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The Briefing

Thursday, September 14, 2023

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It's Thursday, September 14, 2023.

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

Part

An Escaped Convict and the SAn Escaped Convict and the Strange Allure of the Criminal: The Moral Complexities of How Society Tells Crime Storiesanitization of Crime: The Moral Complexities of How Society Tells Crime Stories

Well, Americans are going to breathe a sigh of relief that escaped murderer, Danelo Cavalcante, was found, finally, yesterday. Apprehended without a shot, by the way, in the state of Pennsylvania, where he had been on the run for a matter of 13 days.

Now, there's a lot to look at here. For one thing, in every one of these stories, there's an unfolding story. There's a story behind the story. The story behind this story has to do with the fact that we obviously have security problems at this one prison. But in worldview terms, we talked earlier on The Briefing just days ago about the fact that when you are looking at someone serving a life term or perhaps even a more grave sentence, such as a death sentence, that individual has every reason to try to break out of prison.

There is, indeed, in this case, just nothing to lose, or at least that's their mental calculus, that's their moral calculation. And so, they are just about 24-7, at least some of them, trying to devise ways in which they can escape. And we talked about the incommensurability about those who are trying to keep them in from those who are trying to get out. And the fact is that those who are trying to get out will often see an opportunity that no one trying to keep them in might see. Now, in the case of the Pennsylvania prison, it was clear that there was also an absolute failure of its policies. Because even as another inmate had tried to escape from the same area, just a matter of a short time ago. In this case, there was a full camera that was supposed to be watched by an observer, by someone in a guard tower. And you can simply look at the video. It's available on YouTube, and you can see this man so-called crab walking, this inmate, now a convicted murderer, escaping from the prison.

And you can also see the look in his face as he looks at the camera, and knows the camera's supposed to be watching him. But guess what? Nobody's stopping him. But with all the grave and weighty realities about crime and punishment behind this, there's something else that should be at least of some interest to Christians, thinking about these issues through a Christian worldview, and that is this. Why were there some people who thought this story was, I don't know, maybe a little exciting? Who thought that this was the kind of story in which they'd like to see it last longer, rather than end shorter? Why were there those, and in cases like this, why are there those who somehow seem, in their imagination, to be rooting for the escaped murderer, rather than for the law enforcement officials trying to catch them? Behind that is a very interesting history and a fascinating set of questions about human psychology, and the way human beings think as moral creatures, sometimes in ways that are just flat out immoral.

This issue came up just yesterday in a headline story in the Washington Post. The headline's this, "Brazilian Killer, Danelo Cavalcante, Became Cult Hero in Latin America." Now, the story unfolds telling us that there are people, not only in Brazil, but elsewhere in Latin America, where there was a lot of interest in this man having escaped. And of course, there's a political background to this, including the fact that there are many people who look at the United States and look at the law enforcement system in the United States, and they look at the situation and say, "I'm going to pull for the little guy. I'm going to pull for the criminal in this case." And you are looking at a very interesting story, that's why there are so many movies and so many television series, so many dramatic series that are based upon the idea of someone in prison, breaking out.

And here's something that those making those kinds of dramatic presentations understand. When you do have the cops and robbers, so to speak, it's only interesting if there is at least a little bit of moral interest in the robber as well as in the cops, so to speak. Behind that's another very interesting story. If you look not only in, say, recent histories of American literature and American movies and television, if you look back, say, as much as a millennium or so, you will find that in medieval Europe, the bandits were often celebrated as some kind of folk hero. So, in much of Latin America, there was a lot of folk hero interest in someone like Danelo Cavalcante, who by the way, is wanted for murder in his native Brazil. And he's a convicted murderer in a brutal, brutal murder of his girlfriend here in the United States, who had at least, we are told, threatened to turn him into authorities, and she was brutally murdered in front of her young children. How can anybody root for that so-called underdog?

