Glimpse into the world, ideas of the author of the ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ focus of second Theologian-in-Residence session
The second session of the Theologian-in-Residence series at Tusculum College on Tuesday (Feb. 9) brought an insightful look into the life and ideas of Clarence Jordan, the author of the “Cotton Patch” versions of the New Testament and a co-founder of an organization that has become Habitat for Humanity International.
The session began with the performance of “Clarence Jordan and the God Movement” by Dr. Al Staggs, a performance artist and former minister who is leading the 2010 Theologian-in-Residence lecture series. The annual event, attended by about 130 on Tuesday, is co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College with sessions on each Tuesday in February.
Jordan, who was a farmer, Baptist minister and Biblical scholar, did not seek to in the limelight, but earned the respect of many and was invited to speak at churches and other organizations across the nation, Staggs said.
However, Jordan did not receive that same respect from those in the communities around Koinonia, a Christian interracial farming community he helped form in 1942 near the town of Americus in southern Georgia.
Jordan and Martin England, a former missionary, formed the farming community, whose name comes from a Greek word meaning communion or fellowship that was used in Acts 2 to describe the earliest Christian community. The founders were committed to embodying the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the farming community, and at Koinonia, all persons were treated as equal, violence was rejected, ecological stewardship was a priority and there was common ownership of possessions. The families lived in individual houses on the farm and worked together to make the farm productive, sharing in its bounty.
Jordan’s life and theological ideas were guided primarily by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Staggs explained. He could not be neatly categorized as a liberal, moderate or conservative and took each group to task as he realized that each was very selective in interpretation of the Bible.
Jordan wrote the “Cotton Patch” versions of the New Testament to help people, particularly Southerners, understand the gravity of Scriptures and how they applied to people’s lives in the here and now, not just in ancient times, Staggs said.
Christians should not only grow in their walk with Jesus and show the changes in their heart by their own actions, Jordan felt, but their actions should also cause positive changes in those around them and they should work to make what is moral, legal.
During a period of discussion following the play, Staggs said, “Clarence Jordan gives me a sense of hope that there is a possibility for me to grow and change.”
When asked about how Jordan’s views evolved, Staggs said that he did not find that much change in his beliefs over his lifetime. Jordan had a spirit of humility, he continued, and did not seem to lose sight of his focus in his ministry and Christian life.
Jordan’s ideas about poverty, greed and race relations were explored as part of Staggs first-person portrayal of Jordan in the play. Throughout his life, Jordan was able to diffuse those violently opposed to his ideas with humor, Staggs said, and the play exemplified that humor.
Part of the monologue involved “big preachers” on television and the subjects that Jordan wished that they would address, such as racism, greed and war and peace.
Koinonia was a regular target of harassment by racist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan, was refused service by white businesses in nearby communities and was the subject of boycotts in purchasing produce by locals, Staggs explained. Jordan and other families in the community were also thrown out of their church and children of the families were ostracized by their schoolmates.
During the play’s monologue, Jordan recalls that as a child he used to wonder if God had favorites, if God loved white children more than black children because they seemed to have better lives. However, he continued, he later learned that the poorer condition of the black children was not because God loved black children less but because black children were loved less by society. But, Jordan asserted that all races were equal as all people are saved by grace, and there is perfect equality at the foot of the Cross.
It is also a paradox, Jordan pointed out, that slavery had existed and racism is part of the fabric of the culture in a part of the country known as the “Bible Belt.”
The play also devotes time to Jordan’s views of greed and Christians’ responsibility to care for others. Greed is talked about more in the Bible than sexual immorality, Jordan noted. A Christian’s perspective should be to look out for other people and their needs, he believed, but capitalism has made Americans very individualistic and not as prone to be concerned about others, particularly the poor and oppressed.
The play also includes Jordan’s views about war and peace. He was a true pacifist, who refused to fight in World War II, Staggs explained. Jordan was in the ROTC in school, but one day during drills, Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to love enemies came to his mind and he quit the ROTC as a result. That command to love enemies became the basis of his pacifism.
Staggs noted that Jordan was not critical of soldiers, but of the politics behind waging war, which he felt was done with a profit motive.
These views of Jordan’s might lead one to believe that he was not patriotic or did not love the United States. That was not true, Staggs said, as Jordan did love this country, but also felt that a Christian’s highest allegiance was to Jesus and the kingdom of God, not a nation.
The Theologian-in-Residence lecture series continues on Tuesday, Feb. 16, when Dr. Staggs’ topic will be “Laughter of Life,” exploring the importance of humor to physical, emotional and spiritual health. The session will begin at 10 a.m. and conclude at about 1:30 p.m. Lunch is included during the session.
There is no admission fee for the series, but reservations are required. To make reservations, please call 423-636-7319 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.