May 17, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, May 17, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Christian governor jailed on charges of blasphemy in predominately Muslim Indonesia
It’s shocking to many, but the word blasphemy has appeared once again in the headlines. Blasphemy in terms of its definition means to insult God, and in virtually every civilization some category of blasphemy has existed. But what we need to note is that in the modern, increasingly secular age, it has become more and more distant in terms of our imagination. Many modern people certainly operating with a basically secular worldview would find it rather difficult to believe that blasphemy is still taken seriously, much less that it could be the subject of a criminal charge and conviction. But blasphemy is back in the headlines, and it has arrived most recently and importantly in a news story from Indonesia. Now just remember, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, and it is from Indonesia that this headline has recently appeared in the New York Times:
“Blasphemy Verdict Shows ‘Rot’ in Indonesia, Legal Experts Say.”Show Full Transcript
As Joe Cochrane for the New York Times reports,
“As the jailed Christian Governor of Jakarta prepared to appeal his two-year prison sentence for blasphemy, his conviction has renewed criticism of Indonesia’s notoriously capricious judiciary and set off a nationwide debate on the rights of minorities in the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation.
“Legal experts,” says the Times “noted that the verdict seemed to be based more on public reaction to the Governor’s comments than what he had actually said. In effect,” said the Times, “holding him accountable for the mass protests organized against him by hardline Islamist groups.”
So blasphemy is back in the headlines, surprisingly enough, and what we need to note is that it’s not accidental that it has appeared in the nation of Indonesia, nor that at the center of it is this particular politician, the now former Christian Governor of Jakarta, Ahok. Now what we also need to note is exactly the main point in this New York Times news story. It comes down to this: the charges of blasphemy against this Christian Governor will almost assuredly cover for a bigger political struggle. And furthermore, the actual evidence against him, as virtually everyone around the world understands, does not add up to any definition of blasphemy, rather what you have here was an effort undertaken by Islamist extremists to remove this Christian Governor, a Governor we need to note who had been recognized for his expertise and for the relative absence of any corruption charges against him. That in itself is a stand out in the nation of Indonesia.
But the fact that Jakarta, the capital of the nation, had a Christian Governor was something of an embarrassment to many Muslims in the nation, and it wasn’t accidental that Ahok was targeted in terms of this removal. But what the New York Times story also makes very clear from the very beginning is that this Governor didn’t actually commit blasphemy. So there are several different questions here: in the first place, did the Governor commit blasphemy? The answer to that is almost assuredly no. In the midst of a very heated political campaign, comments that he had made in which he was asked a question about whether Muslims could vote for a non-Muslim candidate, these were very deceptively edited and then put out on the internet where they went viral and that led to the very mass street protests that were later used, alleged against the Governor as if they had been caused by his blasphemy. But of course the blasphemy actually never happened.
All that appears to have meant almost nothing in terms of the Indonesian judicial system, and that’s why the headline in the New York Times pointed to what the editors called ‘rot,’ meaning political and judicial rot in Indonesia. So what we have here is a headline news story that is certainly worthy of our attention. It tells us something, first of all, that we need to recognize how important the rule of law is in any nation and why, if there is indeed a rot at any political level, a rot in the judiciary is particularly damaging and dangerous. To put the matter straightforwardly, if anyone like this Christian Governor can be convicted on trumped up charges, then no citizen is safe. Furthermore, there is no adequate justice in the nation even for the baseline of confidence in the government coming from its people. But there are other issues that are also very clear here. This story in the New York Times dealing with the question far beyond Indonesia also recognizes that blasphemy is one of those charges that becomes very politically convenient and, furthermore, it is often simply used by one political candidate to eliminate another, having nothing to do with any legitimate theological consideration whatsoever.
The New York Times has the situation exactly right when the report says,
“If religion was harnessed for political ends, the question Indonesians must answer is at what cost.”
Of course, the ultimate cost could be to both freedom and democracy. Those are huge questions that will have to be confronted by the Indonesian people. Furthermore, what we have here is a picture, quite ominously, of the growing influence of the Islamist majority in Indonesia toward the direction of limiting non-Muslim presence in the nation and even using blasphemy laws in order to discriminate against Christians. This according to international news reports, at least in part because of the rising influence of Islamist extremists there in Indonesia.
