An Evangelist of Justice

November 21, 2014
President Jimmy Carter
HDS hosted former President Jimmy Carter on November 19. / Photo: Justin Knight

Calling abuse and violence toward women and girls the most horrendous human rights issue on Earth, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter charged the hundreds who came to hear him talk at Harvard to stop the harm being done to half of the world's population.

Speaking to a capacity crowd inside Memorial Church on November 19, Carter enlightened those in attendance to the driving factors behind his latest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.

He began by speaking about truth. The Christian faith, Carter said, cannot be strong unless the words charity and love are combined with the word truth. However, he said human beings are often culpable of blurring the line between fact and fiction, or only desire to know the part of the truth that benefits us.

"We tend to distort the truth in order to benefit ourselves, and that doesn't just include people who are persecuting others, but people who sit quiet while others are persecuted," he said. "There is an exact same parallel between the way black people were treated in some parts of this country when I was a child and the way women and girls are treated all over the world now."

During his talk, sponsored by Harvard Divinity School, Carter purposely painted a bleak picture, reciting statistics on the abuse, rape, human trafficking, and killing of women and girls in the United States and across the world.

More than 90 percent of women in Egypt have suffered genital mutilation, he said. In some parts of India, for every 1,000 boys there are only 650 girls because of the deliberate murder of young females by parents. And every month in Atlanta—in Carter's home state of Georgia—between 200 and 300 girls are sold into sex slavery, he said.

"We have a lot to be concerned about," he explained. "These facts are sickening. They make me partially nauseated to talk about and to report them."

Carter, who still teaches Sunday school at age 90, outlines in his book 23 points of corrective action that can be taken, but as the title of his book suggests, the upsetting statistics he highlights are meant to serve as a call to action.

"I hope everyone will consider these facts and decide what we can do about them, whether you are deeply religious, or deeply patriotic, or just committed to the principles of human rights, decency, justice, or morality," he said. "The first step is for the facts to be known. I think that's the first thing—to let it be known how bad it is."

In his opening remarks, HDS professor and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Jonathan L. Walton called Carter a "courageous evangelist of justice throughout the globe."

HDS Dean David N. Hempton said he was staggered by the sheer size of the problem laid out by Carter in his book, but that the former president offers "a striking example of what we mean at Harvard Divinity School when we speak of bringing religious resources to bear on life and the world's greatest challenges."

After Carter's talk, Hempton presented the 39th president with a surprise gift: the inaugural President Jimmy Carter Scholarship, awarded to an HDS student dedicated to advancing studies of human rights issues.

The first recipient of the award, Karlene Griffiths Sekou, MDiv '17, joined Carter on stage for the presentation and received a hug from the former president, who said that he will devote the rest of his life tackling issues of violence against women.

"I don't know of a more important, single human rights cause that anyone can undertake," Carter said.

–by Michael Naughton