Whether or not you are a Christian, if you’re looking for the kind of human I believe best exemplifies my Christian faith, look no further than Jimmy Carter. If you are increasingly convinced there is no such this as a “good and decent” form of Christianity, I would simply invite you to consider Jimmy Carter’s Christianity.
On this President’s Day, I’m still processing yesterday’s news that President Carter has entered hospice, and therefore is likely in his last days-to-weeks. And before I write anything else, I of course will trust that all of you who are praying people will offer a prayer for President Carter. I cannot fathom the emotions of their family, and especially Rosalynn Carter, as no doubt memories of decades flood back to them. Because I have time this morning, I thought I’d write my thoughts about him now…
I’m not quite sure how either I, or our nation, will navigate a world without Jimmy Carter.
No modern President has been more ridiculed and reviled as being irrelevant and out of touch.
And no modern President has done more to heal our world, while quietly embodying the true meaning of what it means to be a Christian.
I am convinced these last two sentences are connected. Meaning: a Christian who is truly led by both the Spirit *and* the challenging commands of Jesus —to love all humanity, to love and pray for one’s enemies— risks the constant ridicule and scorn of “the world.”
Evangelical Christians today are rightly scorned for their over-politicization of our faith, and for the compromises many have made with Right Wing power. But this is not the same scorn Carter endured.
Jimmy Carter’s Christianity was criticized for very different reasons: for its humility, perhaps even naïveté, about the “ways of the world.” The world, then and now, rolls its eyes at such Christian do-gooders. Not because they are hypocrites, but precisely because this kind of Christianity is rare, precious, tender, and easily destroyed in much the same way Jesus’ own life was.
Modern Evangelical Christianity claims to be oppressed and persecuted for its faith. (Which is, of course, nonsense…) Jimmy Carter’s Christianity wasn’t ever persecuted either. But it was, and is, roundly laughed at and dismissed by atheists on the Left and muscular Christian Fundamentalism on the Right.
In that sense, Jimmy Carter’s Christianity gives full meaning to St. Paul’s admonition that we should be “fools for Christ.” Jimmy Carter quietly embodied and lived that faith. And that place where his faith resides, between the extremes I just mentioned, that is the place I humbly try to live too.
President Carter understood that Jesus’ call to us isn’t just about some world beyond this one. Jesus’ call is to love our *earthy* enemies, and to pray for them in the here and now. Jesus’ call is to expend our time, our talents, our resources, not to enrich ourselves, but to help the marginalized, sick, and oppressed, in the here and now.
Again, both in Jesus’ day and today, this kind of humble servant Christianity still feels incredibly rare. And its message can still get your ridiculed, or killed.
In a deeply personal way, whatever you believe about contemporary Christianity, it’s deeply important to ME to keep pressing this point. Because Jimmy Carter’s kind of Christianity has always been *my* Christianity too. Any social action you see me take in this world, any commentary about politics or social justice, those words and actions are first and foremost driven by my own abiding Christian faith. And my personal heroes have been Christians like Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Revs Bill McElvaney and Ben Marshall. They keep alive the thruline of true Christian witness I’ve always hoped to embody and deeply believe is important for our world.
While his tenure as President was brief, and while his presidential legacy has been forever tarnished by the propaganda of later Reaganism, it is Jimmy Carter whose quiet steady humanitarian work has done more good for more people, over more decades, than any other modern President. (And, whatever your age today, very likely more than any other President in *your* lifetime. Because of the depth of his commitment, and the length of his days, it is credible to believe that NO ex-President will ever surpass the humanitarian legacy of Jimmy Carter…)
Before President Carter, our ex-Presidents died or were quickly sick (JFK, LBJ, Reagan); or were simply culturally irrelevant (Nixon, Ford).
After Carter, Presidents have embraced some kind of continuing mantle of public service. (I am, of course excluding Trump from this…I trust I do not have to explain this)
President Carter set the standard for them all. He is, very truly, the OG template for our modern ex-Presidents.
He did this —again, I don’t think I can restate this point enough— not through a political calculation of how to redeem a personal legacy, or to expand his own social capital, but simply because Jimmy Cater understood this was the life Jesus called him (and us) to live.
