We Need a Strong Man!

The “Strong Man” Theory 

Here’s the political axiom for today:  When people are convinced that their community or nation is in decline, they tend to search for a “strong man” who will 1) offer simplistic answers to complex problems, 2) define a scapegoat to blame for their problems, and 3) promise to fix everything by the sheer force of his personality and will.

Here’s an extreme historical example.

The Boys in the Boat is one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Daniel James Brown tells the amazing story of the strength and character of the US rowing team that won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  In the shadows is the way Hitler staged the Olympics to demonstrate the greatness of “new” Germany while deeper in the shadows Jews were being taken to concentration camps and Hitler’s military was preparing to take over Europe.

It reminded me of hearing Franklin H. Littell,  the author of The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, describe a visit to Germany in the early days of the Third Reich. A German Methodist whom he described as a very good man, told him, “Adolf Hitler is God’s man for Germany.”  It was the “Strong Man Theory” at work, making Germany great again.

Having convinced a lot of folks that Mexico and China “are killing us,” that all of our leaders are “stupid,” and that Mexicans crossing the Southern border are “rapists and murderers,” it appears that Donald Trump is the “strong man” a lot of people think will “make America great again.”

But is that the kind of strength the world really needs?

The Strength of Jimmy Carter

Enter Jimmy Carter, sharing the news of his brain cancer.  It will lift your spirits to watch it here. He has demonstrated a different kind of strength.

It takes a “strong man” to wage peace instead of waging war. 

The political mythology that has been woven around Ronald Reagan has nearly obliterated the memory of the Thirteen Days in September when Jimmy Carter brokered a peace agreement between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt.  It has stood for more than three decades, proving that peace through negotiation instead of war could still be possible in the Middle East. The New York Times called it “an act of surpassing political courage.”

It takes a “strong man” to face defeat with dignity. 

When the leaders of Iran humiliated Carter by holding the US hostages until the moment his helicopter lifted off from Washington, instead of supporting their President, most of the American people blamed him.  A weaker man would have slithered away in anger or bitterness.  But Carter faced the defeat with dignity and handed on the power of the Presidency with honor.  Leading to…

It takes a “strong man” to turn his greatest defeat into his greatest accomplishment. 

While other Presidential “libraries” have become theatrical stages upon which past Presidents are the staring performers, The Carter Center is not about Carter, but about doing good for others:  “Waging Peace.  Fighting Disease.  Building Hope.”  Regardless of how historians evaluate his time in office, Jimmy Carter has become the most influential former President in any of our lifetimes and perhaps in our nation’s history.

It takes a “strong man” to face death with peace, gratitude and hope. 

The news media has been fascinated at the peace, joy and faith with which Carter is facing his cancer. People lined up to see him teach Sunday School last week.  But folks who have followed Carter across the years are not surprised.  The spirit in which he is facing the last days of his life — however many there may be — grows out of a long life of faith, nurtured by patterns of spiritual discipline that have been the core of his being the whole way through.  He not only talks about the bible, he lives it.

It takes as “strong man” to be humble. 

David Brooks has pointed to humility as one of the necessary guideposts along The Road to Character.  But humility is in short supply these days.  We’d much rather sing “Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble When You’re Perfect In Every Way” than “Make Me a Servant, Lord.”

But now and then we see the strength of humility in people like Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis and Jimmy Carter and we instinctively know that strength is not always measured by force, power or control.  There is a deeper, inner, more Christlike strength that grows in the soil (Latin humus, soil, earth) of humility.

When it comes down to is, the world is searching for men and women who know, live and share that kind of strength.

Happy are those whose strength is in you,
    in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca (Tears)
    they make it a place of springs;
    the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
    the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Psalm 84:5-7)

Grace, peace and strength,

Jim

My Candidate Is…

My Candidate Is…

Tonight’s “Presidential Debate” may be as entertaining as “America’s Got Talent” but it won’t really be a “debate” (at least not by the standards of my college debate professor) and whether any of the candidates appear “Presidential” is a matter of personal taste.

I’ve found the kind of candidate I could support, but first…

Puritans and Pilgrims 

I’ve spent the summer reading about the Pilgrims and Puritans in preparation for the “Fall Foliage Cruise” along the New England coast.  As usual, a little bit of history can both confirm and unhinge our patriotic mythology.

For example, the first Thanksgiving was not the meal Indians provided for starving Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621, but the meal to which Spanish explorers invited the native Timucua on September 8, 1565, in St. Augustine, Florida.  And the menu wasn’t turkey and dressing, but salted pork, garbanzo beans, bread and red wine that were left-overs in the ship’s stores after the long journey.

Back in New England, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the faith, conviction, courage and vision of folks like William Bradford, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Phyllis Wheatley and George Whitefield. They were amazing people who in many ways helped form our national identity.

I’ve also learned a lot about Christians behaving badly in 16th and 17th Century England. The “radical Islamic terrorists” of today have nothing over the “radical Christian terrorists” who persecuted each other in the Catholic vs Protestant, then Protestant vs Protestant conflicts that caused the Pilgrims (who wanted to separate from the Church of England) and the Puritans (who wanted to “purify” the Church of England) to jump on the first ship they could find.  The discomfort of the journey and danger of the wilderness was preferable to the persecution they suffered back home.

What our patriotic myths leave out is that when they got here, they fell back into some of the same patterns they had left behind.  Church historian, Martin Marty wrote: “Lovers of freedom, they came to find it–and then hurried to establish their newfound freedom by ruling out dissenters.” (Pilgrims In Their Own Land, p. 59)

Which brings me to my new-found hero and model Presidential candidate.

The Experiment in “Soul Libertie” 

Thanks to Bernie Lieving for recommending that I read “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul” by John M. Barry.  I recommend it to you.

I knew that Williams got kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded Rhode Island on the basis of freedom of conscience.  I discovered a fascinating character, a persuasive politician, and a deeply faithful leader who became the first model for what would become essential elements of our shared vision of freedom and democracy.

  • He called his plantation an “experiment” in “Soul Libertie” where no person would be compelled by law to attend worship or be persecuted for his/her religious belief.
  • He was the first person to describe a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.” (Barry, p. 307) Martin Marty said he “drew the line between church and state not out of love of democracy but to keep the church pure and out of the grasp civil meddlers.” (Marty, p. 78)
  • The charter for Rhode Island gave the colony “full Power & Authority to Governe & rule themselves…[as] the greater Part of them shall find most suteable.” (Barry, p. 309. The spelling and caps are his.) It was the first expression of democratic government that the world had ever seen.

The result was that “Providence Plantation thus exceeded any other known state in the world in its freedoms.”  (Barry, p. 310)

It was the first experiment in what became our on-going experiment of American democracy, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and government “of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

Barry wrote that Williams “could be both relentless and charming; he was a man with reasoned arguments who advanced them with passion.” (p. 308)  In short, he was the kind of candidate I could support.  Unfortunately, they seem to be in short supply.

Grace and peace,

Jim