January 6, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 6, 2016, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Obama's announcement of gun control measures reminder of human limits to preventing evil
Yesterday in the East Room of the White House, an emotional President of the United States announced that he was going to do something by executive authority when it came to what he described as the problem of gun violence. As Eric Lichtblau and Michael D. Shear of the New York Times reported,
“As tears streamed down his face, President Obama on Tuesday condemned the gun violence that has reached across the United States as he vowed to take action to curb the bloodshed with or without Congress.”Show Full Transcript
The president was surrounded by many people, friends and family as described of those who had been victims of recent shootings. The president said,
“In this room right here, there are a lot of stories. There’s a lot of heartache.”
He went on to say,
“There’s a lot of resilience, there’s a lot of strength, but there’s also a lot of pain.”
As the New York Times and other major media indicated, what the President announced is not any new proposal for legislation. There is little political opportunity, and that’s an understatement for any kind of legislation on this issue at present, and that would include opposition from members of the President’s own party—not only from the opposing party, the Republicans. There no doubt was a great deal of emotion in the room, including the emotion of the president as he made this announcement, but the announcement itself doesn’t come down to much in terms of actual change in policy. Indeed, as the New York Times reported,
“A number of the executive actions he plans are only suggested ‘guidance’ for federal agencies, not binding regulations. They were framed mostly [said the Times] as clarifying and enforcing existing law, not expanding it.”
Furthermore, even the New York Times, one of the most pro-gun-control newspapers in the nation, acknowledged that what the president announced may lead to no basic reduction in the number of gun sales in America. Here are a few statements from the New York Times lead article,
“There were nearly 21 million gun sales were processed through the background check system in 2014, but some industry analysts say as many as 40 percent more firearms could have been sold through private transactions not subject to background checks.”
They then said,
“Even the most hopeful advocates say the new plan would affect only thousands of sales.”
Later in the New York Times article, we read that,
“Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch told reporters Monday that she could not say whether the new restrictions would have had any effect in a series of recent mass shootings, including last month’s attack in San Bernardino, California”
Furthermore, the New York Times also had to acknowledge that background checks, fully legally required, failed in preventing Dylan Roof from buying a handgun, despite having admitted to drug use. Dylan Roof, of course, was the shooter in a massacre of nine people at a South Carolina church in June 2015. All of this was basically conceded by the president when he said yesterday, and I quote,
“Each time this comes up, we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying. I reject that thinking [said the president]. We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”
We should note the language used by the president here. It’s the kind of language we might expect in this kind of context. The president described his proposals—the executive actions in very limited form announced yesterday—by describing them as common-sense reforms. That’s the kind of language a politician uses to defend his proposal or action, and it’s the kind of statement we can easily understand. No sane person would be against common-sense reform. The very use of the term “common sense” indicates that this is a sense that should be common to all. But the common-sense reforms that the president is talking about in terms of what he wants in gun-control legislation—those so-called common-sense reforms—couldn’t get through either house of Congress, including getting past members of his own party.
The United States of America is a nation that is framed by a Constitution in terms of our form of government. That Constitution’s second amendment required by the original states for the ratification of the Constitution grants to citizens the right to bear arms. Just about any sane Christian looking at this would have to understand there are some restrictions that are not unconstitutional. After all, none of us, sanely, would want the neighbor next to us to have an arsenal like a paramilitary organization. On the other hand, the second amendment plainly stated does give to citizens the right to own arms. That doesn’t mean that our neighbor should be allowed to own a tank or antiaircraft missiles, but it does mean that the Constitution, in its very original form required for ratification by the states, included the affirmation that citizens have the right to bear arms.
One of the most interesting developments that seems to come after every one of these mass shootings is not what you might expect. It is not a decrease in gun sales in America, but rather an increase in legal gun sales. There are certainly different levels of debate in terms of this issue. At the one level, biblically minded Christians, trying sincerely to operate out of a biblical worldview, may come to differing conclusions about whether or not a Christian should own firearms. That’s something that’s up for legitimate debate, and it’s something that isn’t going to be answered in a black and white context, because Scripture does not speak directly to the issue.
At a second level of debate, this is a legal and political issue, and here the Constitution of the United States is clear. What isn’t clear is exactly what kind of legislation is consistent with that constitutional affirmation, that’s something to be hammered out by Congress and the courts. But that’s something that has been hammered out by Congress and the courts for the better part of the last two centuries and more. The reality is that the American people are generally averse to gun control legislation, and that’s been true not only in recent years, but ever since the nation’s founding, and it is true in all 50 states to one degree or another. From a Christian worldview perspective, one particular sentence in the president’s address should draw our attention. It is this, he says,
“We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”
That is morally compelling language, but there is no way to know exactly how that morally compelling language can be actually translated into public policy. We could, as the president said—and we should—wish that we could stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. We wish that we could read the human heart and the human mind and know who would use guns with an evil intent. But the reality is we have a very limited ability to do so. There is no reason to question the president’s emotion when he gave the speech yesterday nor his sincerity in presenting these proposals. But there is every reason to question the seriousness or the effectiveness of a set of proposals when the administration itself has had to say they may have done nothing to prevent the recent massacres the president cites, nor to prevent any in the future. Shedding tears over the massacre of first graders is undeniably right. Deciding how that is to be translated into serious public policy—that’s a far more difficult challenge, and one that will now be given over to political controversy.
