January 18, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, January 18, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
US hostage exchange with Iran elicits both thankfulness and moral indignation
The big news story over the weekend has to do with the relationship between United States and Iran and, as the editors of the Wall Street Journal said yesterday, it is now clear that the American hostages were basically pawns held as hostages in order to exact concessions from the United States of America. And that’s exactly what they got. As the editors of the Wall Street Journal said,
“…in case there was any doubt. And on Saturday we learned the ransom price: $100 billion as part of the completed nuclear deal and a prisoner swap of Iranians who violated U.S. laws. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps should call this Operation Clean Sweep.”Show Full Transcript
This news story points to the ambiguity and so much that goes on in a fallen world in terms of international relations. Just in recent days, primarily with reference to North Korea, we’ve talked about the difficulty of dealing with so-called rogue states—that is, states that operate as governments much as sociopaths operate as individuals. They are outside the normal bounds of moral behavior, and that’s where they want to be, that’s where they intend to be. Iran does not play according to the rules; it hasn’t ever since the uranium revolution in the 1970s and it shows no sign of doing so now. It has however gained a major advantage in the so-called nuclear deal that was made largely through the leadership of President Barack Obama of the United States. But what this prisoner swap really represents is the dark side of international politics and it represents one of those situations in which we have to celebrate the results, but we really can’t celebrate how we got there. That is to say, we should celebrate—we have to celebrate—the release of these Americans who had been held. The four Americans include a Christian pastor, Saeed Abedini, whose release has long been sought by American Christians and American diplomats. But not only that, the most famous of the hostages was actually a Washington Post correspondent. His release along with three others came as seven Iranian prisoners in the United States were swapped for four Americans, and as the Wall Street Journal editorial board points out, that’s not even a mismatch in terms of the numbers. The Americans who were being held in Iran were innocent of any charges, whereas the Iranians in the United States were charged with very serious crimes for which there was evidence.
But Americans thinking about this just have to remember—at least those who are old enough—what it was like to go through the Iranian hostage situation in the late 1970s. We are talking about a regime that has the habit of taking hostages and exacting a very high payment for their release, but the numbers here in terms of the math of the money—they are absolutely staggering. As the Wall Street Journal and many others pointed out, there was no accident to the day that this prisoner exchange took place. It was the day that Iran claimed that it had met the requirements of the international sanctions, and thus those economic sanctions should be released, and that amounted to over $100 billion—$100 billion of money that had been locked up outside the control of the Iranians but now will be flowing right to the Iranians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that there should be no surprise when Iran uses those funds to fund the very things that Iran has been doing around the world, including the funding of world terrorism. And when it comes to the sanctions themselves, there is an open moral debate about just how effective economic sanctions can be. But this much at least was clear, Iran wanted to be free of those sanctions. Iran wanted that money, and it was willing at least to act as if it was meeting international demands in order to gain those funds. And, you will note, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board so cogently noted, Iran held on to those hostages until the very moment that it was announced that the economic sanctions would be relieved.
Another aspect of this we need to note from the Christian worldview is further evidence of what it means to live in a fallen world. Democratically elected governments have to be responsive to the demands of their own citizens. And American citizens have been demanding for a very long time that the United States government do something to bring these hostages home from Iran. On the other hand, an autocratic theocracy such as Iran does not have to be in any way directly responsive to the demands of its citizens; and thus, that’s why you look at this and it was an unequal swap from the beginning. It was destined to be. That’s the very structure of this moral equation, because Iran’s leaders could do solely what was in their best interest as defined by their government. A democratically elected government such as the government of the United States has to be, at least in part, responsive to the demands of its own people. But it also comes down to the fact that when you’re dealing with a regime like the government of Iran, a government that has now for decades taken hostages and acted far outside the rules of international law and furthermore, basic human morality, we shouldn’t be surprised that it will do in every situation what it believes is in its best interest. Once again, this puts biblically-minded Christians in an awkward situation. We should be very glad that these hostages were released. We should be very thankful that along with their family members, they can now celebrate by coming home. But we should also recognize that an incredibly high price was paid, not only in money, but even more importantly in morality.