But here is where, whether it's Hollywood or for that matter, folk stories in ancient Europe, think by the way of bandits made into some kind of folk hero. All you have to think of is Robin Hood in this case to understand that you have someone who was a real medieval bandit, who ended up, by some turn of imagination, a folk hero in a Disney animated feature. So, something's going on there. There are biblical scholars who would point to the Old Testament and the role of Jacob as the trickster, as creating a model which would show up again and again in Jewish literature. And again, some of it in that medieval period, where the trickster becomes another kind of folk hero.

You fast-forward to the classic era of organized crime first beginning to be detected in the United States, with the gangs and the series of bank robberies that made headline news, especially in the United States, in the early 20th century. Here's the pattern we see again. There were Americans who were actually pulling for the robbers, rather than the cops. Now, that wasn't to say they were ready to have their own bank robbed or not to mention their own homes, but it is to say there seems to be something darkly attractive in the human psyche to these who are lawbreakers, who are on the run and seem to be outwitting the law enforcement agencies. That seems to be a matter of a lot of interest. Here, you have to say there is also a trick being played in the moral imagination.

And here's one of the real dangers Christians should understand, is that the nature of the crime is often eclipsed by some kind of popularity based on personality. In the 20th century, this certainly took place with the robbers who were, after all, violent bandits known as Bonnie and Clyde. Another bank robber would come to mind, such as John Dillinger. Behind that, Jesse James. The vast majority of Americans wanted them caught, but they really did enjoy the narrative, the drama that was being played out. Sometimes in the headlines of America's newspapers, sometimes in news reels at the movie theater, sometimes in the emerging technologies of radio and television. And let's face it, the interest in Danelo Cavalcante has a lot to do with the fact that that video of his escape, his crab walking up the two walls, well, that makes for good television. And it turns out that there are millions of people who are just looking for a good video or a good visual.

There's something else about the fallen human mind and imagination that is illustrated by the fact that we, in turning these kinds of bandits and robbers into folk heroes, often romanticize them far beyond all reality and imagination. We have to sanitize their crimes, and then we sensationalize their personalities. Sometimes Hollywood is just, well, downright complicit in that particular moral problem. For example, the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, making those two namesakes a romantic hero and heroin in effect. Gunned down by the police. What is sanitized in all of that are the crimes that Bonnie and Clyde had carried out, and the fact that they were also putting the police in danger. They were shooting back. Something else that was going on there is the fact that when Hollywood made that 1967 film, Warren Beatty was cast as Clyde and Faye Dunaway was cast as Bonnie. You take two extremely popular, extremely attractive Hollywood stars, and turn them into gangster criminals. And guess what? Americans find watching the gangsters more interesting than watching the police.

In order to understand how this works, by the way, you also have to raise the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary, and now controversial, longtime head of the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He and the FBI basically came into American popular imagination because of the outbreak of organized crime, the gangs, especially the bank robberies, the sensational assassinations. All of this taking place in the period of the early and middle decades of the 20th century. And then J. Edgar Hoover would continue to lead the FBI into its battles against Soviet espionage in the context of the Cold War. But J. Edgar Hoover was also someone who understood the power of media. He understood, originally, the power of newspapers and then radio, but he lived long enough also to understand the power of film, and also, eventually the power of television.

And so, J. Edgar Hoover did something that most Americans simply did not know was happening, but they did enjoy what happened nonetheless. J. Edgar Hoover and others went to Hollywood and said to Hollywood, "You know, you have a patriotic duty to make some heroes out of FBI agents." And so, that's exactly what happened. Hollywood began to present movies in which it was the feds, it was the G-man in particular, the iconic nickname for the FBI agent, who became the heroes and heroines. When it comes to television, interestingly, one of the very early success stories in black and white television was the police drama. It turned out that Americans could be absolutely addicted to them. And it also turns out that when you had a series such as Dragnet, very famous black and white television series that ran four years, based upon real life police incidents from the blotter of the Los Angeles Police Department with an older policeman and a younger policeman. Back then, the word cops was considered derogatory, before it was adopted by the police. You had Americans tuning in weekly to see those programs.

