October 5, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, October 5, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Brokenness of world evident through tragedies, failures in Afghanistan, Syria, and beyond
Chaos, tragedy, brokenness and even hopelessness. That appears to be the response of many around the world to a series of headlines that broke over the weekend, headlines that defy our moral imagination. For example, here’s the headline in yesterday’s New York Times: United States is blamed after bombs hit Afghan hospital. Alisa Rubin writes,
“A crowded hospital in the embattled city of Kunduz that treats war wounded came under attack on Saturday and the American military acknowledged that it may have killed 19 patients, staff members and others at the facility while firing on insurgents nearby.”Show Full Transcript
Later in the article, we read that at least 12 staff members and 7 patients, including 3 children were killed when the hospital, run by the organization “Doctors without Borders” was badly damaged in the airstrike early on Saturday in Kunduz. At least 37 were wounded and they were flown to Kabul for treatment. Now in the aftermath of this headline comes the news that the United States military is conducting an immediate investigation to try to find out what happened here but at least in terms of the early reports, it appears that insurgents on the ground in Afghanistan lured the American military into launching an attack when the attack what’s actually on a hospital.
There were non-combatants in the hospital. There were those who were recovering from injuries and there was this non-profit organization of medical humanitarian aid known as “Doctors without Borders” and now we have the report that not only were many patients in the hospital killed, but the hospital itself is now unworkable and defunct. By Sunday, the group “Doctors without Borders” was claiming that this is a war crime and they were calling for some international investigation saying that they would not be satisfied with an investigation undertaken by the United States military.
What we’re looking at here is a horrible example of the brokenness of the world. It’s one of those stories that brings out hopelessness and grief when we look at this and recognize that this event is by any moral definition simply horrifying. Yet, we also come to understand that in the context of this horrifying war in Afghanistan and in that part of the world, the horrifying is tragically normal. The situation there is of such moral, political and military chaos that even as Americans have wanted to get away from the situation in Afghanistan after our war there and in Iraq, the reality is that we keep being drawn back in.
That was underscored by another sign of the brokenness of the world that came in recent weeks, even in recent days as the United States had to admit that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to train local Afghans and Iraqis in order to withstand the group known as the Islamic State, there are credible reports now in newspapers such as the New York Times and The Times of London and many others indicating that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars, it may have produced a force numbered in the single digits, not in the tens of the dozens of the hundreds of thousands but perhaps in just the single digits in terms of forces actually produced by these programs.
In the same edition of the New York Times that brought us that headline about the hospital in Afghanistan comes a story indicating the failure of US efforts to try to raise up a local insurgent force. The problem isn’t isolated to Afghanistan and Iraq. As the story says,
“In Northwest Africa, the United States has spent more than $600 million to combat Islamist militancy with training programs stretching from Morocco to Chad.”
American officials once heralded Mali’s military as an exemplary partner but in 2012 battle hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat to Libya to rout the military including units trained by United States Special Forces. This brokenness is demonstrated in the fact that no matter who is president of the United States, no matter who is in charge in terms of the American military, no matter who appears to be elected to political leadership in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how much international attention and concern is focused on these problems, they appear by any measure to be getting worse, not to be getting better.
That’s not to excuse political leadership. It is really interesting that in recent weeks, there has been increased pressure on President Barack Obama precisely because of what is defined as a lack of leadership coming from the White House in the midst of all these crises. Last Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page article entitled, “Questions of Leadership Follow Obama.” It’s by Christi Parsons.
“With his time dwindling on the global stage, President Barack Obama seized every moment in last week’s gathering of world leaders to try to define his misunderstood worldview before it defines him.”
That is one of the most interesting lead paragraphs I’ve seen in an article on international affairs and political leadership in a long time. You’ll notice that it uses the word, “Worldview” and it says that according to President Obama, his worldview has been misunderstood and yet as the article says, it does define him. Parsons goes on to write,
“As he tries to shape how the rest of the world regards his presidency, Obama is straining to play up his successes and to explain trouble spots that critics analyze is a sign of weak American leadership. Increasingly, the world is testing where the President’s boundaries lie and what they might expect of the United States in the wake of his 8 years of military disengagement and multinational approach to squelching war and violence abroad.”
