2016-06-30

For the past 25 years, former president Jimmy Carter has taught a Sunday Bible study class at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. On the 30-40 weekends a year he's in town, he leads a group of locals and tourists in conversation and study. As the first of an ongoing series of these recorded weekly lessons was released in CD form, he sat down with Beliefnet's Executive Editor, Elizabeth Sams, to talk about his faith, its impact on his public life, and the controversy surrounding his most recent book. Watch segments of the interview, sample his audio Bible lessons, or read the full interview below.


 

His Faith

 

Religion & Politics

 

Middle East Peace

 
 
Leading a Worthy Life

Sample His Lessons


Excerpted with permission from the new Simon & Schuster audio series,
Leading a Worthy Life, Volume One of SUNDAY MORNINGS IN
PLAINS: Bible Study with Jimmy Carter.


 
Your first lesson on Ephesians describes man's reconciliation to God through grace and the sacrifice of Christ. Do you believe that grace ultimately applies to people who don't presently believe in Jesus?

Yes, I do. I remember two things. One is that in John 3:16, which is probably the best known verse in the Bible - "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son."

And Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, said we should love our neighbors, but also love those who despise us and hate us and our enemies. So, the opportunity for everyone to be saved through the grace of God with faith in Christ applies to everyone.

'My own personal belief is one of God's forgiveness and God's grace.'

And I have been asked often, you know, in my Sunday School classes, which are kind of a give and take debate with people from many nations and many faiths - what about those that don't publicly accept Christ, are they condemned? And I remember that Christ said, "Judge not that ye be not judged."

And so, my own personal belief is one of God's forgiveness and God's grace. That's the best answer I can give.

Given your life-long involvement with questions of church & state, do you think the current administration has brought too much, or not enough Christianity into government?

I think the current Administration has departed from two or three things that I was taught as a child. One is we worship the Prince of Peace, not preemptive war.

'We worship the Prince of Peace, not preemptive war.'

And no other President before has ever espoused publicly a policy of going to war unless our own security was directly threatened, not because we just wanted to overthrow a regime or because we thought that that country that we are attacking militarily might some day in the future hurt us. That's one thing from which we have departed.

And I don't think there's any doubt that this Administration has also injected the religious aspect of using say public funds in an unprecedented way. And those funds, quite often, have gone heavily towards Christian churches and they've even gone to Christian churches that only accept as employees or only accept sources of their benevolence who are Christians.

So, I think that, in some ways, that has been a departure. And some of the public statements that have been made from our top officials have also clearly indicated a strong preference for Christianity at the expense perhaps of other faiths. So, that is a departure from historic precedents that had been established by previous Presidents.

Can you picture a good President who had no faith?

Yes, I can. I think there can be a President, a good President, who doesn't have a commitment to a particular faith but would try to exemplify basic moral values and to honor meticulously the historic commitments of our nation through our Constitution and laws, that would promote human rights and justice and peace, equality of treatment, the alleviation of suffering.

So, there could very well be a President who had no faith that could be a good governor of our country.

Whether that person could be elected if he or she professed to be an atheist would be another very serious question. And I doubt that that would be possible, at least in the foreseeable future.

You have said agape love is the highest calling of Christianity but that you felt constrained in exercising it asPresident. Is that right?

The highest call of a Christian, obviously, is agape love or a sacrificial love, love for people who are not lovable, who don't love you back, a love without any thought or expectation that it will be recognized and receive accolades for your being a lovable person.

So, that's a very difficult thing to do. And it's obviously out of the question, the agape love, for a President to exercise because you have to protect your country.

But, at the same time, the other teachings of Christ were very important to me. And although I've tried to separate church and state in the most vivid way, the way my father taught me when I was in his Sunday School class a child, I tried to impose other Christian beliefs, but also, by the way, the beliefs of Islam and Hinduism and Judaism and Buddhism, and that is peace.

I would say particularly with Christians, we worship the Prince of Peace. And we are reminded of that all the way through the teachings of Christ.

And Christ exemplified humility. He exalted people who were servants of others and He emphasized forgiveness of those who hurt you.

