August 5, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, August 5, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Good, the Bad, and the Olympic: The Olympics, then and now
Much of the world will be paying attention to a big event today taking place in Rio de Janeiro, and that is the opening of the 31st Olympiad. The 31st modern Olympic Games are beginning with a great deal of attention and no small amount of controversy, and behind this is the fact that when the opening ceremonies take place today in Maracana Stadium there in Rio, there will be many people who will be celebrating this as a huge international event. There will be others who will know a great deal more about what lies in the background. But one of the most interesting things about this game is the fact that there will be hundreds and hundreds of millions of people around the world who will be watching, and many of them will be cheering on the athletes from their own national teams.Show Full Transcript
When you go back to the Olympic ideal, you have to go back to two different places. In terms of more recent history in the modern Olympic Games, you go back to the 19th century, indeed, to the year 1896 when the first modern Olympics were held. That was 1500 years after a Roman Emperor had outlawed them, and that points to the other historical reality we look at even further in the background, and that is the ancient Olympic Games that for centuries so dominated the culture and life in terms of the athletic dimensions of ancient Greco-Roman culture and, of course, specifically that of Greece. But when people look at the Olympic Games, they may be looking at the headlines and they may be looking at the glorification of competition, they may be looking at a certain advertised Olympic ideal. But behind that is a great deal that is laden with worldview significance. Let’s first go back to 1896.
In 1896, a group of largely European leaders decided that one of the ways they could show a true internationalism was by reconstituting the Olympic Games. In order to do so they basically created a new mythology about those games, a mythology that did have some roots going back to the ancient Olympics, but was actually more a part of the late 19th century and its cultural optimism, especially in Europe, but also in the United States.
One of the interesting things about the first Olympic Games was the fact that it was presented as an ideal of international brotherhood, of comity and friendship. It was presented as a way to show the nations how peoples ought to relate to one another, not through matters merely political or economic—not to mention military—but athletics as well. In terms of the late 19th century, the suggestion was the ancient Olympic Games had been similarly a sign of fraternity, of brotherhood, and of course of an internationalism as well. That’s not entirely untrue. But the important thing for us to recognize is that when you look at the late 19th century in Europe and, of course, the beginning of the 20th century as well, you are looking at an unbridled cultural and historical optimism. There was the belief there that was crushed of course later in the killing fields of World War I that history was moving in an inevitable progress, a moral and cultural progress, and the internationalism in terms of the new mythos of the Olympics was one of the issues that caught much attention. And it was wildly popular.
But from the very beginning there was a huge problem and that was this: the much-vaunted ideals of brotherhood and fraternity that were declared in the first modern Olympics in 1896 fell apart very quickly in terms of the history of the 20th century that began just four years later. By the time you get to the late 1920s and especially the 1930s, you were looking at Olympiads that point to the brokenness of the world rather than true fraternity and brotherhood. The most glaring example of this, of course, was the 1936 summer Olympic Games held in Berlin, largely under the sponsorship of Adolf Hitler as a showcase for his culture of Nazi Germany. The games did not turn out entirely as Hitler had expected, but by any measure it was a massive humiliation to the Olympic movement to have the Olympics used as a propaganda exercise by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
The 1972 summer Olympic Games are mostly remembered because of the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. What we see in the Olympics is an ideal to which human beings may aspire and a victory for which they may even claim credit, but a reality that simply is not possible in a world that is so broken and distorted by sin. In the late 19th century, it was particularly a non-Christian—or at least we should say a non-biblical—understanding of moral progress that led people to believe that the modern Olympic Games would become a symbol for the way the world should be. Well, in a sense the Olympic Games become a very clear example of the way the world is. Yes, we should be very thankful for the demonstrations of brotherhood and sisterhood and fraternity and comity and, that is, peace among the nations demonstrated when they are at the Olympic Games.
We should understand and we should respect the ideal of excellence in sport and of other endeavors. We should recognize that even in the New Testament the apostle Paul referenced the Olympics, such a central focus of the Greco-Roman culture in the background of illustrations about the Christian life and even about his own testimony. Among the final sentences that he wrote found in 2 Timothy we find the fact that the apostle Paul spoke of his own life and testimony of his own ministry in terms of having run the race and finished the course and even awaiting the crown.