Anglican Church's 3-year time limit for ECUSA sanctions more likely a ticking time bomb
Next, reverberations continue to echo over the decision of the Anglican Communion to sanction the Episcopal Church USA for its liberal positions on LGBT issues, in particular, its decision to change the canon law of the church to officially conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. But the rift between Anglicans in the Episcopalians goes back at least to 2003 when the American church ordained an openly gay bishop. What took place last week was historic. A majority, a conservative majority, of the leaders of the Anglican Communion sanctioned the American church. The big question of course is what does this mean and where will this go. And that’s what draws our attention to two stories that ran in two successive days over the weekend, Friday and Saturday, in the New York Times. Laurie Goodstein and Kimiko de Feytas-Tamura wrote together both stories. The story that was released on Friday had the headline,
“Anglican Leadership Disciplines American Branch.”
On Saturday, the headline was this,
“For now, Anglicans avert schism over gay marriage.”
Schism is exactly what the Anglican Communion was facing and in one sense, it’s still facing it. It has just delayed that likely schism for three years by offering this three-year sanction against the Episcopal Church USA, something of a three-year timeout for the liberal American church. But what’s really interesting is what we see when comparing these two news stories by the very same reporters on two successive days in the New York Times. On Friday, the reporters tell us that the Anglican leadership decided to discipline the American churches and that they decided to do so for three years.
“They also said they expect the sanctions to continue if the Americans do not change course in three years.”
Then we turn to the story that ran on Saturday by the very same two reporters, and the main point of this story is that the Anglicans have averted a schism for now, and the ‘for now’ becomes far more clear in Saturday’s story than it was in Friday’s. As Goodstein and De Feytas-Tamura report,
“Despite threats of a walkout or even schism over the issue of gay marriage, the archbishops of the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest body of churches, managed to keep their church intact after a week of tense meetings that ended with a symbolic washing of one another’s feet.”
But the reporters said,
“But their deep divisions are likely to resurface soon. In interviews, the American archbishop said his church would not reverse its decision to bless same-sex marriages, and the Canadian archbishop said his church would proceed with a vote this summer to consider approving same-sex marriages.”
Well, what this tells us is that three years might not even turn out to be three years. One of the lessons from this is that if you are trying to buy time instead of dealing directly with the theological issue, that time is likely to disappear right before your eyes. At the very least, the Anglican Communion has set a three-year time bomb for itself, but now as the second story over the weekend by the New York Times makes clear, the American church is actually digging in rather than reversing its decision. No observer of the Episcopal Church USA should be surprised, but we’re also told here that the Canadian church is likely to follow the lead of the Americans rather than the more conservative majority in the Anglican Communion; and they’ll move in the very same direction. As the New York Times says,
“The Most Rev. Frederick Hiltz, archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, said that his church planned to go ahead with a vote on gay marriage in July.”
As for the American church, the presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry said in a telephone interview at the New York Times that his church was not going to reverse its decision.
“We haven’t changed our position. I was clear with the primates that that’s not going to happen.”
Since the decision to sanction the Episcopal Church was made last week, I’ve been watching especially the media in the United States to see how Episcopal leaders might respond. By no surprise, the Rev. Susan Russell, a Senior Associate Rector at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California—
“She was among the Episcopalians who said sanctions would not change their position.”
—her statement is worth our attention. She said,
“As a lifelong Episcopalian and a married lesbian priest, I think it’s not only an acceptable cost, it’s a badge of honor in some ways.”
What she’s saying is that the Episcopal Church should consider it an honor that the majority in the Anglican Communion has sanctioned them for their open support of same-sex marriage. My purpose in drawing our attention to these two news stories today is to show how—the secular press and the Episcopal Church in the USA—how they are responding to the decision undertaken last week. One thing is pretty clear. They were not expecting this decision as it came down. But another issue of great clarity as we see in the aftermath of the Anglican decision last week is that the division in that church is now so wide that you have a majority in the Anglican Communion who believe that it is a scandal to approve same-sex marriage—and there they are standing on the authority of Scripture and on the historic tradition and teaching of the Christian church. On the other hand, you see at least some major Episcopal figures in the United States who are saying it should be a matter of pride that they are bearing their scandal because of their support for LGBT rights. We are talking about a division in a church, in a communion, that is so deep that there is no shared understanding of what should be the cause of pride and what should be the cause of shame.
