The Briefing 10-03-17

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The moral vocabulary of pure evil in the aftermath of Las Vegas

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The importance of moral facts, not just moral values, and the reality of evil

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Why, in times of trouble, the American people expect their president to quote Scripture

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Transcript

The Briefing

October 3, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, October 3, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

In the aftermath of Las Vegas we will consider the moral vocabulary of pure evil and remember the importance of moral facts not just moral values and the reality of evil. And we will ask why in times of trouble the American people expect their President to quote Scripture.

The moral vocabulary of pure evil in the aftermath of Las Vegas

Most Americans woke up on Monday morning to news from Las Vegas that was nothing less than horrific. For many in Las Vegas on Sunday night, the evening must have seemed like the night that would never end.

In the face of such overwhelming news, we naturally seek after facts. We want to know what happened, and when. We want to know who did it. By mid-morning yesterday the facts were already staggering. Almost sixty people are dead and hundreds wounded after a lone gunman, it is now believed, opened fire on a music festival from a perch in a hotel room 32 floors above. The attack was deadly, diabolical, and premeditated. It took place in the Las Vegas resort known as Mandalay Bay where approximately 20,000 country music lovers were gathered for an evening festival.

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The shooting is already described as the worst in modern American history. The gunman, believed to be Stephen Paddock, killed himself as police prepared to storm his hotel room, from which he had aimed his deadly gunfire. Police reports indicate that he had at least 17 weapons, one of them potentially an automatic weapon like an AK-47 mounted on a stand and at least one handgun. There is no indication that Mr. Paddock had any ties to international terrorism nor was there any suspicion that there was someone else who was involved in the shooting. Paddock had no notable criminal record. He had worked for a defense contractor, from which he retired. And he was well known to own guns. He was reported to like Las Vegas for its gambling and entertainment. No one seems to have considered him a threat. His brother, contacted after the massacre, said that the family was beyond shock at the news, as if in his words,

“crushed by an asteroid.”

In Las Vegas and beyond, hundreds of families are indeed crushed by grief and concern. More than fifty human beings, very much alive just Sunday night, are now dead, seemingly murdered by random order.

The facts will continue to come as investigations continue. We need facts as human beings in order to steady our minds and grapple with understanding. We must have facts, and yet we can be easily overwhelmed by them. Some “facts” will actually turn out not to have been facts at all. National Public Radio helpfully and honestly ended its news coverage of the massacre with very important words and I quote,

“This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities. We will update as the situation develops.”

I count that as both helpful and honest and a rare statement, a very helpful clarification on the part of the mainstream media. But the facts of who and what and where and how, still unfolding, point to the even more difficult question — why?

Why would anyone kill a fellow human being? Why launch an ambush massacre upon concertgoers listening to country music? Why premeditate a mass killing?

Was he driven by some obsession, fueled by some grievance? Was he sending a signal or political message as an act of terrorism? Is the answer psychiatric or pharmacological? Our minds crave an answer.

Why do we ask why?

We cannot help but ask why because, made in God’s image, we are moral creatures who cannot grasp or understand the world around us without moral categories. We are moral creatures inhabiting a moral universe and our moral sense of meaning is the faculty most perplexed when overwhelmed by horror and grief.

The terror group known as ISIS or the Islamic State claimed that Stephen Paddock was a “lone wolf” attacker who had recently converted to Islam. Law enforcement authorities said there is no evidence of anything related at this point to ISIS or to Islam.

Clark County (NV) Sheriff Joe Lombardo told reporters that he was not sure if the massacre was sending a message as a terror attack. In the Sheriff’s words,

“We have to establish what his motivation is first. And there’s motivating factors associated with terrorism other than a distraught person just intending to cause mass casualties.”

As far as we know, Paddock left no note and communicated no clear message of motivation or intent. The gunfire tells some story, but we do not yet know what the story is. To our utter frustration, we may never know. That troubles us, and so it should. Knowing the story and determining the motivation would add rationality to our understanding, but we will never really understand.

A massacre by a lone gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. Another killed 27, mostly children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Yet another killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. We really do not fully understand any of these attacks, nor countless other outbreaks of evil around the world.

One of the main Christian theological insights about evil is that it is so often absurd. That’s exactly the right word. It is ultimately inexplicable, unfathomable, and cannot be resolved by human means.

President Trump has demonstrated little interest in academic disputes over moral philosophy so he probably did not intend to wade into deep theoretical waters when he called the massacre “an act of pure evil.” But the president called it right,

“In times such as these I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness.”

The president went on to say,

“The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.”

That is exactly how a president should speak, and underlining the “act of pure evil” as evil is exactly how a morally sane person should think. The judgment of evil here, real evil, should be beyond dispute.

The importance of moral facts, not just moral values, and the reality of evil

Evil is a fact, too. And evil is a theological category. The secular worldview cannot use the word with coherence or sense. The acknowledgement of evil requires the affirmation of a moral judgment and a moral reality above human judgment. If we are just accidental beings in an accidental universe, nothing can really be evil. Evil points to a necessary moral judgment made by a moral authority greater than we are — a transcendent and supernatural moral authority: God.

College professors tell us that moral relativism has produced a generation of Americans who resist calling anything evil, and even deny the existence of moral facts. Justin P. McBrayer, who teaches at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, wrote in The New York Times that

“many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts.”

