See Update Below
Jimmy Carter is always busy, scurrying around below the line of public attention, doing what he does best, making a difference.
His friends, and they are many, are always glad to see him emerge into the light, taking aim at yet another difficult problem.
His enemies, and you know who you are, grab their propaganda weapons and take aim. They always miss.
An 84-year old former U.S. president who works to eradicate disease in Africa, monitor national elections, and push for peace in the Middle East, is not easy to bring down.
This week Carter surfaced again, this time as part of a group known as the Elders, retired world leaders who individually have found ways to continue to serve.
In a column for the London Guardian, Carter described one major problem the Elders have addressed to all faith traditions: Using religion to do massive harm to women. (To read the entire Guardian column, click here).
His title:”The words of God do not justify cruelty to women”.
Carter writes out of his own experience with the Southern Baptist Convention, in which he spent more than six decades.
He left that particular religious body after a new group of Baptist leaders started using. . .
. . . a few carefully selected Bible verses [that claimed] 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 distorted use of the Bible to force women into a subservient role in the church forced his own “painful” break. He has written and spoken of this in recent years.
What is new in the Guardian column is that Carter is now working with a group of world leaders, the Elders. . .
. . . an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.
Elders, a term well known in Mandela’s native Africa, have a unique role to play in tribal society, and now, in the global society. This particular group of world Elders, at the moment twelve in number, was formed in Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 18, 2007.
The Elders, a new alliance made up of an elite group of senior statesmen dedicated to solving thorny global problems, unveiled itself today in Johannesburg.
The rollout coincided with founding member Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday.
After a grand entrance, Mandela, the former South African president, announced the rest of the Elders.
The members include Desmond Tutu, South African archbishop emeritus of Capetown; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel laureate and founder of the Green Bank in Bangladesh.
The group plans to get involved in some of the world’s most pressing problems — climate change, pandemics like AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, violent conflicts.
It was an extraordinary gathering; a who’s who of famous international leaders, with enough emotion to move some of them to tears.
In his Guardian column, Carter explains why these particular Elders are now free to join together globally:
Seven years ago, Branson and Gabriel approached Mandela about the Elders idea, and he agreed to help them recruit others. “This group of elders will bring hope and wisdom back into the world,” Branson said. “They’ll play a role in bringing us together.
“Using their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above the parochial concerns of nations ? they can help make our planet a more peaceful, healthy and equitable place to live, ” Branson said. ” Let us call them ‘global elders,’ not because of their age but because of individual and collective wisdom.”
Calling it “the most extraordinary day” of his life, Gabriel said, “The dream was there might still be a body of people in whom the world could place their trust.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who moderated the event and will serve as its leader, was moved to tears after Gabriel sang an impromptu accapella version of his hit song “Biko,” written about a famous South African political prisoner.
Branson and Gabriel have raised enough money — some $18 million — to fund this group for three years.
Who are Branson and Gabriel? They are British, they are creative, and they have imagination. Like the Elders, they want to make a difference in the world. So they invited Nelson Mandela to form the Elders.
Gabriel is an international rock star. Last year, he wrote the Oscar nominated, “We’re Coming Down” that appeared in the film, Wall-E.
Other Elders include Indian microfinance leader Ela Bhatt and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Biographies of all twelve Elders may be found at the Elders website.
At the initial 2007 meeting in Johannasburg, the group left an empty seat onstage — symbolically — for an elder who was invited, but was unable to attend because she is under house arrest in Myanmar (Burma): Nobel laureate and human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently in prison in Myanmar.
At the event that formed the Elders, Mandela and Carter stressed the fact that the Elders are free to talk to anyone without risk. ABC reported:
“We will be able to risk failure in worthy causes, and we will not need to claim credit for any successes that might be achieved,” said Carter.
Carter said the group does not want to step on or interfere with other positive work that nations or organizations are doing but wants to supplement that work.
Several members acknowledged that the actual activities and actions of the group remain to be determined. There are no titles, no ranking of the members. And it is not clear if they will travel as a group, deploy individual members to global hot spots, or simply sit in a room together to develop strategies or assist those who are suffering find help.
But they certainly have high hopes.
When Time magazine honored Peter Gabriel as one of its 100 “Heroes and Pioneers” leaders, the editors turned to one of Gabriel’s friends, Bishop Desmond Tutu, who confessed that before he met Gabriel he has never heard of him or of his major role as a musician.
In his tribute to Peter Gabriel, Tutu wrote:
What is his secret? He has a heart—in our part of the world, we would give him our highest accolade and say, “He has ubuntu.” It is that marvelous quality that speaks of compassion and generosity, about sharing, about hospitality.
So what is Jimmy Carter doing these days?
You might say he has joined a band called the Elders. And you might also say the band was put together by rock star Peter Gabriel, record tycoon Richard Branson and South Africa’s former president, Nelson Mandela.
And now we know that Jimmy Carter has written his own song for the Elders: “We challenge injustice wherever we see it.”
Update July 25:
After this posting initially went online, it was picked up (with proper credit) by my colleague Martin Marty, who did his own Sightings column on Carter and the Elders. Newsweek’s blog spread Marty’s column even further.
Many readers were unaware that President Carter had withdrawn from the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000. The Carter Center was deluged with queries prompted by the assumption that his move was a recent one. The Center has helpfully passed along this link to the original news story from the year 2000, when Carter first announced his decision to leave the SBC.
Photo above by Rick Diamond, is used courtesy of the Carter Center, Atlanta, Georgia.