The Briefing 10-04-17

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How to speak in the aftermath of a massacre, even in a context of controversy

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Awkwardness in using the word evil reveals bigger problems

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When the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t answer the question, he actually has answered the question

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The Briefing

October 4, 2017

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

It’s Wednesday, October 4, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

​We’ll consider how to speak even in a context of controversy in the aftermath of a massacre. We will see that awkwardness in using the word evil reveals bigger problems. And we will understand why when the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t answer the question he actually has answered the question.

How to speak in the aftermath of a massacre, even in a context of controversy

Today we know a bit more than we knew yesterday about the awful events that took place Sunday night in Las Vegas. We know today that the death toll is approaching 60 with more than 500 injured. And of course now we know a good deal more of the stories of those who are the victims of this massacre, both those who have died and those who are still fighting for life. We know something more about the perpetrator, the murderer. We know his name was Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old retiree, who was a habitual high-stakes gambler. We now know that somehow he was able to transport more than 20 weapons to that 32nd floor perch from which he aimed his guns. And we know a good deal more about those guns, including the fact that at least one of them operated as an automatic weapon. It is now argued by police authorities that he was using what is known as a bump in order to turn a semi-automatic weapon into one that functioned as an automatic weapon.

But what we do not know today is what we did not know yesterday, and the vexing thing is that we may never know. The one question being asked over and over again by law enforcement authorities, by those in the media and by everyday Americans and others around the world is why. That raises a question I was asked yesterday from the media. The question is this: why is an answer concerning motivation so important to us? And this from a Christian worldview perspective underlines something about what it means that we are indeed moral creatures. We are also rational creatures. This is a part of what it means to be made in God’s image. As rational creatures we want to know a rational reason or at least some motivation we can rationally understand, whereby someone would undertake such a murderous rampage.

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But of course that underlines the fact that there is no rational answer to the question. There is no rationality to such an act of evil. But we still want to know something. We want somehow to make the answer explicable to ourselves as to how this happened. That is an understandable desire. It’s a very understandable even commendable impulse. But in a case of mass murder like this, it is likely to be an impulse that is frustrated. The level of premeditation is also something we know in greater detail than we knew yesterday. Premeditation that included the use of multiple cameras by which Stephen Paddock intended to watch the police as they might approach his hotel room. It is now believed that seeing the police coming he decided to kill himself before they could storm the room.

But amidst the host of questions raised by such a massacre. One of them is this, how should we even speak of it, especially in public, especially in a controversial and politicized context? Greg Sargent writes a column for the Washington Post. He identifies his own perspective as leaning left. And in the aftermath of the massacre in Las Vegas, he dared to ask the question – how do we speak about those events and their meaning? What is behind them and what are the implications of this kind of mass murder in America? He then suggests there is a right way to politicize mass shootings and a wrong way to politicize them. Now that might sound absurd on its face, but he’s using the word politicized here in a rather neutral manner. Suggesting that one way or another, this will become an issue of our political conversation. He dares to say there is a right way and a wrong way for that to happen. He makes very interesting points. One of his key issues is this,

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to discern the belief system of mass killers, provided that this is part of a broader effort to learn all we can about the killer; provided that this belief system itself is not reflexively tagged as the cause of the shooting; provided that other causes are given due weight; and provided we don’t use the shooting to tar our ideological opponents and their worldviews.”

He concludes in that paragraph,

“We all know what that latter tactic looks like. Let’s not do it.”

Indeed, let’s not do it. So let’s look at Mr. Sargent’s proposal straightforwardly. He does understand that there is an impulse to try to discern the belief system of mass killers. Then he makes several provisos as I read his paragraph. He said it has to be,

“part of a broader effort to learn all we can about the killer;”

No lack of agreement there. He then says,

“provided that this belief system itself is not reflexively tagged as the cause of the shooting”

He means by that that if, for example, there is a mass murderer who is identified with a certain belief system, such as Islam, it should not be merely reduced to that. Well, again, there’s a basic agreement on that point, but he goes on to say,

“provided that other causes are given due weight;”

The question there, of course, is what due weight would mean. And then he says,

“provided we don’t use the shooting to tar our ideological opponents and their worldviews.”

