December 14, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, December 14, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Battle of Aleppo is over: After 4 years of bloodshed, fighting ceases amidst a humanitarian crisis
To live in these modern times is to live with the quandary of information overload, and with this sometimes comes what is now called compassion fatigue. It is very difficult for anyone, just looking at all the headlines and all the images that come to us so quickly, to understand which of these events, which of these stories is really important and on what moral scale. This compassion fatigue becomes particularly difficult in an age in which all these headlines and so many of these images can arrive almost instantaneously not just at our doorstep, but right to the palm of our hand in that smart phone. And this leads intelligent Christians into a genuinely difficult consideration of what at any given moment truly demands our moral concern. It is for this reason I bring up the name of the ancient city of Aleppo.
Just over the last couple of days there have been some of the most horrifying headlines and messages imaginable coming from that ancient city in Syria. It’s a city where war has ravaged the population since at least the year 2012, and it is a war in which the civilian citizens of that city have found themselves besieged by many different parties, many different warring factions. And we now know that in just the last several days, even in the excruciating last several hours at least yesterday, forces loyal to the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad were carrying out routine massacres, that is the killing of civilians, even as the forces loyal to the regime took control of that city, forcing back rebel forces that included at least some factions of what is now identified with the Islamic State.Show Full Transcript
In these headlines we come face-to-face with the geopolitics of massacre and of misery. One of the most amazing things that happened in terms of the war in Aleppo was that in the last few days, civilians who did have access to social media began sending out what they had good reason to believe might be their final words both to their loved ones and to all of humanity. These final words were in the form of social media messages posted by people who did not believe they would survive until the following day. Late yesterday, the BBC reported from London that military action is now reported to have ended in eastern Aleppo and the Russian ambassador to the United Nations said that the Syrian government had reestablished control over the last areas of the city that had been held by rebels. The BBC went on to report that the rebels have been squeezed into ever smaller areas of the city in recent months in a major government offensive backed by Russian airpower. Then these words:
“Word of the deal came as the UN reported summary killings by pro-government forces.”
That phrase “summary killings” is a chilling phrase because what it tells us is that the Syrian government forces were simply killing persons because they didn’t want to take the time to determine whether they were friendly or not. Military action against civilians is nothing particularly new in military history, but it is something that should be and must remain absolutely shocking. It must remain categorized as not only an atrocity, but as a war crime. In the 20th century, in the wake of the two horrifying world wars, we know as World War I and World War II, Western powers did their very best to try to determine where there was a moral distinction between the accidental killing of civilians, sometimes referred to quite brutally with the terminology collateral damage, and the intentional targeting of civilian populations. That is indeed a crucial moral distinction. It’s a moral distinction that doesn’t go merely back to the 20th century, but all the way back into the earliest centuries of the Christian church with the development of what became known in Western Christian theology as the Just War tradition. That is a form of moral argument that makes very clear when war is justified and on what terms and under what conditions.
One of the crucial principles of Just War theory based in a biblical worldview is that in order to be just, any combatant must do everything possible to protect and never to target civilian populations. Seen in the view of history, Governments and military forces that are found guilty of intentionally targeting civilians have been understood not only to have committed moral atrocities, but to have entered into the annals of what should be considered war crimes. The fact that these kind of war crimes continued down to the present, indeed over against even the announcement made by the United Nations that it is a crime, well, that’s evidence of the fact that we live in a fallen world in which evil so often appears to have its way.
At this point no informed observer has any right to be shocked by the behavior of these forces, and that includes both the forces of the Syrian government loyal to the dictator Bashar Assad and also to those connected with the Russian military, because the Russian military has been complicit along with the Syrian military in terms of these efforts against even civilians in the nation of Syria. We’ve seen the Syrian military do everything possible, including the massacre of its own citizens, in order to prop up the regime of Assad. And we’ve also seen Russia determine not to lose a crucial ally in the Middle East and becoming complicit in this very same activity.
We also understand that in a fallen world, most Western governments have come to the point where they really do not see any viable political or military option to Bashar Assad. That’s how tragic the situation in Syria now has become. But as Christians understand these headlines, and even as we do understand this headline is a very significant moral concern, the scale of the suffering going on in Aleppo really should have our attention.
We also come to understand that this is one of the most ancient cities in the world. We’re talking about a city that goes back to biblical times, and we’re talking about the very beginnings of biblical history. Here we’re talking about a group identified in Scripture, going all the way back to the time of Moses.
Throughout most of recorded world history Aleppo was one of the major cities of the world, especially because of its function in trading. It had a military function, but it was its function in trading that was most important, because it was Aleppo that was such an important city along what was known as the Silk Road. Christians seeking to understand our own times in the headlines in terms of the context of history will want to remember the importance of that Silk Road. It was the major means of transportation that connected Asia and Europe, and it was a thoroughfare not only for mercantile goods, including such things as tea and especially silk, thus the name of the road, but was also a major conduit for the contact between worldviews and cultures, especially those of the East and of the West.