In the Sermon on the Mount, He said "Love the ones who hate you" and so forth. And then, we've already discussed agape love. Those are the kind of things that I tried to exemplify without sacrificing the best interests of our people.

Is there one Bible passage that is your favorite?

There's a strange passage in 2 Corinthians that I use every now and then where the Corinthians came to Paul and said, you know, "What is important?  What is permanent?"  And Paul said, "The things you cannot see."  And they were critical about what that meant.

And he said, "The things that people desire and are their main ambitions for money and a beautiful life and public approbation and fame and security and even long life are the things that we spend our existence working to achieve and it's legitimate ambitions. "But," Paul said, "those are insignificant in the eyes of God."

The things that are significant are, to repeat myself, the things you cannot see. And, of course, the things that you cannot see are the principles of Jesus Christ.

He had no money. He didn't have any ostentatious house. He didn't even have a donkey to ride on permanently. He was abandoned by his friends. His fame dissipated at the time of his trial and execution. He only lived to be 33 years old.

But, he exemplifies all the things that are important in the eyes of God. And that's kind of a provocative, you know, part of the Bible that I like to think about often.

But, I think everybody likes John 3:16, and everybody likes the statements of Paul's that we are saved through the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and the first verse of the eighth chapter of Romans where Paul has described all of his own sins and failures and he knows about what he ought to do, but he never does do it, and then, the first verse says that "there is therefore now no condemnation of those in Jesus Christ."

And so, those are some of my favorites just off the top of my head.

Has your faith ever led you to do or say things that have hurt you personally or professionally?

Well, I've had a few times in my public life when my faith was incompatible with my sworn duty. The one that troubles me is abortion. It did when I was President.


I'm against abortion. I've done everything I could, as Governor, as President, to minimize abortions through improved adoption procedures and through education for young people so that girls won't get pregnant without desiring to do so.

'I've had a few times in my public life when my faith was incompatible with my sworn duty. The one that troubles me is abortion.'

And once a person learns that she has a baby coming that's unwanted, to reassure her, the prospective mother, that she will have adequate care for her and her child. This is done in some foreign countries where their abortion rate is a third of ours, but where they have no rules against abortion.

But, because--let's say in the Scandinavian countries...every mother knows that when her baby's born, she's going to get full healthcare and so forth. So, I tried to do those things.

But, to uphold the Roe vs. Wade ruling of the Supreme Court, which is my duty to uphold the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, was something that I had to do as President. But, within that framework, rather than encouraging abortions in the first trimester, which is legal, I tried to do everything I could to minimize abortions. That was a problem.

And I would say, another time when I was kind of faced with a difficult choice was when our hostages were held by the Iranians for a long period of time - more than a year. And all of my advisors just about, a vast majority of them said, 'We need to launch a military attack against Iran if they don't release the hostages.'

And I felt that that was not the proper thing to do and I resisted. I had an ability to destroy Iran and to utilize America's military power. But, I decided to try to seek a peaceful resolution of that issue. And, eventually, every hostage came home safe and free and I didn't betray the principles of my country.

'I had an ability to destroy Iran and to utilize America's military power. But I decided to try to seek a peaceful resolution of that issue.'

That's the year, by the way, that I prayed more frequently and more fervently than ever in my life to let me weather that particular crisis. So, there were some times when I think my religious faith was a strong factor in the ultimate decisions that I made.

Your recent book has been a topic of lively debate on Beliefnet...

Yes, that's good. I think the last book I wrote, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," has precipitated an almost non-existent, certainly unprecedented, level of debate about how we can find peace for the Israelis and justice and respect for the human rights of the Palestinians.

And I don't see those two commitments as incompatible. But, to emphasize either one of them to the exclusion of the other one is a serious mistake.

And I tried to write a simple book, a comprehensible book, based on my own 30 years of deep involvement in the Holy Land. And I believe the book is absolutely accurate. And, obviously, people have disagreed.