And of course he’s right. We do know what that looks like. He goes on to say,

“That said, there is nothing wrong with politicizing mass shootings in a different sense: They are,” he argues, “the right occasions for intense arguments over how to prevent them in the future.

Now there’s something to that argument, of course, because Americans cannot turn away from this new story. It has the national attention. Political leaders have to speak to the massacre, and they have to say something that is meaningful or at least close to meaningful. And furthermore there are policy and legal issues very much at stake. In the aftermath of this kind of shooting, you can count on the fact that both sides in the gun control argument will be mobilized to try to argue that the massacre is or is not relevant to that question and would or would not have been prevented by some specific or generalized proposal concerning gun control.

At this point, intellectual honesty should require us to understand that most of the proposals that are made in the aftermath of this kind of massacre would actually not prevent this specific kind of crime. But Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, at least deserves credit for trying to urge raising the level of this discussion to a higher plane in the aftermath of this kind of massacre. In light of the fact that there will be controversy, and that will take place in a politicized environment at the very least, we ought not to misrepresent those on the other side of the political environment in terms of our representations.

Now at this point I want to note something else about what we now know in the aftermath of that horrifying attack in Las Vegas. We now know that arguments against moral responsibility immediately have fallen to the wayside. In recent decades there have been many efforts to try to minimize or reduce our understanding of human moral responsibility. It has been argued that economic and social factors are to blame. That psychiatric or psychological issues are to blame. There are academics who argue that free will in terms of moral decision-making is actually just an illusion, and human responsibility is ephemeral. But here you will note that such suggestions look not only irrational and theological, they look to be immoral at the present moment. No sane person is arguing that the killer in Las Vegas does not bear responsibility for his actions. Academics and others may give themselves arguments trying to reduce organized human moral responsibility, but you will notice just how quiet they are in the aftermath of this kind of undiluted evil. At this point, the denial of human moral responsibility looks not only foolish but evil itself.

Awkwardness in using the word evil reveals bigger problems

Yesterday on The Briefing I talked about the absolute necessity of using the word evil, of the Christian worldviews affirmation of the reality of evil and of evil as a moral fact in the midst of a society that is increasingly uneasy or uncertain even about the existence of moral facts. Writing in the Erasmus column at the Economist yesterday, the unidentified writer, and the Economist is one of the major most influential newsmagazines in Europe, the Erasmus column stated,

“Since the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, the word ‘evil’” and here I note the word evil is put in quotation marks “has been heard with unusual frequency, on the lips of political leaders as well as clerics. This evil-talk is not just a reflex response or a banal statement of the obvious. It has philosophical implications,” so good, I would say so far.

But then consider the very last words,

“and often places the speaker in a particular corner of the debate about guns.”

My purpose here is not to discuss the debate about guns at all. But here you have one of the most influential columns and one of the most influential newsmagazines in Europe, suggesting that if you use the word evil in this context, you must be talking about guns on one side of the argument or other. I find that particular argument absurd, but that’s where in the column I get dragged into the argument. The columnist cites my article published on Monday. He then says,

“As he argued in a response to the killings, evil is a Biblical category. It can only be fully understood from a spiritual perspective which accepts both a loving God and the existence of forces ranged in opposition that will ultimately be defeated.”

Once again, I would simply say, so far so good. But then after citing one of my paragraphs about evil as a moral fact, the writer says,

“Another clear implication of the stress on ‘evil,’” and it’s very telling once again the word evil is put in quotation marks as if it’s somehow a term of art, is the writer says, “that there is no point trying to stop its effects through regulation.”

The columnist continues,

“If evil is an inexorable feature of a fallen plane of existence, one that has been tainted from the very start of things by human sin, then no policy measures will ever remove it.”

The columnist goes on,

“The only response to evil is to identify it clearly, to avoid secular soft-headedness, and perhaps to mitigate its effects as and when they arise, without presuming to abolish it. In other words, gun control will not work.”

