Drawing from the Well I: Judaism and Christianity on Peace

In the Hebrew Bible we read, “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of saving health” (Isaiah 12:3). We Unitarian Universalists do this whenever we draw from our Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith, which are

1. Judaism and Christianity
2. Humanism
3. Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder
4. Prophetic Women and Men
5. The World’s Religions
6. Earth-Based Spiritual Traditions

Six wells of Saving Health. And it’s our JOY to draw water out of them. Our JOY as Unitarian Universalists to be thirsty for Truth. We go wherever we sense Saving Health and we drink. We are spiritual camels. Spiritual camels are we.
And here is our oasis.

So belly up and drink deep. Today begins a new sermon series that will unfold in six installments over the course of the program year.  Each installment focuses on one of our six wells of Saving Health, and we explore that well from the particular angle of whatever the worship theme of the month happens to be. September’s theme is “peace,” so that’s today’s angle. November’s theme is “gratitude” so that’s the angle for that installment. And so on.

This morning: Judaism and Christianity on “peace.” Right at the top I want to define “peace” not just as an absence of war but even more importantly as an absence of the conditions that make for war, like poverty and human rights violations and absence of rule of law. A moment ago we heard former President Jimmy Carter affirm this basic idea when he declared, in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, that the greatest challenge to peace that the world faces today “is the growing chasm between the richest and poorest people on earth. Citizens of the ten wealthiest countries,” Carter says, “are now seventy-five times richer than those who live in the ten poorest ones, and the separation is increasing every year, not only between nations but also within them. The results of this disparity are root causes of most of the world’s unresolved problems, including starvation, illiteracy, environmental degradation, violent conflict, and unnecessary illnesses that range from Guinea worm to HIV/AIDS.”

We must wage peace against all such things. That’s how Jimmy Carter describes the mission of the Carter Center: to wage peace.

In his Nobel lecture Jimmy Carter also affirms the possibility of the world’s faith’s coming together in positive purpose: “I am convinced,” he says, “that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and others can embrace each other in a common effort to alleviate human suffering and to espouse peace.” But he clearly and unequivocally identifies as Christian. “I worship Jesus Christ,” he says, “whom we Christians consider to be the Prince of Peace. As a Jew, he taught us to cross religious boundaries, in service and in love.”

Because he so epitomizes the best of what we find in the Jewish and Christian traditions, today’s sermon will concentrate on some of the ways Jimmy Carter has followed the Prince of Peace in waging peace. We love this man, whose Secret Service code name at the White House was “The Deacon.” Now he’s America’s most famous Sunday school teacher, at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Still teaching, despite the cancer. A couple years ago, one of our UUCA covenant groups went on a field trip there and came away “dumbstruck” by Carter’s “humility and humanity.” His lesson for the day included mention of the great prophet Elijah, and covenant group member Rich Cogburn said, “I especially liked thinking of the Old Testament Elijah of the Passover Table, the prophet who is always expected and welcome yet never physically present.  A fine metaphor for a life’s work that has touched so many from afar.” Hildegarde Gray, another covenant group member, had this to say: “Hearing him opened my eyes to our oft repeated words of UU Francis David ‘we need not think alike to love alike’: President Carter spoke that Sunday about the absolute necessity of accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and how that was ultimately more important than all the good things one did during one’s lifetime.  I personally can’t share that, but I can see how that core belief leads him to speak and act out his faith in ways I so admire.”

He’s just one of the best Christians of the past several thousand years, and we will not have him on this earth for much longer. So let this be a love letter to him as well as a learning opportunity for us.

Back in 2009, Jimmy Carter showed the world just how much he was willing to sacrifice, personally, in pursuit of waging peace. For sixty years, the Southern Baptist Convention had been home to him. But when it crafted an explicit faith statement to the effect that women must be subservient to their husbands and that they are prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors, or chaplains in the military service, he said ENOUGH. He severed ties with the only church home he’d ever known. The word “reform” was hot on his lips, just like it had been on the lips of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestor Christians.

Part of it had to do with his sense that the faith statement contradicted Christian scripture and history. He says, “The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths.” “I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures,” he goes on, “in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.”

That’s part of it. Another part of his decision to sever ties is his commitment to women’s rights. Listen to this dimension of his decision:  “This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries. At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities. The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us.”

Yes it does. Thank you President Carter. He’s waging peace by fighting for women’s rights which is nothing but a way of fighting for human rights.

Waging peace also means fighting for economic justice. In a Christianity Today interview from 2012, Carter said, “The overwhelming commitment of a government is to provide justice and equality of opportunity for people. This meant to me that we should favor poor people, those who are deprived, instead of the richest and most powerful people. Governance should be designed as an equalizer.”

Listen to how this resonates with something the Prince of Peace once said: “Blessed are you for I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; I was naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’” Jesus’ disciples, hearing this, were confused and said, “When did we do any of those things for you?” And Jesus said, “If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.”

That is what the Prince of Peace says. Care for the least of these.

Carter follows the Prince of Peace.