That’s truly frightening, but McBrayer argues that by the time students arrive at college, they have already been told over and over again that there are no moral facts — that nothing is objectively right or wrong.

Only the Christian worldview, based in the Bible, can explain why moral facts exist, and how we can know them. Only the biblical worldview explains why sinful humanity commits such horrible moral wrongs. The Christian worldview also promises that God will bring about a final act of moral judgment that will be the final word on right and wrong — as facts, not merely speculation. The Gospel of Christ points us to the only way of rescue from the fact of our own evil and guilt.

Our hearts break for the families and communities now grieving, and we pray for them and for those even now fighting for life.

It is both telling and reassuring that secular people, faced with moral horror as we see now in Las Vegas, can still speak of evil as a moral fact — even if they continue to deny moral facts in the classrooms and courtrooms. No one can deny that the horror in Las Vegas came about by an act that was evil, pure evil, and evil as a fact.

I think of the Prophet Isaiah’s words,

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

Why, in times of trouble, the American people expect their president to quote Scripture

Next, the President of the United States made his public comments yesterday. Something happened that reveals a great deal about the presidency and also about the people of the United States. Eugene Scott at the Washington Post noticed it when he wrote,

“President Trump departs from the habits of his predecessors in many ways, but not in this one: In his Monday speech after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Trump used biblical language to comfort Americans trying to make sense of the tragedy.”

The president went to the psalms in his comments stating,

“Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” he continued, “We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve.”

Eugene Scott then said that,

“Recent reports have highlighted that the percentage of Americans who are Christian is declining” that number is relative “In 1990, the number of Christians in the United States,” according to at least one major study was 86%.

Now, by the way, that’s 86% of respondents identifying themselves as Christians. According to the American Religious Identification survey, that number is now about 70%. We simply note that’s a significant decrease, but 70% is still the clear majority of Americans. And Scott went on to report that since the early 1990s, according to the same survey, the percentage of Americans identifying as either atheist or agnostic or nothing in particular, has just about tripled in size. That’s not new data. It’s not data unique to the American Religious Identification survey, but it provides the background for Eugene Scott pointing to the fact that even as America is becoming more secular in a time of trouble in the aftermath of a disaster, especially a moral disaster, the President of the United States who ever that president may be has a reflex to turn to the Bible, to Scripture, in order to speak to the American people.

Scott explains this by arguing that despite the changes in the nation’s spiritual profile,

“when the country suffers a tragedy, many Americans look to the president for some sort of comfort — including spiritually.”

I think it’s actually fair to say that the vast majority of Americans look to the President of the United States for some steadying moral word of comfort, including spiritual comfort. This underlines the fact that every President of the United States has in one way or another played a role in what is rightly called America’s civic or civil religion. Civil religion is not authentic Christianity, but it presumes Christianity as the very source of meaning and even of language. Citing previous presidents who had quoted scripture, he pointed back to George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 attacks, who also turned to the Psalms to President Barack Obama, who after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords turned in his comments to the public to the words of the book of Job.

Actually if he wanted an historic precedence, Scott could’ve gone all the way back to the first President of the United States George Washington who used similar biblical language, and furthermore, just about every single President of the United States at one time or another in one context or another has turned to scripture in public statements in order to invoke a higher moral meaning. And that’s very important in itself because the Christian scriptures still represent the language of moral meaning to which Americans turn in a time of trouble. That tells us that the secular nature of the American society, undoubtedly increasingly secular in many ways, points to the limitations of the secular worldview. When Americans do need a moral authority, they still tend instinctively to turn to scripture and to expect their elected leader, the President of the United States, to do the same.

But there’s something beyond that that’s extremely helpful. Also something very important for us to recognize. The President of the United States in virtually every case, and in the case of President Trump speaking on Monday did not invoke his own authority. In order to grant the kind of moral solace to the American people, in order to speak meaningfully and morally about the massacre that had just taken place, President Trump turned to scripture. That’s a very important way of the President of the United States saying I cannot resolve this moral issue. I am not equal to this moral challenge. None of us is. All of us together are not. This requires a higher authority. That’s a very healthy impulse behind the President of the United States, including President Trump on Monday turning to scripture and doing so very self-consciously and very publicly.

There may be any number of secular critics who will criticize this president and for that matter previous presidents as well for turning to scripture in such a public way. But what we need to note is that they offer absolutely no alternative. There is no solace nor even an adequate moral vocabulary that would come from any secular source. It’s not an accident that presidents have turned so regularly to scripture. They do so in public, even if perhaps they do not do so in private. In public, the moral vocabulary for which they are grasping can be found only in scripture, and the kind of comfort they intend to give can be grounded only in scripture. Reflexes tell us a very great deal not only about an individual, but about a society. And the reflex to turn to scripture is very telling about the American people. It tells us that the American people when faced with a brush with eternity, when faced with a great a momentous moral challenge, know that we in ourselves simply do not have even the moral vocabulary to speak to one another meaningfully about what has just happened. We are indeed moral creatures. We can’t help but be moral creatures, but in the face of this kind of moral evil, we come to understand just how finite we are, including our moral understanding. This is where we all grasp for a higher authority. That reflex tells us something. Christians are those who understand what that reflex tells us. What we hunger for is not just moral understanding, but redemption.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing