April 10, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, April 10, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Is the Cold War back? Considering the aftermath of the US strike in Syria
The United States’ airstrikes on Syria last Thursday night in the aftermath of that nation’s use of chemical and indeed nerve gas weapons in order to kill its own people still leads the international conversation, and for good reason. This has shifted the entire international perspective from one of the United States doing nothing to the United States doing something. Now when the United States did very little there was a great deal of international condemnation and concern. Now that the United States has taken some military action against the autocratic dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, there is continued conversation, some of it positive and some of it negative.
One of the reasons for this is that no one knows exactly how to help in the Middle East in general, and particularly in Syria. We’re talking about a bitter civil war that has now led to thousands and thousands of deaths. It’s estimated that the death toll is nearing half a million citizens there in Syria, and we’re talking about intractable problems that go beyond the fact that you have two parties at war in Syria. It’s not just two parties; it’s many parties. It’s basically a group of varied and very diverse insurgents against the Bashar al-Assad regime.Show Full Transcript
We’re also looking at a division in terms of opinion in the United States. And as we saw on Friday, this is a division that goes beyond merely Democratic and Republican. In both parties there are those who are more in favor of and more resistant to any kind of armed intervention in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria. And of course there is the bitter lesson learned not only by the United States but by many powers before us of the fact that intervention in the Middle East, not to mention other parts of the world as well, but particularly in the Middle East, has often led to a worse result rather than a better. But the bottom line was that what was happening in Syria was simply beyond the pale. It required some action, particularly since the United States had forces in the area and those forces had not been deployed.
There is an ongoing conversation, of course, in terms of who bears the blame for breaking Syria. The biggest blame falls on Bashar al-Assad himself, that is, the major moral responsibility. In terms of international responsibility, here we have a much cloudier picture. It’s very difficult to assign blame or responsibility, but it’s clear that many nations even in terms of having peaceful intentions, that is good intentions towards being a part of a solution in Syria, may actually have been a part of the problem. And that just points to the intractable nature of this kind of issue. We’re looking at a civil war. We are looking once again at a struggle between United States and Russia. It is mirroring, at least in terms of pattern, the struggle we saw between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies during the period of the Cold War. We are noticing that Bashar al-Assad is protected by two great patrons: Russia is one and Iran is the other. W’ere also looking at the fact that the situation in Syria is so bad, it has deteriorated to such an extent we are not even sure exactly what we want to see take place there. Certainly we want to see peace, certainly we want to see a nation and a leadership emerge with political authenticity and legitimacy. We also want to see stability in the region. We want to see Syria cease to be a threat to its neighbors, including Israel. But as the United States saw with the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, what often follows one devil is a multiplicity of devils, and that is one of the great dangers there in Syria.
The signal that was sent by President Trump to Bashar al-Assad in the form of 59 cruise missiles was that he must not ever again use chemical weapons on his own people or risk a similar proportionate response. But as we have seen just in the days and hours after the U.S. missile strike, Bashar al-Assad is still determined to harass and to oppose and to kill his own citizens when he sees it to the aid of his regime. The other thing we need to note here with vast worldview implications is the failure of international organizations and also responsible nations to prevent Bashar al-Assad from possessing chemical weapons.
When he used such weapons on his own citizens years ago, especially in the area around Damascus, with a far higher death toll than what we saw last week, international pressure was swift and the United States was dissuaded at the time from taking military action with the assurance that international observers and also the nation of Russia would certify the fact that Bashar al-Assad had destroyed or turned over all his chemical weapons. And that assurance did come, and that assurance was also ratified by a public statement from the Obama administration stating that it was satisfied that Bashar al-Assad had turned over all of its chemical weapons. It turns out, of course, that was not the case, and that mistake was a deadly mistake.
As Julian E Barnes and Maria AbiHabib reported for the Wall Street Journal,
“The 2013 international agreement that averted a campaign of U.S. air strikes on Syria was supposed to have stripped the government of President Bashar al-Assad of its declared stockpiles of chemical weapons.”
But the reporters went on to say that the use last week “of the deadly nerve agent sarin against civilians in rebel-held territory has invited new questions.”
What are the questions?
“Whether Mr. Assad’s regime hid precursor chemicals from inspectors or managed to recreate some of its chemical stocks since then.”
In the next paragraph the reporters wrote,
“There was also consternation Thursday over what motivated the Syrian government’s suspected choice to use such an extreme measure now—whether to eliminate a rebel stronghold or to test the mettle of the Trump administration.”