Control of this major thoroughfare was also a major function of warfare all the way from the ancient world to the medieval centuries and then beyond. To understand the 19th century and even the origin of battles that included the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War and especially World War I, you have to understand that the strategic importance of the Middle East in general and of cities like Aleppo specifically was very much in play. This was the so-called Great Game, especially as foreign-policy historians refer to the competition between Russia and Great Britain during the 19 century. During the medieval ages, Aleppo became one of the most important cities of the Ottoman Empire. That massive Islamic Empire had two larger cities than Aleppo, but only two. Only Constantinople, later called Istanbul, and Cairo in Egypt were larger than Aleppo. Even today at the beginning of this war going back to 2012 there were well over 2 million inhabitants of the city. No one knows right now how many of those 2 million human beings survived this war.
Why do we not talk about Aleppo in the present as we would have at one point in the past? The reason for that is quite simple. It was the creation in the last half of the 19 century of what became known as the Suez Canal. Once dug and opened for commerce, the Suez Canal allowed ships to make a much shorter transit between Asia and Europe, and that meant there was no reason for that kind of overland travel. The Silk Road was basically replaced by the Suez Canal and inter-ocean traffic. We also have to recognize, however, that the Great Game, as it was called, between Russia and Great Britain in the 19th century has not disappeared. It was very much in play during the Cold War, which explained why the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and it is still very much in play now even as Russia has sided with the forces of the autocratic Bashar Assad in a war against his very own people.
Headlines from the city of Aleppo in Syria, however troubling, may seem to come from somewhere far, far away of importance long, long ago. But tragically Aleppo now finds itself in the headlines once again—terrifying headlines, headlines that really do deserve our attention.
Reeling after the election, Planned Parenthood braces as the pro-life movement gathers momentum
Next, shifting back to the United States, the issue of the sanctity of human life is back in the headlines, and so is the organization known as Planned Parenthood. Yesterday Sandhya Somashekhar of the Washington Post along with Katie Zezima reported a headline story,
“Planned Parenthood fears it may be first casualty of rekindled abortion war.”
Now we should note a pattern of headlines that has emerged since the election of Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States. Here’s the pattern: the pattern comes down to this, pro-abortion forces having invested heavily in the candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were absolutely confident along with many others of her eventual victory. They believed themselves not only to be positioned for the victory of Hillary Clinton as president, but also for the potential election of a Democratic majority in the United States Senate—some were even predicting the possibility of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Furthermore, they were exulting in the number of federal judges at every level appointed by President Barack Obama and they felt themselves to be in the position not only to fight back increased numbers of restrictions on abortion coming from the states, but eventually to settle some these issues decisively. And one of their main ambitions was to protect the organization of Planned Parenthood at all costs.
The liberal defenders of Planned Parenthood, especially in the political realm, have been spectacularly effective at defending the organization over the last 24 months, even in the face of an incredible avalanche of evidence coming in the form of very important videos that demonstrated beyond the question of any doubt that Planned Parenthood was involved directly through their clinics in what was euphemistically termed the harvesting of organs and tissue from aborted babies and then the transfer of those organs and tissues if not for sale, then at least for some kind of financial return.
With the election of Donald Trump as president, with the solidification of a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate and with the likelihood of the judicial appointments made by President-elect Trump, Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry now finds itself looking at a very different political terrain, and they are very concerned. And that concern is translated into appeals for help and support they are now issuing, and the Washington Post story is a part of that effort. The second paragraph of the article reads like this,
“Officials with the 100-year-old women’s health nonprofit organization are leaning on donors, new and old, and preparing to lobby friendly lawmakers at the state and local level to stem some of the loss. They have started gaming out which communities might be able to withstand a loss of services. They are asking supporters to get their medical care at Planned Parenthood clinics to increase the proportion of privately insured patients.”
There’s an incredible amount of worldview information that is loaded into that paragraph, but note in the first place how Planned Parenthood is identified in this report. Let me go back to the words. It’s identified as “the 100-year-old women’s health nonprofit organization.”
That’s a way of stating something that is true, but is only true if you’re avoiding the obvious. And that is the fact that the main reason Planned Parenthood is in the headlines has to do with the fact that it is also the nation’s largest abortion provider. Speaking of the changing political terrain, Erica Sackin, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, told the Post,
“Obviously we are doing everything we can through advocacy and everything else to make sure we can continue to serve patients. But at the end of the day, this is a fight of a scale that we haven’t seen before and we need to be realistic about how much is at stake.”
What’s really at stake, and the Washington Post story does acknowledge this, is the fact that a half billion dollars of federal funding flows to and through Planned Parenthood. That’s $500 million a year of taxpayer money. As the Post acknowledges, most of this funding comes from Medicaid as well as Title X, that’s the federal legislation that provides family planning grants.
“Although,” says the Post, “the money cannot be used for abortions, critics say it indirectly supports the procedures and that Americans want no part of such work.”
The Post then cites Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona who said,
“It is time that taxpayers are taken off the hook for supporting an organization that supports the killing of innocent children.”
The most amazing quotation in this article comes from the President of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Sarah Stoesz says,
“Planned Parenthood is not about to go away based on anything that happened in this election.”
