April 5, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, April 5, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
News from Panama and Brazil reveals massive corruption among global leaders, esp. dictators
The biblical worldview reminds us that sin and corruption are always human realities—at least they have been after the fall—and yet sometimes we are still shocked by the scale of corruption. Headlines in yesterday’s papers make this point very clearly—in particular, the headline in yesterday’s edition of USA Today. I quote,
“Massive data leak in Panama reveals money rings of global leaders.”Show Full Transcript
The opening paragraph tells the story, and I quote,
“A massive, anonymous leak of financial documents from a Panamanian law firm has revealed an extensive worldwide network of offshore ‘shell’ companies — including ones with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — that allow the wealthy to hide their assets from taxes and, in some cases, to launder billions in cash.”
The front page story in USA Today by Greg Toppo is probably the best coverage of the story to date, at least in the English language. We are talking about here a scale of corruption that defies the imagination. The dump was of 11.5 million pages of documentation. And as USA Today reports,
“The documents, combed through in the past year by hundreds of journalists worldwide, show links to 72 current or former world leaders.”
That’s a staggering number. We’re talking here about what well might be the largest corruption scandal in all of human history, and it broke just over the weekend. It broke because someone either intentionally or unintentionally leaked over 11 million legal documents from a Panamanian law firm.
Let’s look at a little bit of the background here. In terms of financial corruption linked to political corruption, that’s a story that is probably as old as human government. But in looking at the scale of this corruption, we need to note that Panama has become the epicenter of financial corruption around the world, at least in terms of what this data dump demonstrates in terms of money laundering. If you’re involved in worldwide crime or, for that matter, a world-staggering corruption, it always involves a great sum of money. Money then presents a problem, ill-gotten money, money that comes from crime or graft or corruption. How do you hide that much money? And, furthermore, especially when it comes to drug dealing, how do you clean that money? Money laundering is the term. This is the process whereby money or wealth that is gained by corruption or crime is cleansed into some different form of wealth, then often changed back into cash or very liquid assets once again. This allows someone to get away with money that is untraceable to the crime—and we’re talking here about hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
When it comes to hiding money, USA Today gets right to the issue, usually it is being hidden either from investigators or from tax authorities. When we look at human history, it’s clear that this is something that has been a constant, at least ever since recorded history allows us to glimpse patterns of human behavior. But there’s something else here that’s also very important. In the modern age, one’s graft, corruption, money laundering, and hiding of money can all of a sudden become very apparent in a data dump, perhaps just taking one or a series of keystrokes on just one computer. And then you have 11.5 million documents circulating in public that were never supposed to see the light of day.
For most of the last several centuries, especially the last two centuries, Switzerland was the oasis of hiding money that was favored by the elites. And Swiss bank accounts were the cultured way of hiding money, hiding it behind the wall of privacy that Swiss banks had, at least until recently, always honored even when pressed by investigators and tax authorities in different governments. But all that began to change in recent years as the Swiss were forced by external pressure to conform their banking regulations to those of other Western nations, making it very difficult to launder or hide sufficient amounts of money in Switzerland. It is now clear that Panama became the location of choice for many people trying to hide or to launder money. As USA Today reported,
“The data reveal details of secret offshore companies linked to families and associates of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s president Bashar Assad, among others.”
Also implicated in the scandal is the sitting president of Ukraine and the current prime minister of Iceland. The USA Today story went on with detail indicating how the leaked documents reveal a billion-dollar money laundering ring run by a Russian bank tied to associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The bank,” according to the paper, “allegedly channeled money through offshore companies, two of which were officially owned by one of the Russian president’s closest friends.”
Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, said,
“I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken.”
The number of documents released in this particular scandal dwarfed those in the WikiLeaks scandal, leading many people to call the new Panama Paper scandal “the WikiLeaks of the megarich.”
But this wasn’t the only major headline on corruption in yesterday’s newspapers. The front page of the New York Times had an article entitled,
“How web of corruption ensnarled Brazil.”
