, millennium or so, you’re looking at the formative influence of Christianity. We’ll define, even as to some extent there are state churches, we will define what is a holy book in keeping with Christianity. But of course, that wouldn’t solve this problem at all. Frankly, there aren’t Christians in those nations calling for the adoption of such laws. Everybody knows this is about the Quran.

Everybody knows it’s about the Quran because when Muslims look at the Quran, they do not see what the Christians see when we look at the Bible. Let’s be clear about what that difference is, and as you look through the history of Europe, you can find laws against blasphemy and against any kind of desecration of the Bible. You can certainly find those, but you can’t find them in modern history.

As a matter of fact, some of these Scandinavian nations had laws like that on effect, they weren’t being used. Over the course of the last 20 years or so, some of those nations in Europe have actually taken out these laws because they were simply outdated. But wait just a minute, they’re looking at putting those back. But the concern is not the desecration of the Bible. The concern is the desecration of the Quran.

Now theologically, let’s just keep our heads about ourselves here because as I said, when Christians look at the Holy Scripture, we look at the Bible, we do not see just a Christian form of what the Muslims see when they look at the Quran. So what’s the difference? Well, there are many. For one thing, the Islamic claim is that the Quran supersedes the Scriptures. It is a later revelation, but you’ll notice something else.

As you look at the claims made of the inspiration of the Bible versus the Quran, there are two completely different understandings of what it means for the text to be the Word of God. When it comes to the Scriptures, the Scriptures teach and Christians believe, and must believe, that the Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. That the Holy Spirit moved along men of old, who were led by the Holy Spirit, to write exactly what God intended in terms of the text of Scripture, right down to the very words.

At the same time, this is an important Latin word–concursus–it means that we believe that God sovereignly worked within the heart and mind of the human author of Scripture. The Holy Spirit directed actively, the work of that human author of Scripture to the degree that when you look, for example, at the Book of Acts, that is exactly what God wanted the Book of Acts to be. Simultaneously, it was exactly what Luke sought to write, as a history of the earliest church in the apostolic era.

But you’ll notice here, we are talking about the Book of Acts and we’re talking about Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, even as the author of the third Gospel. We know a great deal about Luke. Frankly, in the New Testament, we learn things about Luke to help us to understand the Gospel of Luke and help us to understand the Book of Acts. We look at the Apostle Paul and the letters we refer to as the Pauline epistles, the letters Paul wrote.

You really do need to understand Paul was revealed in Scripture, to understand what Paul being the author of those writings means, in terms of interpretation, understanding, significance. The same thing is true in the Old Testament. When we talk about the Books of Moses, we’re talking about the fact that God used Moses to produce those five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

They are not by accident referred to as the Books of Moses. That means that we believe simultaneously, that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, totally true and trustworthy Word of God, every single word of it, every book of it, of course, every chapter of it. But it also means that when the human author of Scripture is identified, it turns out to be important that we know that identity. And that’s true of the Prophet Isaiah, the Prophet Jeremiah, the Books of Moses.

It’s very important when you consider King David and the Psalms. It’s important when you consider Paul and his epistles, the Apostle John and the Book of Revelation, as well as the fourth Gospel, but that is not at all how Muslims look at the Quran. Muslims look at the Quran, as a divinely produced text in its original Arabic, and all Muhammad was, was the chosen vessel or the prophet through whom this was given.

The life of Muhammad, we are told, has nothing to do with how we’re to understand the Quran. Muslims do not read the Quran through Muhammad. They believe that it came entirely as it is, without any contribution by Muhammad. Muhammad was the channel through which Allah, according to Muslim theology, revealed and delivered the Holy Quran, as it is called by Muslims.

Part II

We Honor Christ, and He Will Defend His Own Honor: Christianity, Unlike Islam, is not an Honor Religion

But the other big difference we have to consider here, comes down to the word desecration. Sometimes a word like blasphemy is used, and what we’re talking about is an act of disrespect against what is claimed to be holy. That is desecration is like desacralization, it’s denying something that is sacred. Now, as you’re looking at this and you recognize the power of the law, that’s one thing, but you need to look at the theological dynamic as well. This is something the secular press is just spectacularly ill-equipped to handle these days.

