November 14, 2002
Carter's Civil Christianity
-- Jon Pahl
George Will's recent, crabbed critique of Jimmy Carter's reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, in Newsweek (October 28, 2002) contrasts remarkably with the agenda of Carter's own civil Christianity -- and thus ironically highlights how worthy Carter is of the award.
According to Will, "stopping . . . North Korea's nuclear-weapons program was one of the deeds for which [Carter] was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." The fact is the official declaration does not even mention Carter's diplomatic work in North Korea.
Why then does Will bring it up? He cites the current North Korea situation in an attempt to undermine Carter's legacy and demonstrate his failure to practice "realism" -- the kind of realism that would now require us to attack Iraq. This is ideological tunnel-vision. It willfully distorts (or manifests ignorance of) the committee's declaration in the interest of scoring a narrow political point.
Such a crabbed perspective contrasts vividly with Carter's expansive vision of how faith, when put into practice, can produce dramatic results in public life.
For years, I taught Carter's spiritual autobiography, Living Faith, to undergraduates. Each re-reading brought new gems. One example: "Contrary to popular opinion, for me and most others in political life, moral principles are actually very high."(46) What a refreshing contrast to the cynicism that currently masquerades as "realism" and erodes civility.
Another example is Carter's interpretation of Amos 5 ("Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."): "When justice is denied because of unfair laws or misguided or corrupt leaders, it is our duty as citizens to struggle for changes in the laws and the system that enforces them."(117) Such an interpretation manifests the real reason that Carter received the Peace Prize, namely his commitment to the principle that "conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international co-operation based on international law, respect for human rights, and economic development," as the Nobel committee put it. Such a principle might be called democratic realism: it recognizes the frailty of government in a violent world, but also refuses to give up on democracy.
One might say that the accomplishments and activism for which Carter was recognized flowed from his civil Christianity. Although the Nobel Committee did not mention Carter's faith, they did cite Carter's work in establishing the Carter Center as a prominent reason for his receipt of the award. The Carter Center is dedicated to "waging peace, fighting disease," and the range of peace-making and disease-alleviating programs promoted by this Atlanta-based agency (http://www.cartercenter.org/) is indeed impressive. No president has done more to promote the common good after leaving office.
And no person of faith can help but feel pride, and gratitude, for Carter's courageous example of a life spent putting compassion into action in a world where most imagine that might makes right.
In his brief acceptance statement, Carter acknowledged that the award was an honor to him personally, but concluded that "this honor serves as an inspiration not only to us, but also to suffering people around the world, and I accept it on their behalf." His ability to identify with the suffering from a position of strength is surely the fruit of a deep discipline in Christian theology and spirituality. It is also a challenge to the policies of the so-called "most powerful nation on earth" as we debate how to come to the aid of the Iraqis -- a suffering people groaning under the regime of an oppressive tyrant.
Jon Pahl is a professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.