“Is Jimmy Carter Christian?”
A Sermon delivered by Reverend Marlin Lavanhar
At All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK, Sunday, August 23, 2009
There have always been two kinds of religions: the priestly and the prophetic. The priestly
religions have always served the interests of kings and rulers, and helped people adjust to and
maintain the status quo. And the prophetic religions serve the interests of those who Jesus called,
“the least of these” in society. They are not “least” by Jesus’ definition, but rather by a worldly
definition, they are the least, and the last, and the left out. These prophetic traditions seek to
benefit the oppressed, the poor, the outcasts, and the voiceless. Prophetic religion seeks to upend
the status quo for the liberation of all humankind.
We are not in need of salvation from some original sin that eternally taints human souls. We
are in need of salvation from the human tendencies towards tribalism and self-interest. When it is
all said and done, and we are judged, maybe by God, or our neighbors, or maybe just by our own
conscience, as we sit on our death bed and review our days upon this earth, we will not be judged
on our doctrinal purity or sophistication of belief. We will be judged on what we have done, or not
done, for those whom society counts least and puts last.
In the words of the late, great, minister William Sloan Coffin, “Let us all remember what
Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi never forgot – how frequently compassion demands
confrontation.” Let me say that again: “how frequently compassion demands confrontation.”
You can probably tell I have a little “bur under my saddle” this morning, as we say here in
Oklahoma. Or if we were in Scotland, I’d have “a bur under my kilt” (which sounds even more
aggravating.) Let me tell you how it got there. Last week I read that in the month of July,
164 Muslim women were sentenced to public flogging for “crimes” as absurd as wearing trousers in
public or having sex outside of marriage, in countries as far away as Sudan, the Maldives and
Malaysia. According to an article by Mona Eltahawy,
The most famous of those 164 is Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese
journalist, who was among 13 women arrested by police at a
Khartoum café on July 3 and charged with violating the country’s
decency laws by [get this] wearing [pants]. Ten of those women
accepted a fine and flogging, but Ms. Hussein and two others
contested the charges, which they are now fighting in court. It’s
bizarre to use the word lucky to describe a woman facing 40 lashes for
wearing trousers, but by virtue of her position and clout, that is exactly
what Ms. Hussein is.
She is also brave and defiant. Ms. Hussein resigned her
position as press officer for the United Nations, which could have
earned her immunity from the charges, [in order] to stand trial. And
most importantly, she’s a Muslim woman who knows that a flogging
for wearing trousers is sheer and utter nonsense; she has said she
was ready to receive [even] 40,000 lashes if that’s what it takes to
abolish the law. Not so lucky have been the thousands of other
Sudanese women – Muslim and non-Muslim. They have served as
the whipping girls for the Sudanese regime’s cheap game of flogging
women to show off its “Islamic principles.”
The International Criminal Court has indicted President Omar
Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes and crimes against
humanity in Darfur. His Janjaweed allies in Darfur have been
accused of rape. Trousers are “indecent” but rape is just another
reminder of how useful women’s bodies are, in conveying the
message. Now Mr. Bashir is an unabashed dictator [so we’ve come
to expect such senseless barbarity from him]. [But] …How then [do
we] explain the silence of the Maldives’ liberally-inclined President
Mohamed Nasheed at the flogging sentences handed out to 150 of
his countrywomen in July for sex [outside of marriage]? It’s
depressingly simple, to appease Islamists [who] he needs for his
ruling coalition, he offers up the easiest chips to bargain with –
If you really want to understand what a public flogging is like, I hear that you can search
online for a video showing the Taliban flogging a screaming woman in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
But be assured, it is not for the squeamish. Mind you, these are adults – adult women.
On a more positive note, something else happened this past month. Former US President
Jimmy Carter, a person who most people consider a great man, even if they didn’t consider him a
very good president, wrote an opinion piece published in the UK Observer titled: The Words of
God Do Not Justify Cruelty to Women.
