June 13, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, June 13, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Weep with those who weep: Terrorist attack in Orlando an assault on the image of God
The Washington Post reported the story directly and starkly,
“A gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State opened fire inside a crowded gay bar and dance club here early Sunday (that being Orlando, Florida), leaving 50 people dead and 53 injured in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, authorities said.”Show Full Transcript
President Obama labeled the rampage,
“An act of terror and an act of hate.”
The Post reported that,
“The gunman fired bullets seemingly at random inside the popular Pulse nightclub, forcing panicked patrons to dive onto the dance floor, crawl across the ground and scramble out a back entrance. He then held others hostage in a three-hour siege that ended when police stormed the building and killed him.”
History often turns, and turns horrifyingly, on hinges such as those opening paragraphs in the story in the Washington Post. With those few words we are told that the deadliest mass shooting in American history took place just in the last 48 hours. In the late hours of Saturday night and the early hours of Sunday morning, the nation’s history changed. And it changed in a way that will be seared into the nation’s conscience, permanently so. When you have a headline like this, it tells us that human history is not just the unfolding of random events. It underlines the fact that we are moral creatures and we cannot respond to a headline like this without moral revulsion and without a moral sense of shock, both of those extremely important.
Neither of those are enough on their own. The headlines also tell us, in terms of the story as it unfolds, that we’re looking at at least 50 human beings dead and another 53 wounded, many of those gravely wounded. We also have the description of the event where the shooting took place as Orlando’s premier gay nightclub. What was happening on Saturday night and Sunday morning was what was advertised as Latin night, thus the deadliest mass shooting in United States history was directed towards a specific population that was targeted. Even as the Washington Post rightly reports that the individual victims inside the nightclub apparently were not individually targeted, the target itself was the nightclub and all who had gathered there on Saturday night.
We now know that the shooter is identified as Omar Mateen, born in New York City, the parents from Afghanistan, a 29-year-old man who was at the time of the murders, a resident of Port St. Lucie in Florida. We also know that his father has been identified as a longtime supporter of the Taliban in Afghanistan and we know that Mateen was himself, that is the shooter, twice investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, first in 2013 and then in 2014, both times when he was suspected as having ties to terrorist organizations. We also now know that before the shooting began, Mateen called 9-1-1 and in that phone call to legal authorities in Orlando, he pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State. We also know that Islamic terrorist groups, including and in particular the Islamic State, had called for an increase in so-called lone wolf attacks, especially in the West and in particular during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan taking place right now.
The scale of the mass murder really does defile moral imagination. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said,
“We’re dealing with something we never imagined and is unimaginable.”
The Mayor’s statement ironically reveals the dual moral reality here. The Mayor said that what happened in Orlando was something “we never imagined and is unimaginable,” in the Mayor’s words—we never imagined and then unimaginable—what does that tell us? Well, it tells us that on the one hand, this is beyond our moral imagination. To be clear, the vast majority of human beings, not only in the present but throughout human history, could not have imagined participating in such an event as this. On the other hand, we have been morally trained by recent headlines, especially a spade of recent terror attacks, to know that it is imaginable that someone on this planet could conceive, plot, and plan, and then carry out such a murderous attack. In that sense, the attack in Orlando was simultaneously unimaginable and all too imaginable.
The one statement refers to our moral imagination and the other to our experiential imagination. Morally, it seems unimaginable, indeed inconceivable, that any human being could carry out, plot, plan, and actually conduct such an attack, murdering so many fellow human beings. But tragically enough, our experiential imagination is being trained by recent headlines to understand that there are human beings on the planet right now in this present age who not only can but will carry out this kind of homicidal attack. At this point we need to note the almost universal revulsion in terms of this attack, that almost is really, really crucial. The vast majority of human beings alive right now on planet earth hearing this news would recoil in moral horror. But we need to note that the man who conducted this attack was encouraged, if not directly then at least indirectly, by others who have launched jihad and have announced that they not only can but will carry out this kind of homicidal attack, an attack on such a vast scale.
But at this point we need to remind ourselves as Christians of the uniquely Christian and biblical understanding of the crime of homicide. This begins in the earliest chapters of the Bible. It begins in Genesis chapter 1 and in Genesis chapter 2, where we are told that God created human beings in his image, human beings alone of all creation. But then we come to understand just how shockingly soon the crime of homicide arrives on the human scene. It arrives in Genesis chapter 4. We begin reading in verse 8,
“Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.’”
Cain’s murder of Abel was the first human homicide, and in the fourth chapter of the first book of the Bible, the Lord made very clear just how seriously he took the murder of a fellow human being. Then in the Noahic covenant found in Genesis chapter 9, right after the rescue of Noah and his family after the flood, we read this,
“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.’”
