Necessary wisdom from The Elders

By Martin E. Marty
September 25, 2009

Two years and two months ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, twelve senior statespersons met to form a group called, yes, the Elders. Their founding date, 18 July 2007, may not go down in history as a turning-point, but — who knows? — it may well at least represent a contribution to a turned world.

Funded for three years by Richard Branson, the British billionaire, and Peter Gabriel, the rock star of whose existence, we presume, few of the elders would ever have heard, the Elders travel light bureaucratically; if there are hierarchies, their presence is overlooked. They would keep it simple.

The Elders had escaped the notice of this lower-case ‘e’ elder, until I read a column in a British newspaper written by ex-President Jimmy Carter, which was also forwarded and blogged-about by Jim Wall, my old boss at The Christian Century.

In his blog, Wall mentioned some of the twelve — may their tribe increase to a score and a score of scores! — including Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela (89-years-old on founding day), Jimmy Carter, and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom a meeting-chair was left empty but reserved while she is in prison in Myanmar.

The group intends not to crowd existing organizations but to supplement the work of those with whom this varied but distinguished body can identify. Readers can track them down at the Elders’ site, where the oldersters state their case.

Young Elders look ahead to tackle enduring problems in the time given them, so they chose one of the oldest human social and personal problems: cruelty to, discrimination against, and abuse of the larger part of the human race, women. Read President Carter ( and others who take on the cause and exercise your license to yawn, if you pride yourself on being in the advance guard.

Many of the battles, incidents, and causes on which he reports and editorialises will read like “old stuff” to veterans of the women’s movements of the past half century. Reading it thus may help them shrug off or move on from barely addressed and hardly initiated issues in most parts of the globe.

The work of advancing and realizing women’s rights is far from completed. Carter uses as a personal example his having to leave the Southern Baptist Convention after its messengers voted to stress female submission to males, beginning with wives to husbands and lay persons to ordained clergy.

We know that he knows, as does Billy Graham (whom he cites favorably as a biblical exegete on this subject), that many of the Baptist women who were to be biblically put in their place, found and find ways anyhow to be fulfilled and freed.

The problem, say the Elders, is that cruelty, discrimination and abuse come packaged among garlands of carefully chosen excerpts from the Qur’an, the New Testament, the Torah, and other holy books. Religion justifies the cruelties.

Even to think that Elders or Young’uns can easily and effectively take on the powers to which they point might lead one to paint them as naïve. All of the Elders, however, have seen too much injustice and just enough reformation to resist giving up and failing to provide whatever leadership they can.

If they only had to battle on secular lines, it would be one story. Having to take on the snippers-of-holy-books is another. The Elders have much to learn — and to teach. While they pursue this cause we picture them not settling for the rocking chair or the souvenir books, but finding other themes. Oh, let me add: belated Happy Birthday, Dr Mandela.

Visit the Elders website here:


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading academic and journalistic US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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