Here’s a partial list of his post-Presidential accomplishments (lifted from the Carter Center website…)
— Leading a coalition that has reduced incidence of Guinea worm disease by 99.99 percent, making it likely to be the first human disease since smallpox to be eradicated
— Observing 113 elections in 39 countries to help establish and strengthen democracies
— Furthering avenues to peace in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, the Korean Peninsula, Haiti, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Middle East
— Helping to establish a village-based health care delivery system in thousands of communities in Africa that now have trained health care personnel and volunteers to distribute drugs and provide health education
— Strengthening international standards for human rights and the voices of individuals defending those rights in their communities worldwide
— Pioneering new public health approaches to preventing or controlling devastating neglected diseases in Africa and Latin America
— Advancing efforts to improve mental health care and diminish the stigma against people with mental illnesses.
But it is President and Rosaylnn’s work with Habitat for Humanity that had the greatest abiding influence on me and my personal faith.
For many decades, there was an incredible synergy of committed Christians in and around his Georgia home. In nearby Americus, Clarence and Florence Jordan began “Koinonia Farms,” a Christian-based community farm and spiritual hub…and a movement that has spread and been copied throughout the world.
This week, as the Evangelical world peers in at “revival” happening at Asbury College, it would do well to also recall the incredible legacy of the Koinonia movement. It’s hard to find a rival in terms of social impact.
I urge everyone to read more about Koinonia Farms, and to perhaps check out some of the writings of Clarence Jordan…For out of it came not only Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s brand of servant Christianity, but also the incredible ministry of “Habitat for Humanity.”
The Carter’s involvement with Habitat for Humanity is legendary. Through their “Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project,” the Carters have now helped 4,390 families move into safe, affordable shelter in 14 countries. Over the years, more than 104,000 volunteers from all over the world have signed up to build alongside the Carters. (2019 figures).
Although Habitat now welcomes a broader cross-section of people of all faiths and no faiths, it started as a Christian ministry and its self-understanding was deeply committed to this. Founder Millard Fuller was crystal clear as to the importances of that commitment in its early years.** Fuller’s relationship to Habitat, and the Carter’s connection to both, helped propel the group to a level rarely seen by non-profits of this kind.
The Carter’s helped start, and were part of, the very first Habitat “Blitz Build.” A Blitz Build is where Habitat staff and volunteers descend on a particularly blighted area and build-out dozens of houses all at one time.
A few years after, the church I served in the 1990s, Highland Park United Methodist, was deeply involved in a major Dallas “Habitat Blitz Build” in September 1997. Our Church built THREE houses in two weeks. Habitat Dallas built a total of ten that houses that week on Parry Avenue in Dallas, adjacent to the Jubilee Park neighborhood.
WE caught that same spirit of the Carter’s…to connect our Christian calling with making our neighborhoods a better place to live. They inspired us, and we “passed it on.”
The city and other non profits have now invested heavily in that neighborhood and it seems to stand as an exemplar for how neighborhoods can be revitalized *with* “affordable housing.” Those Habitat homes in September 97 were a part of the start of that longterm revitalization.
One of the three houses HPUMC built that week was Habitat’s 60,000th house. Another was the first house ever built with a Muslim Mosque and a Christian Church working alongside each another. I still go back through that area and marvel, with gratitude at what those initial homes have now brought to that neighborhood. Over my time at HPUMC, we built and equivalent of 13 homes with Habitat for Humanity and for our neighbors.
The Carter’s were a part of the first group that built more than 100 Habitat homes, over time. Millard Fuller would later directly challenge our HPUMC to do the same. (In a famous Thanksgiving-week sermon at the church…)
And one of the proudest moments of my ministry was negotiating, and signing on behalf the church, the agreement to build those houses. In 2016, HPUMC fulfilled that mission to build 100 homes. HPUMC’s “Carpenter’s for Christ” ministry continues to this day, has involved thousands of volunteers, and provided shelter and hope for thousands of Dallas neighbors. It stands as perhaps the proudest ministry legacy of my life.
But, friends, I’d invite you to center back down on the Carter’s themselves.
Because Jimmy and Rosalynn didn’t get involved with Habitat because it looked good. And we do well to remember this.
It wasn’t ever a “photo op” for them.
It wasn’t “mission tourism.”
It was living their faith.