But we also have to understand that the Olympic Games, as we now know them, demonstrate the brokenness of the world, not just in terms of 1936 Nazi Germany, not just in terms of 1972 and the massacre of Israeli athletes, but even in terms of more recent controversies having to do with doping scandals, financial corruption, and other illustrations of human sinfulness. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t admire and watch the Olympic Games, but it does mean that Christians can’t buy into the idea, either the modern myth or the ancient myth, that somehow the Olympics point to a matter of human perfection or for that matter even inevitable moral progress. That simply isn’t the case.
All those issues of sinfulness have been very much in the headlines leading up to the games in Rio in the opening of the 31st modern Olympiad. Brazil right now is something of a ground zero for political corruption. There’s a great deal of financial corruption involved in all kinds of deals in the background to the Olympics, which after all represent massive, billions of dollars of investment and spending every four years. We also have to understand that the host country of the last winter Olympics, that is Russia, is ground zero in terms of the doping scandals that are now very much a matter of Olympic conversation. There’s more to be sure, one of the big questions that is now at the forefront of the Olympic Games, not entirely settled by even the Olympic Committee in terms of the 31st Olympiad is what exactly defines male and female, a man and a woman, when so many of the competitions are gender distinct. In a world in which gender is increasingly being denied as a biological reality and celebrated as merely a social construct, that’s going to be much harder for the Olympics to pull off, which raises huge questions in and of itself.
Though from the beginning in 1896 there have been Christians involved in the Olympics, the modern Olympic movement is decidedly secular. That isn’t true of the ancient Olympics. This is something that most Americans watching the Olympics simply will not have in mind. But the ancient Olympic Games were first and foremost not actually about athletics at all, but rather about ancient pagan worship.
David Stuttard, writing very perceptively recently in the Wall Street Journal, points out that the ancient Olympic Games really weren’t about sport at all.
“Rather, they were one part of a major male religious festival in honor of the great god Zeus. Indeed, Olympia, site of the Games, was named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus was considered to have had his throne.”
As Stuttard later writes, and I quote,
“For the five days in August straddling the first full moon, athletes and their trainers, aristocrats and artists, poets, philosophers, hawkers and artisans congregated at Olympia to see and be seen, do deals and exchange ideas. Much of that time was spent in worship: grand processions, the sacrifice of many hundred oxen, banquets in honor of gods and heroes. But increasingly, competition assumed a more central role.”
Now just keep all that in mind. It was competition that began to assume a larger role, but originally it was a male religious festival deeply rooted in ancient Greek paganism, and the continuation of that symbolism goes right down to the Olympic torch even today. Similarly, writing at National Geographic, Rick Romeo writes,
“Many aspects of the ancient Olympic Games would be perfectly familiar to fans at the upcoming games in Rio de Janeiro: elite international competition, cheering crowds in the tens of thousands, events like sprints, wrestling, discus, and javelin. Then as now, Olympic contenders often spent years training with expert coaches, and victors were showered with praise and wealth.”
But Romeo then continues, and I quote,
“But other elements of the ancient games would seem very strange to spectators today. It’s hard to imagine a modern Olympics featuring the sacrifice of 100 oxen, or the public whipping of athletes caught cheating, or a race in full body armor. Athletes competed au naturel, examined the entrails of sacrificed animals to see if they prophesied victory, and were rewarded only for winning an event.”
As Romeo goes on to explain,
“There were no prizes for second or third place.”
When the modern Olympic Games were reconstituted in 1896, the system we know now of gold and silver and bronze medals was put in place simply so that there would be a greater number of medals to be distributed and thus, in all likelihood, a greater number of nations that would be rewarded for their entry into the Olympic Games and the modern Olympic movement.
Once again from a biblical Christian worldview, there is everything to admire in terms of an event that actually calls out human excellence; it is a testimony to the gifts that God has invested in his human creatures. But at the same time we have to be very careful not to join in either the ancient or the modern myth of the Olympic Games, somehow believing that this represents a goal of attainable human perfection or for that matter failing to understand that the Olympics as a modern mega-event are likely to bring out in virtually parallel form the very best and the very worst in terms of displays of human achievement and of moral behavior. Christians have to understand that that’s exactly what we would expect in terms of anything in which the stakes are so high, the money is so pervasive, and human nature is going to be so apparent. For now all eyes are anxiously on Rio, and there in Brazil it’s going to be a very big show.
"Clemency, please, Mister President": President Obama's clemency order
Next, here in the United States, huge headlines concerning issues of human justice: this week on Wednesday, the White House announced that President Barack Obama had commuted the sentences of over 200 people in terms of the federal penal system. As Matt Ford reported for The Atlantic,
“President Obama has commuted the sentences of more than 200 people, a move the White House hailed as the most grants of presidential clemency in one day in more than a century.”