The Episcopalians are hardly an isolated example in this. In so many ways this is a parable of the predicament of liberal Protestantism in terms of where it stands today—liberal Protestants over the years having abandoned every single major Christian doctrine are not going to correct themselves on the issue of sexuality without a wholesale re-embrace of the historic faith of the Christian church, what Jude calls in the New Testament “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
The bottom line is that we should not expect churches that have abandoned the faith of the church and the authority of Scripture to somehow correct themselves on the issue of sexuality. What is needed in so many churches is not just a correction, but a Reformation.
Moral "arousal" vs. "outrage" difference between inactive provocation and active conviction
Next here in the United States, last week the New York Times ran a very interesting opinion piece by one of its major columnists, in this case Thomas L. Friedman. It’s entitled,
“The Age of Protest.”
And in this column Friedman makes a point that helps to explain the world around us. He makes a distinction between “moral arousal” and “moral outrage.” It’s a very interesting point and Friedman here is citing a man by the name of Dov Seidman, and he’s the author of the book, How. He’s CEO of a company that,
“…advises companies all over the world on leadership and how to build ethical cultures.”
Friedman asked Seidman for his take on the age of protest. Seidman said,
“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused.”
Moral arousal, according to Seidman, is the phenomenon of deciding that something is important, important enough to be aroused about it, to be interested in it, perhaps even to make a statement about it, but not interesting enough, not urgent enough to lead to genuine moral outrage. Friedman and so many others are asking the question, if so many people are supposedly so energetic on so many issues, why are those issues not making any headway in the larger culture? Why do politicians seem to give them very little attention? Why is there a lot of public protest without much protest leading to a change in policy? And Friedman makes a very interesting assessment, and that’s this. It’s very easy to be morally aroused; it’s much more significant, it requires much more courage and conviction, to be morally outraged. Outrage means you have to commit yourself to doing something about the problem, not merely to protesting. But we are, as Friedman indicates, living in what can be described as an age of protest. We see it all around us. There are people who are protesting this or that—if it is not a matter of economics, it’s a matter of politics. If not that, it’s a matter of morality or the LGBT issues. But Friedman makes a very important distinction between being merely morally aroused or agitated on the one hand and being morally outraged; and as he knows that difference is all the difference in the world.
Friedman quotes Seidman as saying that we are living in an age of almost permanent, never-ending moral storm. It is a storm of moral arousal that is not to be confused with a storm of moral conviction or true moral outrage. Vast crowds around us clearly have moral concerns, but as Friedman understands, those moral concerns don’t reach a very deep level.
Evidence of Friedman’s point appeared in the same week in the front page of USA Today. The headline,
“Energy, guns, top young voters’ agenda.”
Then the statement,
“Millennials aren’t tied to any single political party.”
Then the scare line,
“The question is do they care enough even to vote?”
Veteran political reporter, Susan Page and Paul Singer say,
“Millennials have a message for the next president.
“Get serious about converting to renewable energy, the under-35 generation says by an overwhelming margin, and require every gun buyer to undergo a background check. They endorse putting body cameras on police officers and accepting refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria.”
USA Today says it knows this because it has conducted a pretty significant survey known as the “Vote Millennial Poll.”
And as Page and Singer say,
“The poll finds an emerging generation that is more pragmatic than ideological and not yet firmly aligned with either political party.”
