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Jimmy Carter’s Image Of Faith Truest To What Faith Should Be

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Jimmy Carter’s Image Of Faith Truest To What Faith Should Be


To want what I have, to take what I’m given with grace… for this, I pray.” — From “For My Wedding,” by Don Henley

America is a nation of faith. So it is often said.

In faith, a baker refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. In faith, a minister prays for the president to die. In faith, terrorists plant bombs at the finish line of a marathon. In faith, mosques are vandalized, shot at and burned. In faith, a televangelist asks his followers to buy him a $65 million private jet.

And no one is even surprised anymore.

In America, what we call faith is often loud, often exclusionary, sometimes violent, and too frequently enamored of shiny, expensive things. In faith, ill-tempered people mob the shopping malls every year at Christmas to have fistfights and gunfights over hot toys and high-end electronics.

You did not hear much about faith last week when Jimmy Carter held a press conference to reveal that he has four spots of cancer on his brain. The 39th president made only a few references to it in the nearly 40 minutes he spoke, and they were all in response to reporters’ questions. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find a more compelling statement of belief in things not seen. Unsentimental, poised, and lit from within by an amazing grace, Carter discussed the fight now looming ahead of him, the radiation treatments he will undergo, the need to finally cut back on his whirlwind schedule.

He smiled often. “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” he said, in such a way that you believed him without question. And it was impossible to feel sorry for him.

Partially, that’s because we all die and if — still only an if — cancer is what takes James Earl Carter Jr. away, well, there are worse things than to go having reached 90 years of age, having been president of the United States, having been married to the love of your life for almost seven decades, having sired a large and sprawling family, and having done significant work toward the eradication of disease and the spreading of democracy in the developing world.

But here’s the other reason it was impossible to feel sorry for him. Feeling sorry would have felt like an insult, a denial of the virtues he showed and the faith he didn’t need to speak because it was just… there.

For all its loudness, all its exclusion, violence, and ubiquity, the faith that is modeled in the public square is often not particularly affecting. It is hard to imagine someone looking on it from outside and musing to herself, “I’d like to have some of that.” What Carter showed the world, though, was different. Who would not want to be able to face the unknown with such perfect equanimity?

Carter presented an image of faith we don’t see nearly as often as we should. Which is sad, because it is also the image truest to what faith is supposed to be — not a magic lamp you rub in hopes of a private jet, not a license for our worse impulses, but, rather, an act of surrender to a force greater than self, a way of being centered enough to tell whatever bleak thing comes your way, “So be it.” Even fearsome death itself: “So be it.”

The heat and hubris of human life are such that that state is difficult to conceive, much less to reach. Our lives are defined by wanting and by lack — more money, new car, new love — and by the ceaseless hustle to fill empty spaces within. Media and advertising conspire to make you feel ever incomplete. So it is hard to feel whole within yourself, at peace with what is, whatever that turns out to be.

But who, gazing upon the former president, can doubt the result is worth the effort?

In faith, terrorists kill the innocent. In faith, televangelists swindle the gullible. In faith, so many of us hate, exclude, hurt, curse, and destroy. And in faith, last week, Jimmy Carter told the world he has cancer in his brain.

And smiled as he spoke.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis at the Carter Center Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Ga. The 90-year-old announced he had cancer after doctors removed small masses from his liver earlier this month. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Marilyn August 26, 2015

    Beautifully written. JImmy Carter doesn’t need to talk about his faith as much as other public figures do because he lives his faith. He makes me want to be a better person.

  2. mbm August 26, 2015

    Amazing Grace…how humbling and inspirational to witness a life of true faith in action. A Real Christian.

  3. nancyminter August 26, 2015

    Beautifully done, as usual. Jimmy Carter is a joy. When we look at what passes for faith and then see him it’s all so obvious. Thank you both.

  4. ps0rjl August 26, 2015

    Like Jimmy Carter, there are many people who do practice their faith in quiet selfness. We have a friend who is a Southern Baptist and would never think of pushing her faith on anyone else. My mother practiced her Catholic faith quietly everyday.

  5. rustacus21 August 27, 2015

    … & scripture instructs that we ‘spread’ the gospels at every opportunity with the unsaved. But the important factor is God instructs that we ‘offer’ enlightenment – not hit people over over the head w/it, making them accept it. This is what is so beautiful about President Carters faith. He offers it up, leaving it to the receiver to accept or not. THIS is true faith, allowing people to chose for themselves, w/out beating one over the head w/guilt – calling no names mind U… His morality and trust in the divine makes one long for knowledge & a glimpse of what a 2nd Carter term would have looked like – considering the world we’re left with subsequently… God Bless him & lets all pray for his complete recovery…

    1. Sand_Cat September 7, 2015

      That’s why many of today’s “Christians” despise him and attempt to deny him the right to call himself one.

      1. rustacus21 September 8, 2015

        YIKES!!! Now isn’t THAT Christian like!!! ‘Despising’ one for their faith… b/c they ‘minister’ to others? Sounds like they hate him for something other than his virtues or being morally upright. I pray for him & his family often & wish him a speedy & complete recovery. Beyond that, who cares…


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