And then verse six,
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
So what is really important here is to recognize that it isn’t merely a matter of theological speculation that the crime of homicide, in terms of its root evil, is grounded in the reality of the image of God. God himself made that point in making his covenant with Noah. By the time we get to the commandments in Exodus chapter 20, the 10 Commandments most particularly, what we find in chapter 10, verse 13, “You shall not murder,” we’ve been prepared by the flow of biblical theology to understand what is at stake. It’s not just the value of human life as if we can determine that in and of itself, it is the value of human life precisely because the Creator made humanity in his image.
By the time we get to the New Testament, for example in Matthew chapter 5 in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands upon this, not reducing the sense of the evil of murder at all, but actually increasing it and taking it to the interior of the human heart, telling us that murder actually begins in anger and that if we give ourselves to anger we are already on our way to murder. This biblical background and grounding in biblical theology helps to explain by a common grace why virtually every civilization, society, and culture has come to understand the crime of murder or homicide as being distinctively different from any other crime, different not only in its consequence, but also different in terms of its penalty.
But we need to note that as we’re looking at the headlines that have come so shockingly out of Orlando, even as we would speak of a universal revulsion to this kind of act of mass murder or to murder itself, the reality is, as we’ve noted, that it is not as universal as we would like to think, as we might find comfort in thinking. We know the reality is that there are people around the world who have given themselves to the ambition to do exactly what this man in Orlando has carried out, and similar attacks have already taken place in other parts of the world.
Meanwhile, even here in United States, there have been similar attacks, although at this point, none quite so deadly as what took place Saturday night and Sunday morning in Orlando. This causes us to ask a further question, and that is this: How could someone respond to murder, especially murder on this mass scale, without moral revulsion? How could there be any other response? Here the Scripture also helps us to understand the deceitfulness of the human heart. God’s words of judgment on human evil are perhaps never more clear than what we find in Romans chapter 1, where Paul tells us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit three times over that God’s judgment is found in the words, “God gave them over,” “God gave them over,” or “God gave them up.” This tells us the pattern of God’s judgment in God giving sinners over to their sin. Furthermore, also in Romans chapter 1, we are given a key verse that helps us to explain all of the headlines and, frankly, even what we see in the mirror. We are told that humanity is engaged in a massive conspiracy, in Paul’s words, “to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
So the truth is the fact that every single human being is made in the image of God. The act that reached the headlines just in recent hours so tragically tells us that there are some persons who are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness to the point that they can suppress the natural tendency to respect human dignity with something that can only be described as a homicidal rage and a calculating plan to commit mass murder. We also note the fact that even as we would want to believe that there would be a universal condemnation of these acts, the reality is that the pattern is that there will be those who will applaud these acts, especially, we should expect this from the Islamic State, as indeed happened just hours after the headline emerged.
But there are also others who would not champion what took place in Orlando who will nonetheless by their advocacy of a form of moral relativism undercut the ability to make the necessary moral judgment about the inherent evil of this act. The repression of the truth, the suppression of the truth in unrighteousness, also is found amongst those who deny the very reality of good and evil. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to human beings. It doesn’t even come naturally to young human beings, to young children, who understand the difference between good and evil.
When we look at a headline like this, we ask the immediate question, why now? Why there? And the answer may never fully be understood. And yet we also have to understand that this was a targeted population. It was certainly not by accident that this murder took place on such a massive scale with such calculating intensity in what was identified as Orlando’s leading gay nightclub. Our response as biblically minded Christians should be first of all to respond with the absolute unconditional affirmation that every single human being, regardless of sexual behavior or sexual identity or sexual orientation, is made in the image of God. Every single human being is an image bearer of the Creator; thus, we are required to be very careful and faithful in terms of our moral judgment. Our moral judgment in this basis is made first on the basis of humanity, only secondarily on the issue of sexuality. This means that we have to affirm without asking any other questions or without knowing any other particular about any other human being that they are an image bearer of God, and thus that they deserve the gift of life and the respect and dignity and sanctity of that life beyond any other consideration. It is not necessary that any human being meet any specific criterion, whether that criterion have anything to do with matters of health or intelligence or social status or moral qualification, nothing is necessary in order for human beings to have the status of being made in God’s image. That is because it is a status we have not earned or achieved; it is a status that is declared and granted by our Creator and by him alone.
This means that the Christian moral judgment should be first and foremost, the central issue at stake is the humanity of every single human being, the character of every human being as an image bearer, and thus the absolutely evil nature of any denial of that personhood—and that includes most especially the crime of homicide.
Now at this point Christians have to confess that we know this not because of any particular wisdom that we’ve achieved, but rather because God has revealed this in his inerrant and infallible Word. It is because the Creator has revealed himself to us in Scripture that we know that every single human being, regardless of any qualification, is made in the image of God. The very fact that we know that based upon scriptural revelation reminds us that we know more than just this, we also know God’s plan, God’s purpose, God’s command, indeed God’s law, when it comes to the use of God’s gifts, including the gift of sexuality.
