Online Sunday School. Cottonpatch Gospels of Clarence Jordan

The Substance of Faith

Faith, the God Movement and the lesson on the Mount – Part 5

1. Clarence Jordan, author of “Cotton Patch Gospels,” was a farmer, preacher, theologian and social justice activist who, in addition to his writing and preaching, founded Koinonia Farm, an interracial community in the segregated Georgia of the 1940s. It survived threats, violence and ostracism. It continues today.

2. Jordan examines of the start of Jesus’ “God movement,” told in his “cottonpatch” version of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus presented “the Lesson on the Mount” to his followers. Jordan does not consider this a “sermon” that people might sleep through in a church, nor as a set of various sayings of Jesus collected by the gospel writer, nor as verses to be considered separately. Instead he sees these as the great ideas governing the movement, the stair steps to the process of changing one’s whole philosophy of life. Jordan expects that the disciples were drilled to learn all of the lesson.

3. Jesus transfers the law from an external legal framework to the deep inner workings of the heart. While the law says not to murder, Jesus tells his disciples that murder has its beginnings in the heart of humankind, our attitudes or motives. Having contempt for a fellow person, believing they are inferior or looking on them as an inferior or nobody, spitting on them, or calling them a derogatory term or a racial slur is where you become a murderer in attitude. His people will be people of the spirit – not people of a legal external framework.

4. After murder, Jesus looks at the laws about adultery and divorce. His “cottonpatch” translation is “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t sleep with someone you’re not married to.’ But I want to tell you, whoever sets his eye on a woman with the hope of intercourse with her has already slept with her in his mind. So if your right eye becomes hopelessly infected, have it cut out and thrown away, because it is better to lose one of your organs than to lose your body. Or if your right hand becomes hopelessly infected, cut it off and throw it away, because it is better to lose one of your limbs than to lose your body.

It has also been said, ‘If a man divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate that she is free.’ But I’m telling you all, anybody who divorces his wife, except for sleeping with another man, causes her to have had unlawful intercourse, and whoever marries one so divorced also has unlawful intercourse.”

5. While there is a general consensus that murder is wrong, rules about sexuality, marriage and gender, and how they operate, are fast changing, controversial and involve numerous social changes since Biblical times. Since Jordan’s lifetime there has been a sexual revolution, several movements of women’s liberation and feminism, laws mandating equality of women, a movement and legal changes against domestic violence, changes in the social mores and legal rules concerning divorce, and the creation of and successful political movement to eliminate a legal right to choose abortion. Society has seen many women rise in employment, education and economic status, while many others remain in lower level employment, and “glass ceiling” barriers remain for many more. Mores about homosexuality and other variations of sexuality are liberated for some and threatening for others. Puritan and Victorian revulsion at sexuality is less prevalent, but the issue remains personal and sometimes distressing for many. The internet brings sexual pornography to virtually anyone who wants it. Images of sex, as well as family, are used to sell products. Prostitution and sex trafficking of vulnerable women remain prevalent, often starting or preserving cycles of abuse. Racial and ethnic stereotypes often depict their objects as highly sexualized.

6. Some churches believe sexuality is a gift for reproductive purposes only, others see it in a context of personal love and affection, others see it as representing the evils of the flesh, the selfish carnality of pleasure or power and the temptations of Eve. Many choose not to marry, eschewing its commitments and limitations, as well as negative judgments about oneself and others that poverty brings. Among the educated and career oriented, birth control is often practiced, marriage and family are delayed and non-martial sex and cohabitation are common. Since divorce laws were loosened to require less or no fault finding, or perhaps using the model of dissolving a business partnership, and the social stigma of divorce vanished, around half of marriages end in divorce, and many more are not entered into at all.

7. Churches are ground zero for struggles over sexuality and gender. Major differences and schisms arise from this. Biblical rules, derived from highly patriarchal societies, are rooted in factors such as Judaism’s struggle against the fertility cults of its rivals, the personal life and views of the apostle Paul, theologies of the flesh as opposed to the spirit, practices of asceticism and celibacy, and later theologies over the virginity of Jesus’ mother Mary. Today sexuality among the young remains a particular struggle, as do the norms and practices of masculinity and femininity that are intense and personal parts of many lives. Often the issue is control over these intensely personal parts of peoples’ lives, and whether it will be by themselves or by others. Some churches use combinations of community and shaming to discourage sexual behavior. Others feel this is destructive and contradictory to messages of love, equality, forgiveness and leaving judgments to God. As often happens, there is conflicting authority in the Bible on various issues. Some look to a small number of passages condemning homosexuality while paying much less attention to adjacent passages with ancient rules of the time. Some look to the significant roles non-traditional women play in Jesus’ ancestry, and to his female disciples and later female followers, compared to the existing status and vulnerability of women in that day.

8. Jordan did not experience many of the changes in the norms about sexuality and gender that we live with today, so we can wonder how his concern for the powerless would carry over to today’s gender and sexuality issues. He speaks about how good things like sexuality, like eyes and hands, can become “perverted” and “infected” causing the destruction of the whole body. He compares this to a very viscous dog that, if tied to a strong post, would do no harm but if you remove the chain and post would show its true nature. Very few Christians decide to literally put out their eyes and cut off their hands, instead taking this advice metaphorically, perhaps to avoid people and situations where you are likely to do wrong. What do you make of this analogy and lesson?

9. Many will say that our society has not figured out the intense, personal, complex and conflicting areas of sexuality and gender. Jesus here condemns adultery and divorce, perhaps all sex outside of marriage as well. In our society some follow this but many others do not. What do you think should happen about this in peoples’ lives and why? Is Jesus’ advice to his contemporaries and his society what God wants to happen in ours? To what extent is sexuality good or evil? To what extent does evil happen in a sexual context? To what extent should people be comfortable or uncomfortable about their bodies and their sexuality? What factors lead to your conclusion?

10. Micah 6, 8 says “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” What if anything does this passage bring to our understanding of this subject? What other factors do you see at play?