Now the important thing here is that the columnist here in the Economist yesterday is taking my essay from Monday and making an argument that profoundly and very clearly I did not make. At this point I’m rather sympathetic to Greg Sargent’s argument in the Washington Post that in this kind of context we ought to be particularly careful not to misrepresent what others are trying to say. I never even raised the issue of gun control, either positively or negatively. There’s no reference to it all, and furthermore there is certainly no reference to the fact that government has no responsibility to try to restrain evil. Just in terms of Romans Chapter 13, that is biblically one of the main assignments that is given to government. I didn’t address that at all in the column, but somehow it became a catalyst for this columnist in the Economist to try to argue that if you use the word evil, and again he points to its use and then puts it in quotation marks as if it’s a strange and exotic word, then one must as the columnist here seems very clearly to say actually be using the word as code language for some kind of political agenda. That assumption and the awkwardness reflected in this column of using the word evil is to me very sad testimony of the very point I was trying to make. We’re in very dangerous territory when the word evil is assumed either to require some kind of justification for its use as a term of art, or furthermore, now to make the argument that it must be a cover for actually making an argument about something else.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t answer the question, he actually has answered the question

But next speaking of the absence of moral and biblical clarity, an article broke in the mainstream media, first of all in the United Kingdom yesterday, about an interview that the current leader of the Anglican church, the Church of England, had given to the British edition of Gentlemen’s Quarterly, an interview between Alastair Campbell, a well-known political figure identified with the administration of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the midst of the conversation, Mr. Campbell asked the Archbishop a question quite directly,

“Is gay sex sinful?”

You’ll notice it’s just a four word sentence. It’s very straightforward, and the question was posed to the man who is the chief theological and pastoral leader of the Church of England. Archbishop Welby responded by saying,

“You know very well that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to. Sorry, badly phrased there. I should have thought that one through.”

But then he went on to say, I can’t give a straight answer to that question. When Campbell asked, why can’t you? The archbishop said,

“Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.”

Now at this point we already face a theological and biblical and moral disaster. Now you have the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is not only the theological and pastoral leader of the Church of England, but also the leader of the Anglican Communion worldwide, who admits he doesn’t have a clear answer to a very straightforward question, is gay sex sinful? Now that’s not only a pastoral default. Here we have a complete theological and biblical meltdown. Now let’s try for a moment to bracket the question as to whether or not we know the answer to the question. Let’s just point to the obvious, the Archbishop of Canterbury had better know the answer to the question.

And we also need to point to something else. Neither side in this controversy is going to be pleased at all with this absolute non-answer from the Archbishop of Canterbury. If you are going to accept election and consecration as the Archbishop of Canterbury, you’re going to take on this kind of responsibility, even as pastor of a local church, then you had better be ready to give a straightforward answer when the question is asked in such a straightforward way. The failure to give the answer is a massive failure. But in this case it’s a strategic failure, and one the Archbishop fully understands. It is he who said, you know very well in response to the interviewer,

“that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to.”

That reminds me of what took place several years ago when Brian McLaren known as one of the leaders of what has been known as the emerging church suggested that Christians ought to take a moratorium. I think he suggested about of five years for answering the question until we can figure out the answer. Well, first of all, you can figure out the fact that if someone’s unwilling to answer in a straightforwardly biblical way about a question of sin that is so fundamentally addressed in Scripture, then one is actually trying to find a way not only not to answer the question, but to get to a way to answer it in a way that conflicts with Scripture and with the entirety of the Christian tradition, to argue that it must not be the case that gay sex is wrong or sinful. We also need to note that the Archbishop makes it worse when he says that the things to him that are absolutely central and using his language,

“are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.”

Well that’s just a roadmap to get to the endorsement and the celebration of same-sex marriage. There’s no way around it. And he seems to understand that even as he refuses to answer the question straightforwardly. But here we need very carefully to note that this is not only a question that is to be expected, to be asked by this kind of interviewer in a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury this is the kind of questions that persons deeply in need of an answer in terms of their own lives and their own souls will address to pastors or for that matter just to persons they know to be Christians. It’s a question that demands a biblical answer not just in order to get the answer right in terms of biblical fidelity and accuracy. But in order to answer the sold driven honest question by a person struggling with sin, is this really sin? The answer to that is not only a matter of biblical fidelity as if you could even say it that way it’s an answer that has direct impact upon our understanding of the gospel and our ability to share the gospel with someone who desperately needs to hear it. The answers given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the nonanswers in this case, given in this interview are not only awkward, they are absolutely catastrophic, and in them is a lesson for us all.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing