Sage Advice From The Man From Plains

Sage Advice From The Man From Plains August 11, 2009

It has often been said that Jimmy Carter did more good after leaving office than when he was President of the United States.  Frankly, I think Carter gets a bum rap, and only failed as a President because he told the truth far more often than we in America could bear to hear it!  Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking a lot about our words and our attitudes lately.  In fact, I recently wrote a post here at VN entitled “The Raca Principle” (check it out if you need background to what I’m about to say).  As I’ve reflected on our words and our cultural attitudes as Christians, I’ve been reminded time and again of something I recently learned from Jimmy Carter while watching the extraordinary documentary about this man entitled The Man From Plains.

In one particular scene Carter is at his local Baptist church teaching Bible study as he has done for years.  He’s a very humble man, wearing a bolo tie, a plaid shirt, a pair of khakis and a navy blue blazer.  He speaks in the tones of an educated man, but he constantly makes it clear that he’s no different from anyone else in this modest parish.

During his talk he begins to address several questions from the audience about how he feels about George W. Bush.  In one case there’s even the question as to whether or not we as Christians can consider Bush a fellow Christian given his attitudes on war, the environment, and poverty.  Of course, my interest was peaked, but I didn’t expect to be convicted by what Carter would say in response to this query.

Ever the peacemaker, Carter proceeded to explain that in this day and age there are two types of Christians in America.  On the one hand there are those Christians who follow the “Jesus as the Prince of Peace” model, and then there are Christians who focus more on “Jesus the Divine Warrior.”  Carter admitted that he wished all Christians followed the “Prince of Peace” model, but lamented that it has always been a minority throughout Church history that have followed the non-violent Christ.  However, he also said that just because some of us follow the Prince of Peace model doesn’t mean we have the right to say to our fellow sisters and brothers who don’t follow this model that they aren’t REAL Christians!  In fact, he goes on to admonish all peaceful Christians to stop saying things like, “Bush is an idiot!” or that “He isn’t a Christian!”  Instead, Carter suggests that we who follow Jesus as the Prince of Peace come to grips with the fact that we are simply having a very delicate and very profound theological disagreement with other Christian sisters and brothers about things like the environment, healthcare, war, and power.

At this point something in my head said, “Thanks a lot Jimmy!” because I knew all too well that I’d verbally slimed Bush with all sorts of “Bush is an idiot” slogans, especially while I was living in Canada where it was so easy to engage in the sliming!  But what Carter points out here is very important and relates to Jesus admonishing his followers not to call fellow sisters and brothers “fools!” (see my previous post).

As I’ve studied non-violent theory under Michael Nagler, a retired professor at Berkley who teaches Peace Studies as a scientific discipline, I’ve been amazed how many times peace activists turn to the old Christian maxim, “love the sinner and hate the sin.”  I grew up with a mom who’s a psychologist, so I’ve also heard a psychological variation of this theory.

My mom is greatly influenced by both Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis.  To this day she still says, “People need Rogers when they first go into therapy because they need empathy.  But if they want to get well, then they need Ellis to scream at them!”  Different psychological theories aside, I remember once reading a selection of articles from Ellis where he kept repeating over and over again, “We must stop ‘damning’ the other!”  He would even go so far as to say, “The worst person that you know still has something good to offer!”

As Ellis continued on he pointed out that in our society most people “damn the person” instead of the “stupid actions” of the person in question.  In other words, instead of saying, “Bush made a really poor decision when he invaded Iraq,” we immediately attack the person, “Bush is an idiot because he invaded Iraq.”  Thus we “damn” him and make it impossible for ourselves to see any good in the person we’re attacking.

It seems like we in the greater Church today have fallen into this same trap.  On VN it comes from both the contributors and the people who post comments in response to the blog posts on VN.  If we really hold to the tenant–and this is what Carter was getting at–that all people are made in the “image of God” then we can hardly deem anyone an “idiot” because that means there’s something really idiotic about God!  There are dumb points made by all of us for sure, but none of us here are dumb people; all of us–even the non-Christians–are made in the image of God.