And then over time, as American imagination and entertainment grew even more dark, you had the emergence of all kinds of programs in which everything just got more complicated, more morally obtuse. And in the case of America's slide into moral confusion, some of that was, we now know, intentional. And so, here's the strange thing about human nature, fallen human nature, confused human nature, sometimes contradictory human nature that comes out. Americans overwhelmingly certainly wanted Danelo Cavalcante apprehended. They wanted him apprehended fast, especially if they lived in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, it was a fascinating story. It was an exhilarating tale. And so, long as it was an ongoing issue, there were those who, frankly, enjoyed the suspense. But as for those who were actually living in the region, let's be honest, they had to take this with a bit more moral seriousness. They had to hope that Danelo Cavalcante was apprehended because they did actually understand what was at stake, so did the police. And that's why the apprehension of Danelo Cavalcante yesterday is not only a very big story, but it is a matter of relief, and it should be.

Part

If it’s Not Illegal, Does that Mean it is Morally Right? Listen to the Media Conversation (and White House Comments) About President Biden and the Hunter Biden Scandal

But next, as we shift gears, we're going to continue to talk about matters of criminality, but we're also going to talk about the distinction between immoral and illegal. This is something that in recent headline news is being intentionally confused, and rather pervasively confused. I think it's a good thing for Christians to step back and understand that we are talking about two things that should be identical, or at least symmetrical, but in a fallen world, they are not always identical or even symmetrical. I'm talking about that which is morally wrong and that which is legally criminal.

And here's where we understand that there is no criminal code on planet Earth that can cover all human sinfulness. That's one problem. When you look at the list of potential human sins, it goes vastly beyond what any police or judicial system, what any legal system or system of laws could ever come up with. We have to understand that a sane society would make murder and rape and robbery, and... Well, you go down the list. Would make such things illegal, and indeed, would clearly understand them as criminal acts. But there is no claim made by any sane government that its laws will cover all potential imaginable criminal acts. This is evidence of the fallen human imagination. We are, as the Bible says, not only those who do evil things, but inventors of evil. The next thing we need to understand and just stipulate this, is that sin covers an entire realm that isn't covered by the law and isn't reachable by the law, which is to say sin includes our thoughts. But the government can't really act on the basis of the suspicion of thought. That's what you see in totalitarian regimes. And even there, the regimes are basically just acting in ways that they presume to be able to read someone's mind.

The fact is, we know we can't read our neighbor's mind. We can read our neighbor's acts, and that's why the law is about what you do, which is either in accordance with the law or it violates the law, but not necessarily what you think. So, that is to say, Christians understand that sin covers a lot of territory that the criminal law can't touch. The other thing Christians need to keep in mind is that there are acts which are clearly immoral, which are not necessarily provable as crimes in court. And thus, there are people who do immoral things all the time who go free simply because there is no adequate statutory definition in the criminal law about what they have done, or there's not enough evidence to bring into court. There's not a preponderance of evidence in order to achieve a criminal conviction. Or you have criminals get off routinely in technicalities simply because it's not the technicalities of their crime, it's the technicalities of the law.

So, why are we talking about this today? Well, it's not in this case about Danelo Cavalcante. It is about Hunter Biden. And not only is it about Hunter Biden, it's also about President Joe Biden. And it's about a shift in the moral conversation. And my intention today is not to go in and dissect the issues related to either Hunter Biden or Joe Biden, the president. My intention today is simply to look at how the language tells us something is wrong here. Let's notice the shift in language. A matter of just even recent times saw the president of the United States say, "My son's done nothing wrong." By the way, that should never be said about any father, about any son. We have a scriptural warning against making that claim. But nonetheless, in the context, we understand what the president was saying. It was a very clear statement about contemporary charges at the time. "My son's done nothing wrong."