But it also makes the point that these Millennials—though apparently morally aroused—aren’t outraged. They aren’t actually driven by a moral conviction that is even going to guarantee that they will take the trouble on election day in November to actually vote. In fact, the article by Page and Singer seems to indicate that at least many Millennials believe that they have fulfilled their moral responsibility by offering a tweet about an issue rather than by actually even voting or doing anything about an issue. The reporters tell us that when it comes to public policy, the survey tells us the Millennials aren’t reliably liberal or conservative. On economic issues, more call themselves conservative; but on social issues they decidedly lean left—no great surprise there.
This survey is affirming a great deal of research that we have noted before. In terms of numbers, the Millennials are undeniably important. As of now they are the largest generation in American history, numbering 75.3 million Americans—that’s out of a total American population right about 300 million. So we’re looking at about one quarter of the entire American population here. But in terms of worldview, this reveals the fact that many Millennials have opinions, but those opinions appear to be something short of deep convictions.
I think Dov Seidman’s point that is cited by Thomas Friedman is really important. As Christians we need to make certain that if issues are really important, they aren’t just leading to something like moral arousal on our part, but actually to some kind of moral action. It’s not enough to state that we believe something’s wrong. If we believe it’s officially wrong, we have to do something about it. The biblical worldview, rightly understood, doesn’t end in moral opinions. It ends in moral conviction.
New study assumes children innately good, not sinful, concludes lying cause for celebration
Finally, speaking of moral conviction, how about lying? Susan Pinker, writing in the “Minds and Matter” column over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal, tells us that a child’s ability to lie is actually an indication of a child’s growing intelligence. Pinker writes,
“Child-rearing trends might seem to blow with the wind, but most adults would agree that preschool children who have learned to talk shouldn’t lie.”
Now, let’s just think for a moment. Why in the world would the “shouldn’t lie” be limited to preschool children? Well, in one sense, this is because that’s who Susan Pinker’s writing about. She goes on to say,
“But learning to lie, it turns out, is an important part of learning in general—and something to consider apart from fibbing’s ethical implications.”
She makes a very interesting point, and it is one that many Christians through the ages have noted as well—most importantly, the greatest theologian of the early church, Augustine, in writing his own confessions about his own inner life, including that inner life as a child and an adolescent. The big issue here is that it does take a certain amount of intelligence to lie, no doubt about it. As a matter of fact, skillful lying requires very complex intelligent operations. It requires the ability of the liar not only to think about how he or she thinks, but how the person to whom he or she is lying will also think. Lying, in that sense, demonstrates the arrival of complex cognitive ability. But as this article makes clear, children don’t wait until adolescence to start to lie.
The “Mind and Matter” column that appears every week in the Wall Street Journal in the weekend edition is intended to try to popularize major cognitive scientific research, and that’s exactly what Susan Pinker is trying to do here. She points to a study the purportedly indicates not only that liars are smarter than non-liars, but that lying helps to actually build intelligence in children. Now just consider the fact that someone’s doing that research. Researcher Professor Kang Lee said,
“The first occasion of your child telling a lie is not an occasion to be alarmed but an occasion for celebration. It’s a teachable moment,” he told me, “a time to discuss what is a lie, what is the truth and what are the implications for other people.”
Now just consider the worldview that says that the first time your child tells a lie—and one would presume tells a lie pretty well—the parent is not to be alarmed, but rather is to celebrate this as the arrival of a new sign of intelligence. You extend that logic, the first time a child uses profanity, one should supposedly celebrate the fact that the child knows language. But the bigger issue here actually is what’s revealed in this research. What’s revealed is the fact that the modern secular worldview assumes that human beings are born morally good, and as a matter fact, children are morally good. There is no conception here that that child is a sinner just waiting for the opportunity to sin. The one part of Professor Lee’s statement that just about every parent should affirm is where he says the moment a child lies,
“It’s a teachable moment.”
But we also have to recognize that in a world in which an increasing millions of people affirm the relativity of truth, lying is just a relative sin. When a child lies, it is of course a teachable moment. But that’s where Christians understand what has to be taught is that God hates a lie and that God is the truth, and that God expects us to tell the truth as well. There is one final insight from all of this; at least these researchers know there is a difference between the truth and a lie. That’s at least a start.