At age 89, former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, has released a new book: A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.
I’m not surprised. Whatever else may be said about his presidency and his politics, his sustained and compassionate service to humanity has since been, quite possibly, unsurpassed by any other public official in US history.
Carter’s concern for the dignity and rights of women was demonstrated a decade ago when he and his wife Rosalyn publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention on the issue of the role of women in the church. And what must be said is that the Carters didn’t leave the Convention in defiance of Christianity, but in defense of it.
Critics of Christianity are quick to take a misogynistic reading of scriptures. Granted, that is easy to do if one is extremely selective about texts and unsophisticated about their contextual interpretation. But there are plenty of skillful scholars who can readily challenge that assumption (certainly better than I) and I’ll leave that work to them.
However, yesterday I rose early and decided to spend a few moments reading scriptures based on the lectionary passages for the day. The first reading was from Septuagint passages in the book of Daniel that tell the story of a beautiful, married woman named Susanna and two prominent, but lecherous men who attempted to coerce her into having sex with them on the threat of false accusations that would lead to her stoning death. As the story goes, Susanna would rather die than lose her honour and betray her husband and her God, and so the men stir up the village elders on the basis of lies, and proceed to have her stoned. At the last minute, God blesses Daniel with an uncommon wisdom, and he penetrates the men’s lies to prove them deceitfully wicked. Susanna is vindicated, and in the end it is the devious men who lose their lives for bearing false witness.
The second reading, from the book of Joshua (2:1-14), tells the story of the ancient Israelites’ conquest of the walled city of Jericho. Interestingly, as two Israelite spies are sent ahead to assess the city’s defences, they seek the help of a local prostitute, Rahab, whose awe of Israel’s God and personal cunning not only saves the men from being discovered, but saves her own family’s life and paves the way for the Israelite conquest.
The third reading is from John’s gospel (8:1-11), which tells the story of a woman caught in the act of adultery. She is brought before Jesus and asked what should be done about her; death by stoning would be the appropriate answer given the moral/legal code of the day. It is telling, of course, that only the woman is charged. There is no mention of the necessary male who would have been complicit in the “crime.”
Jesus bends over to quietly ponder the situation, stirring up the dust at his feet with his finger. He then stands and simply suggests that whoever among them is without sin, should be the first to throw a stone. The accusers are staggered by his response and one by one walk away. Jesus then looks at the woman and says, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? Well, neither do I…”
I’m not claiming there are no problematic texts about women in scripture, nor do scriptures only represent women as victims or as morally dubious–scriptures positively portray women as national leaders, prophets, warriors, justice advocates, philanthropists, strategists, mystics etc., indeed bearing the image of God–but these were the texts compiled for yesterday’s lectionary readings, and they provoked a particular memory:
Several years ago, Nanci and I received a disturbing text-message from a cherished friend with whom we’ve had a long history. Ruby-Lynne is a young woman with a heart-wrenching past, one that included a severe drug addiction during her teen years which she paid for by prostituting herself on the streets of Winnipeg. She heroically managed to come through those difficult days alive, and was beginning to build a different life, but eventually found herself far from home, in a residual relationship with a controlling a man.
“He dictates what I eat… if and when I can leave the house… if and when I can use the phone…” one text said.
“He said I have to forget about my family and friends…” said another.
Finally, “I’m scared. I think I’m going to get hurt.”
I texted back and asked if she wanted me to come and get her.
“Eddie says no one will come for an old hooker,” came the response.
Within an hour I was driving across three provinces to bring her back home.
I won’t lie. I was terrified. I knew the man could be violent. And if you’ve seen me, you’ll know I’m not exactly a threatening alpha-male type. I’m certainly not a fighter, and I definitely have no reason to trust my instincts or defence skills in a violent situation.
As I drove, I found myself praying, “God help me. If I have to confront Eddie, what do I say?”
Almost immediately I detected a voice in my spirit saying, “Just tell him I sent you.”
I wasn’t thrilled with the response, but I started practising (in the most threatening tone I could muster) :
“Eddie! The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent me to…”
“No…” interrupted the voice, “tell him the God of Rahab has sent you.”
Tears flowed as the revelation, embedded in those few words, began to dawn on me.
To make a long story short, I was able to help Ruby-Lynn leave that situation without incident.
I met Jimmy Carter once. He came to Winnipeg in 1993 to help build ten homes (in one week) with Habitat for Humanity, a marvellous organization which partners with the working poor and the wider community to help folks achieve home ownership. I was volunteering on the build, and was also asked to provide music at several intervals during the blitz. On the last day, as keys were presented to the new home owners, my musician friends Gord Johnson, Larry Campbell and I belted out a rousing and emotional, bluegrass rendition of Psalm 126 called “The Lord Has Done Great Things”.
As we sang, others joined in and began to clap in joyful celebration! Suddenly, the crowd split and Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter came two-stepping into the centre. It was quite the moment, and the lyrics, in retrospect, were prophetic:
When the Lord brought out the captives
When he set the prisoners free
It was just like in a dream
And our mouths were filled with laughter
And our tongues with songs to sing
It was just like in a dream
And it is said among the nations
That the Lord has done great things…
Go Jimmy, go!
The song we sang that day is below. It was recorded in 1989 so it sounds a bit dated… but it kind-of bounces along none-the-less: