January 20, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 20, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
US-Iranian hostage swap prime example of moral dilemmas often faced in a fallen world
The prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States made the front page of the New York Times yesterday in terms of a very important article that looks at the deeper moral issues that are involved. It’s the kind of article that deserves our attention because it bears very clear evidence of what happens in a fallen world, when one tries to know what is right in some very difficult circumstances. Peter Baker, reporting for the New York Times, tells us,
“When President Obama flew to Boise, Idaho, for a speech last winter, he met privately with the wife of an Iranian-American pastor held prisoner in Iran since 2012. Freeing her husband, he promised, was one of his top priorities.”Show Full Transcript
Baker then says,
“A year later, Mr. Obama called the wife, Naghmeh Abedini. Her husband, Saeed Abedini, was free and would soon be coming home, the president told her. It was a short but emotional phone call. ‘I could see his love and compassion as he spoke last year and again today,’ Mrs. Abedini wrote on her Facebook page on Sunday.”
But then Peter Baker writes,
“But the president’s compassion came with a cost. To secure the release of Mr. Abedini and other Americans held by Iran, Mr. Obama freed seven Iranian and Iranian-American men charged with or convicted of violating sanctions against the Islamic republic. Mr. Obama again decided to trade for Americans in captivity despite concerns, even inside his own administration, that it might encourage others to target Americans.”
We live in a world that is so severely corrupted and distorted by sin that there are some situations in which—to look in this case the responsibility of the President of the United States—is not at all clear. In a fallen world, sometimes there are horrifying moral dilemmas. Peter Baker in this news story takes us to a dimension of the moral equation that many were not talking about just a few days ago, and that’s the question that was raised even as we are told that there were those within the Obama Administration that felt that the prisoner swap was bad policy. Why? Not just because there were more Iranians released than Americans, not just because the Iranians included some who had been convicted of serious crimes when there were no serious allegations against the Americans being held in Iran, but rather by the question that comes next, and that is by agreeing to this kind of exchange, do Americans actually incentivize the taking of additional hostages?
This is a quandary that has appeared in headlines in Europe as well. Several European governments have either allowed or provided for the payment of ransom for some hostages held in the Middle East by terrorist groups. That raises the immediate question, once again, does this practice actually incentivize the taking of additional hostages? The nation of Iran, as I said on The Briefing earlier this week, has a long history of taking American hostages; and it is a bipartisan quandary that has been faced by both Republican and Democratic presidents. It was during the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter that Iran took famously so many hostages in the 1970s; it was under the administration, however, of his successor, Republican President Ronald Reagan, that there was an exchange for hostages in the Middle East that actually involved the sale of arms to Contras in South America—the so-called Iran-Contra scandal. And now we’re looking at the fact that President Obama and his administration have agreed to these kinds of exchanges as well.
Peter Baker is very clear about the upside of these kinds of exchanges; you get Americans back, and there is no doubt that we should all share the joy of these families in getting their loved ones back. That is a very important issue, and it’s clear that it was a very compassionate action that in that sense was undertaken by the United States government. But the headline in this New York Times story from yesterday really gets to the point. Compassion in this case came with a cost. Baker looks back in American history when he writes,
“Few dilemmas are more difficult for a president than deciding whether to barter for the freedom of Americans held abroad at the risk of submitting to international blackmail. During the Cold War, it usually involved soldiers or spies, sometimes at Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, as in the Tom Hanks movie ‘Bridge of Spies,’ which recounts the trade for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.”
But Baker goes on to say,
“But in recent decades, presidents have confronted civilians held by terrorists or hostile governments as geopolitical pawns.”
A statement reflecting the moral complexity in this kind of equation was made by a Congressman who flew to Germany with the family of Amir Hekmati, another freed American. Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan said,
“This is a complicated world, and we can attempt to deny the way the world works, or we can deal with the reality that there are people out there that we don’t like that we have to deal with.”
Now from a Christian worldview perspective, that’s a statement that has to be reflected upon more closely, because there’s a sense in which it is just obviously true. Sometimes in a fallen world we have to deal with people we wouldn’t want to deal with. But from another perspective, this represents a policy that could lead to virtually any moral calculation, so long as it would come out right in the end. It’s virtually an argument for the ends justifying the means. But to the credit of Peter Baker in the New York Times, there is the recognition in this article—and the fact that it appeared on page one of that newspaper—that this is a moral quandary that isn’t so easily settled. As Baker reminds us, Secretary of State John Kerry, looking back on the exchange, denied that it would encourage more Americans to be taken. But then Baker writes,
“He denied that the exchange would encourage more Americans to be taken.”
