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Recalling Clarence Jordan, Radical Disciple

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Clarence Jordan stands among my list of top five Christian heroes, but most folks have never heard of him. However, on Sept. 28-29 President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalyn Carter will host the Clarence Jordan Symposium in Americus, Ga., on behalf of the Fuller Center for Housing. The event honors the 100th anniversary of Clarence and Florence Jordan's birth and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Koinonia Farm, the interracial farm and "demonstration plot for the kingdom of God" Jordan founded in 1942. Think about that: an interracial farm, deep in Georgia, in 1942. The event includes popular speakers like Shane Claiborne, Charles Marsh and Nora Tisdale. I'll lead a small workshop.

Best known for the "Cotton Patch Gospel" musical based upon his translation of the Gospels into Southern, and for his relationship to Habitat for Humanity, Clarence Jordan lived a radical commitment to the Gospel under intensely hostile circumstances. He and his colleagues dedicated themselves to building a community that transgressed racial boundaries and demonstrated peace in a world gone mad with war.

Born in 1912, Jordan grew up in a Southern Baptist home in rural Georgia. Biographers recount that Jordan's awareness of racial injustice emerged at an early age. On one occasion he heard groans in the night from the torture of a black prisoner in a nearby work camp -- only to learn that just hours before he heard the man inflicting the torture singing "Love Lifted Me" in church. Jordan graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in agriculture, but he realized that he could not follow through with his ROTC commission. Reading the Sermon on the Mount had made it impossible for Jordan to kill people. Jordan then enrolled in Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, eventually earning not only the standard theological degree but also a Ph.D. in Greek New Testament. During and after his seminary career, Jordan engaged himself in ministry to Louisville's poor and in the then-radical work of racial reconciliation.

One story from 1939 testifies to the kind of character God was forming in Clarence Jordan during this period. A group of black men gathered after the rape of a black girl by a white man. One man grabbed a lead pipe and exhorted the crowd to seek revenge against the white community; after all, did not whites routinely kill innocent black men in similar circumstances? According to the story, Jordan stepped forward, placed his head upon a table, and said, "If a white man must die for this rape, let it be me. Do it now."

In 1942 Jordan met Martin England, a missionary who had already proposed the idea of building a communal and inter-racial farming community on the model of Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-36. In this community members would eat and work together, sharing their property, their labor and their lives. They would seek to live out the teachings of Jesus in daily life. And through their example, they hoped, they would convince people to live according to Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God.

Jordan's vision of discipleship and racial reconciliation emerged from his direct encounter with the Bible. Jordan read the Bible, especially the Gospels, voraciously. And though he possessed the best scholarly training of the day and read directly from the Greek, he kept his interpretation simple. In the true Baptist spirit, Jordan wanted no human artifice to constrain his encounter with Jesus and his teachings. Jordan believed that following Jesus required one to take a radical break from preoccupation with status and wealth, to reject violence in all its forms, and to build communities of sharing and love.

Much of Jordan's vision could be traced to the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus tells his disciples to love even their enemies and to refuse to retaliate against evildoers. Jesus also instructs the disciples not to worry about material things, but to live simple lives and trust in God's provision. Jordan was especially fond of Jesus' parables. Like Trojan horses, he said, the parables sneaked revolutionary teaching into ordinary-looking stories. Though many Christians understand the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a nice example of charity, Jordan emphasized its subversive nature. In this story only the despised enemy, the Samaritan, embodies godly values. The purportedly righteous do not.

Modern readers can scarcely imagine how radical the Koinonia experience was for 1942 Georgia. The community grew slowly -- it took a particularly long time to earn the trust of black neighbors -- but by 1956 it included 65 members, 15 of them black. For several years the community largely escaped notice, but by the 1950s it was subjected to drive-by shootings, bombings and other forms of violence. According to one precious story, the Klan bombed Koinonia's little roadside peanut stand. Undeterred, the group rebuilt the stand only to have it blown up again. Having gotten the message, Koinonia switched to selling nuts by mail order, with the slogan: "Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!"

But the combination of intimidation and resistance did affect Koinonia. Full membership declined over the years, even as the notoriety attracted thousands of people who visited Koinonia for spiritual retreat and to explore the possibilities of radical discipleship. Jordan became a popular national speaker, challenging Christians to commit themselves to serious discipleship. His translations of the New Testament into Southern, the "Cotton Patch" version, saw publication. Before Jordan's death in 1969, and with leadership from Millard Fuller, Koinonia Partners had just begun projects to assist poor people acquire affordable, high-quality housing, an initiative that we know today as Habitat for Humanity.

Biographical information on Jordan is available from a variety of sources. In this post I have drawn from Henlee Barnette's "Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams into Deeds"; Ann Louise Coble's "Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan's Demonstration Plot at Koinonia Farm"; Charles Marsh's "The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today"; and P. Joel Snider's "The 'Cotton Patch Gospel': The Proclamation of Clarence Jordan."