That's a categorical statement. "My son has done nothing wrong." But the language coming from the White House right now is not that language. The White House isn't now saying, "Hunter Biden did nothing wrong." But what you do here is that Hunter Biden now will have his day in court if indeed he faces an eventual criminal trial in these matters, and those are reduced matters from what was originally the scope of concern. But nonetheless, let's assume that trial eventually takes place. What we're looking at, however, is the fact that the White House is saying that, "There is no evidence that the president was involved in any way in criminal activity."

Now, that's an amazing shift of the language, and you have people saying, for instance, "There's absolutely no evidence that Joe Biden did X or Y." And it's discussed in terms of whether or not some kind of legal charge could be found against him, and a specific criminal charge or an accusation of specific criminal activity. And then, of course, you have the announcement coming from the speaker of the House that an inquiry about impeachment has been launched by House Republicans about the incumbent Democratic president of the United States. We're not really talking about that today either. I'm talking about the shift in language, and the confusion of moral wrong with criminal wrong.

And Christians just need to remind ourselves that we are concerned not only with criminal wrongdoing, but also, with moral wrong, with moral evil, with moral sin. Indeed, that's the biblical word for it. When it comes to the accusations about Hunter Biden and especially the very awkward questions about how he became so wealthy, being paid millions of dollars by people who had a direct interest in the foreign policy of the United States, with no particular expertise on the part of Hunter Biden. And then, when we know on the basis of evidence provided by someone like Devon Archer, who was Hunter Biden's previous business partner, the then vice president of the United States, who by the way, on behalf of the White House had been assigned responsibility for Ukraine and issues in Ukraine.

He shows up very conveniently in phone calls in which it is clear, as Devon Archer said, "He was representing the brand." And by the way, the brand there was Biden, not the United States of America. You understand that when the White House makes that charge and when even as we saw on the Sunday morning news programs just this past Sunday, the media keeps saying, "There's no proof of any criminal wrongdoing on the part of the president." Well, at this point, that's not the threshold. The shift from moral wrong to criminal wrongdoing, well, that's at least something we ought to note with moral seriousness.

And when we think about this, by the way, we also recognize that the law has very clear limitations, and that's true of any constitutional system of law that will recognize due process and the rights of the accused. The fact is that that runs the very real risk that certain persons who've done wrong will nonetheless not be convicted of any crime. But this isn't just a matter about the federal courts or the local courts or the state courts, or for that matter, the criminal law. This is something that parents have to think about. This is something that happens in the relationship between parents and children, where sometimes a parent has to say to a child, "I never told you not to do that, but you did know, already, that that was wrong."

Sometimes we can be, well, just in human terms, rather impressed with the ingenuity that can be demonstrated by a convicted criminal trying to get out of prison. Sometimes, let's face it, as parents, we can be at least somewhat impressed by the imagination and creativity of a child caught in wrongdoing. The child might say, for example, "You never told me not to do that." This is where parents have to say, "That argument's really interesting, but that argument's not going to fly in this court."

Part

Moral Inversion in Pennsylvania: Governor Josh Shapiro Will Subsidize Organizations Complicit in Murder of the Unborn and Take Money from Centers Supporting Life

But finally, for today, as we're thinking about many of these issues, we need to see that in the United States, the distinction between two different moral worldviews, as we often remark on The Briefing, it is not growing more shallow. It is growing constantly deeper. And this is not only a worldview divide on basic moral issues, basic worldview issues, and presuppositions. It's not just a divide that separates, say, neighbors or students on a college campus. It increasingly separates states. And here's something we need to watch. When you have a state adopt something such as an abortion restriction, it's often described as being a far-right political move. But when you have something on the other side, it is simply announced as a shift in policy.