But, of course there’s more. Ford went on,
“The White House said Wednesday 214 people convicted of federal crimes had their sentences commuted. Many of them were convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.”
Now let’s stop there for a moment. The fact that this hedging language was used both by the media and the White House reminds us that though that pattern might be true for the majority of those whose sentences were commuted this week, that pattern will not be true of all. On Wednesday, White House counsel Neil Eggleston said,
“This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.”
Ford of The Atlantic then goes on to tell us that,
“Obama’s commutations came amid a broader effort by his administration to reduce excessive sentences in the federal criminal-justice system. With more than 200,000 inmates currently housed in federal prisons, Wednesday’s announcement won’t significantly reduce the federal prison population. But for the hundreds of inmates whose sentences were shortened, the president’s move is life-changing.”
Well, no doubt that is true, but what does commutation of a prison sentence mean? The President has very clear constitutional authority—about this there’s no question—to commute anyone who is involved in a federal prison sentence, and that means that the President can say that the term has been reduced or the term has been fulfilled or there can be restrictions put by the President upon the commutation or shortening of that sentence. It is, for these individuals, really good news. It promises either the liberation from prison or the shortening of their prison sentence or the release from prison pending other kinds of responsibilities, which might include drug treatment programs or any number of other things individually specified.
Commutation is not the same thing as a pardon. The President of the United States also has constitutional authority to grant a pardon, but a pardon means that the sin has been forgiven. That means that the crime is now wiped out in terms of moral consequence. It does not mean that the crime did not happen. A commutation is not a pardon. It does not mean that the crime is wiped out, so to speak, instead it means that the crime in terms of its punishment has now been reset by the President of the United States.
The Atlantic article gets to a very important point: there is an overcrowding problem in virtually every level of prisons and jails, but the federal prisons indicate that they are now at the virtual breaking point in terms of population. The American taxpayer is either going to have to build an enormous number of new prisons or do something to find a way for people who are in prison to be released.
The argument that is put forth by the White House—and also has considerable bipartisan support to be sure—is the fact that there is an excessive number of persons in the prisons at both the state and the federal levels for basically nonviolent crimes. Even though the intention behind certain laws such as the three-strikes laws were to crack down on violent crime, it has led to the fact that there are many people serving very long, indeed some even life sentences, in prison without opportunity for parole, who have not been convicted of violent crimes. However, these cases are not so simple as are often put forward in the media, and this act by the White House, though certainly very important to the individuals involved, is really more symbolic than anything else. You’re talking here about a little over 200 people over against the total prison population just at the federal level of 200,000. The president intended to get attention by this action, and he did. But whether or not this will lead to any true and just result, that remains to be seen.
No longer a danger to himself or others? John Hinckley, who shot Pres. Reagan, released from psychiatric hospital.
Meanwhile, very significant issues were are also raised by this story as was reported recently in the New York Times, and I quote,
“John W. Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, will be allowed to live permanently with his elderly mother in Williamsburg, Va., leaving the psychiatric hospital where he has been imprisoned for several decades, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.”
As Gardiner Harris reported for the New York Times,
“Judge Paul L. Friedman of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia wrote in his opinion that Mr. Hinckley, 61, no longer posed a danger to himself or others. The release should begin no sooner than Aug. 5.”
In other words, today.
“Although Mr. Hinckley has been living part time in Williamsburg for years,” The Times reports, “family and friends of Reagan’s said they were outraged that he would be allowed to reside there permanently.”
The release of John Hinckley from confinement in a federal psychiatric hospital has shocked many Americans, especially those who were alive on that day in 1981 when he waited outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. and then shot the President of the United States and three others. The six shots that John Hinckley fired from his gun effectively changed the lives of not only four men, but of an entire nation. President Reagan, we now know, came very close to dying as a result of the assassination attempt. And we also know that John Hinckley declared that he was mentally insane and thus not competent or responsible for his crime. In 1982, he was found not guilty for reason of insanity. Now in ordering Hinckley’s release, the judge said that Hinckley’s doctors have found,
“No signs of psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking, or any violent tendencies.”
And the judge went on to declare the medical advice that Hinckley,
“Presents no danger to himself or to others in the reasonable future if released.”
Now here’s the moral shock: you have a man here who under mental and psychiatric delusions shot four people in a premeditated attack, including the President of the United States, coming close to assassinating him, and now many years later he’s being released with the promise that he poses no threat to himself or to others.
