December 3, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, December 3, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
San Bernardino violence only explicable in light of Christian understanding of human sin
Once again Americans were riveted to the screens and the screens were showing scenes of horror, this time the dateline was San Bernardino, California. As the Los Angeles Times reported,
“Dressed in black masks and tactical gear, armed with long guns and pistols, they entered a holiday party for county health workers in San Bernardino as it was in full swing. Before they fled, they had killed 14 people and wounded 17 others.”Show Full Transcript
That’s a lead that tells us there is a huge story here and the story only gets larger as we continue through even what we know as of early this morning. Los Angeles Times continued saying,
“Four hours later, as fearful residents were ordered to stay home and scores of officers swarmed the streets, authorities chased a black SUV carrying two suspects from a home in the nearby city of Redlands. As TV news stations broadcast live overhead, authorities and the suspects traded gunfire.”
When it was over, as we now know, two suspects were dead, a man and a woman who had been inside the SUV attempting to flee police. As one body lay on the street, another was recovered from the vehicle; a police officer was also wounded in the exchange of gunfire. According to reports this morning, the police officer is expected to survive. Once again, we’re looking at murder and mayhem on a mass scale, the largest mass shootings in the United States since December 2012 and the horrific shootings of children and teachers in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In the immediate aftermath, as soon as media reports began to circulate that this was a mass killing, given recent events in Paris, the immediate question was whether or not this was an act of terrorism on American soil. The speculation had to do with whether this was an isolated event related to workplace violence or if it was a part of the larger pattern of Islamic terrorism. All that became a bit more clear in the late hours yesterday, when an original suspect name was released and later confirmed by law enforcement and major media. That suspect now dead in the exchange of gunfire with police was identified as Syed Farook, he had been an environmental health specialist there in San Bernardino and he was a part of the holiday celebration that was taking place in rented space within a facility known as the Inland Regional Center. It is a center that primarily serves developmentally disabled people and yet, it became clear hours after the first reports on the incident that this had to do with an event that was held in the facility, rather than one that was actually part of the facility’s ongoing program. There were reports early on that one of the employees at the event had left in anger and there were speculations that he had returned, and now we know with others in order to carry out the mass killing.
In the immediate aftermath, it was known that 14 were dead and another 14 injured, by the end of the evening the number of injured had risen to 17. By midafternoon in California, it was known that in the exchange of gunfire two suspects had been killed, a man and a woman, and a third running away from police at the scene had been apprehended. As of early this morning there is still the open question as to whether or not there was a third shooter and if this individual is that third shooter. If not, there could be yet other suspects and as of early this morning, law enforcement authorities have indicated they continue to search for at least one other suspect.
Syed Farook was identified as an American citizen, speculation earlier this morning was that a second person who was either sought or had been apprehended is either Farook’s brother or a citizen of Qatar. Again, as of early this morning, the identity of all the suspects is not yet clear or confirmed. The first call to 911 came at 11 o’clock Pacific time and very quickly the word spread through social media. In just a matter of moments, Twitter had picked up the story indicating a mass shooting and a mass collecting of law enforcement officials near the facility there in San Bernardino. The big question almost immediately was that of motivation and as we have discussed often on The Briefing, the fact that we are moral creatures indicates why the quest for a motive is almost immediate and yet at the same time we understand that there is no rationality that would explain this. In a moral biblical frame of reference, there is nothing that could explain this except the reality of human evil and human sinfulness.
In early evening yesterday, an official with the FBI on the ground there in San Bernardino raised the question of terrorism, but almost immediately there were odd issues related to this horrifying massacre that came to light. For one thing there was an obvious personal tie between the victims or at least many of the victims and Syed Farook, now believed to have been one of the shooters. In terms of most terror incidents there is no direct tie between the individuals. For instance, what took place in Paris was a random shooting at targeted locations. This was not merely a targeted location, in this case the location was of importance, mostly because evidently of the people who were gathered there for that holiday celebration. And yet also, early yesterday terrorism officials, both nationally and internationally, pointed to the fact that the reality was that this was a military style operation that does fit all the classic operational methods of a terrorist attack, such as that undertaken in Paris. As the team of reporters for the Los Angeles Times right there closest to the story tell us the scene was absolutely terrifying. Denise Peraza, age 27, told her relatives,
“Everyone dropped to the floor. The guys opened fired for 30 seconds, randomly, then paused to reload and began firing again.”