In the final analysis, it was probably a mixture of those two motivations.
Suicide bombings in Coptic churches on Palm Sunday underscore threat to Christianity in Middle East
Next, another issue that is closely tied to our observation of events in Syria has to do with increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world as well. News reports came very quickly from Egypt over the weekend of the fact that there were two bombings in two Coptic churches in separate cities there in Egypt that led to at least 40 deaths. As the Associated Press reported yesterday,
“Sunday’s bombings of two Coptic churches in separate cities claimed by the Islamic State group are the latest attacks on Egypt’s embattled Christian minority, increasingly targeted by IS and affiliated militants. The Copts have long been a favored target of extremists — they were struck with a similar church bombing just weeks before the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising, and Islamic militants gave them a particular focus during a crackdown on them in the 1990s — but the past five months been particularly bloody. U.S.-based think tank the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy said the attacks brought the total number of sectarian incidents against Copts to 26 in 2017, with a total of 88 killed including those at a major church bombing in December.”
This all points to the fact that there is tremendous fear in terms of the historic Christian churches there in the Middle East that the fall of someone like Bashar al-Asasd could lead to something far worse. Bashar al-Assad, like his dictator father before him, Hafez al-Assad, had acted to protect the historic Christian churches in the area, Christian civilian populations, and they did so largely in an effort to create a stability under the dictatorial regime. But for Christians in those churches in that area, it was still a very precious protection. One of the very difficult things to watch right now is the fear of those historic Christian churches in the area that they will fall into annihilation if the Assad regime were to fall, and one example they would give of that is simply the fact that throughout much of the Muslim world, Christians in terms of those historic Christian churches have simply begun to disappear. And of course it’s not happening by accident.
Last night Isis, the Islamic state, claimed responsibility for the bombings there in Egypt. It’s also noteworthy that yesterday’s edition of the New York Times included coverage of increased persecution and attacks upon Christians and their churches in the nation of India. There it is not so much Islam that is the precipitating factor but Hindu nationalism. The persecution happening there in India is real, but it is the region of the Middle East that now presents the greatest difficulties for historic Christianity. In retrospect, it became clear that one of the results of the fall of Saddam Hussein there in Iraq was the fact that Christianity has become largely annihilated within the nation, and you can expand that to many other nations in the same region.
From an evangelical perspective, it’s somewhat difficult, indeed almost impossible, to understand exactly who these Christians are in terms of theological definition, but there can be no doubt that they are being persecuted and targeted because they are identified as Christians. We also need to note that the timing of these attacks in Egypt was no accident. These were intentional attacks when these churches were filled for the Christian observation of Palm Sunday.
Judge Neil Gorsuch to be sworn in today after being confirmed by Senate in 54-45 vote
Turning back to the United States, we need to note that on Friday Judge Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as Justice Neil Gorsuch by the United States Senate, that after the Republicans had moved to change the rules of the Senate to eliminate the filibuster when it came to presidential nominations to the United States Supreme Court. And we also need to note that as of today, it is expected that Judge Gorsuch will take the oath of office and indeed become Justice Gorsuch. That is expected to take place during the day today, and during this week we’ll be looking at the meaning of this new addition to the Supreme Court in terms of issues that will be coming before the Court, including a very important religious liberty issue that will be heard by the Court in oral arguments this week.
The final vote on Friday after the rules changed was 54 to 45. Voting with the Republican majority were three Democrats, Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. It is expected that immediately upon taking the oath of office Justice Gorsuch will begin his work, and he will begin that role as the newest Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Like so many other of the most venerable institutions in our government, seniority matters a great deal at the nation’s highest court. Being the junior Justice means that Judge Gorsuch will take over from Justice Elena Kagan some responsibilities that she had been bearing for the years that she was the junior justice. Included in those responsibilities is the fact that the junior Justice sits on the cafeteria committee and has a responsibility for planning meals. There is also the responsibility of the junior Justice to take notes of the conference, that is when the Justices meet in private to discuss how they’re going to reason through cases after oral arguments. And the final responsibility is that the junior Justice of the United States Supreme Court, no matter how old that individual may be, if that Justice is the newest of all the Justices on the Court, must during that conference be responsible at all times to open the door. No other Justice will move. Only the junior Justice must answer the door, and in this case Judge Gorsuch must answer it every single time.