That nation has been roiled by a current controversy related to its current government. That government is headed by President Dilma Rousseff. Open calls for her resignation are now becoming routine, as is an effort to impeach her. The scandal has also reached her very famous predecessor, former President Lula da Silva, and what is now known is that both administrations are deeply mired in corruption. Simon Romero of the Times says,
“Scholars say the corruption scandal ranks among the most far-reaching in the developing world, likening it to an earthquake hitting the nation’s privileged elite. It has unspooled alongside crushing economic challenges, as falling commodities prices have sent unemployment soaring to 9.5 percent from 6.8 percent a year ago. In 2015 alone, Brazil lost 1.5 million jobs, a stunning turnabout from the nation’s 7.6 percent economic growth in 2010.”
These two stories are not directly linked, and that actually makes a very important point. Corruption is now so widespread that you have unrelated stories, both landing on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers in just one single day. Now, when secular people look at this through a secular worldview, they simply have to answer an obvious question: Why does corruption exist? When you look at the secular worldview, it fails to understand the problem of human sinfulness and it fails to understand the catastrophic effects of sin and the fall. The secular worldview has no explanation for why people behave this way and why patterns of corruption recur over and over again.
Furthermore, we need to remember that when you think about the safeguards that have been put in place in order to prevent or to reveal corruption, they have actually been put in place for theological as well as pragmatic reasons. The theological reason is this: whether or not the worldview explains it explicitly, virtually every worldview has to understand that human beings have a propensity, a tendency, to do the wrong thing. That’s why in virtually every country, banks have locks on the doors. It’s for a very good reason. We understand from the biblical worldview that we live in a sinful world and that, even as we see in the very earliest chapters of Genesis, sin is waiting to seize the opportunity.
But we also understand something else, and that is this: when it comes to the biblical worldview we come to believe that it is necessary that there be people who are watching and overseeing all of us, especially those who have concentrations of power in order to prevent this kind of corruption. It is not an accident that here we see, especially in the Panama papers story that broke over the weekend, the intersection of graft and crime and those who hold political office.
But there’s another thing to note, the particular kind of political leader that is overwhelmingly represented on this list is a dictator. Once again, we are reminded of Lord Acton’s famous phrase,
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Now you might think that even just a secular historian can note that pattern. But the biblical worldview explains not only the fact that it happens, but why. We come to understand why, for instance, in the United States we have a separation of powers; why we do not concentrate power in just one branch of government; why we do not trust one single individual to have unmitigated power, precisely because we understand how that would lead to an opportunity for corruption, not only an opportunity, but virtually the likelihood.
Again, Lord Acton’s famous phrase is that power tends to corrupt—that’s very evident—but he goes on to say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s very hard to hold absolute power without finding some way to use it to one’s own advantage. Now you have over 72 heads of state—past, present, and future—implicated in this data dump of 11.5 million pages of documents. But whether we recognize it or not, what’s really revealed in both of these scandals is the reality of human sinfulness, and that’s not merely a political issue, not just a financial issue, it’s not just a pragmatic issue. At its very heart, it is a theological issue, reminding us once again that we cannot explain ourselves, we cannot explain human behavior, without the category of sin. And we cannot use the category of sin except in a theological context. The secular world may try to deny the reality of sin, but it cannot avoid documenting its reality.
Role reversal: Children acting like adults and adults like children is detrimental to both
Next, a very important key to understanding the confusions of the modern world was offered in the weekend “Confidential” column over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. Alexandra Wolf writes about Erika Christakis, she is an early education expert who is now according to the article moving on after a controversy that led to her resignation at Yale University. As the article says,
“Erika Christakis, an early-education expert who most recently taught at Yale University, thinks that adults and children have reversed roles. Adults, she says, now act like children, reading children’s books and dressing like college students, while children have become overscheduled and hyper-pressured, their childhoods cut short. ‘Adults are paying attention to their own self-care with mindfulness and spa care and yoga, yet children are really suffering,’ she says.
Christakis was at the center of a controversy that really makes the point. She and her husband are residential leaders in a college at Yale University, and they became the focus of controversy when she basically during a costume controversy at Halloween told students to grow up. But these students didn’t want to grow up, and instead they protested, leading to the resignation of Professor Christakis.
