Resisting the Temptation of Moral Panic

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A third round of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine failed on Monday as Russian forces continue to target cities with “tactics reminiscent of medieval siege warfare.”[1] Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of cities with heavy rocket fire has created the “fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” Millions of refugees have fled Ukraine while hundreds of civilians[2]—or thousands, according to Ukraine’s emergency service—have been killed.[3]

Predictably, the very news media and politicians who are happy to ignore the humanitarian crises of wars in countries like Ethiopia and Yemen are declaring that our nation has a moral imperative to intervene in Ukraine. They are probably correct, considering that America played a key role in convincing Ukraine to relinquish the world’s third largest supply of nuclear weapons in exchange for assurances that the United States and the United Kingdom would defend Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.[4] However, this agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, is not the basis for these claims of moral obligation. Nor do they appeal to a Christian ethos. Instead, they are rooted in a combination of political calculations and emotional responses to fear.

It is difficult to know how much of this fear is grounded in reality. The propaganda and misinformation surrounding this conflict is overwhelming.[5][6] Most recently, there appears to have been “a coordinated effort to induce panic”[7] by falsely claiming that Russia had bombed a nuclear power plant.[8][9][10] In a particularly meaningful news analysis, Tucker Carlson cautioned that America’s fear is producing a moral panic that is certain to cloud our judgment. To illustrate his point, he pointed to two recent moral panics in America: The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and COVID-19. “Ask yourself: How much of what you first heard about BLM [Black Lives Matter], and then about the coronavirus turned out in the end to be true? How many of the first stories were true?” said Carlson.[11][12]

In response to the death of George Floyd, America’s moral panic produced riots, charred cities, rampant crime, the defunding of police, and a rash of school curriculum and workplace training rooted in Critical Race Theory. Similarly, America’s moral panic over COVID-19 produced prolonged lockdowns, vaccine mandates, rampant censorship, unrestrained government spending, and “a new normal.” In short, we do not tend to make wise or restrained decisions when we operate out of a sense of fear and dread coupled with a sense of moral mission.

Fear leads to bad decision making. Not only is this self-evident in our recent news cycles, but it is also a biblical principle. Abraham’s testimony illustrates this. Having received God’s promise to make him into a great nation, Abraham followed God in great faith to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1–5). In Canaan, God again “appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’” (Gen. 12:7). However, what began in great faith was soon challenged by famine (Gen. 12:10). Abraham sought refuge in Egypt, but he feared the Pharoah. This fear prompted Abraham to willingly relinquish his wife: “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, ‘I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake’” (Gen. 12:11–13).

Abraham’s fear must have been intense to drive him to such an extreme solution. Had he simply reminded himself of His encounters with God, he would have known that Pharoah would not kill him to take Sarah for himself. After all, God had promised to build Abraham into a mighty nation and to give the land of Canaan to his offspring, but he did not yet have any children. Therefore, God would not have allowed Pharoah to kill Abraham before producing an heir. Nonetheless, the difficulties of lacking food, relocating to Egypt, and becoming subject to the authority of an autocrat produced a sense of uncertainty and fear that clouded Abraham’s judgment.

Fortunately, God intervened and returned Sarah to Abraham. Lesson learned. Or was it?

Years later, after even more personal encounters with God, divine blessings, and supernatural protection, Abraham journeyed to Gerar (Gen. 20:1). We are not told the circumstances, but we find Abraham reverting to the same lie that he told Pharoah. He told Abimelech, king of Gerar that Sarah was his sister (Gen. 20:2).

The testimony of Abraham highlights the detrimental effects that fear has upon our rationale. We remember Abraham as a man of great faith, yet even he made bad decisions when his mind was clouded by fear and uncertainty. What’s more, his poor decisions impacted his son who would make the very same mistakes as his father when faced with the same fear (Gen. 26:6–7).

Fear leads to bad decision making, but those decisions become far more problematic when they are coupled with a sense of moral responsibility that justifies those poor choices. Perhaps the greatest example of this can be found in the decision to execute Jesus for the sin of blasphemy. It was fear of Jesus’ revolutionary message and His influence upon the people that provoked Israel’s religious leaders to seek His death (Luke 22:2). Nonetheless, putting the Father’s purpose of Jesus’ atonement aside, Jesus may have survived their scheming were it not for a sense of moral imperative. At His trial, “they all said, ‘Are you the Son of God, then?’ And he said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ Then they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips’” (Luke 22:70–71).

Driven by a combination of fear and a sense of responsibility to put to death this blasphemer, “the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king’” (Luke 23:1–2). In other words, they embellished their testimony against Jesus in the hope of transferring to Pilate a sense of moral imperative. After all, he had an obligation to execute any who would use subversion to usurp the authority of Caesar.

Although their efforts toward Pilate failed, “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matt. 27:20). The crowd was so convinced that Jesus’ blasphemy must be punished that they demanded the release of a murderer and even began to riot (Matt. 27:24). Fear, coupled with a sense of misguided moral obligation, drove a populace who loved and respected Jesus to execute the very man they had hailed as “he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” only days earlier (John 12:12–13). Thus, a charge ultimately based on the envy of a select group of religious leaders who feared losing their influence over the people became a national crusade for holiness (Matt. 27:18).

