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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  • David Wheeler-Reed

    I apologize for how this post came out–format wise that is–I can’t quite figure out what went wrong… hopefully you’ll still be able to make sense out of it…


  • dpt

    It seems like we in the greater Church today have fallen into this same trap.”

    I recall a letter to the editor of our local diocesean newspaper, and the writer stated that President Bush’s war in Iraq was an unforgiveable sin.

    Yes, war and violence can be sinful, but unforgiveable? I’m afraid that too often we succumb to our mere emotions, and intellectually put our faith and our knowledge of the Gospel on hold.

    I will admit to such.

  • R

    I cut and pasted the mangled part into a Word document, and I could read it that way.

  • Riley Kinney

    Those who worked with Carter in the White House as staff personnel say he was one of the meanest, most impolite Presidents they worked for. Those of use who grew up in Georgia got plenty of indications of his true nature. I wouldn’t put any credence in anything he says.

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Dear Kinney: People change… and I think you might be missing the point of my entire post. I’ve heard just the opposite about Carter, and until any of us meet him face-to-face we really don’t have the right to judge him as a person.

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Thank dpt. I think you’re right… we can’t just say, “there’s no way God’s forgiving that!” We don’t have the right to make such a judgment call…

    Not that we don’t have the right to judge, but not in terms of what’s forgivable and what’s not…


  • digbydolben

    Kinney and David Wheeler-Read, I’ve met him face-to-face–twice, in fact–and I can tell you that he’s modest, humble, soft-spoken and directly focused on the person he’s speaking to.

    I met him first when he was governor of Georgia, at a political rally to which I was sent to represent my father, who couldn’t attend, and then, later, at his Presidential Library, in Atlanta. He acted the same toward me at both points in his life–separated by more than twenty years.

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Thanks dig for the post… that what I thought… and that’s what I’ve heard…


  • ben

    Let me just address some of your questions from the perspective of some on the right.

    What could be causing this fear? Nearly 50,000,000 of our fellow countrymen have dies as a result of abortion.

    Why are they so afraid? They are afraid that their neighbor, thier son or daughter of their grandson or niece or nephew could be the next to die.

    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? We need to address as a society the reality of the millions who have died, we need to be allowed to publicly acknowldge their deaths, we need to mourn them, and we need to take difinitive action to stop the killing so that the face of God is seen in the unborn person.

    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?” We need to act like the unborn are worthy of love and created in the image of God.

    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? Maybe she had grandchildren killed by an abortionist, had you considered that?

    What has hurt her so deeply that she must lash out at her fellow human being made in the image of God? Mass murder, maybe even of people she loves dearly who are her close relatives anddear family members demands a response. When civil authorities fail to act in defese of her loved ones she has bee sinned against. Anger is a justified response. Jesus turned the tables in the temple and he whipped the money changers, even though they were created 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? I wouldn’t suppose that Obama had creacked her faith into a million pieces, but perhaps he has cracked her faith in her country into a million pieces.

    I think you will see over the next several years an increase in the number of conspiracy theories coming from the right. This is precisely because they really do love their neighbors. We do not want to believe that our neighbors ae sitting idly by while the worst human rights crisis of the last half-century is played out in “helth-clinics” in our neighborhoods. We don’t want to believe that our friends and neighbors and even pastors and familiy members actually celebrate the virtues of planned parenthood. Such thought are hard to bear for those whom we know and love. It is far eaisier to believe they are being tricked, duped or manipulated by some grand conspiricay in Washington than to believe that they are actually unrepentantly evil in their choices. It is far easier to belive that our neigbors are manipulated into failing to see the humanity of the unborn than it is to believe that they are so coldly indifferent to the face of God in their fellow human beings.

  • digbydolben

    It is far easier to belive that our neigbors are manipulated into failing to see the humanity of the unborn than it is to believe that they are so coldly indifferent to the face of God in their fellow human beings.

    I think you’ve got it exactly right, in spite of yourself, ben: the people of a nation steeped in centuries of heresy are, indeed, “so coldly indifferent to the face of God in their fellow human beings.”

    You see this most readily in the condoning of abortion by that society; I see it most readily in the promotion of “unjust wars” and “legalized” “capital” murder and the brutal exploitation of the poor by “globalist” economic theory, but both are really different aspects of the same thing–the readiness of the subjects of a perverted theology to “commodify life.”

    It is very, very important–and perhaps the biggest challenge facing the modern Catholic Church–to persuade the remnants of Christendom that these issues are fundamentally CONNECTED, and that, if we don’t recognise that connection–and soon–we are all going to become implicated in a radical de-sanctification and re-enslavement of humanity that’ll make Nazidom look like a picnic. And I AM talking about a “brave new world” that would include such things as the genetic fabrication of an enslaved category of humans, about the “cleansing” away of genetic traits such as homosexuality and non-lucrative talent, about material inducement to families to promote the euthanizing of their elders, etc. etc.–the “commodification” of every single life form on this planet.

    Once my own brother, a capitalist mogul of the pesticide industry told me, when I objected to the callous blood-sucking marketing ploys of his multinational’s subsidiary in Sri Lanka (mostly involving failure to print warnings on pesticide labels in any language but English, leading to farmers’ premature deaths and mid-life crippling, after a decade or two of spraying, without masks, what they did not know was poisonous if inhaled, onto their paddy fields), saying to him, “Well, bro, there ARE people in this country who are working on natural pesticides–natural fungi and insect life, which can replace your dangerous chemicals.”

    Let me tell you what his response to me was. (It was similar, from a moral perspective, to that of the priests who will fulminate against “embryonic stem cell research” but not against the so-medically-lucrative artifical insemination that MAKES the zygotes for the stem cell research.) He said: “Do you think that my firm, which is the second or third largest chemical pesticide conglomerate on earth, isn’t already spending millions on the very research you’re speaking of? And don’t you think that when these people are ready for such technology, that we WILL SELL THEM BACK THEIR OWN FUNGI AND INSECTS–genetically modified, of course–AS OUR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY?”

    Tell me that such an attitude of brutal, amoral capitalist exploitation of the poor, of the earth and of the earth’s natural resources–an example, if ever there was one, of what Marx called the “transvaluation of all values” by the “modernizing” force of capitalism–isn’t directly related, in the spiritual dimension, to the abortion of human foetuses.

    But THAT is the argument that we HAVE to make, in order to at least be witnesses to the truths of the Gospels, at what may be the end of Christian civilisation.

  • ben

    AMEN Digbydolben!

    The twin idols of greed and lust are great cooperators in the degradation of humanity.

    We are mistaken if we don’t understand that the primary reason for the legalization of contraception and abortion in this country is that they are good for business.