|Chris Rowland, President Carter, Mrs. Carter, David Gowler|
The above photo is of three of my heroes (the three on the left!).
This blog post may seem at first to be an amalgamation of basically unrelated thoughts and events. It is not, as I hope will become clear by the end.
I want to dedicate this post to my mentor, friend, and colleague, Christopher Rowland, Dean Ireland’s Professor in the Exegesis of Holy Scripture (emeritus) of Oxford University.
Today (Monday, 21 May) is his birthday. Happy birthday, Chris! Wish I could be there to help you and Catherine celebrate.
I first met Chris thirty-one years ago when I studied with him for a few months at Jesus College, Cambridge University, and he has become one of my dearest friends. I have learned from his intellectual brilliance, I and many others have benefited from his kind and generous heart, and I admire how he never let anyone be on the margins; he never permitted anyone’s voice to be silenced. In his own, brilliant self-effacing way, he fostered an environment of dialogic polyphony.
Chris also is also a groundbreaking scholar in apocalypticism, reception history, liberation theology, radical Christianity, grassroots movements that encourage all voices to be heard, and many other areas.
I was honored to be the co-editor, along with Zoë Bennett, of Chris’s first (of three!) Festschrift: Radical Christian Voices and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2012).
A few years ago, Chris and I co-taught a course, Portraits of Jesus, at Oxford College of Emory University. Chris lived on the Atlanta campus of Emory University--near where I live--and we would drive out to Oxford to teach the class.
During his time in Atlanta, the first thing on Chris’s wish list was to drive to Plains, Georgia, to see President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School.
We left very, very early in the morning (hint: you really need to get there early; sometimes hundreds of people--Sunday before last it was 200 out of 700--have to be turned away), but even still we initially were seated in the overflow room, where people who don’t get into the sanctuary get to watch President Carter teach Sunday School on TV (in a room right off the sanctuary). Here is a photo Chris took when President Carter came to visit the people in the overflow room.
|Photo by Chris Rowland|
As it turned out, Chris and I were the last two people who got to enter the sanctuary to listen to President Carter (we had to move after Sunday School ended and when the church service started, because our seats were reserved for the Carters and the Secret Service agents). Here is a photo Chris took of President Carter in action teaching Sunday School in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church:
|Photo by Chris Rowland|
After the service, President and Mrs. Carter went outside and patiently stood for photos with everyone who attended church that day; that’s when the photo at the top was taken. It was a great day.
Okay; I know you want to see it again:
Part II: The Revd. Dr. William Barber, the Revd. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Poor People’s Campaign
In that original ending, I highlighted an example of evangelical Christians who, in my reading of Jesus’s teachings, are coming much closer to following what Jesus would want us to do: the Revd. Dr. William Barber, the Revd. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Poor People’s Campaign that they are currently leading.
This campaign is a renewal of the one started by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968:
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America. They invited people who had been divided to stand together against the “triplets of evil”—militarism, racism, and economic injustice—to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. They sought to build a broad, fusion coalition that would audit America. Together, they would demand an accounting of promissory notes that had been returned marked “insufficient funds.” Today that effort is still incomplete.
I also recommend the excellent book by Liz Theoharis, Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans, 2017). A summary:
Jesus’s words “the poor you will always have with you” are regularly used to suggest that ending poverty is impossible, that poverty is a result of moral failures, and that the poor themselves have no role in changing their situation. In this book Liz Theoharis examines both the biblical text and the lived reality of the poor to show how that passage is taken out of context, distorted, and politicized to justify theories about the inevitability of inequality.
As I wrote in Fortune:
In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some politicians today still cite sayings of Jesus as evidence that he would approve of their neglect of the poor. John 12:8 is the most common example: “You always have the poor with you …” Left out of that (mis)interpretation is the fact that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from Jewish Scripture that makes the opposite point: The continual existence of the poor serves as the fundamental reason for God’s command to assist them, to give “liberally and ungrudgingly”: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (See Deuteronomy 15:1-11).
Part III: President Jimmy Carter
Then, the day after the Salon article appeared, last Saturday, the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher gave the commencement address at Liberty University. It is remarkable that the invitation was extended, but, given the speaker’s record, it was not remarkable that the invitation was accepted.
Jerry Falwell, Jr, the current president of Liberty University invited former President Jimmy Carter to give the keynote address. Falwell’s father played a large role in President Carter’s “involuntary retirement” (as President Carter likes to call it) by the 1980 presidential election.