Hinckley’s case in the very beginning raised huge questions concerning mental capacity and the so-called insanity defense. The fact that John Hinckley was found not guilty for reason of insanity in 1982 led many states to either withdraw or significantly revise their insanity defenses, making it much harder for someone to follow Hinckley’s example. But from a Christian worldview perspective we need to understand that we certainly do know that there are persons who are suffering from deep delusions and any number of psychiatric disturbances. Just how that relates to moral responsibility is far less clear from the biblical worldview and generalizations are hard to make. But we do need to recognize that even the secular world in terms of putting restrictions upon the use of the insanity defense reveals the concern by many that it would be used as a mere dodge of moral responsibility, which unquestionably at least in some cases it has.
This case also raises huge questions concerning the confidence we have in psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis. Here you have a team of psychiatrists who have assured this federal judge who acted upon their advisement that John Hinckley, who shot the President of the United States and three others in a psychotic attempt to try to gain attention, that is romantic attention, from the actress Jodie Foster, is now understood to be no threat to himself or to others. We have to question just how much confidence we put in that medical diagnosis. But behind it, of course, from the Christian worldview is the larger question of the moral diagnosis.
A pardon, seriously? Gov. Brown rejects pardon request of "model prisoner" — a Manson family murderer.
Next, a similar headline raising similar issues, this time from California: Jonathan J. Cooper, reporting for the Associated Press, writes,
“Leslie Van Houten, the youngest member of the Manson “family” to take part in a series of gruesome California murders in 1969, has been denied freedom again – her past overshadowing her decades as a model prisoner.”
Now let’s just assume we don’t know anything about the crimes behind this headline. Let’s just imagine what we’re being told here in the lede to this news story that here is a person who was convicted of taking part in a series of gruesome murders who has been denied freedom again—that’s the word in the lede—and then the explanation from the reporter, again,
“Her past, overshadowing her decades as a model prisoner.”
Now how in the world do we understand this? How do we place on the one hand what is claimed here as the example of a model prisoner with someone who was involved in premeditated and absolutely gruesome murders in the name of a cultic leader back in the 1960s? Make no mistake, Leslie Van Houten was not only involved in the murders, she absolutely celebrated them, shocking both law enforcement and jurors in terms of the criminal proceedings after she was arrested. Van Houten took place in the second round of Manson murders, this of a grocer and his wife, and according to what she told the parole panel recently there in California,
“I don’t let myself off the hook. I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”
Now just listen to those words, the obvious reality is, that doesn’t sound like a note of contrition or repentance. The circumstances of the murders are so gruesome I will not repeat them, but in turning down the parole request that was forwarded approvingly by the parole board there in California, Governor Jerry Brown, himself decidedly a liberal in the political spectrum, wrote,
“The shocking nature of the crimes left an indelible mark on society.”
He went on to say,
“The motive—to trigger a civilization-ending race war by slaughtering innocent people chosen at random—is equally disturbing.”
The only morally questionable part of that statement is the fact that the word that is used at the end is merely “disturbing.” Surely the Governor of California actually meant far more than that, and his actions spoke louder than his words. He turned down the parole board’s suggestion that Leslie Van Houten should be released on parole. The California Governor also released a statement in which he reminded California citizens of the fact that Van Houten was not only willing to kill, but wiped away fingerprints at the home after the attacks and later bragged that the stabbing was, in her words, “fun.” In the Gov.’s words,
“Even two years after the murders, when interviewed by a psychologist, Van Houten admitted that, although she had no present desire to kill anyone, she would have no difficulty doing it again.”
Now remember, the Governor of California made this headline because he turned down a recommendation for the parole of this individual that had been forwarded to him by California’s parole commission.
Taken together, these headlines make very clear that we face profound issues of great moral importance in terms of the justice system, even in just a few days of headlines—truly, very significant headlines. We also need to understand that when it comes to so many of these issues, we seem to be a very confused people. I can only imagine that that parole board is extremely confused when it forwarded this recommendation for parole of Leslie Van Houten to the Governor of California. We have to wonder if the judge was, in the Hinckley case, also confused. Perhaps only time will tell. In any event, it wouldn’t make sense to a great many Americans that someone who was known to be responsible for shooting the President of the United States and three others would ever be released from custody. And of course, the President’s decisions made this week, they will also invite a great deal of public conversation, not about his constitutional authority, but about whether or not this was actually the right thing to do. In all of these cases, and every one of them taken individually, they also point to the fact that we must await the only justice that will be right and truly righteous, and that is that what will be handed down by none other than God himself.