By Sister Lois Anne Palkert, OSF
In a recent news conference former President Jimmy Carter revealed that the cancer has “spread through my body”. The news was shocking to hear, but at the same time, it wasn’t. There is history of cancer in the Carter family. All of his siblings died from the disease. The man from Plains, Georgia is close to 91-years-old, but his vigorous activism nearly obscures that fact.
For 30 years as our most popular former president, he has functioned as the nation’s conscience, mainly because, like Pope Francis, he’s the real deal; a leader who says what he does and does what he says.
As Americans, we claim we want that kind of leader, but we don’t necessarily reward leaders of that caliber on Election Day.
Since losing his bid for re-election in 1980, Mr. Carter and his wife Rosalyn have spent those years working on all kinds of projects with the aim of helping people at home and abroad. Through the Carter Center and involvement in humanitarian endeavors, such as Habitat for Humanity, the Carters have worked to put their deeply-held Christian faith into practice, doing their “best” to adhere to Christ’s teaching “to do unto others”. Whether through human rights advocacy, health promotion and other charitable works, the Carters have worked tirelessly in great ways and small to make life better for their fellow human beings.
What is noteworthy of Carter’s approach to public and political life is the belief that one’s faith has a part to play in it and that it is something that should not be ignored or undervalued. To Jimmy Carter, faith can never be separated from the human person, because it is so much a part of the human makeup.
Much has been said about Jimmy Carter as president when he was in office and afterwards. Despite criticism he went on with his life and continued to impart meaning to it. His signal contribution to the office and to the American people was his emphasis on human rights, not only at home but abroad. In 2002 Carter was awarded the Nobel Prize for his humanitarian and peace efforts.
President Carter’s oval office address delivered 36 years ago has much to say to us today. “The fundamental threat to American democracy is a crisis of confidence. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.”
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Although spoken some 36 years ago it sounds very much like what we are hearing in Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
Faith has always been important to Jimmy Carter. A Baptist, he studied, prayed and acted upon his faith. Throughout his adult life, he has been a Sunday school teacher. Every Sunday (unless he was away on an international mission) he would be found in church, giving a presentation on the day’s Scripture readings. Such sessions would be packed by those wo came to hear what a man of faith would have to say about the Sunday scriptural passages and how they applied to life, especially how it impacted his own life. They learned heartfelt lessons from a man who was always close to the land and to the God of creation. The crowds have become even more numerous since his recent announcement that the cancer has spread to his brain.
Jimmy Carter is now embarking on another journey. He does not know when it will end; but he does know that it will end. It is one which will require everything he has; but because of faith, he believes he is ready for it. His whole life has prepared him for that moment. He has done his best to adhere to the words of the prophet Micah he quoted in his Inauguration Day address in 1977. “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
In this phase of his life’s journey, Mr. Carter is ready once again “to walk humbly with God”. And like Francis of Assisi, and Pope Francis, Jimmy Carter is teaching lessons about faith and life more by how he lives than by what he says; truly living the words of St Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”