Reflections on the Clarence Jordan Symposium (G.W. Carlson)

G.W. CarlsonEarlier this fall what would have been the 100th birthday of Clarence Jordan was celebrated with a two-day symposium whose participants included former president Jimmy Carter and my recently-retired (down to a mere three classes, from seven) Bethel colleague G.W. Carlson, who provided us with an introduction to Jordan back in August. Fall grades now submitted, GW had the chance to prepare some reflections on the symposium, which I’m happy to publish:

A short article in the St Paul Pioneer Press in late November told the story of Jimmy Carter leaving for Haiti to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity and to call for “greater humanitarian” aid to Haiti. This reminded me of the need to provide an update on my participation in the wonderful Clarence Jordan Symposium, held September 28-29, 2012 in Americus, Georgia — the home of Koinonia Farm and Habitat for Humanity. I have four major memories of the experiences in Americus…

First is the exciting inclusion of  significant cultural expressions. These included Al Staggs’ impersonation of Clarence Jordan, Tom Key’s one-man performance of the Cotton Patch Gospel, Ted Swartz’s “A Moment of Whimsey,” and Dennis Hassell’s The Glory Man. Tom Key has made famous the musical version of the Cotton Patch Gospel. He presented a dramatic performance of the written script. Ted Swartz creatively retold stories of the Bible and has written a new work entitled Laughter is Sacred Space: The Not-so-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor.

Of most interest to me was the performance of the play The Glory Man that featured actors from the local college. Dennis Hassell was the author and director of the play which retells the story of Clarence Jordan. Of interest to me is that Hassell has been part of a touring company called Lamb’s Players, since it originally emerged from a drama class project at Bethel. Steve Terrill came to understand that street theater was rather limited in Minnesota and established the Lamb’s Players in California in the early 1970s.

Jimmy and Rosalynn CarterSecond was the commitment of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter to the Symposium. They hosted a fundraising dinner at the Windsor Hotel. Carter was about to celebrate his 88th birthday and, in my view, has been one of the most effective ex-Presidents in the recent era. He is best known for his supervision of elections and the development of the Carter Center, which sponsors significant research and public policy initiatives on preventable diseases such as Guinea worm, trachoma, and malaria and develops strategies for dispute resolution.

It was during the time that Carter was governor of Georgia that he began to develop a more aggressive commitment to civil rights and economic justice. This led him eventually to play an active role in Habitat for Humanity and to build interracial coalitions for public policy developments. Nixon’s Southern strategy forced such political leaders as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to look to build a new set of coalitions that would include leaders from the diverse ethnic communities along with progressive southern whites. It was aided by the civil rights policies of Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who were willing to engage positively the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Carter rejected the challenges of the Fundamentalist movement and their conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. He especially rejected the policy to limit women in ministry and the fundamentalists’ challenge to the traditional Baptist value of the separation of church and state. On the former issue, he wrote that “devout Christians can find Scripture to justify either side of the debate. The question is whether we evangelical believers in Christ want to abandon his example and exclude a vast array of potential female partners, who are equally devout and responding to God’s call to serve with us in advancing God’s kingdom on earth.” (Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values, p. 93) He broke from the Southern Baptists and worked with others to develop a more moderate, united community of faith within the Baptist community.

During the dinner Carter communicated his admiration for the work of Clarence Jordan and wanted his witness to remain as an effective guide for today’s Christian conscience. Carter wrote:

Someone once asked Clarence Jordan whether he’d ever participated in the famous freedom rides during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “No,” he replied, “but I’ve always ridden freely.” Jordan had an ethical, moral and spiritual standard for his life, and he lived it boldly. Sometimes it brought him acclaim, and at other times it brought him brickbats – or worse. But no matter what, he followed faithfully what he believed God was calling him to do. (Carter, Sources of Strength, p. 221)

Clarence Jordan, for Carter, was a conscientious Christian who welcomed all peoples into the Kingdom of God as equals, lived out a nonviolent gospel and championed a “sharing” alternative to a search for materialistic prosperity.

In 1976 I helped to coordinate the Carter-Mondale campaign in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was proud that two “moral liberals” were seeking to represent a broadly defined commitment to Christian values in the political arena. Carter never denied his Christian faith. He was committed to the effective church ministry through evangelism, social justice outreach, and education. In 1976 I received a set of invitations to the Presidential Inauguration. One of the highlights of the first night of the Jordan Symposium was getting Jimmy Carter to sign the Inauguration document. I was also able to go to Plains, Georgia, just ten miles from Americus, and visit the hometown Carter sites and see the church in which he still teaches Sunday School lessons two Sundays a month. Carter also signed a copy of his latest book, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter.

A third highlight of the Symposium was the lecture and presence of Vincent Harding. I have used Harding’s book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero in my Christian Nonviolence classes. Harding asks whether Americans have developed an “easy” understanding of King. To properly understand his “beloved community,” one needs to go beyond the civil rights efforts and also include his commitment to economic justice and international peace. Americans tend to forget that King’s assassination in Memphis took place during his marches with the sanitation workers who wanted a fairer pay scale. A close friend of King’s, Harding was best known for writing his April 1967 anti-Vietnam war speech at Riverside Church in New York.