The most crucial distinction to understand here, is that Christianity is profoundly not an honor religion. That is to say that Christians are never given the responsibility–look at the New Testament, look at the epistles of Paul, look at the words of Jesus and the Gospels–Christians are never told that it is our duty to defend the honor of the one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are told that instead, we are to obey every word that is commanded to us in Scripture.

We are to faithfully follow Christ. There is much more that is commanded us, but we are not told that it is our job that it is a divine command or for that matter, even within our human ability to defend the honor of God. Now, we defend the gospel. We speak in defending the gospel of making sure that we are speaking, sharing and defining the gospel correctly. We speak about the right honor that a believer should have for the Word of God.

But it is not our responsibility to defend the honor of God against those in the public square, or for that matter, anywhere on planet earth, who would choose to say, “Burn a Bible.” That is just not our job to try to go and defend the Bible in that context. We defend the Bible in terms of its truthfulness. We defend the Bible as the Word of God, but we are not given the responsibility to be soldiers for the honor of God. On the other hand, Muslims believe that that is exactly their responsibility.

That they should defend the honor of Allah, and a faithful Muslim is actually charged to do that. That’s one of the reasons why you have jihad and even a separation of the world of Islam, and the world at war in the great Muslim worldview. That’s a distinction that has a great deal to do with the world of Islam, where there is submission to the Quran and the world at war, which has not yet been brought under submission to the Quran.

That’s the basic division. What you see right now in the headlines, particularly directed these days towards Denmark and Sweden, you have a clash of worldviews. You have a clash of understandings of say, constitutional law and what is the responsibility of government. It’s very interesting to see that official Islamic organizations, including international organizations, are demanding.

The United Nations at this point, shares a bit of complicity in this, basically saying to Denmark and to Sweden, “You should not allow the burning of the Quran.” The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, that’s a group of 57 Islamic states, said that the collective voice of the Muslim world is this: That Sweden and Denmark should order, “The immediate cessation and criminalization of the burning of the Quran, and for that matter, any related activity.”

That’s the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. But back in July, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by a vote of 28 to 12, a resolution calling on nations to, “Address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred.” Now, I think we can understand the intellectual plausibility of that kind of order or that kind of law. We can understand that it might make sense to people.

The problem is it doesn’t make sense when you try to figure out how to apply it, because who gets to decide what is and is not a sacred book? Who gets to decide what is and is not religious hatred? Who gets to decide what is freedom of speech and what is freedom of witness? Now, this is where Christians and Western nations have come to the very clear understanding that religious liberty means our right to preach and teach, to contend for and pass on to our children, the Christian faith, intact and without government interference.

But the price for that, is that we cannot then call upon the government to punish those who believe differently than we believe, or to restrict religious beliefs only to what we believe. Or for that matter, to punish persons who might offend our religious sensibilities. That’s something that is simply a part of the modern, western understanding of how religious liberty works. Religious liberty isn’t religious liberty if only for a few. It has to be religious liberty for the many.

But the liberal view, the liberals run with this, is to say that religious liberty, in order to be effective, must just about cancel all religious speech and influence in the entire society. That is not at all what this means. Conservative, evangelical Christians, whose worldview is shaped by Scripture, have not only every right, but every responsibility to contend for that truth as a public fact.

And frankly, to bear witness to that truth in every way, even to contend for laws that we believe are consistent with, for example, a right understanding of marriage. Or for that matter, also the right understanding of the dignity and sanctity of every life born and not yet born. We should never even be embarrassed about saying we’re making those arguments based upon both plausible, public reason and beyond that, scriptural truth.

This is what we believe and we show up as citizens wearing and bearing those beliefs. But it does mean that conservative Christians have no right to say we are offended when someone says we’re wrong, or we are offended when someone rejects the Scripture. That is offended in a legally significant way. Of course, we’re theologically offended and we’re spiritually concerned, or we’re going to ask the police to arrest persons who offend our religious sensibilities.