But then Baker writes,
“…but he acknowledged that there would probably be such situations again,”
quoting the Secretary directly who said,
“That, unfortunately…is part of the reality of today’s life on a global basis.”
The problem with Secretary of State Kerry’s statement is that his historical perspective is just not long enough. This doesn’t just go back to the Cold War, or to the beginning of the modern age. It doesn’t just begin with globalization, it begins with the Fall and goes right back to Genesis 3.
Hawking makes end-of-world predictions, illustrates hopelessness of secular naturalism
Next, one of the things we repeatedly talk about on The Briefing is the fact that every worldview eventually has to produce a narrative, a narrative that explains how things came to be and where history is headed. Every single worldview has to answer at least four questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? What’s broken with the world? Can it be fixed? And where is the future headed? Every single worldview, to one degree or another, in one way or another, answers those questions, and the reason for that should be obvious to us. As human beings we have to operate on the basis of some answer to those questions. Our outlook on life has everything to do with whether we believe that human life is just some kind of accident in the cosmos or whether we are, as human beings, creatures made by the will [of God] unto the glory of God in his image. Everything depends on whether we understand the problem in the world to be the problem of the Fall and human sinfulness, or whether we want to tie it to some kind of political or socioeconomic or educational reason. Our worldview eventually depends on where we believe that hope is found. That’s where the gospel of Jesus Christ sets the established worldview for Christianity. And every one of us simply has to have some assumption about where history is headed, what the future holds, and there again the biblical worldview is set over against any secular alternative.
Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists in the world, has offered some insight into a secular, naturalistic, materialistic narrative of how the world is going to end—how he believes it’s going to end. Stephen Hawking is famous for his courage in persevering in his work, even in the face of a severe neurological disease that has left him in an automated wheelchair with an automated voice. But he is also very well-known for his very secular worldview in which he has allowed that there might be a God but there was nothing for him to do in creation since modern cosmology, he argues, has an adequate explanation that excludes the possibility that God was in any way involved. In his famous words,
“There was nothing left for God to do.”
But he also rather consistently takes his materialistic, naturalistic, secular worldview to its conclusion when he recently discussed how he believes planet earth may plausibly end. In comments that were reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, as Science Editor David Shukman reports,
“Humanity is at risk from a series of dangers of our own making.
“Nuclear war, global warming and genetically-engineered viruses are among the scenarios he singles out.”
He says that,
“Further progress in science and technology will create ‘new ways things can go wrong.’”
As the BBC reports, Hawking said,
“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years.”
We might talk about this as something of a long view, but nonetheless it’s very revealing about the worldview that is at stake here. Stephen Hawking said,
“By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.
“However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period.”
Well, there you have it. Here you have a secular worldview that explains where history is headed. It’s headed, in one sense, towards destruction, and he believes it’s most likely that planet earth will be destroyed by some kind of human intervention, by nuclear war or global warming or, as he has warned, by some kind of genetically engineered disease that is set loose and spreads across the globe as a contagion. But he also very revealingly has a doctrine of atonement of sorts—there is a doctrine of salvation. How will humanity on planet Earth be saved? By colonizing other planets and other stars. So there you have it. Every worldview has to explain, where does the world come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? Stephen Hawking argues that’s just a matter of physics and cosmology. There is no God, and even if he did exist, there would be nothing for him to do. What’s gone wrong with the world? Here there is a very interesting issue to point out. Stephen Hawking believes that human beings and their behavior is what’s gone wrong with the world.
Well, in one sense he’s a lot closer there to the Christian worldview and the reality of sin. But he, of course, excluding God from his worldview, doesn’t have any concept of any kind of sin against a Creator, but rather it’s just a matter of bad human behavior. And as this article also reveals, Stephen Hawking has some kind of a hope for the salvation of humanity by colonizing other planets and by colonizing other stars. But then he has a real warning. When he looks to the future he says, “but that is far enough out that for the next hundred years or so we better be very, very careful.”