Describing the role she is only too glad to give up, Justice Kagan said,
“You think you’re kind of hot stuff. You’re an important person. You’ve just been confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. And now you are going to monthly cafeteria committee meetings where literally the agenda is what happened to the good recipe for the chocolate chip cookies.”
Given the issues coming even this week before the United States Supreme Court, Justice Gorsuch arrives just in time.
Great British controversy: Church of England outraged over removal of "Easter" from egg hunt on Easter
Next, we shift to Britain where there have been major headlines having to do with Easter eggs. As you might expect, there’s an interesting story behind this. As The Telegraph of London reported this week,
“The Church of England has accused the National Trust of ‘airbrushing faith’ after it dropped the word ‘Easter’ from its annual Easter egg hunt. The annual event, which sees hundreds of thousands of children search for chocolate eggs at National Trust properties, has been rebranded to exclude Easter for the first time in 10 years. In previous years it has been called an ‘Easter Egg Trail’, however this year it has been renamed the ‘Great British Egg Hunt’.”
That has led to a new, great British controversy having to do with Easter eggs, and most specifically, chocolate Easter eggs. The chocolate becomes an issue because the corporate sponsor for so many of these events in which so many of the eggs turn out to be chocolate is Cadbury, one of the most venerable confectionary and chocolatier companies in terms of European history.
The Cadbury family was a very historic Quaker family, and the company itself was established and run by Quaker rules. But now Cadbury says that it wants its eggs, no longer Easter eggs, to be available to anyone of any faith. In a statement released by Cadbury they said,
“We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats.”
Now to be sure, there is something going on here. This is a symptom of the secularization that is taking place throughout Europe and in the United Kingdom in particular. Just a few years ago, a major survey indicated that not just a large percentage but potentially a majority of citizens of Great Britain had no idea of a theological event that had to do with Easter at all. Cadbury itself got into some controversy just last year, but the controversy was different. They didn’t remove Easter from the name of their Easter egg product, instead they simply moved the word “Easter” to the back of the package. That was last year. This year Easter has simply disappeared. The Easter Egg Trail has become the Great British Egg Hunt.
An official spokesperson for the Church of England said,
“This marketing campaign…highlights the folly in airbrushing faith from Easter.”
According to The Telegraph, the move was also met with anger by the Archbishop of York, who said the decision to remove the word “Easter” from the egg hunt logo was tantamount to spitting on the grave of John Cadbury, the chocolate firm’s original founder. Archbishop Sentamu said,
“The Cadburys were Great Quaker industrialists. If people visited Birmingham today in the Cadbury World they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output. He built houses for all his workers, he built a Church, he made provision for schools. It is obvious that for him Jesus and justice were two sides of the one coin. To drop Easter from Cadbury’s Easter Egg Hunt in my book is tantamount to spitting on the grave of Cadbury.”
Now that’s a particular kind of vehemence coming from the archbishop, and it also reflects the kind of anger that is coming from the Church of England. And it’s addressed to what is called airbrushing faith out of the history of one of Europe’s most venerable institutions, in particular one of Britain’s cherished traditions, the Easter Egg Hunt. It’s not an Easter Egg Hunt anymore. Just drop the word “Easter;” it’s an egg hunt.
But a thinking Christian needs to step back and ask a couple big questions here. Is this symptomatic of secularization? Of course, it is. That’s reflected in the Cadbury statement when they said they wanted to invite persons of any faith or no faith to enjoy what they described as their seasonal treats.
Now a thinking Christian needs to think a good deal harder about this in order to understand what’s going on. Yes, this is exactly what we should expect in terms of a secularizing society. This is exactly what we should expect in terms of the consumerist economy and the commodification of just about anything. Cadbury is not a charity. It is a major corporate concern. It is out to sell chocolate, and it’s also out to establish a brand identity. One of the facets of secularization that should thus have our attention is the fact that Cadbury once saw to its corporate branding advantage to identify with Christianity by using the word “Easter.” It now sees in the year 2017 it is to its corporate advantage to have no identification with Easter. Before you get to any theological issue, that’s a very large insight when it comes to secularization. Companies like Cadbury do what they believe is in their brand interest, and it’s clear that Cadbury now thinks that sponsoring an egg hunt is to its brand interest far more than an Easter egg hunt.