There were also verified reports that those who were the suspects trying to flee in the SUV had thrown what were originally understood to be pipe bombs, but they were later understood not to be explosive devices. One of the moral realities we face here is the fact that we live, not only in a violent world, but we live in a nation that has so often been marked by violence. Just in recent days we’ve seen the shooting of three and the wounding of others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Now a matter of just days, indeed almost hours later, we have these horrifying scenes coming from San Bernardino. The fact that we live in a violent world is something that Christians do understand and yet there are limits to our understanding of any particular incident or of exactly how anyone can be motivated to take this kind of murderous act. And yet we’ve seen it in Paris, in New York City, in Washington, we’ve seen it all over the world. And we’re seeing it now in terms of the headlines coming at us even this morning from California.
The horrifying nature of these massacres and the fact that they are now spread in terms of information so quickly by means of mainstream media and the digital world, these draw our attention to the fact that we live in an extremely violent world. There is the temptation to believe that we live in a world that is more violent than at some time in the past. That is actually unlikely, and yet we are looking at an undeniable strategy of terror by means of mass killings and even with what we know just now it becomes increasingly likely that this was a terror attack of one sort and law enforcement officials this morning are centering in trying to understand if this was a singular attack or if those who perpetrated it were intending to do so also elsewhere. Another thing that was interesting and different in terms of this attack is that those who perpetrated it sought to escape and there is speculation that they may have attempted to get into a residence where they intended to have a massive exchange of gunfire with police and law enforcement.
At this point there are simply so many unanswered questions. But the big theological questions are the ones that were answered long before we got to the headlines from yesterday and that is even sadder than the understanding that this might’ve been an isolated event. Christians whose immediate response is heartbreak and concern in deep prayer in the aftermath of these kinds of headlines and scenes, we’re those who understand that we live in a fallen world that is showing every bit of evidence of that fallen condition and we’re looking at the fact that human beings are capable of irrational, unthinkable, and yet all too real violence. From a biblical perspective, what makes the issue far more horrifying than just the headlines is the understanding that there had been hatred and there had been plotting, murderous homicidal plotting on the part of those who were the shooters in this incident, and it may have been a larger network as well. This was an intentional act that required a great deal of forward planning and arming and strategy, and yet it may have been triggered by the simple act of an offense that took place at a holiday party. We simply at this point do not know. We want to know. As human creatures we feel an incredible need to know.
In aftermath of California shootings politicians grasp for inadequate policy solutions
But next, as we look at these headlines and we look at the cultural conversation that followed these horrifying scenes from San Bernardino, there was response that also is playing to type. For example, President Obama, who had in light of recent shooting said that thoughts and prayers are not enough. He once again called for gun control legislation and called for bipartisan efforts to try to adopt what he described as common sense gun control measures. The President told CBS news in a previously scheduled interview for which this became the first issue,
“We don’t yet know what the motives of the shooters are but what we do know is that there are steps we can take to make Americans safer,” Obama said in the interview. “We should never think that this is just something that just happens in the ordinary course of events because it doesn’t happen with the same frequency in other countries.”
The President and other major leaders in the Democratic Party have responded in a similar form to other horrifying headlines. And yet that raises the question, what would common sense gun control look like? The state of California has some of most restrictive gun control laws in the United States, but that has not prevented what took place there yesterday. Similarly, Chicago has also had a recent record number of homicides, but Chicago has, like California, some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. That raises a huge set of political issues and politicians have the responsibility to debate them. Any sane, rational, moral person would want to keep weapons of this kind of destructive power out of the hands of those who would intend to do harm with them. Any sane, moral person operating out of a Christian worldview or any other rational worldview would understand that if we could predict and prevent where this would take place we would certainly keep these weapons out of the hands who would plot such murder and mayhem. And even as the President was right that many of these incidents do not happen with a similar frequency and other nations, I assume he is speaking there of advanced industrial democracies, the reality is that in many parts of the world murder and mayhem like this happens rather routinely in the streets.