But here again, there’s tension with his evangelical, born-again Christian brethren. One piece of the complicated background story to this is told by Princeton Professor Kevin Kruse in his book entitled One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Essentially, back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves under siege. There was the Great Crash on Wall Street; there was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s big government New Deal programs; there was pushback from Labor Unions. Business leaders tried all sorts of things to regain the upper hand and return to a “rich getting richer” pattern—and nothing worked well until they got the bright idea to link laissez-faire capitalism with Christianity. These executives recruited big-time clergy to be their spokesmen.

One was the Rev. James W. Fifield who was called “the 13th Apostle of Big Business.” He once said that reading the Bible “was like eating fish—we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value.” Just guess what this 13th Apostle of Big Business had to say about Bible passages like this one, Isaiah 10:1-2: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” Meat or bones?


Then there was the Rev. Billy Graham, called “the Big Business evangelist.” He once said that the Garden of Eden was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” He denounced all government restrictions in economic affairs, which he attacked as “socialism.”

This is just the beginning of Big Business’ efforts to subvert Christianity and make it serve the interests of the wealthy. Make it support the writers who write oppression. From this history we can trace the origin of such things as the Moral Majority and the Religious Right and what one writer (Allen Clifton) calls “Republicanity”: “Republicanism” merged with “Christianity.” Among other things, Republicanity wants to argue that the church ought to be solely responsible for caring for the poor, and government should have nothing to do with it. Which is a recipe for disaster, since the real world needs of the poor far outweigh the actual (and I would say even possible) charitable giving levels of churches. Government must get behind the healing of poverty because only government has enough power and scope and resources.

Which brings us back to Jimmy Carter. When he’s eating the fish of Holy Scripture, he’s not mistaking the words of Isaiah 10 for bones. “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right.” That’s all meat. So are the words of the Prince of Peace.

Care for the least of these.

This is essentially what Bernie Sander said recently in his amazing speech at Liberty University, attended by the leaders of the evangelical movement. Those leaders felt called out and they should feel called out. But my main point is that Jimmy Carter was there way before Bernie; Bernie is carrying a Jimmy Carter legacy forward.

It’s all about waging peace. Fighting for it.

And in doing so, we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This is my last point today. Jesus the Prince of Peace said those words to his disciples, as he sent them out in the world to spread his gospel of peace. He knew he was sending them out “like sheep among wolves,” and unless they were careful, they’d be eaten alive.

Same thing for us, as we wage peace. We’ll be eaten alive unless we can draw on serpent and dove strategies. So we’ll finish up with a brief look at how Carter achieved the near-impossible back in 1978: the very first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors at Camp David, surely the high point of his Presidency.

Here’s how it began. Says Carter: “The first three days of the talks were very unpleasant; primarily, I and [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat] were in a very small room. Sometimes the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, was there. I would try to get the two men to agree on something, and they couldn’t agree on anything; they were very antagonistic. No matter what my efforts were, they always wanted to revert back to what had happened in the last 25 years, with four wars and boys killed and bombs dropped.”

The work of waging peace can look like refereeing a shouting match. It often starts there—and it takes a “wise as serpents” strategy to get beyond that to something more constructive. Here’s Carter’s “wise as serpents” strategy, in his own words: “For the last 10 days in Camp David, [Begin and Sadat] never saw each other. I kept them totally apart, and I went back and forth between the Egyptians and the Israelis to try to conclude an agreement. I used then, and still use, a technique that I call ‘the single document technique’, in that I have exactly the same text that I present to the Israelis and the Egyptians, and every time one of them insists on a change, I make that change and present it to the other, so there’s no reason for them to believe that I’m misleading them. And so it was that long, tedious, back-and-forth negotiation that finally brought the two men to an agreement.”

That’s what I call a “wise as serpents” strategy. Waging peace requires such wisdom, or we are eaten alive. We cannot be naïve about the complexity of the work.

We also cannot be daunted. Like Jimmy Carter, we must be stubborn beyond belief. That’s the “innocent as a dove” part of the equation. Carter’s advisor’s suggested that he set his sights lower and pursue only the general outlines of an agreement, but he was stubborn. He chastised them in fact, said, “You are not aiming high enough!” Carter believed in what he was doing.

Again and again, the talks threatened to break down. After eleven days of negotiations, President Sadat wanted out. Carter went to Sadat’s cabin and told him, “Our friendship is over. You promised me that you would stay at Camp David as long as I was willing to negotiate… I consider this a serious blow… to the relationship between Egypt and the United States.” Sadat agreed to stay. Then, after everything seemed settled, Prime Minister Begin threatened to walk out, and once again, it was Carter’s stubbornness that kept the talks viable and alive…

Waging peace, whether it’s over the issue of human rights, economic justice, or a treaty between warring countries, requires a heart that is calm and steady in its purpose. Stubbornness is just another word for purity of heart.

It’s the exact same stubbornness we saw in his news conference a couple weeks ago, where he revealed he had four spots of cancer on his brain, and said, “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”

The Prince of Peace is beckoning, and Carter persists in following no matter what, stubborn in his innocence, and all is well.

He’s just one of the best Christians of the past several thousand years.