On our own bookshelf, downstairs, we have many memoirs of former Presidents. But also alongside these, are devotional books, written over the years by President and Roselynn Carter. They have written many of them. I can’t think of another ex-President who has written more books on Christian theology and life…can you?
One of my favorites —that I am rereading at this moment— is called “Living Faith.” In a chapter titled “The Lord I Have Come to Know,” Jimmy Carter beautifully describes the combination of doubt, faith, experience, and knowledge that has led to his deep faith in Jesus.
At the end of a lifetime of wrestling with Jesus, and Jesus’ meaning, President Carter writes:
“…I came to realize that the apparent weaknesses of Christ are really what make him precious and give him a quality of authenticity that I now find convincing.
In his last encounter with the disciples before his death, Jesus clearly described his intimate relationship with God, and emphasized his status as the Messiah. It is perhaps the most self-exalting statement he ever made (John 2:44-50).
But then he took off his clothes, wrapped himself in a towel, knelt down on the floor, and washed the disciples’ feet.
This kind of image is profoundly important to me as I try, in my own way, to follow Jesus’ example: for instance, when I go with a Habitat team to build a house in Los Angeles or Chicago, inhabited by the poorest Americans, surrounded by drug addicts and criminals, sometimes with gunfire resounding on nearby streets. (One of our Habitat volunteers, a teenager, was actually hit by a pistol shot as we worked on a house in Miami.) The awareness that my God walked this way before me makes it possible to sustain such an effort.
To me personally, Jesus bridges the tremendous chasm between human beings and the seemingly remote and omnipotent God the Creator. The more I learn about Jesus, the more complex and challenging are his teachings, and the more closely connected are God the Father and God the Son. It really comforts and satisfies me to equate the almighty Creator with the humble but perfect Jesus, and to remember that “God is love.””
(from “Living Faith,” pages 233-34)
The Carter’s lived their faith by putting their own “sweat equity” into the houses they built. Therefore, I’ll close my thoughts about President Carter with a story Millard Fuller personally told me several times that seems to best embody who Jimmy Carter was.
During the very first Blitz Build, celebrities and other famous New Yorker’s stopped by the work site for pictures, and to do a little work. Some of them came and went, after their photo ops.
But…Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter *lived there.* The Carter’s famously bunked down for the week, in twin sized bunk beds, dormitory style, with all of the other volunteers.
No special entourage.
No special treatment.
They worked, ate, and slept like “common” volunteers. Not because it was good “optics,” but because it was their Christian calling.
When I think of President Jimmy Carter, THIS is my abiding image of him. I think not of a President who negotiated historic peace treaties, entertained at elegant White House state dinners, or fretted over captured hostages. I don’t even think of the teacher who greeted decades of Sunday School pilgrims to his home church in Plains, Georgia.
When I think of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, they are in their Habitat work clothes, bunked down alongside those other volunteers in dormitory housing, looking for all the world like a couple of no-name RV vagabonds from the film “Nomadland.”
I mean, look at this picture I am posting. Can you imagine another ex-President being so unconcered by his horrific black eye? All the others would go home, hide away.
Good Lord…there is is, right there in that picture!!!
The Carter’s didn’t bunk up with the other volunteers because of how it looked.
They didn’t do it because of the accolades or praise that came their way.
They did it because their faith in Jesus compelled them to do it.
God bless Jimmy Carter’s legacy as the most “Christian” President we are likely to ever know.
May we, through God’s grace, live a faith like his.
**(The legacy of Millard Fuller is, to be the kindest I can, problematic. It seems to me his desire to both spread Habitat’s message and expand its power, led to a hubris that was personally and professional harmful to many. I now assume this led to his taking advantage of his own power and influence in unhealthy and inappropriate ways. I cannot defend his actions. But I also acknowledge that the best parts of his Christian commitment was deeply contagious to, and has demonstrably helped thousands, if not hundred of thousands of people, have better lives. That good does in now way excuses the bad, and it must all live alongside it in our memory.
Therefore, I write this to simply acknowledge how I live with the tension of having known, and once upon a time, deeply admired him. That admiration now comes with this disturbing caveat I am now writing here. I know longer ever tell stories about Millard, or ever lift him up, except for this story here, because of its connection to President Carter, and because of a story he personally shared with me.