Tuesday, August 25, 2015

President Carter: Naming the Demon of Racism

President Carter announcing his cancer diagnosis.

Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew 8:34

I said they refused Jesus, too, and he said, “You’re not him.”
Bob Dylan

They asked Jesus to leave because he had been casting out demons.

The Gospel stories of demons and demon possession are hard for us to understand. The pre-scientific world view of the first century is in many ways very different from our own. But the demon stories leave us with some enduring truths:

1. The demons recognize Jesus. They see the truth in him and they are afraid.
2. He names them and by this naming and identifying, he takes away their power.
3. People get nervous when demons are cast out.

This last point was apparent in the response to President Jimmy Carter’s remarks about racism and our first African American President.

Jimmy Carter has been on my mind a lot lately. He is 90 years old, so his death cannot really be a surprise. But when he announced, with typical grace and humility, that he has brain cancer, it brought me up short. I will miss him. I wish him a long but pain free good-bye. I do not want him to go quickly into that good night.

Whatever else one might say about Jimmy Carter, “Jimmah,” as Rosalynn always seems to pronounce it, he was our most self-consciously and consistently Christian president. More than any other president, he tried to put his Christian faith into practice in the White House. And that was always his problem. As a country we demand that our presidents profess their faith, but we are generally uncomfortable if they try to put it into practice.

Over the next few weeks I want to look back on some brief episodes in the long and good life of a man we have so often under-appreciated.

The first episode comes from the summer after President Obama took office when Carter was asked why he thought there was so much criticism of the President. Much to the chagrin of the White House, he said that although there were many legitimate policy issues to debate, he attributed the virulence of the reaction to racism.

Speaking from his experience growing up in the South, he correctly identified the demon of racism, which has possessed our country for so long, and he has been vilified for it. I remember watching a video of him being asked about this. Carter sat solemnly, his shoulders hunched and his posture bent by age, as the commentator talked about him “intimidating” and bullying those who disagree by calling some of it racism. Apart from the gentleness of his demeanor, it was hard to imagine this elderly man intimidating or bullying anyone. But when a person has the courage to name the demon, we say that he or she is “playing the race card.” The one who names the oppression is called the oppressor. That is our way of begging Jesus to leave our neighborhood.

Racism does not surprise me. What surprises me and troubles me, is the inability (or unwillingness) of people to call it what it is and cast it out.

The issue was in the news at the time of Carter’s interview because of an incident earlier that summer when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home in Cambridge, when a police officer thought he was a burglar. President Obama commented critically on the officer’s behavior and then invited both the officer and Professor Gates to join him for a conciliatory beer in the Rose Garden.

In an attempt to refute the charge of racism, the Providence Journal ran an editorial comparing Bob Dylan’s encounter with a police officer in Atlantic City with the Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge. If only Professor Gates had been as calm as Bob Dylan, said the editorial, there would never have been a problem. And except for a few small details, the circumstances are remarkably similar:

Bob Dylan was trespassing on someone else’s property, while Professor Gates was in his own home.
Dylan was wandering in the middle of the night and Gates was coming home in the middle of the day.
Dylan was dressed like a street person and Gates was dressed like Henry Louis Gates.
Gates showed his identification, and Dylan had no ID.
They both got a ride in a police car. Gates was handcuffed, Dylan was not.
Gates was taken to the police station to be booked. Dylan was taken to his hotel to see if someone could verify his identity.
And in the Dylan case, the police officer apologized.

Other than those minor details, the cases were identical.

In an interview with Brian Williams, President Carter said, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American.” Sadly, the issues of racism have intensified over the years since President Carter first had the courage to speak that painful truth.

President Carter named the demon and there were (and are) lots of people who want him to leave the neighborhood. He did not call it racism because he disagreed with the criticisms made by President Obama’s opponents. He was naming the demon. We need to have the courage to cast it out. Then we can get back to debating the issues.

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