Now Barack Obama was elected President of the United States largely by criticizing and by promising to reverse the policies that had been undertaken by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. President Bush was criticized by candidate Obama (later President Obama) and many others, for being far too interventionist on the world scene, for seeing America as the solution to the world’s problems.
President Obama was elected with the pledge that he saw the world in almost precisely the opposite terms. As this article says, the definitional issue in his foreign policy has been military disengagement rather than engagement. Now even as President Obama criticized his predecessor for leaving chaos in his wake, by his definition, now there is chaos in the wake of President Obama.
My point here is not explicitly political. There are certainly political points to be made here. My point is deeply theological. We are looking at the unraveling of so much of the world right before our eyes. We are looking at the fact that it is disorder rather than order, that is characterizing increasing parts of the world’s territory, not decreasing parts. We are looking at the fact that the headlines bring tragedy after tragedy, grief after grief, and we are also understanding that even as the President was absolutely right when he spoke to the United Nations last week and said we are in a battle of ideas. When it comes to the confrontation between modern western secularism and Islamic resurgent theology, it is the secularism that is losing.
That brings me to another heartbreaking headline from the news that came just over the weekend. It too came from the New York Times. It came in Saturday’s edition and it’s one of those headlines that simply captures your heart as well as your attention. It says this, “British Boy Aged 15 Guilty in Terror Plot.” Steven Erlanger reports a 15 year old, believed to be the youngest person convicted of terrorism offenses in Britain was sentenced on Friday to at least five years in prison for plotting to behead police officers at an Australian military parade.
The teenager we are told, whose name was withheld because of his age pleaded guilty in Manchester in its crown court to inciting terrorism overseas in the name of Jihad. The teenager was described by security experts there in Britain as being the organizer and adviser to a terrorist group plotting a concrete terrorist attack that would lead to the beheading of police officers there in Australia.
The news story tells us that this boy, now 15, was 14 when he used digital media in order to try to get to terrorist cells in Australia in order to incite them to specific acts of violence from his room in his home in England. The heartbreaking part about is this is the affirmation once again that we are in a great battle of worldviews. We are in a battle of ideas. This news story tells us if we are losing 14 year olds in England, we are losing this battle. That is something that has the attention of the international media but they honestly do not know what to do with this.
What we see is the befuddlement of those operate from a modern, increasingly secular worldview when they face something like this. The fact that the motivating energy behind this 14 year old boy, now 15, was Islamic theology. Speaking of brokenness, just consider the brokenness in this one sentences,
“The boy was technically sentenced to life and will not be released until he is considered by the authorities to no longer be dangerous.”
When we simply have to ask might that be? When will he unbroken? When will the world be unbroken? As Christians, we know the answer to that question. It’s eschatological but we also know we have to do everything within our power to limit the effect of that brokenness in this world around us. Yet, it is increasingly clear that whether one is a democrat or a republican, a liberal or a conservative, there is no clear way to resolve this brokenness in terms of policies, in terms of economics, in terms of politics. One thing that does become exceedingly is that there is no inevitability to progress.
That theory of history that says that somehow the world in part and in home is moving inevitably towards a more positive, more healthy, more peaceful future. One of the things that we see in these headlines is the affirmation that just isn’t so. Instead, read form an honest perspective, history is a few steps forward here, a few steps backward there, over and over again, century by century.
Oregon shooting example of disguised and irrational nature of evil
That’s why the Christian worldview reminds us that the problem that has broken the world is not a problem we can solve. Next in that brokenness is also evident everywhere in terms of headlines about mass shootings in the United States. Most recently, the shooting at the end of last week in Oregon that left 10 people dead. The killer there killed 9 in a community college in Oregon and then killed himself. Now we are looking at the inevitable questions that come in the aftermath.
