Teaching the Bible with President Jimmy Carter
The former President of the United States discusses the Bible and what it's like to teach Sunday school to people of all faiths.
BY: Stephen Russ
Peace has been a big part of your life, but in your writing you acknowledge that the Bible shows a side of God that is quite violent. How do you reconcile the two?
Well, you know, I’m a Christian, and although I don’t criticize people that have other faiths, and I certainly don’t criticize any element in the Holy Book including the Hebrew Scriptures, I really derive my life lessons and the things that I try to do from the life of Jesus Christ and I believe that the teachings of Jesus obviously earned him the title Prince of Peace. He reached out to those that were in conflict, He reached out to those that were despised, who were in need, who were outcasts in society, who were looked upon as especially sinful, and said those were the ones that He came to minister to. So I don’t feel any incompatibility about it, I’m an avowed Christian and I go by the teachings of Jesus more than I do some of the stories in the Old Testament. We have to remember that they were written about the history of the Jewish people, and although Isaiah and some others very clearly point out that God was a God of all people on earth, that was an emphasis that Jesus made when He came that was not looked upon favorably by the Jewish leaders of that time because they thought that the covenant of Abraham was exclusively for Jews, and Jesus made sure that they knew that this was not the case. Paul emphasized too that the covenant with Abraham was made not because he was a Jew but because he had faith. So, I’m not trying to preach Old Testament versus New Testament, but to just explain my own point of view as a Christian.
You have done a great deal of work to improve human rights for many around the world, what do you think is the Bible’s ultimate message on human rights?
I think that Americans, if you ask an average class even in the church, what are the basic human rights? They would quickly say to you like college students would, or people on the street, that the human rights are freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, the right to trial by jury, and they would stop there. But the fact is that human rights encompass a lot more. Those things, of course, but also the right for a person to have a decent place to live, the right of a person to have food to eat, a job, adequate health care, things of that kind, and so I think the social and economic rights are also very important, and I believe that the Christian faith encompasses all of them. Not to oppress other people, not to deprive them of freedom, but to give increased freedom and encouragement to stretch our hearts, to stretch our minds, to encompass more people in the beneficent effect of our own existence using the talent or ability that God has given us. So I think that the broad definition of human rights is something that I get from my Christian faith.
In the book of James you talk about “reaching out to the rejected.” Why do you think so many Americans and politicians have difficulty with that concept?
Although it’s not mentioned in the Bible, the so-called seven sins include the ones that human beings have identified, and I think the most important of those is probably pride – a belief that we are somehow superior to other people. Or to look at it a different way, that other people are inferior to us. So we look upon them as not worthy of equality of treatment. They’re not worthy of our giving them assistance, they’re not worthy of giving them a boost in life so that they can overcome a physical, mental, or economic handicap. I think pride also leads people to refrain from resolving differences peacefully because we feel that those who disagree with us are inferior to us. Sometimes we even think that those who disagree with us are not favored by God and are actually subhuman in a way. We don’t even count their lives to be important. So I think pride leads to fundamentalism in its worse form – that is we are right because we agree with God, God agrees with us, other people that disagree with us are not favored by God. That’s completely contrary to what Jesus taught.
Given the peace you’ve been able to work toward while being a devout religious man, what do you say to those who see religion as an underlying cause of conflicts?
It is, there’s no doubt about that, that’s one of the tragedies of life. People who are fervent in their beliefs, what I described a few minutes ago as fundamentalism, it’s an exultation of one’s status in secular life or in the eyes of God to the detriment of others. So we have had those wars. In ancient times of course, during the crusades it was Christians versus Muslims, and I think that was contrary to the teachings of God as well. Nowadays of course we’ll have many of our most fervent Christians who are the strongest proponents of war. When we had the unnecessary Gulf war expenses, a lot of my fellow Baptists were on the forefront of saying “let’s go to war” and some of them are now taking the same position concerning Iran. I’m not trying to be critical of them, but I think it’s contrary to Christianity, or contrary to Islam, or contrary to Buddhism, or contrary to Hinduism, to go to war. I think we should remember that facet of our faith which many of us, Christians and others, forget about.