“We’ve built muscle over 100 years.”
Well, indeed, they have built muscle, and what they’re trying to do now is to flex those muscles. And that muscle translates into political influence, especially in the dramatic commitment of the Democratic Party to abortion in general and to Planned Parenthood specifically.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has referred Planned Parenthood to FBI and DOJ for investigation
The Washington Post moved that story on December 12. Note the fact that on December 13 this headline news came from National Review.
“Senator Chuck Grassley, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced this afternoon that he has referred Planned Parenthood for America and several of its local affiliates to the FBI and the Justice Department for investigation and possible prosecution. These referrals are the result of Grassley’s ongoing investigation into the group’s involvement in fetal-tissue transfers and violations of federal law related to the fetal-tissue trafficking industry.”
The story moved yesterday, and it was just yesterday that the office of Senator Grassley informed the public of the fact that this referral for criminal investigation had been made by the Senate Judiciary Committee. This takes us back to those graphic undercover videos that were released just over the last several months and the fact that at that time, the political defenders of Planned Parenthood were largely successful in shutting down any investigation. But that didn’t mean that they were successful in shutting down all investigations. And in the end, this may turn out to be the most important of all.
At the center of this is Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. He is a plodding investigator and he has had many issues at the center of his investigative curiosity since he became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We now know, as his office released yesterday, that he and his committee and assigned staff had undertaken a very lengthy and extensive investigation of the charges against Planned Parenthood. The result of that investigation is the referrals for criminal investigation that the Senator handed down yesterday. The report forwarded to the FBI and the Justice Department by Senator Grassley includes accusations that since 2010,
“Three tissue-procurement organizations — Advanced Bioscience Resources, StemExpress, and Novogenix Laboratories — have paid Planned Parenthood affiliates to acquire aborted fetuses and sold that fetal tissue to customers at substantially higher prices than their documented costs.”
National Review then reports these words,
“Though Planned Parenthood had an initial policy to ensure that all affiliates were complying with federal law on the transfer of fetal tissue (in other words, not accepting financial compensation for those transfers), several affiliates failed to follow the fetal-tissue reimbursement policy. According to the report, Planned Parenthood learned in 2011 of these violations.”
But instead of bringing these clinics into compliance, they instead simply eliminated the policy. This report by Alexandra DeSanctis then concludes,
“The group not only turned a blind eye to these violations but also altered its oversight procedures in order to enable those violations to continue.”
Also released yesterday was a major investigative report indicating that even though there are many who claim that abortion clinics are safe—put that word “safe” in your mind as a central concern—there is plenty of evidence that they are anything but safe.
A couple of observations at this point going back to the fetal tissue issue in Planned Parenthood: what’s perhaps just as remarkable as anything else is that the central moral concern of the United States Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary here isn’t the lives of those unborn children, but merely the technicality of whether or not these tissues were sold for profit. And when it comes to this major report indicating just how unsafe America’s abortion clinics are, the interesting thing is here, of course, that the safety is referring only to the woman involved, not to the baby. The very existence of an abortion clinic is intended to kill the unborn child. But when it comes to the political defenders of abortion and Planned Parenthood, they have been very successful in trying to push back any effort, for example, to bring abortion clinics under the same kind of hospital regulations that would be required of any other institution or any other site where some kind of surgical procedure was being conducted.
Listening to the national conversation after the election about the issue of abortion, one of the persistent questions coming from the secular left is this: how can it be that abortion continues to be a raging moral, not to mention political, debate in the United States now 40 years after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973? The answer to that from a biblical worldview is quite simple, and it is absolutely necessary for us to make this case over and over again. The question comes down to this: is this unborn entity a human life? If indeed it is a human made in the image of God, if indeed it is a person as the biblical worldview would insist it must be, then we’re talking here about the intentional homicide of an unborn human being. The question is, is this life to be taken seriously on its own terms, not discounted simply because it is now located in the womb of its mother? The entire question comes down to this, and that is the status of the unborn child. Is it indeed a human person? Or is it merely some kind of accidental collection of cells and tissues and developing organs that might one day become a person? The logical consequences of taking either of those two directions of argument should become glaringly apparent. If that child is not a person from the beginning and it merely might become a person at some point, then that means that the unborn child, not being a person, has no basic moral standing whatsoever. If the unborn child is a person, then it is a person who demands our moral concern and our legal protection.
One of the most interesting developments in this controversy over 40 years is to notice the failure to create any kind of genuine middle ground. There may be in various places, including many European nations, what amounts to a political compromise on abortion, but there is no moral credibility to any middle ground. There is no moral credibility to arguing that a baby is a person, but only a person and a lesser sense than some other person.
It’s that last line in that Washington Post story that ran yesterday that got my attention, a line of absolute moral defiance from Planned Parenthood. I’ll go back to that statement made by the President of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota,
“Planned Parenthood is not about to go away based on anything that happened in this election.”
Then those final words,
“We’ve built muscle over 100 years.”
I can understand why the Washington Post report ended with those words, because if you’re losing the moral argument, it just might be that political muscle is all you have left.