I remember how unfairly the elder Falwell attacked the fellow evangelical Christian (and fellow Baptist) Carter. The reasons were less about Roe v Wade and more about Brown v Board of Education (especially the tax status of private Christian schools that discriminated).
In his introduction of President Carter last Saturday, Jerry Falwell, Jr, indirectly lamented the role that his father and others played in attacking President Carter in the late 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., “It saddens me today to think that so many conservative Christians attacked and demeaned Jimmy Carter in the 1970s for quoting Jesus Christ to a secular magazine”). He also said, "I pray that more men and women aspire to serve in public office with such courage."
Falwell then said, “The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person and give my political support to a person. Policies are important, but candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today”
I found that statement hopeful but other aspects of Falwell's 10-11 minute introduction not as hopeful (e.g., his discussion on the Hyde Act and other concerns).
Falwell made clear in his lengthy introduction--at about the 10-minute point, President Carter asked, "Can I say a few words now?"--where he agreed and disagreed with President Carter.
Here are some quotes from Falwell that I typed out from a video of the event:
Becky and I attended the opening of the Billy Graham Library in 2007 about one month after my father’s death. And I remember commenting to Becky then, that of the four former presidents speaking that day, Jimmy Carter sounded more like one of us than the rest.
At the same time many good Christians disagree about what the role of government should be in helping the poor. Jesus never said whether it was Caesar’s job to help those in need or not, but he made it clear that it is our job.
As president he did support government programs to help the poor, but he also spent the last few decades swinging a hammer himself, building housing and supporting the poor through his foundation. I am proud that Christians are uniting here today on issues where they agree rather than fighting over issues where they disagree.
President Carter's Speech:
In much of his speech, President Carter sought to stress the common ground that they as evangelical Christians shared. I was expecting a little more "Daniel in the lion's den" at points, but overall people were gracious.
President Carter spoke a little about his life history, his mission trips, 36 years (and continuing) as an Emory University professor, the world of the Carter Center to promote peace and champion human rights, its work to eradicate many diseases (e.g., the Guinea worm: When they started there were 3½ million cases in 21 countries. Last month were were 3 cases in Chad).
He spoke about the many crises the world faces, such as discrimination against women, the great disparity in wealth between the richest people and the rest of us (e.g., 8 people control more wealth than 3½ billion people, half the world’s population), the rising prison population, the increasing racial, partisan and religious divisions), and the threat of nuclear war.
In the face of nuclear war that could end all humankind, Carter said that promoting agape love is even more important.
Here are some quotes from the speech:
Need to learn how to do good for one another and to get along with our potential enemies instead of how we can prevail in combat. In other words, just follow the mandates of the Prince of Peace. Learn to live with even our enemies in peace. It’s what Jesus taught, and it will be our only chance for survival in the future.
I'm glad to say that our common faith in worshiping Jesus Christ is slowly bringing us back together.
One of the things we have to learn is how to get along, to do good for one another, in other words, just following the mandates of the Prince of Peace. We don't need enemies to fight, nor do we need "inferior" people whom we can dominate.
We are one (quoting Galatians 3:28): "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male or female, there is neither slave nor master, for ye are all one, all one, in Christ Jesus.
Even now some of us are still struggling to accept the fact that all people are equals in the eyes of God.
The end of his speech implicitly challenged the "Two Kingdoms" theology of Falwell and others (e.g., whether some of the commands of Jesus pertain to governments as well as individuals). President Carter says they do (I may not have typed all of the words correctly here from the video):
There are attributes of a superpower that go beyond military strength. It’s the same as those of a person.
Our nation should be known as a champion of peace
Our nation should be known as a champion of equality
Our nation should be known as a champion of human rights
We also should be admired for our generosity for other people in need and other moral values.
In other words, for those principles that never change. There is no reason in the world why the U.S cannot epitomize these high virtues.
As a Christian, I believe the ultimate fate of human beings will be good, with God’s love prevailing.
Use three gifts that God gives us: life, freedom and in effect a guarantee that every single one of us will have enough talent and enough opportunity to live a completely successful life. As judged by God.
We decide the kind of person we choose to be:
We decide whether we tell the truth or benefit from telling lies. We’re the ones who decide, do I hate or am I filled with love? We’re the ones who decide, do I think only about myself, or do I care for others? We ourselves make these decisions and no one else. There are no limits to our ambition as a human being and we have available to us, every one of us, constant contact with God in heaven.
I know this was a very long post--I should have broken it up into three parts.
My main point is that, with people like President Carter, Rosalynn Carter, William Barber, Liz Theoharis, Chris Rowland, and countless others, there is still hope.