Wheaton controversy tests identity of confessional evangelicalism
Next, around the evangelical world, the most important headline that emerged yesterday came datelined Wheaton College. As Christianity Today’s Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra reported yesterday,
“Wheaton College has begun termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins related to her public statements of solidarity with Muslims, the evangelical school confirmed today.
The recommendation by the Wheaton, Illinois-based institution’s provost “is not a termination,” said LaTonya Taylor, director of media relations. “Rather, it begins Wheaton College’s established process for employment actions pertaining to tenured faculty members.”
“Hawkins,” said Christianity Today, “a tenured associate professor of political science, has been teaching at Wheaton since 2007.”
Summarizing the most recent controversy, Christianity Today wrote,
“Over the past month, Hawkins has posted on her Facebook and Twitter statements including ‘I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor,’ ‘I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,’ and an assertion that Christians and Muslims ‘worship the same God.’”
This controversy exploded in the evangelical world just before the end of the year when this professor at Wheaton College made a statement that she was going to be wearing a Muslim hijab in solidarity with her Muslim neighbors. That was the issue that first gained controversy. But the real controversy, and the real theological substance in the controversy, came when the professor claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As I responded in an essay posted at AlbertMohler.com at the end of last year, that’s an assertion that runs into direct conflict with the clear teachings of Scripture, with the statements of Jesus—especially as we find in a text like John chapter 9 in which he made very clear that to deny him is not to know the Father. This is the Christ who said in John 14:6,
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father but by me.”
The statement made by Jesus and the logic of the New Testament makes very clear that the only God is the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Muslims reject not only the doctrine of the Trinity, but they reject Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God. The logic of the New Testament would make very clear that in that sense, Muslims clearly are not worshiping the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. There is often a history of religions approach undertaken by the secular media and by many theological liberals as well. That approach assumes that religion is, more than anything else, an historical phenomena of human culture; and thus, the history of religions approach would identify three Abrahamic religions, because Judaism, Christianity and Islam in chronological order all trace part of the story of their religious history back to Abraham. But that’s where the issue becomes very, very different if religion is understood in theological terms, and it becomes different in an ultimate sense when that religion is Christianity. Because the theological foundation of Christianity is Jesus Christ. There simply is no way one can come up with a Christian affirmation that someone can genuinely know the Father while denying the Son. That has been the crucial issue in the intersection of Christianity and Islam going all the way back to the seventh century. It’s the crucial issue right now.
The statement that came yesterday from officials at Wheaton College indicated that the college’s administration—its Provost in particular—has decided to move forward with the official process that could well lead to the termination of the professor on theological grounds. We have seen an immediate response. The Washington Post published not only one, it published two articles yesterday, one of them clearly castigating the school, the other basically a report on the events as they had transpired today. But what we need to note is that this represents a crucial test of confessional evangelicalism. Wheaton College is a confessional institution, it is not merely evangelical in terms of its heritage and founding, it has a very clear statement of faith when it comes to its Christian identity, its affirmation of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and its affirmation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.
So when we’re looking at this as biblical Christians, we need to keep in mind that we should not expect the secular media and the larger secular culture to understand our confessional identity or an evangelical confessional accountability. For example, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, professors are required to sign a statement that states that they will teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, all that is contained within our confession of faith. That they are to do so without hesitation or mental reservation, and that they must make this affirmation without any private arrangement with the one who invests the professor in office. That’s a very comprehensive statement. It’s drawn from protestant history in terms of understanding how to guard confessional accountability, and that means that an institution that is going to be theologically serious has to have a confession of faith, and if it is going to be theologically serious about its stewardship and accountability in teaching, it’s going to have to require the professors teach, not only begrudgingly but eagerly, all that is contained within the confession of faith and that they do not conflict with it.
One of the interesting questions—the central question for Wheaton College—is whether or not a professor has violated that confession. The Washington Post indicates that there have been at least three previous incidents in which the College has had to address this professor with this question of confessional accountability, and the paper goes on to state that there’s been a breakdown in terms of the professor’s willingness even to discuss the theological issues with the College’s administration. What biblically minded Christians need to do at this point is to pray for Wheaton College, to pray for this professor, to pray for those who will be in the process that is now being invoked, to pray for the president of Wheaton College and its Board of Trustees who ultimately will have to make some very hard decisions. But in one sense, one of the hardest decisions has been made. And that’s the decision to allow the secular world to misunderstand and even misconstrue an essential evangelical responsibility, and that’s a very crucial issue.
