Christian 101: In Praise of President Jimmy Carter

Let me clarify in case you have a mixed up idea of what a Christian is. A Christian is a follower of Christ as human embodiment of God -- not too complicated. Not easy, but not complicated. A Christian is an imperfect human doing his or her best to live the examples and teachings of Jesus (regardless of whether or not they believe in certain doctrines like the virgin birth, which no one in Jesus's time ever claimed and did not come into the canon until the second century).

If you want to know what a follower of Christ is and does, start by reading the Gospels. If you don't get it the first time, read them again. Start with the part where Jesus goes to the fishermen who are listening to him preach and says, "Put down your nets and follow me." You'll notice he does not say, "Put down your nets and worship me." Nor does he say, "Put down your nets and go lynch your brothers and sisters."

He doesn't vet the fishermen as to whether their theology or social stances are good enough to join him. He doesn't ask them what they do in bed or with whom. He doesn't seem all that concerned about sexual transgressions -- not to say he supports them, but condemning them wasn't his deal. He had other priorities: humility, honesty, generosity, compassion, kindness and building what he called the Realm of God, which according to him, all are called to.

Consider the Samaritan woman Jesus engages at the well. This woman was an outcast, part of a sect looked down upon by the "good" Jews of Jerusalem. On top of her questionable social status she was living out of wedlock with a man after having gone through five husbands -- not exactly pristine according to the standards of the day. He mentioned her history just to clue her in to the fact that he knew, but it did not stop his asking her for water, drinking from her jug, or offering her "the water of life." (John 4)

How about the woman about to be stoned to death for adultery? Do you remember what Jesus said? "Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone," (John 8:7) and thus he freed the woman from the vigilantes -- the same sorts of vigilantes who watch Fox News today and scorn, even vilify, President Carter for being loving, inclusive and compassionate.

When you read the stories in the Gospels, you'll notice that Jesus doesn't play "Who's in and who's out." Do you remember the parable of the wedding guests? The king sends his servants to invite all the correct people he thinks should be at his son's wedding, but they don't show up, so he invites everyone -- the outcasts, the homeless, the travelers on the byways, who come. (Matthew 22:1-14) The message is the message of the Realm of God, in which we cannot know or judge who is worthy by our limited standards.

Jesus loves and heals, eats and drinks (Yes, Jesus drank! Remember the first miracle? He turned water into wine, not wine into water!) with everyone: fishermen, women, upstanding citizens, tax collectors, revolutionaries, prostitutes and lepers. Do you think then, that he would really hate homosexuals or condemn any kind of loving relationship? When asked what was the most important thing, he was clear: Love God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30). Can you do that? I find it a challenge, but a worthwhile one. So, apparently, did President Carter. I think he did better than most.

Since leaving the presidency, he built thousands of homes worldwide for those in need, worked tirelessly for peace by personally mediating international conflicts, defended human rights advocates against oppressive governments, monitored elections in 38 countries in the interest of democracy, saved countless lives with life-saving medicines and campaigns, and even taught Sunday school last week. His trust in God is unshakeable: In learning that the cancer had spread to his brain, he simply smiled and said he is ready for the next adventure.

Is Jimmy Carter a Christian? Not according to the way some people distort the term today, but I am sure from his actions that he is a follower of Jesus -- in the tradition of Bishop Tutu, Mother Theresa, Rev. King, and Bishop Romero of El Salvador (martyred while giving Mass in El Salvador because his faith demanded that he stand for the dignity of the most vulnerable, being killed by death squads). He has healed the sick and met and negotiated with people considered by many Americans to be untouchable, like Hamas leaders, Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, and Fidel Castro. He has followed the examples of Jesus the Christ as much as anyone I can think of in contemporary public life.

It makes me wonder what Fox viewers would say if Jesus himself walked the earth today, taking care of the poor, healing the sick, eating and drinking with outliers, telling stories, and embracing outcasts. Would they say he is not Christian?