But there’s something else going on here and this is where Christians also need to think very carefully. Why is blasphemy not a criminal charge here in the United States? Now we need to note, Indonesia’s not alone in having blasphemy as a criminal category. As I stated, virtually every civilization has had some category like blasphemy in its past. But in terms of American criminal law there is no such category. So what about Europe? Well, there we need to acknowledge it’s a fairly mixed picture. Many modern European nations continue to have some kind of criminal statute concerning blasphemy. The question will be why? Those very nations tend to be amongst the most secular of any found on earth. The answer is because it remains politically convenient often to have these categories.
Just consider modern France that still has the legal criminal charge against blasphemy, but it is primarily now used in order to inhibit any criticism of Islam. It is often simply translated from a matter of criticism into a criminal charge of blasphemy. Sometimes in the United States similar kind of language is, at least conceptually, employed with the idea of hate speech or religious hate speech.
But this is where Christians need to make some understandings crystal-clear. In the first place, we actually do not believe that blasphemy is irrelevant, not at all. We believe that blasphemy is a very serious matter, but we do not believe it should be a matter of criminal consideration in the civil courts, that is to say in the nation’s court system. Why? Because we do not want the government to be either the arbiter or the judge or the enforcer of any matter concerning theological judgment, and blasphemy is at its very foundation a theological judgment. We do not believe that any government is actually competent to make judgments concerning these theological questions, that’s simply not the government’s responsibility. So when it comes to criminal action in terms of blasphemy, we have a fundamental problem from the Christian perspective from the very beginning.
But the second thing is this. When it comes to the Christian understanding of blasphemy, we would not look to the government to prosecute nor to enforce any limitation upon blasphemy. Why? Because we do not hold to what is defined as an honor religion. That is a distinction with Islam. Islam is by its very nature an honor religion. The adherents of Islam are assigned the responsibility in the Quran to protect the honor of Islam, of the Quran, and of Mohammed. And that’s a very different situation than what we face in the New Testament. Jesus Christ actually told his own disciples that they were not to defend his honor. Indeed we serve a Savior, we follow a Savior, who was despised and rejected of men. Jesus Christ Himself did not follow an honor code, he bore the shame on the cross for us, something that is entirely alien from the entire theological worldview of Islam. It would be ridiculous, it would be a repudiation of the gospel for Christians to then take up Christianity as an honor religion when Christ himself made very clear to his own disciples that that is not our charge. That does not mean that we take blasphemy with any less seriousness than our Muslim neighbors here or around the world. It means that we believe that God alone can judge and that God alone will judge when it comes to defending his own honor and furthermore, in the Scripture we are told that he will do that; that is his responsibility and it is his authority and not ours.
So when secular Americans look at a headline like this in the New York Times, they are no doubt scratching their heads wondering how anyone can take theology this seriously. Meanwhile, Christians, taking theology with ultimate seriousness, indeed understand that blasphemy is indeed a sin and frighteningly enough, it is still a reality. But it is not the responsibility of any government to make judgments on this matter, nor is there any question that God ultimately will. It’s not that we believe the stakes are lower, but infinitely higher.
When religious liberty is a matter of life and death: Record number of Christians fleeing Middle East
Next, looking at some of the same dynamic expressed in a different headline of concern, over the weekend the Wall Street Journal ran a major front-page headline,
“Christians are leaving the Middle East.”
Maria Abi-Habib writes that when you look at a map of the Middle East, you are looking at the actual evacuation of Christians from the very homeland of biblical Christianity. As she writes,
“Like the Jews before them, Christians are fleeing the Middle East, emptying what was once one of the world’s most-diverse regions of its ancient religions.”
She goes on to say,
“They’re being driven away not only by Islamic State, but by governments the U.S. counts as allies in the fight against extremism.”
She goes on to document—and this is a massive news story by the way, it not only takes up a good deal of the real estate on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, but it continues in almost an entire full interior page of the news story. It’s a massive report and of course it’s an even bigger issue. Indeed Christians are leaving the Middle East, but it’s not voluntary.