You may recall that a few years ago Nelson Mandela brought together the living Nobel
Peace Prize winners from around the world to form a group called the Elders. The group includes
Carter and Mandela, Bishop Desmund Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, Kofi Annan and women such as
Aung San Suu Kyi, Mary Robinson, Ela Bhatt and other eminent global leaders who are all Nobel
Laureates. These are people whom many of us have come to love and respect for their wisdom
and courage, and their successful efforts at creating positive change. The message that former
President Jimmy Carter wrote, and that I am about to read to you, was written as one of the first
public announcements of an effort to which the Elders have committed themselves, in order to try
and ensure that women and girls around the world be treated fairly and equally.
These are Jimmy Carters words,
“I have been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon
and Bible teacher for many years. So my decision to sever my ties
with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful
and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the
convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses
and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was
responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be
"subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as
deacons, pastors or chaplains in military service. This was in conflict
with my belief - confirmed in the holy scriptures - that we are all
equal in the eyes of God.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not
restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from
playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its
influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or
temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher
Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of
women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male
interpretations of religious texts justify some of the most pervasive,
persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights
abuses. At their most repugnant, the belief that women must be
subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced
prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a
crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control
over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair
access to education, health, employment and influence within their
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of
our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are
educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must
marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in
pregnancy and childbirth. In some Islamic nations, women are
restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure
of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a
car or competing with men for a job. If a woman’s raped, she’s often
most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime. It is simply
self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its
population. We need to challenge these self-serving and out-dated
attitudes and practices.
My fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and
backgrounds, [and] no longer need to worry about winning votes or
avoiding controversy – are deeply committed to challenging injustice
wherever we see it. We have recently published a statement that
declares: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls
on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher
Authority, is unacceptable." We are calling on all leaders to
challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no
matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women.
We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the
courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of
dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share. I
understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy
scriptures to justify the superiority of men owes more to time and
place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their
influence - than to eternal truths. I am also familiar with vivid
descriptions in the same scriptures in which women are revered as
pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church,
women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and
prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian
leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate
their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still
have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or
subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, over-
whelmingly chosen the later. Their continuing choice provides the
foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and
abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation, not
just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the
teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets,
Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have
called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It
is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
How about that from our former President Jimmy Carter? Some people claim he is no
longer a real Christian. But I would say he is one of the best Christians alive today. Why?
Because, like Jesus, he has thrown in his lot to benefit the “least and the last.” Why? Because,
like Jesus, he is not afraid to challenge the religious authorities of his times. Why? Because, like
Jesus, he is trying to show us a better way to live.
Now, in doing so, Carter tells us that Paul, Moses, Muhammad and others called us to
equitable treatment of all God’s children. And no doubt, there are verses that say that, but there
are also some other troubling verses that say something else. We cannot just ignore those difficult
verses as if they don’t exist. We need to deal with them. We cannot just cherry-pick the passages
that speak well of women and dismiss passages that demean women and consign them to inferior
status. We cannot do this unless we want to be equally guilty of the same interpretive
capriciousness as the fundamentalists. That’s why we need to present a persuasive principle of
interpretation. And in order to do that, we need to remember when we are reading scripture, that
there is more than just a text, there is also a context, a sub-text, and a pre-text, that we need to
grapple with too.
In that vein, it should come as no surprise, that contained within the scriptures of all the
major world religions which were written thousands of years ago, are aspects reflecting the
misogynistic and patriarchal culture of their times. Knowing that the scriptures and traditions of the
world’s religions contain oppressive qualities, has led some people to throw up their hands and say
“That’s it, religion’s the problem,” and they want to have nothing to do with it. But the answer to
bad religion is not no religion… it is good religion. And good religion must combine both the
sacred and the prophetic.
Too much of religion today is focused on the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of faith. We
see a lot of spiritual people and paths focusing their religious life around meditation or prayer or
praise or other spiritual practices. It might include walking a labyrinth or learning yoga or Tai Chi;
whatever practice it is, it can lead to incredibly transcendent, high-point experiences. But the
problem with too much focus on the spiritual, is that it can become an escape from the real world
just like any other addiction. People who become too focused on spirituality can become aloof and
asleep. Spirituality then becomes, a way to adjust to a maladjusted world.
