Photo courtesy of Sara Saunders/The Carter Center
Former President Jimmy Carter is a man of great faith whose life's work includes enacting social justice with the Carter Center, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, and uniting Baptists with the New Baptist Covenant. While he has been a part of influential international discussions and has received the Nobel Peace Prize, one of his greatest pleasures is teaching Sunday school every week in Plains, Georgia. Through his latest book 'NIV Lessons From Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter', people all over the world will be able to experience the wisdom he has garnered through his long and accomplished life. I was honored to speak to him about this new book, his views on Scripture, and what he has learned about accomplishing peace and justice in the world.
What brought about the idea of doing a devotional Bible?
I’ve been teaching Bible lessons since I was eighteen years old. I was a midshipman at Annapolis and I taught Sunday school every Sunday. I taught Bible lessons on the submarine, I taught Bible lessons when I was a farmer, I taught Sunday school at the First Baptist Church in Washington about fifteen times while I was actually president, and since then I’ve been teaching at my local church in Plains (Georgia). We have about a hundred people on the roll, we have about thirty who come to church every Sunday, but we have several hundred people come to hear me teach the Bible. I think I’ve just finished teaching six hundred eighty five lessons (laughs), so I teach every Sunday that I’m home in Plains. So last summer I had both of my knees replaced and I was relatively inactive for awhile so we went through all of my Sunday school lessons and picked out about two hundred parts of them that have gone into this living Bible. I try in all my lessons to bring the Bible up to date to say “how does the ancient Biblical Scripture apply to our modern day lives?” So that’s why I think Zondervan was willing to have me participate in this new Bible.
How has your view of the Bible changed since you were President?
Well I’ve learned a lot more! When you’ve studied several hours each weekend preparing for the lesson and you know that you’re going to have people in your class who are very knowledgeable about the Bible, Pastors and missionaries come, the Sunday school teachers come, people who are Jewish and Muslim come, people who are Mennonites and Amish and Quakers come, and all kinds of Protestants, I really have a give and take lesson and I like to be well prepared. So in studying the Bible in preparation for those sessions you’ve got to dig in deeper and try to analyze what the meanings of the Scriptures are. Also, for the last thirty five or more years my wife and I have read the Bible as the last thing every night. One night she reads aloud and then the next night I read aloud. Then we have discussions about what we read to each other. It’s just a probing and inquisitive attitude towards the Bible, and a desire to learn how those ancient Scriptures can affect our modern day, fast changing, technological world and life.
We have a lot of people tell me after church is over that they’d never been in church before in their lives and they came just to have a chance to see me and to have a conversation with a former President. So I know that I have many people in my Bible classes that don’t know much about my faith and don’t have any faith of their own. Then as I said we have people who are quite devout Jews who like to discuss elements of the Old Testament with me in a friendly way. I really don’t know what the overwhelming reaction is but a few people tell me that they enjoy the lessons and that they have a new concept of Christianity after I teach. Most of them don’t express a view because they leave after church, but they keep coming back. Like this Sunday we had a very large crowd. The church overflowed, we had people sitting in the choir loft, and had chairs in the aisles and so forth. I’m really enjoying the give and take of a free discussion of the Scriptures.
Speaking of the Old Testament, what do you think a book like Leviticus has to offer to modern readers?
When my wife and I read through the Bible, we don’t dwell on Deuteronomy and Leviticus much. I don’t mean to be critical, but they are an accumulation of texts that used to guide the six hundred or so rules and regulations that permeated Judaism before Christ. Obviously Jesus said He didn’t come to change the law, but He came to explain it. When Jesus came to explain the nature of God in a very revolutionary way He emphasized that it wasn’t just a compliance with all those rules and regulations that made someone acceptable to God, but it’s the way we lived our lives. It was whether we believed in peace and justice and humility, service of others, forgiveness and love, and to mirror the image of God, which is full of grace and forgiveness and love. So I think that has maybe caused the people who choose the Scriptures for the universal lessons not to dwell on Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We spend more time in the Psalms, in the prophecies, and in Genesis and in Exodus in the Old Testament.
People are asking a lot of questions about what the Bible says on science, homosexuality, and things of that nature. What are the questions you think people SHOULD be asking about the Bible?
I think Americans in general, whether Christian or not, should emphasize the character of Christ. We worship Jesus as the Prince of Peace, not war. I don’t think there is any doubt that among all the nations on earth the United States nowadays is more inclined to go to war than about any other country in the world. I go to China quite often, every year at least, and China hasn’t been to war now in thirty five or forty years. When you go to Brazil they haven’t been to war in thirty or thirty five years, Egypt hasn’t been to war in thirty three years, and so forth. The United States is constantly at war. So I think to derive the basic teachings of Christ, which is to try to resolve differences peacefully between two people like a husband and wife, or between nations, is something that we might remind ourselves to address through Biblical Scriptures. That’s just one of the things, obviously there are others like sharing our good lives with those in need, being unselfish, reaching out to the poor and needy, and implementing justice or equality of treatment of people, those sort of things are also important.
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.