Very interesting points made in this article, one of them has to do with the fact that what we’re looking at is actually going far beyond what had been expected by Western observers even just a few years ago. One of the things we also need to note is that the continual political instability in the Middle East has often come at the expense of the most vulnerable, and when it comes to Christians in the Middle East they are at the very top of the list of the most vulnerable.
The numbers themselves are staggering, Abi-Habib writes,
“By 2025, Christians are expected to represent just over 3% of the Mideast’s population, down from 4.2% in 2010.”
The authority cited there is Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. A century before—that would be going back to, for example, 1910—the figure of Christians in the Middle East population was 13.6%. Now according to Johnson,
“The accelerating decline stems mostly from emigration.”
That is with an ‘e,’ leaving the Middle East.
And the reasons for that are numerous, but the most important of these reasons is that Christians are being threatened with their own lives when it comes to continuing to live in many of the regions of the Middle East. The headlines on this story include most of the major cities of the Middle East, for example, Cairo in Egypt, but it is also true that perhaps the most urgent emigration of Christians out of the Middle East has been taking place in recent years and months out of Syria, where that brutal civil war continues to take such a great toll on just about everyone. But at the top of that list again would be the Christians of that nation.
This Wall Street Journal article also makes clear that even where Christians are not being persecuted with the threat of their lives or liberty, they are often in a situation where they cannot find a job. Overt cultural pressure, religious pressure in many of these countries, means that Christians are marginalized to the point that they are barely able to exist and, make no mistake, there is a deliberate strategy behind this to try to encourage Christians to leave. And eventually that’s exactly what it appears millions and millions of Christians are doing.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the prevailing thought of the intellectual class in the West is that the global picture was becoming more democratic and more committed to freedom. But as you look at the global map at present, it appears that especially when it comes to the most vulnerable, and in so many places that means Christians, the world is not becoming a place that protects liberty, but rather one in which liberty is all the more endangered. In this country, religious liberty continues to be a matter of headline controversy and conversation, even political and judicial maneuvering. But when it comes to Christians in other parts of the world, religious liberty is, it’s no exaggeration, sometimes a matter of life and death.
Evacuating the center: Labour Party releases radically left-wing manifesto ahead of Britain's election
Next, that intellectual class during the 1990s was also pretty certain that what had emerged in Western nations was a new political center, a new center that was leading to the irrelevance of the old categories of liberal and conservative. So in the United States, for example, you had the election of Bill Clinton as what was advertised as a centrist Democrat. Similarly, you had the redefinition of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom with the election of Tony Blair as Prime Minister, once again identified as new Labour, a new interest identification. But what we’ve seen in the United States is a return to that old political polarization, but now even in a more radical form. And one of those interesting things to watch is just how far left the left now seems determined to march.
So in the United States in terms of the Democratic Party, the dynamic appears to be a conversation not between the center and the left, but between the left and the even further left. For example, one of the big discussions in the Democratic Party is whether the future would be as liberal as Senator Bernie Sanders or more liberal. The same kind of conversation is going on in Britain, but that makes it just a little more urgent because of course you’ve got a British general election coming up in a matter of weeks. And that’s where the situation becomes very interesting. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, has just begun to release that party’s manifesto for the upcoming election, and it is amazing. It is a hard march to the left on the part of a party and a party leader that everyone already considered on the left fringe.
A generation ago in 1983, political observers, looking at the Labour Party’s march to the left then, described the manifesto or the platform the party put out in 1983 as the longest suicide note in human history. It is likely that the manifesto of Jeremy Corbyn in his party that will be released in the next few days is also going to be yet another of the longest suicide notes in political history, but the interesting thing is that when you’re looking at the left, there doesn’t appear to be any movement toward the center whatsoever, rather, even towards a more leftist position, a more radical position.
