America is a nation of faith. So it is often said.
In faith, a baker refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. In faith, terrorists plant bombs at the finish line of a marathon. In faith, a televangelist asks his followers to buy him a $65-million private jet.
And no one is even surprised anymore.
In America, what we call faith is often loud, often exclusionary, sometimes violent and too frequently enamored of shiny, expensive things.
You did not hear much about faith last week when Jimmy Carter held a press conference to reveal that he has four spots of cancer on his brain. The 39th president made only a few references to it in the nearly 40 minutes he spoke, and they were all in response to reporters’ questions. Yet, you would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling statement of belief in things not seen. Unsentimental, poised and lit from within by an amazing grace, Carter discussed the fight now looming ahead of him.
He smiled often. “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” he said, in such a way that you believed him without question. And it was impossible to feel sorry for him.
Partially, that’s because we all die and if – still only an if – cancer is what takes James Earl Carter Jr. away, well, there are worse things than to go having reached 90 years of age, having been president of the United States, having been married to the love of your life for almost seven decades, having sired a large and sprawling family and having done significant work toward the eradication of disease and the spreading of democracy in the developing world.
It’s also because feeling sorry would have felt like an insult, a denial of the faith he didn’t need to speak because it was just ... there.
For all its loudness, all its exclusion, violence and ubiquity, the faith that is modeled in the public square is often not particularly affecting. What Carter showed the world, though, was different. Who would not want to be able to face the unknown with such perfect equanimity?
Carter presented an image of faith we don’t see nearly as often as we should. Which is sad, because it is also the image truest to what faith is supposed to be – an act of surrender to a force greater than self, a way of being centered enough to tell whatever bleak thing comes your way, “So be it.” Even death itself.
The heat and hubris of human life are such that that state is difficult to conceive, much less to reach. Our lives are defined by wanting and lack, so it is hard to feel whole within yourself and at peace with what is, whatever that turns out to be.
But who, gazing upon the former president, can doubt the result is worth the effort?
In faith, so many of us hate, exclude, hurt, curse and destroy. And in faith, last week, Jimmy Carter told the world he has cancer in his brain.
And smiled as he spoke.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.