When Kirk Lyman-Barner, one of the major developers of the Symposium, asked me who he should invite to the event I suggested Vincent Harding. He has a strong commitment to a Mennonite heritage, stayed at Koinonia during the civil rights time period, helped to negotiate a relationship between Martin Luther King and Clarence Jordan, and was a strong advocate of the Koinonia experiment. Kirk writes that there is some evidence that when King said, in his famous I Have a Dream speech, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” this “poetic image in King’s speech was derived from his awareness of Koinonia’s bold challenge to segregation even during the times of violence and boycott.”  John Pierce recorded an insightful interview with Vincent Harding entitled “Loving Respect, Clear Disagreement” (Baptists Today, May 2012) in which he outlines the different strategies employed by King and Jordan as they challenged segregation. King was committed to the use of nonviolent protest while Jordan wished to develop an alternative Christian community that demonstrated an interracial society.

Once Harding rose to the platform there was an electricity in the arena. Instead of a lecture, Harding led the audience in the singing of civil rights songs and encouraged a dialogue among the generations about where America still needed to go in the creation of the “beloved community.” He noted fifty years ago you dared not ask directions where the Koinonia Community was located. Today, he was welcome in the restaurants. I noted that there were African-American police officers and that the town was now celebrating the work of Koinonia and Habitat for Humanity.

Harding remains committed to spreading the gospel of the civil rights movement. Marian Wright Edelman reports that Harding, speaking at a Children’s Defense Fund conference this summer, argued that “we are citizens of a country that we still have to create – a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multi-racial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.” He wished, as he celebrated his 81st birthday, that people would not “give up this life without offering yourself totally to the creation of this country that does not yet exist.” Harding was playing off of the image of the great African-American poet Langston Hughes’s classic poem “Let America Be America Again.”

Finally, the Symposium is remembered for the excellent ways in which the life and testimony of Clarence Jordan were articulated. Joyce Hollyday gave a wonderful outline of the major aspects of Jordan’s life and testimony. Shane Claiborne shared his interest in Jordan’s communitarian gospel, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove compared Jordan’s work with the development of a “new monasticism.” Charles Marsh suggested ways in which one could understand Jordan’s “radical ordinariness.” And Nora Tisdale suggested the core themes emerging from a personal reading of the Cotton Patch Gospel. The addresses of the Symposium will eventually be published in a book.

My own paper was entitled “Celebrating the Radical Baptist Heritage of Clarence Jordan,” in which I tried to argue that the Koinonia Experiment, the writing of the Cotton Patch Gospels, and Jordan’s engagement with the larger Christian community were designed to call his fellow Baptists (particularly in the South) back to their heritage. These themes included a strong commitment to the transformational view of evangelism, a communitarian understanding of the church, a belief in the idea of “radical discipleship,” a need to proclaim the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven, and a proclamation of peacemaking norms of Christ as found in the Sermon on the Mount. I traced the origins of each of these themes from Jordan’s understanding of both a radical Baptist and Anabaptist tradition. I also cited over 400 examples of how Jordan’s life and witness was used in today’s sermons. The goal was to establish Jordan as one of the giants of the radical Baptist tradition whose stories need to be retold and lived out. (For a bibliography of Clarence Jordan you can reach me at carwil (at) bethel (dot) edu.)

Cotton Patch CompleteJordan was noted for the writing of the Cotton Patch Gospels, which were a retelling of the life and ministry of Jesus and the early church as if it took place in Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s.  Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel: The Complete Collection was published just before the Symposium and was available to its participants. Jimmy Carter writes in the introduction:

The Cotton Patch Gospel holds a mirror to modern Christians. In that mirror we see both our inadequacies and our potential for Christ-like lives reflected alongside the life and work of Jesus. That reflection, Clarence Jordan believed, would point us in the direction we should go in the journey to which Christ calls us. Our humanity is reflected next to Christ’s humanity, and we see the divinity — the presence of God — in both.

So let me close by sharing with you Clarence Jordan’s telling of the birth of Christ, from the Cotton Patch Gospel (Luke 2):

1. It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register. This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War. So everybody went to register, each going to his own home town. Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant.

6. While they were there, her time came, and she gave birth to her first boy. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in an apple box. (There was no room for them at the hospital.)

8. Now there were some farmers in that section who were up late at night tending their baby chicks. And a messenger from the Lord appeared to them, and evidence of the Lord was shining all about them. It nearly scared the life out of them. And the messenger said to them, “Don’t be afraid; for listen, I’m bringing you good news of a great joy in which all people will share. Today your deliverer was born in the city of David’s family. He is the Leader. He is the Lord. And here’s a clue for you: you will find the baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in an apple box.”

And all of a sudden there was with the messenger a crowd of angels singing God’s praises and saying,

“Glory in the highest to God,
And on Earth, peace to mankind,
The object of his favor.”

15. When the messengers went away from them into the sky, the farmers said to one another, “Let’s go to Gainesville and see how all this the Lord has showed us has turned out.”

16. So they went just as fast as they could, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in an apple box. Seeing this, they related the story of what had been told them about this little fellow. The people were simply amazed as they listened to what the farmers told them. And Mary clung to all these words, turning them over and over in her memories. The farmers went back home, giving God the credit and singing his praises for all they had seen and heard, exactly as it had been described to them.

21. And when the day came for him to be christened, they named him Jesus, as he was called by the angel before he was conceived.


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