Not much has changed in two millennia. We remain highly susceptible to suggestions of moral imperatives when our minds are clouded by fear. This, in turn, produces a kind of moral panic that demands action. Whether it be calls to defund the police, vaccine mandates, or a willingness to risk World War III to support the Ukrainian resistance against the evil Russians, our nation has demonstrated a proclivity for extremism in our moments of moral panic.

In such moments, it is worthwhile to recall the Bible’s examples of good men and women who made disastrous decisions because of fear and a misplaced sense of moral obligation. Moreover, it would behoove us to remember that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). Solutions driven by fear are not from God. Decisions motived by hatred and retaliation are not from God. And responses guided by emotions that bypass our sound judgment are not from God.

Moral panic is contrary to God’s will. Fortunately, He provided us with a powerful resistance to such temptation when He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell within us. Moreover, He has provided us with the surety of His Word which can make wise those who are prone to making poor decisions due to emotionalism and misguided moral imperatives (Psa. 19:7).

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Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. Patteson, Callie. “Little Progress in New Peace Talks – As Russia Unleashes ‘Medieval Siege Warfare.’” News. New York Post, March 7, 2022, 3:28 p.m. https://nypost.com/2022/03/07/russia-ukraine-peace-talks-third-round-makes-little-progress/.

2. Schnell, Mychael. “UN: More Than 1.7 Million Refugees Have Left Ukraine, 406 Civilian Deaths.” Policy. Hill, March 7, 2022, 12:15 p.m., EST. https://thehill.com/policy/international/597157-un-more-than-17-million-refugees-have-left-ukraine-406-civilian.

3. Reuters. “More Than 2,000 Ukrainian Civilians Killed During Russian Invasion – Ukrainian Emergency Service.” World. Reuters, March 2, 2022, 7:54 a.m., EST. Schnell, Mychael. “UN: More Than 1.7 Million Refugees Have Left Ukraine, 406 Civilian Deaths.” Policy. Hill, March 7, 2022, 12:15 p.m., EST. https://thehill.com/policy/international/597157-un-more-than-17-million-refugees-have-left-ukraine-406-civilian.

4. Budjeryn, Mariana. “Why Ukraine Gave up Its Nukes.” Interview by Mary Louise Kelly, NPR: All Things Heard. https://www.npr.org/2022/02/21/1082172618/why-ukraine-gave-up-its-nukes.

5. Schwirtz, Michael, Andrew Kramer and Rick Gladstone. “Humanitarian Crisis Worsens for Ukrainians Trapped in Russia’s Onslaught.” Russia-Ukraine War. New York Times, March 7, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/07/world/europe/ukraine-humanitarian-crisis-russia.html.

6. Nicholson, Katie. “There’s a Flood of Disinformation about Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine. Here’s Who’s Sorting It Out.” News. CBC, February 27, 2022, 4:00 a.m., ET. Last updated February 28, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/fact-checkers-ukraine-1.6365682.

7. Nelson, Mark (@energybants). 2022. “This is False. Zaporizhzhia does not risk a ‘nuclear radiation catastrophe.’ If it did, he would’ve ordered it off. I’m afraid to say this looks like a coordinated effort to induce panic. This is a disservice to global public, which, admittedly, is not his focus at the moment.” Twitter, March 3, 2022, 9:34 p.m. https://twitter.com/energybants/status/1499573995657646106.

8. Heintz, Jim. “Russia Attacks Ukraine Nuclear Plant as Invasion Advances.” Business. Miami Herald, March 4, 2022, 11:22 p.m. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/article258997098.html.

9. Yadav, Ishika. “Ukraine Minister’s ’10 Times Worse Than Chernobyl’ Warning on Nuclear Plant Fire.” World News. Hindustan Times, n.d. Last updated March 4, 2022, 1:35 p.m. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/ukraine-minister-s-10-times-worse-than-chernobyl-warning-on-nuclear-plant-fire-101646355509733.html.

10. Pleasance, Chris, Chris Jewers, Harriet Alexander, Chris Matthews and Kaya Terry. “Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant ‘Could Suffer a Fukushima-Style Meltdown Due to Power Being Shut Down after It Was Overrun by Russian Troops.” News. Daily Mail, March 3, 2022, 4:33 p.m., EST. Last updated March 4, 2022, 11:04 p.m., EST. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10575179/Russian-troops-fire-Ukrainian-civilians-protecting-Europes-largest-nuclear-plant.html.

11. Fox News. “Tucker: We Are at War with Russian.” YouTube video, 23:33. March 7, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PC7DzTRS7A.

12. Carlson, Tucker. “Tucker: We Are at War with Russia, Whether or Not Congress Has Declared It.” Opinion. Fox News, March 8, 2022, 12:35 a.m., EST. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/tucker-we-are-war-russia.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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