CarterScreenIt took a 90-year-old man to breathe some real excitement into the typically staid meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion (SBL/AAR) going on in San Diego.

That happens when the nonagenarian is former president Jimmy Carter. When another speaker said something about being younger than Carter when Carter was a young president, Carter joked that “just about everybody is younger than me.”

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 scholars are in attendance at the joint meetings, which draw to a close on Tuesday, and what appeared to be a majority of them found their way to the big ballroom, even though many (especially on the SBL side) didn’t realize until today that he was speaking. I had planned to attend a section on “Archaeological and Historical Studies in the Deuteronomistic Literature,” but as appealing as it would have been to learn more about Iron Age grain silos and their relationship to Gideon, I bailed to hear the president, and wished that more people would listen to the significant wisdom he has to offer.

Carter had been asked to address issues of climate change and the environment, but it was clear that he was most interested in talking about the related problems of violence against women and the many inequalities women continue to face, issues he addresses in a recent book, A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.

As global warming leads to increased flooding of coastlines and makes life harder for poor folk living near the oceans, or as increased pollution brings problems to underprivileged people in other areas, you can bet that the men will look after themselves, Carter said, while women and girls will suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, societies in many parts of the world continue to force genital mutilation upon girls and to treat women and girls as inferior to men and boys.

CarterPanelEven more developed societies like the U.S. that claim to promote equality continue to show clear signs of discrimination in the way men and women are treated, Carter said, citing wage disparity and the problem of unreported rapes on college campuses, among other things. Because of its busy airport, he said, Atlanta is a leading city for the trafficking of sex slaves (an estimated 200-300 per month), where brothel owners can “buy” a girl transported across international borders for as little as $1,000.

Carter also spoke to a culture of violence that has America continually at war rather than seeking peace, and the negative attitudes and legislation contributing to America’s increasing prison population. When he was president, he said, one out of 1,000 men were in prison. Today, he said, 7.3 of 1,ooo are incarcerated, more than seven times as many. Legislation claiming to be tough on crime such as the “three strikes” laws have thousands of people serving life sentences who have not committed serious crimes.

Of the 30 articles on listed in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, signed in 1948, the U.S. is in violation of 10 of them, Carter said.

When asked how he manages to remain optimistic in the face of so much bad news, Carter quoted Bishop Desmond Tutu, who once said “I’m not optimistic . . . I am a prisoner of hope.”

It’s only when we have hope for a better world that we are willing to take action to make it so. May more of us be captured by the power of hope.

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