In taking the action announced yesterday, Wheaton has invited the enmity and hostility of the world, and we need to recognize that even as this matter is now in process, legally defined as due process, the reality is that Wheaton has already paid a price in terms of the secular media for acting as if a confession of faith matters, and any fundamental theological issue might matter. As this situation moves forward, more will be known. But this much is already clear, confessional accountability is an evangelical essential. Without it, evangelicalism loses its evangel, that is, the gospel. The secular world around us really can’t believe that theology can matter much. Biblically-minded Christians may be among the last people on earth who know that theology does matter a great deal—indeed it matters eternally.
Christianity's center of gravity shifting to global South, encounters opposition and success
Next, in terms of global Christianity, The Economist of London recently reported what many others have already noted, and that is that the center of gravity in the Christian world is moving in a decidedly southward direction. This is true almost wherever you look on the globe. In terms of Europe, it is clear that the center of gravity is moving from northern Europe across the Mediterranean into Africa. In terms of the western hemisphere, it is also clear that the center of gravity of growth in the Christian world has been moving from North America into Central and South America. The so-called global South has been the center, not only of the most radical Christian expansion, both in terms of population and evangelism, it has also been the center of a great deal of more conservative assertiveness; and that has been very clear in groups such as the Anglican communion, where the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the U.S. have been moving in a rather radically liberal direction for the better part of 200 years. Meanwhile, the center of gravity in a conservative sense in the Anglican Communion has been in the bishops and the archbishops of the global South. That is also true in a different sense within the world of Roman Catholicism—there as well, the center of gravity in terms of numbers of members and opportunities for growth is decidedly in the South, in the southern hemisphere, rather than in the North.
That raises a very interesting question of why the current Pope, Pope Francis, would be seeming to pay so much attention to the moral revolution in the northern hemisphere, and neglecting the fact that most of his members are, and are likely to be, in the region of the global South. But back to the Protestant world, it is also very clear that the center of gravity—not only in terms of missions, but in terms of growth of churches and growth in number of Christians—is going to be centered not only in the southern hemisphere, but in particular in the continent of Africa. Even as there has been a growth in Islam in Africa, even in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, the reality is that Christianity has grown both more and faster, and that’s a very important issue.
Now from an evangelical Christian perspective, in terms of the global South, one of the concerns is just how Christian much of this Christianity is, just how much in terms of the faith once for all delivered to the saints is well understood by those who are currently counted as Christians. But we also have to understand that represents not only a challenge, but a tremendous opportunity in terms of Christian witness and Christian influence. And that also points to the fact that Africa is going to be the scene of many the most interesting conversations in the future in terms of Christian theology. And that leads us to an article published recently in The Telegraph, Jacob Zuma, the first Zulu President of South Africa, now blames Christianity in particular, and specifically, for many of his nation’s ills. As Barney Henderson for The Telegraph reports,
“Mr Zuma, South Africa’s first Zulu president, told an event in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal that Christianity brought about “orphans” and “old-age homes” thereby destroying Africa’s traditions, according to South Africa’s Times newspaper.
“As Africans, long before the arrival of religion and [the] gospel, we had our own ways of doing things,” he said.”
Mr. Zuma is himself a very interesting test case, and there have been those who for their own reasons had blamed Christianity for various social ills for a very long time. But Mr. Zuma is not only South Africa’s first Zulu President, he is also an ardent polygamist. He is a devotee of African tribal religion, including polygamy. As The Telegraph reports,
“In January last year he wed his third wife at a traditional Zulu ceremony.
During the ritual wedding the bride, Madiba, 38, was introduced to the elders and ancestors, two years after Mr. Zuma, 69, paid the Ilobolo (dowry).”
Now I’m not even sure exactly what it means for this bride—his third wife—to be introduced to his ancestors, but that’s something that can only be rooted in terms of this tribal religion. The interesting thing for us to note is that when Mr. Zuma made his indictment of Christianity, it was an indictment for doing good. It was an indictment for forming and creating orphans homes and old age homes. As some African Christian leaders responded almost immediately, it’s actually a good thing for Christians to be accused of doing good. That sounds like something right out of 1 Peter. But it is also notable that when President Zuma criticized Christians for forming and establishing orphanages and homes for the care of the aged, he said that in so doing, Christians were destroying ancient African traditions. He was never actually quite specific about what those traditions were. But it’s also notable that Mr. Zuma has placed himself over against Christianity, at least partially because of his own tribal religion and his own commitment to the practice of polygamy. That points to another fundamental truth about Christianity. When Christianity comes, it brings about a moral revolution. That is true in Africa. It, of course, was true in Western history, and given the post-Christian age in which we live, when Christians in the northern and western hemispheres preach the gospel and see the gospel take hold of lives and hearts, we will also see a moral revolution take place. That’s inevitable. But we also should be humbled against believing that a moral revolution can come most fundamentally, most lastingly, in any other way.