The Christian worldview answers all of those questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? The answer to that is the Christian biblical doctrine of creation as is found not only in the book of Genesis, but affirmed throughout the Scriptures. What has gone wrong with the world? Again, the Bible answers that very, very clearly as the problem of human sin that is taken right back in Genesis 3 to the original sin that was undertaken by our first parents, Adam and Eve. Is there any hope? That is the Bible’s main message, the hope that is found only in Jesus Christ and in the atonement for sin that he accomplished by his death, burial, and resurrection from the dead. Where is history headed? Well, Christianity also talks about a new heaven and a new earth. It is not about escaping planet earth before destruction arrives. It’s about the sure and certain coming kingdom of Christ and its fullness. And in that sense, what we see in Stephen Hawking’s latest comments is the fact that if you don’t hold to the worldview of the Bible, you’re going to have to come up with some other narrative, some other metanarrative or giant story, that explains and answers all of these questions. At least to his credit, Stephen Hawking dignifies the questions by trying to answer them. But when you look at his answers, you recognize just how hollow and empty the secular worldview really turns out to be.
Custody battles over frozen embryos underscore personhood of unborn from conception
Before turning to the issue of abortion in general, let me turn to the fact that the New York Times had another very interesting article in recent days. Tamar Lewin reports,
“Anti-Abortion Groups Join Battles Over Frozen Embryos.”
This is one of these news stories that has the secular elites scratching their heads. Why would anyone care about frozen human embryos? But that’s a very important question for the Christian worldview. The answer to that question has to be this: anyone who believes that every single human life is a human being created in the image of God has to care about those embryos, and care about them because they are persons. Tamar Lewin writes,
“Anti-abortion groups are seeking a foothold on a new battlefield: custody disputes over frozen embryos.”
Lewin reports that in many recent headline stories there have been couples, especially former husbands and wives, who have been arguing over custody of frozen human embryos. Famously, a dispute between actress Sofia Vergara and her ex-fiancé Nick Loeb made the headlines, and what we’re looking at here is a very serious moral issue. It wasn’t always treated as such. One of the things we need to note is that the story actually has landed in the nation’s most influential newspaper, the New York Times. The New York Times is having to take seriously the fact that at least someone believes that these frozen human embryos are persons, and thus that they are of moral worth and that they demand our attention and deserve our protection. As Lewin reports,
“The cases are part of the broader ‘personhood’ debate that has become central to abortion politics.”
“Advocates in many states are seeking laws that would make embryos full legal persons at fertilization — blocking not only abortion but also some forms of contraception and assisted reproduction.”
It’s telling that in this news article the word “personhood” is put in quotation marks, as if it’s something of a term of art, it’s an unusual term that has to be set apart. But how in the world can we talk about human rights and human dignity if we can’t talk about human persons? That is a very urgent question, and if taken honestly, that urgent question will take us not only to human beings we can see with our eyes, but also to human beings at the very beginning of life, even invisible only at the microscopic level. But there’s another very interesting angle to that, and that is this: there are far too many evangelicals who have been too slow to understand that the logic of the pro-life argument found in Scripture would extend our responsibility of protection not only to the inhabitants of the womb we can see on an ultrasound, but to the inhabitants even at the very beginnings of the life process that we cannot yet see. Speaking of this issue, Lisa Ikemoto, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, said,
“Traditionally, even though excess embryos were produced, in vitro fertilization was seen as helping people have babies, so there was little interaction between that and anti-abortion advocacy.”
“But as the debate over human embryonic stem-cell research heated up, anti-abortion groups woke up to the frozen embryo issue.”
Some of us indeed didn’t have to wake up, because we’ve been making those arguments all along. But it’s very important that there are more people in the pro-life movement that now understand that a consistent pro-life position requires an affirmation of human rights and human dignity even at the microscopic level. And it’s also important that this story made the New York Times, meaning that this issue has not only the attention of the pro-life movement, but of the New York Times as well.
Rising trend to abort babies with Down's Syndrome an affront to the image of God
Also, on the issue the sanctity of human life, The Telegraph of London has a major news article with the headline,
“Down’s Syndrome people risk ‘extinction’ at the hands of science, fear and ignorance.”
