|With only a few minutes left in his address at the New Baptist Covenant gathering Jan. 31, former president Jimmy Carter asked the 1,200 congregants at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., “How many believe we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ?”
The congregation answered, “Amen.”
Carter asked, “How many believe that we should put aside our personal differences and work in unity to spread the gospel of our savior?”
The congregation replied, “Amen.”
“The most important fundamental belief is the basic gospel message that we have already mentioned. We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Will you say that with me?” asked Carter.
“We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ,” said congregants in unison with Carter.
He said, “We, Christians, can and must reach out to each other and stand united.”
Carter’s questions and challenge came after he shared that he and his wife, Rosalynn, had visited more than 125 nations, many of which are in Africa. He had noted that discussions with national leaders inevitably turned to religion.
“What is the prevailing image of Christians in those nations? It’s not the dedicated work of our missionaries. It’s not the inspired sermons of Billy Graham or other great preachers. It is the image of division among brothers and sisters in Christ,” Carter lamented. “As we struggle with each other for authority or argue about the interpretation of individual verses in scriptures, the arguments and even the animosities among Christians are like a cancer that has metastasized in the body of Christ. This plagues us with diversions.”
These remarks were not the only striking comments that went uncovered.
Reflecting on his trip to China 30 years ago to normalize relations between the United States and People’s Republic of China, Carter told about one of his exchanges with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Carter said it was “perhaps the most significant conversation I’ve ever had in my life concerning Christianity.”
After two years of negotiations, Carter remembered that the Chinese ruler said one day, “President Carter, you have done a lot for China. What can we do for you?”
Carter answered: “When I was a little boy, I would give five cents a week in the Baptist church in Plains to help build schools and hospitals for little Chinese children through Baptist missionaries, who were the premier heroes in our church. I would like for you to change your communist party policy of atheism and permit worship in China … I would like for you to permit Bibles to be used in China.”
Xiaoping replied that he would consider Carter’s requests, which he granted the next day.
The congregation applauded.
Carter then recalled: “When I first went to Palestine in 1973, as a governor, 15 percent of all Palestinians were Christians. They have been forced to leave Palestine. And now there are only 50,000 left.”
He said that only 25,000 Palestinian Christians remain in Bethlehem, “a city that has recently been completely surrounded by a prison wall.”
“Pray for them,” said Carter.
Another of his unexpected remarks spoke to the Baptist Center for Ethics. Carter commented at the beginning of his address on a video clip of BCE’s “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,” which had played earlier in the worship service.
“I think that already in this program so far we’ve found it worthwhile to come here,” said Carter.
“Also, I think it was good to have the Baptist Center on Ethics point out the long way we still have to go,” he said. “I thought it [the DVD clip] pointed out some facts that we still haven’t corrected in this country.”
Aside from Carter’s nod of praise for our newest DVD, what was important about his observation was the cultural bluff from which he spoke.
Carter had made a courageous speech in 1971 as the governor of Georgia about ending racial segregation at a time when racial strife was red-hot and most white Baptist churches were fearful, prejudiced and still the bulwark of segregation.
At a breakfast meeting earlier on Jan. 31 for some 75 ministers and leaders, Carter recalled that speech. He remembered saying, “The time for racial segregation is over.” He pointed out that his statement was so newsworthy that it placed him on the cover of Time magazine a few weeks later. Southern governors simply did not make such declarations.
Carter then shared a family vote taken on a Christmas vacation in 2007.
“We had a private poll among our family members about our preferences in the early stages of the Democratic primary,” he said, noting that 26 of his 31 family members favored the candidacy of Barack Obama. He said that “the main motivation of the Carter family then was wrapped around the issue” of race.
The 84-year-old Carter reminded the congregation in the sanctuary that a year ago Baptists had met under the banner in Atlanta of the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant. He characterized the gathering as “the first time, without any threat to our unity or to our freedom, caused by differences in race or politics or geography or a legalistic interpretation of carefully selected scriptures,” that such a large gathering of North American Baptists had met.
Carter said the NBC’s “key goal is binding white and black Baptists together.”
Now, surely, all EthicsDaily.com readers can say about the NBC, “Amen.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.