Politicians will discuss the issue of gun control and that right now is not only a moral issue it is as it always will be a political issue, and it’s one that is situated in a unique way in the United States because of the second amendment to the United States Constitution. That, however, is a debate for another day and for another arena the most important thing for us to recognize is that we would prevent any of these actions if we could, and yet with a massive intelligence and law enforcement operation and even in the state of California with rather restrictive gun laws, this not only could take place it did take place.
Despite dismissal of prayer as platitude, it remains key Christian response to tragedy
Something else happened last night that should have our attention and that became a debate over the very question of prayer and whether or not it is appropriate in the wake of this kind of horrifying event to respond with a public statement that our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives are in danger or whose lives have been so affected by grief in the aftermath of this kind of massacre. Last night the New York Daily News, one of that city’s major tabloid newspapers released an early edition of its front page and its front-page story. The headline all across the front of the tabloid was this,
“God isn’t fixing this.”
The subhead reads like this,
“As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”
Four different tweets offered by Republican presidential candidates were on the front page of the paper highlighted with the word prayer. Ted Cruz had said,
“Our prayers are with the victims, their families, the first responders in San Bernardino.”
Rand Paul had said,
“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families and brave first responders.”
Lindsey Graham said,
“Thoughts and prayers are with San Bernardino.”
Paul Ryan, the Speaker the House had said,
“Please keep the victims of San Bernardino, California, in your prayers.”
Many Christian leaders, I among them, also went on social media to say that we should be praying for all those in San Bernardino, especially those who even in the early hours could still be endangered when the question was whether or not there were continued shootings that were going to take place. Regardless, the issue of prayer became a political issue on the front page of the New York Daily News and in other major media as well. Rich Schapiro, reporting for the New York Daily News in that front-page story wrote,
“Prayers aren’t working.
After yet another mass shooting in America, GOP presidential contenders were conspicuously silent on the issue of gun control.
Instead, while the Democratic presidential wannabes were calling for stricter gun laws in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, the Republicans were preaching about prayers.”
Schapiro went on again to quote the tweets that were published on the headline, along with others and the issue of prayer immediately became political. Emma Green writing last night for The Atlantic indicated this is a new pattern she called,
As she wrote,
“Directly after a mass shooting, in the minutes or hours or days between the first trickle of news and when police find a suspect or make arrests, it is very difficult to know what to do. Some people demand political action, like greater gun control; others call for prayer.”
After citing her own list of tweets and statements from political leaders she wrote,
“There’s a clear claim being made here, and one with an edge: Democrats care about doing something and taking action while Republicans waste time offering meaningless prayers.”
Emma Green also offered a very important worldview insight in her article that, once again, ran last night as she was noting what she called this pattern of prayer shaming. She notes this,
“At one time in American history, liberals and conservatives shared a language of God, but that’s clearly no longer the case; any invocation of faith is taken as implicit advocacy of right-wing political beliefs.”
On The Briefing in recent months, we’ve talked about the fact that the Democratic electorate is increasingly secular, that’s something that has been noted by polling and survey organizations and by sociologists and now we’re looking at that becoming a matter of headline news in the aftermath of these horrifying scenes in San Bernardino last night. The statement made by Emma Green is really, really important. As she says,
“At one time in American history,”
To use her words,
“Liberals and conservatives shared a language of God.”
Now I want to note before leaving this that even very recently Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives at least to some extent share some of that common language. For example, just a matter of months ago when there was a shooting in Oregon at a community college, the Vice President of the United States, a Democrat, Joseph Biden, Jr. said,
“My thoughts and prayers are with families who lost folks today.”
Writing back in October, for the New York Times magazine, Mark Leibovich asked the question,
“Do Politicians’ ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Mean Anything?”
Leibovich argued that some looking at these expressions see them as nothing more than what he described as,
“Emptycalorie bits of sympathy.”
But it’s not just the Vice President; it was also Chelsea Clinton, who in the aftermath of the Oregon shooting, right after President Obama said,
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
She wrote on Twitter,
“My thoughts and prayers are with all impacted by the Oregon shooting.”
Leibovich who watches language very carefully has traced the use of the phrase “thoughts and prayers” by political or government leaders back to at least the 1880s when Queen Victoria addressed her Grenadier guards before they headed off to military action in Egypt by saying my thoughts and prayers go with you. One of her successors, King George said in 1932 to his delegates to the Imperial economic conference in Canada,
“My thoughts and prayers are with the delegates of my governments who are gathered in conference today.”
