Saturday, March 9, 2013

Clarence Jordan

Heritage is the ground upon which many families build their homes. Although modern life glorifies mobility, many people still define "home" in terms of where they came from.

This definition-by-heritage works as powerfully in our spiritual ideas about home as it does in our reckonings of blood kin.

My religious heritage is resoundingly Baptist: born to two seminary students; raised in the middle of Baptist ministry to college students; enthusiastic Mission Friend, GA, and Acteen; student of two Baptist universities and now faculty member at a third. Ridgecrest houses my earliest memories, and I spent my teens rambling through Glorieta.

Like any open-eyed child, I recognize that my heritage is both a blessing and a burden, and like any religious tradition, Baptist history is a cause for both gratitude and sorrow. I am not always proud of what my fellow Baptists have said or done. However, these are family quarrels, and I'm not writing this blog to voice my opinion on contentious issues.

I am writing to share the story of one of my Baptist heroes, Clarence Jordan. The life and writings of Dr. Jordan have encouraged me since I was a child, and recently I have developed an even deeper gratitude for his place in Baptist history.

Photo from Koinonia Partners

Jordan, a Georgia native, earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture, then headed north to the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he graduated with a PhD in Greek in 1936. Rather than take a prominent position as the pastor of a large church, Jordan felt called to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice. To this end, he and his friend Martin England, who had been a missionary to Burma, founded Koinonia Farm in the early 1940s.

From its birth, Koinonia was a place where the Jordans, the Englands, and their community could submit their lives to Christ. Their dedication to racial equality and pacifism provoked violent hostilities from their neighbors. For the first twenty years of their existence, the community endured bombings, shootings, harassment, boycotts, and even judicial inquiry into their supposedly "un-American" activities.

Jordan also wrote and preached extensively. He used his expertise in biblical languages to write the remarkable Cotton Patch Gospels. In these works, Jordan imagines how the Gospels and Epistles might have been written if the events of the New Testament had taken place in the American South, instead of the ancient near-east. The Pharisees become white church people; Samaria is a black ghetto; Jesus is lynched.

I first learned about Jordan through a stage adaptation of The Cotton Patch Gospel. In turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, the stage production stays true to the spirit of Jordan's own work. I watch it every Christmas and Easter, and it still has the power to move and challenge me. 

Jordan himself died in 1969, but Koinonia Farm has continued to thrive in the years since. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, lived on the farm and was inspired by Jordan's ideas for making good housing a community responsibility. President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Rosalyn Carter were honorary chairs of  the 2012 Clarence Jordan Symposium, celebrating Koinonia Farm's 70th Anniversary. Many writers in the "New Monasticism" movement, such as Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, have listed Jordan among their inspirations.

If you'd like to learn more, you should visit the webpage of Koinonia Farm. They offer resources, information, and opportunities to participate. 

The biographical sketch I offered above comes from Joyce Hollyday's introduction to Clarence Jordan: Essential Writings. This book was my spring-break treat, and it made me proud to be Baptist, calling me to consider whether I am willing to claim Christ in truly radical ways. I will leave you with some of Jordan's own words. Thanks to his legacy, home will always mean a place where people root their faith to the strong words of the gospel and rise to challenge the world's understanding of property, wealth, race, and community. 

The following passages from Clarence Jordan: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003). 

In response to suggestions that Koinonia should relocate to a less hostile part of the nation, Jordan said, "If there is any balm in Gilead; if there is any healing in God's wings; if there is any hope-- shall we go off and leave people without hope? We have too many enemies to leave them. The redemptive love of God must somehow break through. If it costs us our lives, if we must be hung on a cross to redeem our brothers and sisters in the flesh, so let it be. It will be well worth it. To move away would be to deny the redemptive processes of God" (26). 

A Northern pastor, giving Jordan a tour of his new church building, boasted that the church's cross had cost $10, 000. "Brother," Jordan said, "you got gypped. The time was you could get them for nothing" (32). 

"It just burns me up that we Christians with the word of God in our hearts have to be forced to sit around Woolworth's table and that we still segregate Christ's table. The sit-ins would never have been necessary if the Christians had been sitting down together in church and at Christ's table these many years."  (153)

"I don't think we have a right to bear witness to that which we do not experience. The incarnation, then, is the announcement of the Good News as fact." (142)

"God's plan of making peace is not merely to bring about an outward settlement between evil people, but to create people of goodwill" (117).

"Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences" (143). 


  1. How glad I am that I got to spend spring break of my junior year in college, March, 1973, working at Koinonia. We cleared land for houses, planted peanuts, and fellowshiped with Jesus people! In was the beginning of new beginnings for me.

  2. I love the Cotton Patch Gospels. I don't know why more of the countless adaptations of the Bible into "modern" language still feel awkward and pompous, but Jordan did something extremely valuable by not just translating the "thou's" into "you's" but also the bread into soda crackers.

    By the way, Koinania also sells awesome pecans and baked goods all made there, available through that website! The peach cake is really good...

    1. Oh, yes, I love the goods on the website! I often go there when shopping for birthday and Christmas presents.