But what’s really interesting in this article is the fact that Christakis argues that to understand the modern world, we have to understand that children and adults have, in one sense, exchanged places. The argument is really important and I believe it is really relevant. She says that what is happening now is that adults are acting like children. The specific example she gives is that they’re reading children’s books and, on the other hand, they’re dressing like college students. One of the interesting things we have seen in terms of American popular culture is that parents are beginning to dress like children rather than children dressing like parents. Gone are the days when a 15-year-old son would try to dress to look like his father. Now, instead, the father is often dressing to look like his son. The same thing is taking place on the female side of the equation, with mothers beginning to dress more like teenage girls than teenage girls would ever think of dressing like mothers. They are exchanging places. Furthermore, one of the most interesting developments in the publishing world is the popularity, unexpected, of coloring books for adults. But on the other hand, the side of children is really that of suffering. Children, as Christakis says, are becoming “overscheduled and hyper pressured” just like adults. As a matter of fact, as adults are taking care of themselves and sending themselves on vacations, the children are finding themselves under increasing pressure.
One of the things we need to note is that the current culture is putting pressure on children to grow up very fast. Furthermore, children are, just as Christakis says, becoming so overscheduled they often are simply living under more pressure than their parents. And that really tells us something. As an early childhood educator, Christakis has a very important point to make, and that is this: children, in order to thrive, need to be relieved of this kind of pressure, and they need to be protected from this kind of overscheduling, the exact opposite of what is happening in the lives of so many children. Children are facing a myriad of pressures that their parents, not to mention their grandparents, never experienced and possibly cannot even understand. While parents often are running a race believing that they have to involve their children in every extracurricular activity, trying to build up a résumé to get their child not only into college, but into grade school—perhaps even into preschool as we know from recent headlines in Manhattan—but the reality is, as Christakis says, that children need time to be children. They are not little adults. Instead, they are children and they need to be recognized as such.
The title of Christakis’ new book is The Importance of Being Little, a very important title with a lot packed into just as few words. For his own glory, God made us as human creatures that bear his image, who move from infancy to toddlerhood to childhood into adolescence and youth and then adulthood. That’s a very important issue for us to remember. That is not some kind of biological accident explained by evolution. That process of human growth and maturity, even different stages of life, is a part of God’s plan for us from the beginning, something that shows his glory. There is a glory in parents understanding their children and celebrating them and loving them as children, raising them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. There’s something horribly wrong in the world when adults begin to act like children and they expect children to act like adults. It’s also telling that here you have a secular, early-education expert who sees what, evidently, even many Christians do not see.
By the way, Christakis’ understanding got her in trouble, as you might expect, at Yale University, leading to her resignation. And her resignation came in the middle of a controversy in which 18- to 22-year-olds were acting like children rather than like young adults, oddly and sadly enough, making her point.
Philosophy prof. makes waves by calling both believers and atheists to doubt—on Easter
Next, it was doubt rather than faith that stood at the centerpiece of an op-ed piece that ran, surely not by coincidence, in the pages of the New York Times on Easter. On this past Sunday, a series of letters responded to the article. The article was entitled,
“God Is a Question, Not an Answer.”
It was written by William Irwin, identified as professor of philosophy at King’s College and the author of the book The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism. Now what’s really important about this is that here you have a professor who argued in an article published on the Sunday that celebrates the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead that the centerpiece of a mature faith is not so much faith, but doubt. Another thing we need to note right up front is that this professor teaches at King’s college, that’s an historically Catholic institution, not the evangelical liberal arts college in Manhattan known as The King’s College. Writing in the article, Professor Irwin argues that it is uncertainty rather than certainty that marks a healthy religious faith. As he writes,
“Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty and openness about the existence of God marks an honest approach to the question.”
At the center of Irwin’s criticism are both believers and unbelievers who are too certain about either their belief or their unbelief. Irwin writes,
“There is no easy answer”—he means to the question of God— “Indeed, the question may be fundamentally unanswerable. Still, there are potentially unpleasant consequences that can arise from decisions or conclusions, and one must take responsibility for them.”