But at this point, intelligent Christians trying to think seriously about this question need to ask an even more perhaps obvious question. How in the world did Easter become connected to an egg? Is there any theological or biblical link whatsoever between a chicken egg and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Now like so many things that have found their way into the Christian tradition, we’re not exactly sure how decorated eggs became a part of the Church’s celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Defenders of the Easter egg suggest that it came as early as the 13th century and particularly in England. That’s one of the links with this English or very British tradition. But actually a closer historical look tells us that the tradition probably emerged in Eastern Europe, perhaps even in Russia, and that’s one of the reasons why the Eastern Orthodox Church and also the Eastern Rite to the Roman Catholic Church has had an official understanding of the role of eggs in the Easter celebration. Those eggs, by the way, are always decorated red; that is to say they are dyed red and often have gold crosses or other Christian symbols that are then painted upon them. The color red is the symbol of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, and the symbolism of the egg it is suggested is the fact that inside that egg is a life that is about to come out.
Now in humility we simply have to admit we really don’t know exactly how the current tradition of the Easter egg can be traced back to Christian history, much less whether it can actually be traced back to the 13th century. What we do know is that it can be traced to more recent centuries and especially to the Victorian era in Great Britain and in the United States. Easter egg hunts became associated with children, with families, with public events, and they were timed of course for the Church’s celebration of Easter, which during a time of very close identification between Christianity and the larger culture, the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ became a seasonal celebration in terms of the national calendar as well.
However, when it comes to the Church’s celebration of the resurrection of Christ, we have to understand that there is an intertwining of elements that biblical Christians really wouldn’t appreciate at face value. One of them is the very name of the holiday, that is Easter. It is more properly theologically referred to as the Festival of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead, or simply the Celebration of the Resurrection. The word “Easter” itself arguably has pagan roots going back to a pagan deity.
Now at this point, it’s clear that the average Christian is not using the word “Easter” with any pagan connotations whatsoever. But once those connotations are known, well, the Celebration of the Resurrection becomes a much more biblical and faithful way of expressing the holiday.
And furthermore when it comes to eggs, there’s actually no argument, looking at anthropological history, that the egg has been associated with pagan rituals as well. How exactly that came to be included in Christianity is not necessarily something to be answered in the defensive. A part of what the Church did in terms of the expansion of Christianity throughout the centuries was to absorb the symbols and the traditions, even the holidays, of local peoples, Christianizing them, and bringing in the message of the Gospel, central Christian truths in the midst of transforming these holidays. It’s just intellectually honest for us as Christians to recognize that there are probably pagan roots to both the Christmas tree and the Easter egg. That doesn’t mean that Christians today who have a Christmas tree in their home or take their children on an Easter egg hunt are somehow committing theological apostasy. Those associations are very far in the past.
But going back to the controversy in Britain, what’s interesting is that the story made headlines in just about every major media source. A country that is so increasingly religiously diverse on the one hand and secular on the other, a country in which a majority of citizens indicate, they’re not actually sure the tie between any Christian truth and the celebration of the Easter holiday, in that country this still made headlines because removing “Easter” from the Easter Egg Hunt or the Easter Egg Trail there in Great Britain, well, it’s recognized that has to mean something. And it does mean something. It points to this secularization of the culture, but it also points to something else.
It can certainly be argued that one of the reasons why Britain has become so secular is that so many of its churches have succumbed to theological liberalism. They are no longer preaching the Gospel. They are no longer contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That faith is centered in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and the empty tomb. As the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15,
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”
The bodily, physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead is a central and indispensable truth of Christianity, and without that there is no gospel. Again, the apostle Paul makes that very clear in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. So, intelligent Christians need to look at this headline story and ask, is their story here? Yes, of course there is, and the presenting story has to do with the increased secularization of Great Britain, beyond that you could say Europe and also inevitably North America as well.
But there’s a bigger story than that. It’s the headline that didn’t take place, and that headline from a Christian perspective should be this: A loss of faith in the resurrection, the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, means a repudiation of the Gospel. And in that sense, it won’t really matter how secular a society becomes if the churches themselves stop preaching the Gospel.
The church of England indicated its outrage that the word “Easter” was dropped from the Easter Egg Trail, but we should note that a bishop of that church, David Jenkins, who was the Bishop of Durham from 1984 to 1994, was rather infamous on his own for denying the necessity of the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Furthermore back in 2002, a survey that was undertaken with the permission of the Church of England found that one third of the priests of the Church of England also denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Another third said that they were not certain of the necessity of the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That is the headline story that we should be seeing. The removal of Easter from the Easter Egg Trail or moving the word “Easter” to the back of a box of chocolate eggs and then taking the word altogether away, that’s a very minor story compared to the absence of the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the pulpits of the nation’s churches.