The first question has to do with why did it happen? In this case, there are some very interesting indications that this young man, though he was dissatisfied with all of life had a particular animus towards organized religion and towards Christianity specifically. Saturday’s edition of the New York Times had an article that said this,
“The gunman who killed 9 people on a college campus set out on his rampage armed with 6 guns, a flak jacket and enough ammunition to do far more damage. An angry isolated young man, whose rage was fueled by animus towards religion and resentment at how his life was unfolding. That according to law enforcement officials on Oregon on Friday.”
Similarly, an article that appeared in the same newspaper on Sunday described how Christopher Harper Mercer trapped 15 students in a classroom and then, “Demanded that the students tell them their faith.” Some of those witnesses have also said Mr. Harper Mercer seemed to target to Christian but according to this article, at least one of the victims, Quinn Cooper aged 18 was not religious. A spokesman for the family said that the young man was an agnostic.
Similarly, other articles on the tragedy that have appeared in the mainstream media indicate that he asked some of the victims specifically whether or not they were Christians before he began firing. Asking the inevitable questions in the aftermath, it’s hard to know if this fits any particular pattern and from a moral perspective, from a Christian worldview perspective, that’s one of the most vexing issues here.
The most interesting analysis of this came in Sunday’s edition of the Times where several reporters wrote together an article entitled “Killer Fit a Profile but so do many others.” As the reporter said, they have become one of the most notorious and alarming stripes of evil. That’s interesting just in and of itself, the fact that the word evil here is indispensable. We need to note that. The reporters went on,
“People who when you think back seemed off, didn’t dress right, kept to themselves, were nursing a bitterness that smoldered inside of them and then they picked up guns and went on and killed as many as they could.”
In the aftermath, said the reporters, the same questions arise,
“Why didn’t everyone know? Why weren’t they stopped?”
Now they say these questions are being asked about Christopher Harper Mercer who for reasons yet to be deciphered, slaughtered 9 people at the community college in Roseburg, Oregon. They had been asked about the man who killed 9 people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in June, the man who killed 6 people in Isla Vista, California last year, the man who killed a dozen people, The Washington Navy Yard in 2013 and so forth.
Then comes this sentence,
“What seems telling about the killers however is not how much they have in common but how they look and seem like so many others who do not inflict harm.”
Repeatedly, we pointed to the fact that we would like to believe that somehow we can look into the human heart and know the intentions of that heart. James Allen Fox, a criminologist in Northeastern University who has studied these crimes said,
“The big problem is that this pattern that describes them, describes tens of thousands of Americans, even people who write awful things on Facebook or the internet. We can’t round up all the people who scare us.”
Trying to look for a pattern, criminologists who studied these kinds of criminals say that, “They are almost always male. Most are single, separated or divorce. The majority are white with the exception of student shooters at high schools or lower schools, they are usually older than the typical murderer. They vary in ideology. They generally have bought their guns legally. Many had evidence of mental illnesses, particularly those who carried random mass killings but others did not and most people with mental illness are not violent.
The article concludes by quoting Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine who said,
“Sure you’ve got these risk factors but they also describe thousands of people who are never going to commit a mass shooting.”
“You can’t go out and round up all the alienated, angry, young men.”
Of course the most haunting aspect of all of this is the question why couldn’t someone see what was going to happen? Why couldn’t someone read this human heart and know what was intended? Why couldn’t someone see this pressure building and do something about it? The reality is no one really could or at least even if those signs were evident, no one put everything together until it was too late. It is really revealing that in this article, the lead paragraph uses the word evil. It is an indispensable word. It’s a word that however is increasingly awkward in this secularized society because the word evil is inherently theological.
Evil doesn’t just mean counter-productive, it doesn’t just mean injurious. It doesn’t mean nearly negative. It means a sin. Evil only makes sense if it is contrasted with that which is good and just and righteous. You can’t define evil without somehow getting to a basic theological reality. The Bible in discussing evil also makes very clear that we often don’t see it for what it is. It is often disguised and it often comes to us in such a way that it defies all rationality. Then again the Christian theological tradition has the proper category for this. Sin is in its very essence irrationality.