That’s a stunning statement. Here you have a professor of philosophy saying that we really can’t know whether or not God exists; all we have is a certain level of uncertainty. But he goes on to say that, still, here are his words,
“There are potentially unpleasant consequences that can arise from decisions or conclusions, and one must take responsibility for them.”
Now that’s an amazing statement, because Professor Irwin seems to be openly saying that if we come to the conclusion, for example, that there is no God, that could lead to what he calls “unpleasant consequences.” We have to take responsibility for those, he says,
“Anyone who does not occasionally worry that he may be a fraud almost certainly is. Nor does the worry absolve one from the charge; one may still be a fraud, just one who rightly worries about it on occasion.”
He goes on to say that when it comes to the existence or nonexistence of God, it is most important that we balance belief and unbelief.
“Worry can make the belief or unbelief genuine, but it cannot make it correct.”
He then goes on to say,
“People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe.”
Most importantly, he seems to argue, and these are his words,
“There should be no dogmatic belief. The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”
“Indeed,” he says, “belief without doubt would not be required by an all-loving God, and it should not be worn as a badge of honor.”
So what are we to do with an article like this? Well, it raises a host of issues, and it raised them originally at least on Easter Sunday, with further letters and implications coming in successive editions of the paper. One of the most interesting responses was published in Sunday’s edition of the paper in which Stacy Schierholz of Seattle, Washington, who identifies as an unbeliever wrote,
“Many ‘honest’ atheists, including me, don’t care to consider the question of God at all.”
Irwin’s article is part-and-parcel of the modern worldview, a worldview that says we simply can’t really know anything, not with certainty. We need to put that over against the Scripture, which presents a very different worldview, a worldview in which, as we understand from the Psalms,
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
We come to understand that God is actually the foundational belief for even understanding the world in a way that truly makes sense. The Christian biblical worldview is the only worldview that offers a comprehensive, non-contradictory account of the world and all that is in it, including our own lives and our own experience.
Furthermore, we come to understand that the Bible makes very clear that even as we are to have a humble faith, we are not to be understanding that in terms of having a faith that openly embraces doubt, a faith that is based upon the understanding that we really cannot know. The entire premise of Scripture is that, left to our own devices, we cannot know; but God has revealed himself to us so that we do know. We do know, and can know with certainty, that there is a God and because he has spoken to us in his Word, we not only note that he exists, but we understand how he has revealed himself to us in the entirety of all that is revealed in Scripture.
Now we must be humble in our beliefs, but that humility is not to be extended to believing that somehow we simply believe in belief, or we somehow simply have faith in faith. That faith has an object, and we can know that object with certainty because, as the Scripture says,
“These things are written in order that you may know”—not merely that you might have reasonable confidence.
What we see here is the fact that in the modern worldview, there is no place to stand from which one can honestly say, “we know.” To put the matter simply and straightforwardly, what’s missing in this essay is the doctrine of revelation, the understanding that God has spoken to us in his Word. As a matter of fact, there is no scriptural argument whatsoever in this article. It’s an article about belief or unbelief in God in which the author clearly is hedging his bets more on the side of belief rather than unbelief, but only with the tentative hold on the faith and no certainty, “no dogmatic belief” in his words.
If God had not revealed himself to us in his Word, this is all we would have; this would be everyone’s quandary; it would be our position of relative uncertainty at every turn. But this is where Christians need to celebrate the fact that God has not called us to faith as a leap in the dark. He hasn’t called us to a great leap of faith. He has simply revealed himself to us and called us to believe. We do understand that faith is resting in Christ and trusting in all that God has promised. But we also understand that there are certain truths that are delivered to us, revealed to us with certainty in Scripture, and we are certainly to believe them and we will certainly be accountable for them.
What we see here is what’s left when you remove Scripture and all you have is the relative merits of belief or unbelief measured basically in secular terms. This is about what we would expect on an Easter Sunday morning from the New York Times and it’s the kind of discussion we would expect in the aftermath of that article. But Christians, let’s remember, thanks be to God this is not where we are left. “These things are written,” says the Scripture, “in order that we might know.”