That’s just not within our right. We understand at the same time, that there are those who would abuse this kind of liberty. There are those who would abuse freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That’s the risk we run as a society. Now, of course, it’s not without some kind of limit, and that’s why we have, for instance, anti-pornography laws, and yet you also understand there are some who want to eliminate those.

But we began today looking at Sweden and Denmark and the great danger in those two nations, emblematic of the danger in the Western world, is not just of curtailing free speech, free expression rights, or religious liberty. The problem here, is that there will be those who will seek to use unpurely secular motivations, the very same kinds of constrictions, to constrict the preaching of the gospel and the public witness of Christianity.

You need to understand that in this light, there are secularists, who oddly and ironically enough, would be very pleased to see the Muslims get their way. But this is just further evidence of the confusion of a secular age, because this particular issue reveals the deep, deep unbridgeable divide between authentic Christian theology and Islam. We’re talking about two completely different worldviews, and that comes down to two completely different understandings of God.

These headlines should remind us of what it would mean, if indeed, there were to be a majority of Muslims in Sweden and in Denmark. I think that writing is here pretty much already on the wall.

Part III

‘Black Lives Matter’ Versus ‘Black Pre-Born Lives Matter’: D.C. Circuit Court Rules the Government Cannot Play Favorites in a Public Forum

But next, let’s come back to the United States. A very big development that didn’t get much attention here in the United States but should have.

A District of Columbia Federal Circuit Panel ruled 3-0 in favor of a group that had been arrested and charged with criminal offenses in the District of Columbia for an expression that was written in chalk on the sidewalk, “Black preborn lives matter.” The story takes us back to the summer of 2020. Police in DC arrested two anti-abortion protestors. They had written in chalk on the pavement, Black preborn lives matter.

And that was ruled to be a violation of Washington, DC’s vandalism ordinance. Now, how did this issue come before a federal appeals court there in the DC circuit? An arrest that would seem to be somewhat routine for public vandalism, where you had two persons arrested for in chalk writing, Black preborn lives matter, in violation of the city law.

Well, the issue is this. Just sometime before that, the City of Washington and the DC government, basically allowed persons to violate this so-called anti-vandalism ordinance repeatedly. Very publicly, covered on CNN and all the rest, when what they were writing was not Black preborn lives matter, but Black Lives Matter. The Black Lives Matter protests, and of course, they shut down the streets and Washington, DC, gained a great deal of national and international attention.

For that matter, we’re not just talking about chalk, we’re talking about big letters on public property. The DC government did not criminalize those acts. As a matter of fact, they basically told the police not to make criminal arrests under almost any usual circumstances in those Black Lives Matter protests. But when the two pro-life activists wrote Black preborn lives matter, well, even a policeman remembering the Black Lives Matter protest said that it was probably legal.

It was only later that the two were arrested. The three judge panel ruled 3-0 in favor of the pro-life activists, and their words are very important. The judges released a statement saying, “The government may not play favorites in a public forum, permitting some messages and prohibiting others. Access to public forums, that means forums must be open to everyone and to every message on the same terms.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board explained the ruling this way: “This means governments must treat similarly situated individuals and groups similarly when they restrict speech. As the judge authoring the ruling said, ‘The government may not play favorites in a public forum, permitting some messages and prohibiting others.'” Now, we can only hope that a similar kind of logic would pertain in Denmark and in Sweden. We are not, in any sense, in favor of burning any book.

But the problem is that laws that criminalize that behavior, are actually criminalizing the desecration or the destruction of certain books. When you have the government authority to do that, well, that’s an awesome and tyrannical government authority in the making. Erin Hawley, vice president to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the group that had defended these plaintiffs in court said, “Every American deserves for their voice to be heard, as they engage in important cultural and political issues of the day.”

The difference between Black Lives Matter as a statement and Black preborn lives matter as a statement, is not something that is for the federal government, or for that matter, a local government, even the government of Washington DC, to decide upon. It is similar speech and must be handled similarly. When you look at these headlines out of Sweden and Denmark, remember the headlines out of Washington, DC. Because these issues, one way or another, are going to hit sooner or later pretty close to home, and that also means your home.

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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