Understood properly, there is no adequate rational explanation for any specific human sin, nor for the problem of sin altogether. It was an irrational act when Adam and Eve took of the tree that had been forbidden them and ate its fruit. That was not a rational act. It was by any theological of that matter, psychiatric definition, an irrational act. That reveals something about evil we really need to understand. We will never be able to understand it totally, comprehensively. It will never be rationally accessible to us.
There is something about sin which is inherently irrational. It always has been, it always will be.
25th anniversary of fall of Berlin Wall, a great moral scar of 21st century, passes largely unnoticed
Next, from a Christian worldview perspective, sometimes the most important story is not the one that appears but the one that didn’t or the one that doesn’t. That was the case over the weekend when on Saturday the world should’ve noticed the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That wall came down on October 3rd, 1990. It was one of the most important, political and moral events of the 20th century and yet it seems to have escaped much public attention over the weekend and we have to wonder why. In order to understand the importance of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have to go back to the Cold War. That was the ideological and the potential military battle between the United States and NATO on one hand and the Soviet Union and its communist bloc on the other.
It was a titanic battle of worldviews that shaped the second half of the 20th century. It was a battle of worldviews that extended into what was then known as the 3rd world where almost every military conflict taking place anywhere in the world was somehow related to the battle for influence between the United States and Europe; that is, NATO on one hand and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other.
Of course, you’re looking at a titanic battle of two worldviews, the Soviet Union was established upon dialectical materialism as a communist experiment that ended up murdering tens of millions of people. Yet, we also have to understand that the wall appeared as a physical representation of a very different wall. It was in 1946 that Winston Churchill came to Fulton, Missouri in the United States. He was accompanied on that trip by then President Harry S. Truman. It was there that Winston Churchill described the ideological and the military confrontation that would so shake the world for the remaining decades of the 20th century, and he described it in terms of an iron curtain that he said had descended upon Europe. It had descended because of Soviet tyranny.
Yet we have to understand that metaphorical Iron Curtain that Churchill spoke of in 1946 became an actual militarized wall dividing the City of Berlin between East Berlin and West Berlin in August of 1961, erected by the officials of the Communist regime in East Germany, as it was known then, at the orders of Soviet superiors in order—this was what was so important—to prevent their own citizens from fleeing to freedom in the West.
The Berlin Wall became one of the ugliest moral scars of the 20th century. It became like nothing else, the physical representation of a great battle of worldviews. It became one of the most infamous representations and denial of freedom and of the cost of this murderous ideology. Remember, that these were people who were murdering their own citizens simply for trying to climb a wall in order to gain freedom. It should perhaps go without saying that when you have a society that has to shoot people to keep them in, you’re looking at a failed society.
Yet one of the most haunting of the 20th century when we’re talking about the brokenness of the world is how long it took for that murderous regime to fall. It didn’t take years, it took decades. The wall went up early in the administration of President John F. Kennedy and the United States was not willing to risk a 3rd World War at that point over the East German erection of the wall. When you get to 1987, the scene changes when President Ronald Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall as he was standing in then West Germany and spoke to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev and famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
History will record, the Wall did come down on October 3rd, 1990. As I said before, Christian understanding of history or for that matter, just an honest reading of history says that there is not a consistent arc of what might be described as progress but rather a few steps forward, a few steps backward there. By any measure, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a few very significant steps forward. Yet, we now look back with a bit of embarrassment to the reality that many in the West, including in the United States, believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union meant that once again we were headed into an era of world peace in which western style democracy would become to rule virtually all the world.
That was famously described by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in the theory known as the end of history and yet it turned that the end of history was not nigh. As we now know, western democracy has not spread all throughout the world. Instead we’re talking about now a very different challenge, a challenge that can be known by the Islamic State but is actually known by many, many names. Those who thought that the great age of ideological struggle was over in 1990 now look back 25 years later and recognize it was anything but.
Yet, we simply have to ask again why was there not more recognition of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Amidst all the troubling headlines over the weekend, that headline would’ve been welcome. A sign that even in this broken world, we are not without hope.