On this score, a big story is coming out in the state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's governor, Josh Shapiro, has announced that his administration is putting to an end the funding of certain organizations that were arguing for alternatives to abortions. Now, this is something that has a history. The history is really, really interesting. Back in the mid-1990s, Pennsylvania, which by the way, elected pro-life Democratic officials, that included Bob Casey for a long time governor of the state of Pennsylvania, and very clearly pro-life. And by the way, Casey was, by the end of his life, forbidden from even speaking to the Democratic National Convention. The governor of a state as important as Pennsylvania was not allowed to speak because of his pro-life sentiments and convictions--he wasn't allowed to speak to the Democratic National Convention.

But as you're looking at Bob Casey, you're looking at Pennsylvania, you recognize that there was a moral agreement made back in the 1990s that even as Pennsylvania would fund abortions, basically through the subsidies awarded to Planned Parenthood's abortion services agencies, at the same time, there would at least be some money that would be devoted to those organizations who were trying to help women to find alternatives to abortions. The governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, has announced his administration would not, "continue that pattern." Now, it's really interesting that the governor in this case has made very clear that he has come to this determination because of his adamant support for abortion. My point is not just that that's an evil policy undertaken by this governor of Pennsylvania, but I just want to underline the shift in the moral landscape. The funding of those alternatives to abortion. And by the way, a lot less money than was going to Planned Parenthood.

Nonetheless, the funding was a part of a pact that was made necessary in order to compromise and get legislation back in the 1990s in a state like Pennsylvania. But on this issue, certain states, Pennsylvania now very clear among them, has shifted to the extent that Pennsylvania's governor says, "We are not going to continue that pattern." And just in case there is any misunderstanding of what Governor Shapiro was really trying to send as a signal, he said, "We will ensure women in this commonwealth," meaning Pennsylvania, "receive the reproductive healthcare they deserve." Another moral obfuscation. The language there, reproductive healthcare. It's interesting that this very, very pro-abortion governor, he's not so pro-abortion that he likes using the word abortion because abortion invokes the reality of what he is supporting here. A woman's reproductive healthcare is a moral evasion. He knows it, you know it, we all know it. We need to call him on it.

But as much as I want to point to this pattern and see it as so significant, I want to warn us about the shift in the language and understand this is really a matter of life and death. I also want to say the Associated Press on this story ran a big account. It was by Brooke Schultz and Kimberly Kruesi. And it actually ends in a way that we also need to pay some attention. It ends with a statement, and I just want to say, I think sometimes even in the secular media, even when you have all kinds of liberal media reporting in ways that cause all kinds of righteous and rightful offense, I want us to understand that sometimes a report like this comes out, and in this case, this is the way this report ends by the Associated Press.

Just listen to This. "Even with the scrutiny, the centers," that means these pro-life centers, "have received strong support from those who have benefited from their services." This will warm your heart. "Alyssa McAfee, age 26, was one of them. She was homeless, jobless, and in early recovery when she found out she was pregnant. She came to St. Margaret's in Pennsylvania," that's one of these entities, "six months pregnant and stayed until her daughter was around five months old. 'Everyone was definitely looking at my situation like, you cannot bring a baby into the world right now. But I knew what I wanted to do,' she said."

"McAfee said she found the organization to be welcoming. She felt it was for people that had already decided to pursue parenthood. Since she's left, McAfee has a job, an apartment, and even some of the diapers provided by St. Margaret. 'It turned out to be the biggest blessing life has ever given me,' she said." I just want to pause for a moment and say, isn't it astounding that something so morally right would actually work its way into this kind of report? But the final sentence tells us what a change in policy can mean. "About $8 million in state subsidies hangs in the balance this year as Pennsylvania completes its budget, with the Shapiro administration looking to send the money to other women's health providers."

In other words, let's state what is actually going on here. Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, is taking money from organizations that help pregnant women, such as Alyssa McAfee, now such a happy mom with her baby, "It turned out to be the biggest blessing life has ever given me," she said. Speaking of this care, and eventually, of her child. And now, we are told that the governor is going to send those monies, "to other women's health providers." In other words, take it from organizations saving life, give it to organizations taking life. When we speak of moral evasions, let's not let the governor of Pennsylvania get away with this one.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler.

For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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