So even as we understand that every single human being is made in the image of God, male and female created in the image of God, we also understand that God’s purpose in making us both sexual beings in giving us the gift of sex is also a matter of his command and his sovereignty and his law. Our moral judgment thus must be based upon that as well. But that’s not a question of human dignity and human worth, that is a question of the morality, of human behavior, and about this the Scripture is abundantly clear.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
If any one of us had to achieve the image of God by some kind of moral qualification every single one of us would fail. This serves to remind us as biblically committed, biblically grounded Christians that we cannot pick and choose amongst the moral commands and amongst the theological teachings of Scripture, but must be faithful to uphold the truthfulness, the goodness of all that God has revealed in his word. But this is where a sense of biblical wisdom also helps us to understand that the key issue at stake in this headline is the issue of the humanity of these victims and the fact that this was a massive crime against the glory of God and the creative authority of God, against the very image of God in these human creatures who were so homicidally attacked and so many others who were assaulted.
But this also tells us that we have the Christian responsibility, as the apostle Paul makes clear in Romans chapter 12 verse 15, not only to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” but to, “weep with those who weep.”
This is a reminder that it is absolutely right, proper, and necessary for us to mourn with those who are mourning right now in Orlando and far beyond. It is a matter of our Christian witness and our Christian responsibility to understand the depth and the reality and the rightness of that grief. Our responsibility as Christians is to come alongside and grieve with those who grieve and share that sorrow, to mourn with those who mourn, understanding that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power greater than the power of a broken human heart.
Just imagine how many human hearts are broken in the aftermath of the headlines coming from Orlando. And we can only expect that that grief will grow as the names are made more specific in terms of the victims, and as the casualties continue to mount. Even those who were not killed in this attack will bear the marks and scars of this attack for the rest of their lives. Countless hearts, human hearts, have been broken in Orlando and in parts far beyond. The effects of this massacre that has taken place in Florida will continue to break additional hearts as the news spreads and as people hear the horrifying word that one of their loved ones has been taken by homicidal attack. Nothing but the love of Christ and the victory of Christ over sin, nothing but the gospel of Jesus Christ, can bring adequate good news to overcome the brokenness of the human hearts that will be the real and the proper response to these headlines out of Florida.
At this point Christians need to understand the difference between making the argument that some meaning and hope can come out of death and the argument, on the other hand, that life can come out of death. Only the Christian gospel explains how life can be greater even than death. As the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15, it is Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead that is the promise of life after death, that is the promise of a power even more powerful than the grave, and the promise of a resurrection that can be ours by faith in Christ such that even as Christ was raised, so shall we in Christ also be raised. The gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news because it and it alone explains how sinners can be forgiven our sin, every sinner forgiven his or her sin, by the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ in his life, death, burial, and resurrection from the dead.
The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us why we can find hope even in the face of an empty grave and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that gospel alone explains why Christians have something to say in the aftermath of this kind of massacre that we otherwise would not know to say.
But this takes us back to another very fundamental Christian responsibility right now, and that is in a time of overwhelming sorrow and grief to participate in that grief and to share that sorrow even before we might have the opportunity to say everything we want to say, even when that means communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must not miss an opportunity for gospel witness. At the same time, we need to understand that a part of that witness, at least in earning the right to share the gospel with others, is sitting with them and sharing their sorrow and their grief.
Christians need to pray right now for those in Orlando and beyond who are suffering that kind of unspeakable grief because of the loss of a loved one. And Christians also need to be praying for gospel churches in the area of Orlando, which are right now on the frontlines of Christian ministry and witness. It is those Christians who in our place may be sitting with those who are now grieving and sorrowing, ready, we pray, to give a gospel answer to the question of what all this means and how there can be any hope even in the aftermath of an act of such depraved and calculating evil.
By now we are accustomed to understanding that in the aftermath of this kind of headline will come very heated policy debates and a national controversy in conversation. That’s not only inevitable, it’s essential; it’s right. We will also learn a great deal in coming days that we do not now know, but none of it will change the moral calculation, at least not for the better. Nothing can deny the essential and undeluded evil of what has taken place there in Orlando and thus, we have to be very, very clear that while we may come to know more about this murderer and his plans and calculations, perhaps even his motivation, nothing is going to change the basic moral calculation. That is a matter of biblical revelation.
We also need to understand the human impulse to ask the question why and the Christian understanding that that why cannot be answered in other than theological terms. There is nothing psychological, medical, sociological, political, economic, or otherwise that can explain how a man can be so homicidal as to carry out such an attack, killing at this point at least 50 fellow human beings. The answer to that is not going be supplied by anything other than Scripture. The answer is not going to be anything other than theological. Even secular authorities around us seem to summon the necessary moral judgment to decry what took place in Orlando as inherently, inescapably evil. But we need to understand as Christians that to use the word evil is to invoke a theological category. Even the secular authorities seem to intuitively understand that a merely secular understanding of evil can’t possibly explain the carnage in Florida.