Sometimes, their disagreement has been superficial, just based on the use of the one word apartheid. But, I don't have any doubt that what is perpetrated against the Palestinians now is apartheid. It's not based on racism. It's just based on a minority of Israelis who want to take and keep and colonize Palestinian land.

And in the process, they have to persecute the Palestinians to subdue them. And this is not something that goes on inside Israel. This is just in Palestine.

'I don't have any doubt that what is perpetrated against the Palestinians now is apartheid.'

So, I've tried to explain that dozens, maybe even hundreds of times to public news media. But, still, there are people who deliberately misinterpret the book.

But, the book is good. It was necessary. And it has, indeed, precipitated some almost unprecedented discussion.

If you could magically remove one barrier to peace from each side of the equation, what would you change?

Well, I would get the Palestinians to emulate what all the Arab nations have done unanimously. That is, to pledge to recognize Israel's right to exist and to exist in peace within their recognized international borders.

All the Arab countries have done it. Two-thirds of the Palestinians have done it. Hamas should do it, also. That would be on the Palestinian side.

On the Israeli side, just a withdrawal from Palestine. It's not their territory. And their persistence in occupying and building settlements and taking land away from the Palestinians and then persecuting the Palestinians - that on the Israeli side.

So, living within the international borders and foregoing any kind of violence, and recognizing the right of Israelis to live in peace - those are the two things.

Returning to Ephesians, what are one or two of its key lessons that might help denominations currently struggling with internal strife?

Well, we saw early in the Christian church, when Paul was, and Peter and others were just getting started, that their letters to those churches were obsessed with the divisions that existed then, whether a person should have to be circumcised before becoming a Christian--become a Jew first--or whether they should eat the meat dedicated to idols and that sort of thing.

And they said, "Forget about it. They were superficial things. There's just one basic belief we have to have and that will bind us together."

I would say that modern day Christians are more divided than they were in those early Christian church days. The Baptists are divided, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians from the Anglicans, the Catholics are divided from one another and so forth, maybe even more deeply before.

And it saps away, saps away at the vitality of us to expand God's kingdom through Christ in a very serious way. And Paul said that we should forget about hating each other because of gays or abortions or whether women can be pastors and things of that kind, although they might be very important to us - as eating the meat of idols was important 2,000 years ago.

What Paul said to the Corinthians, to the Ephesians, and I'd say more vividly to the Galatians, is that we should just remember one thing and that is that we're saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.

''Paul said that we should forget about hating each other because of gays or abortions or whether women can be pastors...'

If we can accept that, we can live together in harmony and peace and Christian love, and work in the name of Christ for other people around the world in harmony.

And I know from experience the intensity of feeling about women leadership. Our pastor's wife in our little tiny church is also a pastor. She's an ordained minister. My wife is an ordained deacon. So, I feel like women are on an equal basis with men.

Paul said to the Galatians, "There is no distinction between Jews or Greeks. There is no distinction between slaves or masters. There is no distinction between men and women," very clearly.

There are other people who have different opinions on other matters that I discussed to you about gays and abortions. We don't have to give up our beliefs. But, we should have those as a very secondary thing to our common belief that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

What is God proudest of you about and what's He most disappointed about?

Well, I think the only thing that I would say in a self admiration basis is that I have striven to learn about myself and to try, as best I could, to apply the principles of Christianity in my life.

In fact, Paul Tillich, a great theologian, said that religion is the search for the truth about our relationship to God and our fellow human beings. Religion is a search. So, I've searched.

So, I think, in that way, I would be satisfied with myself. But, of course, the downside is that I've failed in so many ways, you know, to exemplify the humility of Christ and the self sacrifice of Christ and His total dedication to the service of peace and justice and the alleviation of suffering of others.

So, all too often, I've been inclined to encapsulate myself in a cocoon that encompasses people like me, that look like me and speak my language and dress like me and sing the same songs and worship in the same way, to the exclusion of those who are exiled and poverty stricken and forgotten and live in a remote country. So, I've failed in that way.

At least, on rare occasions, I'm forced to reconcile my failure. So, in some ways, I've done well. In some ways, I haven't.