Tim Stanley reports,
“Society doesn’t do enough to show women carrying a baby with Down’s that the life inside them is precious, intelligent and capable of so much.”
The moral reality Stanley describes is truly horrifying. As he says,
“But what do most women do when their baby tests positive for Down’s? They abort. Around 90 percent of pregnancies that involve the condition end in a termination. In 2014, [and of course this is reporting from Great Britain] 693 abortions were carried out for this reason – a jump of 34 per cent since 2011. The rise is blamed on increased access to blood tests via private clinics. American campaigners warn of the risk of ‘extinction.’ In Denmark, the head of a midwife association blandly told a newspaper: ‘When you can discover almost all the fetuses with Down’s Syndrome, then we are approaching a situation in which almost all of them will be aborted.’”
Christians reading a headline and seeing a story like this must respond with not only heartbreak, but outrage. We’re talking about the extinction of human beings made in the image of God. We’re talking about a search and destroy mission in which unborn children who are not considered acceptable are simply aborted. To Tim Stanley’s credit, he understands this is a vital urgent moral issue, but to his discredit he will not take the logic of the sanctity of life to its ultimate conclusion. Later in his article he writes,
“I’m not making a case for banning abortion in instances of diagnosis, rather that mothers who discover they are pregnant with a Down’s Syndrome child should be informed of all the options available to them.”
The bottom line for Christians is this: either every single human being is made in the image of God or not. If the answer is no, why is any option better than any other?
New government guidelines for Canadian schools reveal the reaches of the LGBT revolution
Next, news from Canada reveals just how radical the sexual revolution really is and where the logic of this moral revolution is taking us—where it in one sense must take us. Because the breaking down of the barriers, the breaking down of even rational definitions of what it means to be male and female in this revolution, leave virtually no cultural defenses against exactly what we now see even this week in an official advisory from the government of the province of Alberta, Canada to the public schools in that Canadian province. As the CBC reports, that is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,
“Schools should erase old divides that force students into male and female roles, according to new guidelines released Wednesday by the Alberta government that advise teachers to let kids choose which washroom they want to use and what name appears on their report cards.”
It is a 21-page document, introduced by Education Minister David Eggen, and it is broken down into five different parts. As the CBC says, these are,
“…five particularly significant components of the new guidelines.”
It is very important that we pay attention to all five of these components remembering that they are directed to children and to teenagers. Number one, says the CBC,
“Pick your own pronoun.”
“Play for the boys or girls team.”
“Use male or female washrooms, or neither”
—referring to gender nonspecific bathrooms, the government advises Alberta’s public schools they ought to create. Number four,
“Pick the change room you prefer”
—referring to what in the United States is more commonly called a locker room. And then five,
“Establish gay-straight alliances.”
Here you have five components in an official 21-page advisory that is quite available now on the web from the government of Alberta, Canada to its public schools. And remember, here we’re talking about children, and here the schools are told that the right policy they are to undertake and to administer is to tell children they are to first, pick their own pronoun; second, decide whether they’re going to play for the girl’s team or the boy’s team; use male or female washrooms or neither one; pick the locker room they prefer; and then establish gay-straight alliances in order to advocate for LGBT rights and students.
Now one of the things Christians must learn to do is to try our very best to think as others think in terms of worldview analysis. If we buy into the worldview that is undergirding this moral revolution on sex and marriage and the entire society and its ordering, we would have to understand that worldview says that human beings have an absolute right of self-determination when it comes to personal autonomy, gender, gender identity, sexuality, definition of marriage, or virtually anything else. But if you buy into that worldview, you have to extend it everywhere the logic would take us, even into the public schools, even into the lives of children and teenagers, even into a government policy that officially advises the schools they are to take the children through the process of choosing their pronoun, deciding what name they want on their report cards, deciding whether they want to play for the boys or girls team, and on and on.
I have to say when I look back to when I was in elementary school—admittedly quite a long time ago—it’s hard for me to imagine that I could have understood being asked any of these questions, much less having to make the supposed decisions. At the very least, this is an imposition upon these children and teenagers, something that you would think any civilized society would try to avoid inflicting on children rather than assigning them. On the other hand, the really radical nature of this proposal points to the fact that the logic and the coercion of the public policy behind this moral revolution won’t stop until it arrives at an elementary school very near you.