The Koinonia Witness: Clarence Jordan

Our dear friend Susie Beamer is once again at Koinonia Farm in Georgia. President Carter’s family visited Koinonia while she was there, and Susie and others at Koinonia had lunch with the Carter family. She sent her friends a photo of her arm around Rosalynn Carter. President Carter had planned to be there but was too ill to make the trip. Like Susie, Susan and I have always found inspiration and challenge every time we visit or remember the Koinonia miracle.

Koinonia Farm was started in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan (pronounced “Jurden” as in “journey”). Jordan, a recent Ph. D. graduate of Southern Seminary specializing in New Testament Greek, wanted to establish a “demonstration plot” of the Kingdom of God in his home state of Georgia. He envisioned a community based on the Sermon on the Mount where everyone was loved and accepted regardless of race, creed, color, education, wealth, or pedigree. Needless to say, he, his family, and those who came to join this community suffered persecution, violence, rejection, libel, slander, and threats from the KKK. But Koinonia endured and over the years has evolved in ways that were appropriate for the needs of the time.

Clarence Jordan was a powerful speaker and enchanted his hearers with his Southern drawl. He had a wonderful sense of humor which comes across even in the printed pages of his sermons and teachings. But he had a profound understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And more importantly, he lived what he preached. He believed in what he called “incarnational evangelism.” He insisted that the best sermons were those that were lived courageously, authentically, and sacrificially. Love was the measure of everyone and everything.

I know that I will uncover the true riches of the Christian faith only as I find my own way to be faithful and take the gospel as seriously as he did.

In all my teaching and preaching over the years in college classes and churches, I have introduced people to the life and teachings of Clarence Jordan. I did so not because I have faithfully followed his example but because I know that I will uncover the true riches of the Christian faith only as I find my own way to be faithful and take the gospel as seriously as he did. Susie’s messages to her friends about her stay at Koinonia have inspired me to write in my blog more about Jordan and what he can teach us about our own discipleship. So, expect more about Jordan and Koinonia in future articles.

In one of Jordan’s sermons entitled “The Lesson on the Mount,” he preached on the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus rejects the ancient and scriptural principle of taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Instead, Jesus admonishes his followers to never respond with evil but to love one’s enemies. Jordan wrote: “So I might say that it is not enough to just merely not harm your enemies. Somehow or another, we must go beyond that. Love is not merely a weapon. It is not a strategy, and it may or may not work. To do good to those who hate you is such stupendous folly it can’t be expected to work. Love didn’t work for Jesus. No man ever loved as he loved, but it didn’t work. He wound up on a cross. And yet, it DOES work if your motive is NOT to make it work. Love works in the home. But if you say, ‘Well, you know, it really works to love your wife. If you love her, she’ll darn your socks and bake you pie every day.’ If that is the motive for love, I doubt if your wife will darn your socks or bake pies. But love does work.” (The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan, edited by Dallas Lee, p. 73)

I believe love does work. (See my blog article entitled “What if Love Always Wins?”) But once it becomes a strategy for us to win, we can easily become disheartened and cynical. If we love based on the calculation of how probable it is that our love will be successful, we will more often than not be disappointed. The kind of love Jesus demonstrated and called us to emulate was unconditional and indiscriminate. It is a love that does not depend on results or an anticipated return. It refuses to calculate, scheme, strategize, or hoodwink. It is pure, unvarnished, stubborn, persistent, and unending. This kind of love trusts God to take our efforts to emulate Jesus and use them for the healing of the world. We don’t have to waste our time and energy worrying about results. We simply trust God with the love we offer, and once we learn to do that, our discipleship becomes much easier. We don’t have to win because in the end, love always wins.

This was the type of love Jordan is talking about in his sermon, and it was the kind of love he tried to incarnate in his life. He would have been the first to admit that he did not always love that way. In fact, he would probably have confessed that he failed more than he succeeded (although “success” never was a goal he pursued in life). But he came a lot closer to following Jesus than I have. That’s why I keep going back to Jordan’s witness time and time again. I know deep in my heart and soul that his understanding and incarnation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is authentic and the type we are all called to embrace if we dare call ourselves followers of Jesus (which is what the term “Christian” means—“little Christs”)

If you study the life of Clarence Jordan you will realize that this kind of agape love does not mean that we should never expose and oppose evil. Jesus exposed and opposed evil, but he did so without violence and hatred.

If you study the life of Clarence Jordan you will realize that this kind of agape love does not mean that we should never expose and oppose evil. Jesus exposed and opposed evil, but he did so without violence and hatred. If he had never made any enemies he would never have ended up on a cross. As William Sloane Coffin reminded us, “In contrast to many a preacher today, Jesus knew that ‘love your enemies’ didn’t mean ‘Don’t make any.’” Among many other things, Clarence was called a Communist and falsely accused of all kinds of wicked practices. (I love the story of when someone accused him of being a Communist because he was seen conversing with a Communist. Jordan’s response was, “My talking with a Communist doesn’t make me a Communist any more than my talking with you makes me a jackass.”) He courageously preached against racism, war, materialism, greed, and watered-down Christianity and in the process made many enemies. He even said on one occasion, “Any Christian who hasn’t been called a Communist today, I don’t think he’s worth his salt.” But for all his anger about the injustices and hypocrisies of his day, he never stopped loving his enemies, and he never resorted to violence even when he was physically attacked.

In our day we need the witness of Clarence Jordan. There is so much evil which needs to be exposed and opposed. Many of those who claim to follow Jesus have abandoned any authentic route of discipleship. So much of American Christianity is idolatry, greed, prejudice, and militant nationalism in disguise. (These were the exact issues Jordan faced over seventy years ago.) As Dr. William Barber II has said, “Trump is not the problem. He is a symptom of a much wider and more deeply seeded evil.” The time has come for Christians to embrace the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. Clarence Jordan is one of the saints who can guide us down that much needed and tragically untraveled path in our day.

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