So, let me push this for a moment….

I don’t particularly like Sarah Palin, but I do have the responsibility as a follower of Jesus to love her as a sister in Christ.  Many of us have the knee-jerk reaction of referring to Sarah as an “idiot.”  The problem is, she’s made a profession of faith–she believes in Jesus just like I believe in Jesus.  We’ve some major theological disagreements for sure, but when has any of us ever been theologically right 100% of the time?  However, it is her actions that are the problem, not her per se.  Furthermore, we must address what is behind her actions.

In our culture, I think it goes without saying that most poor choices are made at the national level because of a hunger for power and fear.  Usually this fear has something to do with feeling as if one is loosing control.  It bothers me when I see people at town hall meetings betraying every stereotype of the loud, fat, obnoxious American saying things that make me want to rethink my entire endeavor into higher education.  But, I think these people are genuinely scared–and that is precisely where we should have compassion for them.  Furthermore, Sarah is a sister in Christ who seems much more concerned these days about creating fear and getting power than in working for the Justice of God’s Kingdom.  Should we not weep for her, then, as opposed to calling her an “idiot?”  Should we not pray that she and every single one of us turn away from the idols of power, nationalism, and greed?  Besides, we really do need to address the fears of those showing up in disgust at these town hall meetings, because they do seem like lost sheep on their way to some phantasmagoric slaughter.

The questions are myriad:  What could be causing this fear?  Why are they so afraid?  What’s behind all of this that we need to address so that we can continue to treat these people like the human beings that they are?  And, if they are Christians as many of them claim to be, what do we need to do in order to help them see that “perfect love has already cast out THE fear?”  I’ve often wanted to ask the woman with the huge cross around her neck scolding the US Senator why she feels a need to be so angry?  What has hurt her so deeply that she must lash out at her fellow human being made in the image of God?  I also want to know why the election of a black President has caused her faith to crack into millions of tiny pieces?  “God is in control…” I would say to her, and I would wait for an answer while showing her what St. Paul has to say in Romans 13:1-7.  There’s really no need for you to worry about anything…

If I were talking to these people and to Sarah Palin I think I would start by apologizing.  I would tell them that I’ve said some horrible things about them, but I would also remind them that they’ve said some horrible things as well.  They may not agree with Barack Obama; they may not even like him.  But, he has made a public profession of faith in Christ.  This means that he is their brother in Christ and that they must not treat him like he’s an “idiot!”

One of the things that broke my heart this past election year is the fact that both McCain and Obama professed a belief in Jesus.  I wasn’t thrilled by Rick Warren’s actions when he had both of the candidates share their stories at Saddleback Church in California.  But, even Warren made the point that both McCain and Obama are deeply religious people.  His quote from an interview on CNN was as follows: “They are both Christians.  They may not be evangelicals like me, but they are both devout Christians.”  Assuming that’s a true statement, then my heart breaks all the more because it means that two Christians, McCain and Obama, spent the last year or so spending millions of dollars and a lot of time trashing one another!  And, frankly… I think that here’s where the Church should’ve stepped in… (that money could’ve been used for much better things).

As much as we need to put a human face on poverty and war, we also need to put a human face on … well… everyone.  If we believe Jesus to be the ultimate theologian and philosopher, then war doesn’t start because someone dropped a bomb on someone else’s country.  Nor does a murder come about–in most cases–because someone bought a new knife at WalMart and thought it would be fun to test it out.  Jesus thinks that it’s our hatred, our words, and our anger, that leads to these greater things.

The rabbis tell us the following story:

One day a man was driving his cart full of apples into town.  A great rabbi stopped him and said, “You are the ugliest person I’ve ever met!”  The man driving the car turned to the rabbi and said, “Then you go and tell God, who made me in his image, how bad of a job he did when he created me!”

May we never have to hear that!  And, may we continue to thank the Man from Plains for making us think…

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