In terms of the reports concerning this manifesto that have appeared in the American press, you have the example of Stephen Castle, writing in the New York Times that the British Labour Party is set to take a sharp left turn. The important thing about that is to recognize that even just a few months ago it wouldn’t have seemed very possible that the Labour Party in Britain could take much of a left turn. They were already considered to be out on the left fringe. That’s how fast the political landscape is changing on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s changing in terms of the most radical sense, primarily on the left. It is going to be very interesting to see what happens in terms of the upcoming general election there in Britain—it’s a so-called snap election; Prime Minister Theresa May called it and it is going forward with just a few weeks in terms of the campaigning period. But it is now expected that she and her party, the British Conservative Party, will actually win a far more sizable majority than they already enjoy in the British Parliament.
But that raises another question we can anticipate. In light of the kind of collapse that the British Labour Party is now expected to face, will they respond by moving to the center or by moving even further to the left? There’s every evidence that it’s the latter course that party intends to take, and the lesson there for all of us in terms of worldview is that when you have a situation of such political polarization on either side of the Atlantic, the temptation is to abandon the center and to rush to the edge. The interesting thing here about American politics is that when Americans have confronted such an alternative, Americans have never made that rush to the left. I guess over time we’ll find out if that same pattern will prevail.
What's in a name? American culture through the lens of baby name trends
Finally, another clue about our culture coming in the way that parents name their children. Here’s a headline story from the Los Angeles Times,
“A lot of parents are naming their babies Kylo after the new bad guy in ‘Star Wars.’”
Now there have always been mainstream names and more unusual names. In terms of mainstream names, for years Michael was the leading name that was given to baby boys. It turns out that Michael is still in the top ten, but it hasn’t been near one for a fairly long time. Instead, one of the things that has caught the attention of many in the media is the fact that when it comes to boys, an increasing number of Americans are naming their children, they’re naming their boys after the bad guy, the new bad guy, we are told, in the Star Wars unfolding narrative. Matt Pearce, reporting for the Los Angeles Times tells us,
“Apparently parents think the Dark Side looks super fun.
“The name Kylo — as in the ‘Star Wars’ villain Kylo Ren — is now one of the top 1,000 most popular names for boys in the United States, according to new data on baby names released Friday by the federal Social Security Administration.”
According to that administration last year,
“238 Social Security card applicants named Kylo [were] born in 2016, making it the 901st most popular boy’s name for the year. It’s by far the boy’s name that has grown the fastest in popularity since 2015.”
Now this kind of news story often get some attention because of the let’s just say creativity with which some parents are naming their children, and it turns out that there are often some discernible patterns. It’s also perhaps telling to us that the single most popular name for boys in 2016 wasn’t a new name at all. As a matter of fact as the Los Angeles Times says, it’s one of the oldest names of all. That name, Noah. But joining Noah at the very top of the list for boys were Liam, William, Mason, and James—again, a mixture of the old and the new at least in terms of first names historically used. But what’s also interesting is how certain names are dropped. Here is the most interesting set of all. The four names for girls that were at the top of the list of names dropped were “Caitlin, Caitlyn, Katelynn, and Kaitlynn”—four different spellings of one name. The likely reason for that, even as acknowledged by the New York Times, is the landmark cultural event in 2015, “the former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner coming out as a transgender woman.” Now there’s a precedent for that. It goes back to the year 1998 when the name Monica became the fastest dropped name in terms of baby girls having everything to do with the controversy during the Clinton years.
What this tells us is that the naming of children has a lot to do with the statement about the culture, and there are two different trajectories here, both of which are interesting to us. In the first place, one of the most important things to recognize is how many names simply never drop off this list. That is, how many names simply continue. And one of the most interesting aspects of this for both girls and boys, but most importantly for boys, is that biblical names continue to be not only very present, but at least several of them very near the top of the list. And when it comes to the other trajectory, it is how many names appear virtually out of nowhere and how many people begin to name their children after figures in popular culture. It’s hard to know exactly what it means that the fastest-growing boys name in terms of this study was the name not of a hero, but of a villain. When it comes to the more than 200 American parents who names their newborn sons Kylo Ren, an interesting question is whether or not they intended to predict anything about the boy’s character or whether they just like the sound of the name. Either way you look at it, it’s interesting.