President Harry Truman said in 1950 that his thoughts and prayers are with American troops fighting in Korea. Former President Dwight Eisenhower responded to the deaths of three Apollo astronauts at Cape Canaveral in 1967, after he had left office by saying,
“Our thoughts and prayers are with them.” [Speaking of their loved ones.]
Bob Garfield, another veteran watcher of language said,
“When uttered by civilians, it’s mechanical enough. When uttered by elected officials, it has all the emotional resonance of a Miranda warning.”
And yet from a Christian worldview perspective, we understand it is almost a reflex for anyone, an elected official or otherwise, to say that our thoughts and prayers are with those who are either in danger or are grieving in the wake of this kind of massacre. But it tells us something about our contemporary political scene and about the continued secularization of America that the words “thoughts and prayers” have now become a matter of political debate in the immediate aftermath, virtually within the original hours of response after the tragedy in San Bernardino. And the “prayer shaming”, as Emma Green described it, began almost immediately, illustrated more graphically than anywhere else by that front-page story in the New York Daily News. And yet, from a Christian perspective we have to understand that more than a response to the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is at work here.
The New York Daily News after all and that screaming headline declared,
“God isn’t fixing this.”
That is something that Christians need to note very, very carefully. That is almost now what we should expect from a secular perspective based in the secular worldview. Christians rightly understand the deep desire to fix this and to have this situation fixed, to fix it so that this kind of headline would not continue to come to us. And as I have said, there will be political debate about laws and gun control and other issues. But Christians looking at this have to understand that nothing, no law, no political action can actually solve the problem; can fix it, as the New York Daily News demands, because the problem is in the human heart. Not just in the events that come with horrifying headlines.
We do understand the impulse to do something, and yet watching these headlines, we understand that right now there is virtually nothing we can do except for the part of most of us to pray and this is where Christians understand that even if prayer is increasingly politically incorrect, it is still right and righteous. It is still what Christians are called to do and our reflex to prayer is not a matter of public gesture, it is a matter of heartfelt concern, or at least it certainly ought to be. We’re both humbled and horrified from a biblical perspective in understanding the brokenness in the human heart that is reflected in the brokenness in the world. We also understand that where there is the possibility of doing something that will really decrease the potential for human evil; we ought rightly to do it. That’s in keeping with Romans 13 in the understanding of government as one of God’s gifts to us for the restraint of evil and the punishment of the evildoer. And yet, we also understand that the impulse to do something can often come with the assumption that we can fix the problem, the underlying problem, the fundamental problem. And yet, we come to understand that is beyond our grasp. And so we also, humbled and horrified by these headlines, understand that we really are as Christians thrown back on the understanding that God is sovereign and that God loves us and that he has shown that love supremely to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we are thrown back on the responsibility of understanding that we ought rightly, must rightly pray for all those who are affected by this and we need to pray for our nation. Indeed, we need to pray for a broken world. And yet we also pray understanding that there is a basic problem with this headline that is far beyond anything political, and that is this, the assumption is that God isn’t fixing this. And yet the Scripture tells us that God will one day fix it, as a matter of fact, the scripture tells us as the apostle Paul says in Acts chapter 17, God has fixed a day when judgment will take place and His judgment will be perfect even as the rule of Christ will be perfect.
The biblical worldview doesn’t affirm quietism, the belief that there is nothing we can do in a world of horrifying headlines. But the biblical worldview also reminds us that the problem is so fundamental that it is beyond our grasp, individually, politically, economically educationally, governmentally, militarily, the problem is far beyond anything that is within human power. We long for and yearn for a day when these headlines will be no more. And yet, we come to understand also that in the flow of the biblical story, murder comes very quickly. In the very first chapter after the fall, we find the murder of Abel by Cain in Genesis chapter 4. And that same Scripture points us to the reality that the final judgment that will come that will establish righteousness will come only by King Jesus. And so Christians heartbroken in light of these headlines understand that prayer is not a formula for quietism. But we also understand there is also no Christian basis for utopianism, none at all. It is not surrender or evasion for Christians to understand, even and especially in light of these horrifying news reports that we await a King and a kingdom. And in defiance of that headline in the New York Daily News, we declare in full faith and confidence, God will one day fix it, but when God finally fixes it you will not read about it in the New York Daily News.