Online Sunday School. Cotton Patch Gospels of Clarence Jordan

MLK and Clarence Jordan

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 and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. were contemporaries. Jordan died in 1969 while King was murdered in 1968. They were both ministers who opposed the legal and cultural segregation of their Southern homeland from a Christian perspective.

3. Historians report on a relationship between the two that started strong. In a letter written by King in 1957, found in MLK’s archives, King responded to a letter from Jordan concerning the insurance Jordan needed to give coverage against the violence being done to the farm by segregationist vandals. King was then pastoring a church with similar issues. After giving advice, King replied “You and the Koinonia Community have been in my prayers continually for the last several months. The injustices and indignities that you are now confronting certainly leave you in trying moments. I hope, however, that you will gain consolation from the fact that in your struggle for freedom and a true Christian community you have cosmic companionship. God grant that this tragic midnight of man’s inhumanity to man will soon pass and the bright daybreak of freedom and brotherhood will come into being.”

4. In 1958, King asked Jordan to deliver a spring lecture series at King’s Montgomery Alabama church in April, 1958. The series was a success. The next week King wrote Jordan enthusiastically, “Words are inadequate to express my appreciation to you for the great contribution you made, not only to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, but to the Montgomery community, during our spring lecture series.” King called the messages “profound and inspiring,” the “finest series we have had in our pastorate here at Dexter.” He encouraged Jordan and the other Koinonians to call on him anytime and passed along the greetings and blessings of Coretta. “You are always in my prayers,” he wrote.

5. “However the exchange produced no lasting friendship, nor any interracial speaking tours or evangelistic campaigns modeled on Billy Graham’s successful crusades which were at the time attracting enormous audiences in the cities of the South. The next year King left his Dexter pastorate to work full-time for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, leaving his one and only tenure as a parish pastor, while Clarence Jordan, despite his harsh and exceedingly prescient judgments on the white evangelical church, came to a notion of Christian community so extreme in its rigor and discipline that it risked becoming as insular and obsessed with purity as the segregated churches he loathed. The differences between the two ministers then intensified. From King’s perspective, Koinonia Farm simply became irrelevant to racial reform in the South, to the massive legal changes necessary for a more just nation. From Jordan’s perspective, King became a parody of his former self, the man of nonviolence who relied on the men of great violence for his well being, a politician (and not a very good one) whose pastoral energies were long spent.”

6. Those seeking desirable ends through social change often have trouble agreeing on means and working together, to the detriment of the ends they seek. King’s methods of challenging the injustice of segregation were seen as threatening by a number of black pastors in the South, as they risked the way of getting along and surviving in their communities. The role of effective power and even violent power, which divided King and Jordan was particularly significant.

7. Arguably making effective social change in a complex society filled with different people with different views, requires many people to do many things, all of which can contribute to things being better or worse. How do we know if something like Koinonia Farm, which defied the laws and norms of segregation, was irrelevant or even insufficient, and what more was needed? The Civil Rights movement featured King’s commitment to nonviolent action, even suffering arrest, beating and eventually murder, but also acts of civil disorder. Leaders included King but also Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Rap Brown, all from different perspectives, religious positions and views of the place of violence. All of these may have contributed to the gains that were made then, even as we struggle today with gains that still need to be made, and with the fact that some promises have not been followed and some statistics, such as percentages of homeownership, have actually gotten worse.

8. Similarly was Jordan’s “notion of Christian community so extreme in its rigor and discipline that it risked becoming as insular and obsessed with purity as the segregated churches he loathed.” How much “purity” is desirable and how much can become an idol? What constitutes “purity” from a Christian perspective?

9. It is said that those who fight always run the risk of becoming like those they are fighting against, no better or arguably worse. King was concerned with speaking to the goodness he believed God had put into all people, and with the dangers inherent in using violence to get power. He was influenced by the actions of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who lead the struggle against British colonialism in India, and whose actions of non-violence and receiving abuse were successful. Gandhi was a Hindu, a religion very different from Christianity, but was noted for his humility and community building in ways that spoke to King’s Christian understanding.

10. It is said that power corrupts and the stronger the power the more it corrupts. In addition power and the trappings that go with it, such as wealth and esteem, may empower the worst aspects of human personality and those with the most ability and inclination to abuse it. King’s willingness to suffer imprisonment and other abuse that his movement received in the South, was particularly noteworthy. Many other power seekers seek to avoid any signs of weakness and vulnerability, to get even with those who stand in their way, and to generate fear. This can also reflect views about God who is identified as loving or even as love itself (1 John 4, 8 ), but also as to be feared. Arguably the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “fear” more describe a sense of reverence and awe at God’s greatness than the kind of fear one has of a powerful human figure such as a dictator, military commander, gangster, bully or abuser. The latter figures can enjoy some success in human affairs, but can also fail miserably and make lives and even deaths worse for many in the process.

11. A challenge to King, to Jordan and to us is that Jesus, unlike say Muhammad, was not a leader of nations or armies or even a movement with clear political aims. Jesus did not seek to challenge the rule of the Roman Empire, its leaders Caesar and Pilate, or even seek to replace the Jewish King Herod or the priests of the Sanhedrin. He did seek to remake the lives of his followers in the model of the Sermon on the Mount and his other parables and teachings. A society based on these things would look very different than the one we have. He valued the poor, and taught a message of love, avoiding the accumulations of wealth, valuing the outsiders of his society, and not resisting the insults and assaults of the rich and powerful. He ended up being beaten tortured and killed, and rejected violence from his followers trying to save him. His resurrection inspired his followers to form a community that valued and cared for others, embraced with some difficulty across traditional boundaries, and spread through a frequently hostile empire. Eventually it was adopted by the rulers of empire and has been in this relationship ever since. Thus the religion based on him was embraced by colonialists and the conquered, by slaveowners and slaves and those who shared their societies. This has always caused conflicts.

12. Do you agree with King that Jordan was so as insular and obsessed with purity that his activities were irrelevant and inadequate to actually bring about the change that was needed? Do you agree with Jordan that King talked about nonviolence but in fact relied on the men of great violence, politicians, for his success, and was therefor essentially a politician himself, and not a very good one at that? What in the words of Jesus, or what was written about him, leads to this conclusion?

13. In his sermon on taking the name in vain, Jordan argues that the worst sin is hypocrisy, which he equates with play acting, pretending to follow Jesus but instead of peace, reconciliation, mercy, humility and kindness, devoting yourself to power, status, wealth and success. Does Jordan consider King to be a hypocrite? What sacrifices are required for success, or purity, and how do we tell? Did the inability of King and Jordan to overcome their differences render them less effective in reaching the goals they share? Is this a problem today in movements for social justice with getting people to bond together, overcome personal differences and work to make things better?

Discussion of MLK and Clarence Jordan from…/06/mlk-and-clarence-jordan/