© Sojourners, December 1979, Vol 8, no 12
by Joyce Hollyday
This month we celebrate Christmas. The birth that transformed the world came quietly upon us in the barren chill of a stable, and its meaning was not fully realized until the violent death-event on a cross 33 years later.
Life and death are inextricably interwoven. In this issue, we commemorate the tenth anniversary of Clarence Jordan’s death by celebration his life and the enduring evidence of his vision.
It is a Sojourners tradition to focus our December issue on the lives of Christians who have taught us the meaning of the incarnation. Clarence was such a Christian.
Born in the deep South near the beginning of this century, Clarence gained a reputation first as a preacher. In 1942, he began an experiment in racial reconciliation on a farm near Americus, Georgia, which became the target of local white hostility. Called Koinonia, the community thrives today, steeped in the legacy of Clarence’s commitment to the partnership of black and white, poor and rich.
Clarence’s most widely known contribution is his unique “Cotton Patch” version of the New Testament Scriptures. In his translation, he brought the biblical characters home and set them in the towns, on the roads, and between the cotton and peanut rows of southern Georgia.
In the introduction to his Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, Clarence states: “Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. He has become an exquisite celestial being who momentarily and mistakenly lapsed into a painful involvement in the human scene, and then quite properly returned to his heavenly habitat. By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”
Clarence lived in contradiction to the tendency of those around him to make Christ less than a man by making him more than one. Bringing home the incarnation was the motivation for Clarence’s writing, his preaching, and his living.
He believed that the incarnation was the only method of evangelization, that “We haven’t gotten anywhere until we see the word become flesh.” This was true in his own life. His words about justice were applauded by the local whites around him, until they discovered that he meant to live out what he preached from the pulpit.
Clarence learned that reconciliation at the lunch table, where black and white shared together, was as scandalous to his neighbors as reconciliation on a cross.
Yet he was a man who conquered the fear that paralyzed other of his time. He spoke about fear as “the polio of the soul which prevents our walking by faith.” Its purpose in self-preservation. Only by living with the assurance of the victory over death can faithful witness shine forth.
Clarence had given up his life to God, and thus lived with the knowledge that no one could take his life from him. He understood deeply the connection between life and death, the impossibility of sharing resurrection without participating in crucifixion. And so he endured excommunication from his church and gunfire from nightriders, living as a man who knew that local hatred and the Ku Klux Klan had no more power over his life than Pilate did over Christ’s.
He lived the incarnation in his fervent love for the poor. He saw that it was a suffering and disinherited Christ who shows us the way to love the same among us now.
And believing that it is a spirit-filled fellowship rather than the empty tomb that is proof of Christ’s presence with us, Clarence pointed Koinonia as evidence of the continuation of the incarnation.
Clarence spent many hours in his writing shack , located about 300 yards from the main buildings at Koinonia. It was here that he wrote his Cotton Patch versions, and here that he died.
In the last hour of my visit at Koinonia, I walked through the fields and past the pecan groves to the shack. It was a holy experience for me, this pilgrimage. I wished, like many who have come to the community since Clarence’s death, that I had met and known this man.
As I approached the small building, I made my way through the patch of small trees that has grown up around it. I stepped inside.
The shack has been used little since Clarence’s death. Marked original manuscripts of speeches and Cotton Patch writings are on the shelves. A copy of a 1959 Encyclopedia of Candy and Ice Cream Making sits next to Clarence’s Greek New Testament. As rain fell softly on the roof, I was struck with the gentleness and strength that were a part of the life of Clarence Jordan.
A blade of wheat, dried with age, lay on Clarence’s desk. I picked it up, wondering how it came to be there and how long it had lain in its place. It seemed appropriate to find it there. I can think of no better symbol for Clarence’s life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Later I went in search of a Cotton Patch version of John to find this verse from the twelfth chapter, hoping to draw some kernel of wisdom from Clarence’s unique translation of it. I discovered that it was the manuscript of John that was on his desk when he died; he had completed only the first eight chapters of the book
I felt cheated by the discovery. And I began to understand even more deeply what a loss it is to us all that Clarence died at the age of 57. But on the heels of that feeling of loss came a sense of gratitude that for those 57 years he lived in such a way that his spirit is with us still.
Clarence understood that he needed to die before he could live. The fruit of his faith continues now in the spirit of the people who loved him and in the life of Koinonia.
We are lucky to have the legacy of such a man. For those of us who are hesitant to embrace Christ’s suffering, we have an example. Fore those of us who struggle as part of a young community of Christ to see our place in history, we have encouragement. His vision has endured.
As Clarence’s body was lowered into the earth and the red Georgia clay was shoveled over it, Millard Fuller’s 2 year-old daughter stepped up to the grave, looked down at the coffin of her friend Clarence, and sang a complete verse of “Happy Birthday, Dear Clarence” to him.
I am tempted to wonder what prompted her. I want to say that perhaps she had an understanding of the situation which escaped the adults around her. Maybe God himself placed the song in her heart. We cannot know. But it is significant that her name was Faith.