In the last month of 2009, former President Jimmy Carter spoke before The Parliament of World Religions as part of The Elder Project. He again has spoken out against discrimination against women, as he sees it, as a once Southern Baptist, a Christian, and as former President of the United States. This is in character for President Carter, known for good Christian works, winner of a Nobel Prize, and who continues in his concern for the American Nation and the world. He is a national figure, world figure, and Christian figure.
In his Farewell Address to the American people, 1988, he said, “As I return home to the South where I was born and raised, I am looking forward to the opportunity to reflect and further to assess -- I hope with accuracy -- the circumstances of our times.”
He has previously spoken for women’s rights, but not so much as a Christian and man of God. One political-secular moment in 1977 was in a speech on Women’s Equality Day. He said about the history of their struggle, “Standing behind me is a woman, Ms. Hallinan, who in 1917 stood outside the gates of the White House when Woodrow Wilson was President, simply holding a sign in her hand that was photographed, saying, ‘How long will it be before women can have freedom?’" He speaks for women’s rights even today, again.
The Sunday School teacher President Carter starts part of his argument with a Bible quote:
The Holy Bible tells us that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
Every generic religious text encourages believers to respect essential human dignity, yet some selected scriptures are interpreted to justify the derogation or inferiority of women and girls, our fellow human beings.
Then he goes to the secular with a jarring set of particulars. Here they are:
Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. (U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, February, 2000)
Our Carter Center has been deeply involved in the Republic of Congo. In war zones where order has broken down, horrific and sometimes lethal rape has become a tactic of warfare practiced by all sides.
In a study in 2000, the U.N. estimated that at least 60 million girls who should be alive are "missing" from various populations, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect.
According to UNICEF, an estimated one million children, mostly girls, enter the sex trade each year and the U.N. estimates that 4 million women and girls are trafficked annually.
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 is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and explains why so few women hold political office, even in most Western democracies.
Noting also that in his 65 years of Bible teaching he’s learned some important facts of the history of religion, and as a result of his reflection and serious concern for women’s rights even chose to leave his Church (Southern Baptist). His remark about the equality of humans in Jesus as found in the Bible is the significant religious turning point of scripture manifesting his change of heart towards his own Church, and how he sees women treated by religion in general. This is that Bible argument he cites: “…all one in Christ Jesus.”
Though herself not so much a religious figure or thinker, even a person noted as a Christian, the feminist Jan Nedeau writing in Change.org (Women’s Rights) comments from a personal and also writer’s perspective:
I was raised Catholic. And, on occasion, I still go to church because it is a place where I can connect with my spirituality. I was lucky that I learned about religion in a very tolerant place - in San Francisco - where I really connected with religion through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius... I participated in a very progressive church - one that welcomed all people and didn't preach the marginalization of women or homosexuals. Clearly, this is the exception to the rule.
Knowing the blatant discrimination toward women by religious institutions elsewhere always bothered me and I too have questioned from time to time whether I should separate from the Catholic Church based on the experience that Carter describes. It cannot be denied that there are many faiths that use religion as a "justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority" and he is right - it is truly unacceptable.
A critic of male dominance regarding the Bible, President Carter wrote in 2009 for The British newspaper “The Observer:”
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 the 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 writer supposes that in his speech at The Carter Center as one of The Elders in the organization by the same name, that his campaign for women’s equality which spread to his religious and spiritual beliefs finds an hypocrisy and unfairness by men towards women throughout the history of the Bible. More, he asks that there be a new respect for women founded on the old models of reverence found in the Bible. See his reference to Mary below after his observations on the Old Testament. This writer thinks this is his Biblical statement on “gender equality,” or what is commonly referred to as sexual relationships—relationships between the sexes.
Most Bible scholars acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures were written when male dominance prevailed in every aspect of life. Men could have multiple sex partners (King Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines), but adulterous behavior by a woman could be punished by stoning to death - then, in the time of Christ and, in some societies, 2009 years later.
I realize that devout Christians can find adequate scripture to justify either side in this debate, but there is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women: he never condoned sexual discrimination or the implied subservience of women. The exaltation and later reverence for Mary, as Jesus' mother, is an even more vivid indication of the special status of women in Christian theology.
Before going further, here is who The Elders are known as: The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.
As he has said to The Elders, The multiple evils of human suffering, women’s suffering, and the shared interest of humanity is for Jimmy Carter found in his relationship with God. He says, and he is a religious leader himself:
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, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
Does former President Jimmy Carter speak for Jesus Christ? One writer whose work appears on Beliefnet and in “On Faith” in “The Washington Post,” says of Jimmy Carter and his changing religious heart and theology of the Bible and women. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield—on “Beliefnet:”
By making statements equating his own understanding of religion with the will of "Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions", Jimmy Carter continues his well-established tradition of making outrageous statements to justify legitimate concerns. The sad part is that his approach reflects precisely the kind of spiritual arrogance which nurtures the ability of any group to oppress others in the name of that which they believe.
No differently than the very people he most opposes, Carter arrogantly assumes that he can isolate those portions of a tradition which reflect the "proper" understanding of its teachings. He cherry picks his way through not only the faith he follows, but presumes to do so for others as well. I guess he just knows best.
Of course that attitude of knowing best is the basis of all oppression committed by people in the name of religion.
Though the remarks by Jimmy Carter spoken at The Carter Center may not be those remarks exactly as referred to by the Rabbi, the thrust is there. About the choice of Biblical interpretation by Southern Baptists and other religious Christian denominations, he names Biblical figures by their names as teachers who support his view:
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 and set a new course that demands equal rights for women and men, girls and boys.
At their most repugnant, the belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo. It also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair and equal access to education, health care, employment, and influence within their own communities.
Rabbi Hirschfield says about this statement by Jimmy Carter, as concept, in “On Faith” found in “The Washington Post:”
This debate, if it is to have any real impact, must be shifted from one in which we argue about who understands God best, to one about the sacredness of choice, the independence of the spirit and modesty to admit that none of us has the only true understanding of God's will. This needs to be about the creation of spiritual options so that as many people as possible can find a place within whatever faith they choose, not about taking away the options of others to practice in ways we make not like.
Many pundits and columnists agree with the former President and state their own case and make their own statement when commenting on his. Nicholas Kristof in “The New York Times” writes of recent:
It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.
Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.
There is some of the debate and statement; yet Jimmy Carter gets his due and none can really take it away. After all, it is based on a man’s religious sensibility and interpretation, a man who is a world famous and honored Christian, a Christian leader and admirable Christian at that. His speech before The Carter Center wasn’t the first on the theme of discrimination by religion towards women. It won’t be his last.