On the other extreme, some paths and people focus too much on working for justice and fail
to nurture the spirit. We have all met activists who seem to be driven by anger and often they
appear arrogant, unhappy, burnt-out and self-righteous. And that’s because that’s how they feel
most of the time. Some of us have even been those activists. But when we learn to combine the
sacred and spiritual with the prophetic, we create an unstoppable force for peace and justice.
The tragic truth is, if you are not angry about some of the things happening in our world,
then you are not paying attention. We have already mentioned this morning, girls being raped
[girls!] and forced into sexual slavery, genital mutilation, domestic abuse, and public floggings of
adult women for wearing pants or exposing an ankle. Anger is the natural and healthy human
response. The question is, what do we do with our anger? We can try to avoid it, through escape
or addiction, or try to stay busy working and consuming and pretend it doesn’t exist. We can tell
ourselves the world is perfect just the way it is, or that everything is all happening according to a
divine plan, or even tell ourselves that this world is not what is important it is the next world. But
let’s not fool ourselves, the world we live in is sick in some pretty scary ways. And if we willing to
live our lives awake – we are going to have to deal with it.
So, we need ways to transmute our anger into something constructive and holy. And that’s
where spiritual practices come in. Spiritual practices, such as worship, meditation, prayer, praise,
yoga, and others, can help us turn our anger and pain into selfless love. And there is nothing more
dangerous to an unjust status quo, than selfless love. It’s the kind of fearless and selfless love
exhibited by Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus, who were willing to, and who did, give
everything to help create a better world for others – for us! It’s the kind of fearless and selfless
love exhibited by Lubna Hussein in Sudan today, who gave up her immunity and is willing to
receive 40 thousand lashes if that’s what it takes to end the injustice to women and little girls in her
country. There’s nothing more dangerous to an unjust status quo than fearless love. Ms.
Hussein’s love for women and little girls and their futures makes her fearless of the violence and
injustice of her government that is supposed to intimidate her. And her fearlessness exposes their
violence for the shameless and repugnant corruption that it is.
Good religion is religion that combines the spiritual and the prophetic, and reveals that
either one without the other is impotent. And such religion demonstrates how the spiritual and the
prophetic – together – lead us to true salvation. Not a salvation focused on saving some souls
while others be damned, but a focus on saving lives, real lives, from real evil and real hells that
exists right here, right now.
Now, there have been points in time when our church tradition could have been criticized for
being too focused on the prophetic and neglecting the spiritual and mystical aspects of religion.
But not now. You can come here on Wednesday nights and learn meditation, Tai Chi and yoga.
We have recently had classes on prayer beads and mandalas. You can come on Friday nights
once a month to learn and practice forms of praise through singing. And our sanctuary is filled
most Sundays with people seeking solace and inspiration and courage, so that in a world surround
on all sides by bad news, we can offer an honest and valuable gospel. A gospel in which service
is law. Our conscience may initially be poked and pricked and prodded by anger, but through faith
and practice, we can create an alchemy that turns our anger into fearless love. And when our lives
are animated by fearless love, there’s no telling what we can do.
Let’s ensure that this church remains a prophetic voice in this community, speaking up and
speaking out for the least of these in our society – those who are easily made last, lost and left out.
And when the day comes, when you and I close our eyes for the last time, may we do so with a
peace and confidence that comes from having cloaked ourselves in fearless love and having done
our part for the least and the lost. May we join hands and hearts, men and women, to support and
protect each other always.
If you can’t do it for God, and you can’t do it for goodness sake, then do it for the little girls.
The ones who should perspire on playgrounds, not in sweatshops. The girls whose days should
be bathed in dignity and delight not brothels or brutality. The girls who should be able to live free
of fear, and given the chance to learn and love. Girls whose eyes should shine and whose minds
and hearts are Holy.
The Elders have spoken. And if they don’t know what’s right, who does?