The Inconvenient Gospel: A Southern Prophet Tackles War, Wealth, Race, and Religion
Reviewed by William Shetter
April 1, 2023
By Clarence Jordan, edited by Frederick L. Downing. Plough Publishing House, 2022. 152 pages. $12/paperback; $10/eBook.
This is a very small book to contain such a large and powerfully prophetic message. That word “inconvenient” is possibly a deliberate echo of Al Gore’s equally uncomfortable challenge, nearly 20 years ago, to face the realities of global warming. Many of us know of Koinonia Farm in Sumter County, Georgia, the experiment, deep in Jim Crow country, in multiracial community based on sharing and complete equality. But we might be less familiar with the name of Clarence Jordan, its cofounder in 1942 and its prophetic, courageous guiding spirit for the rest of his life. He perceived a painfully—and in his blunt language, a “shamefully”—wide gap between the daily life of believers and putting into practice what we talk about. Koinonia Farm was for him an attempt at a “demonstration plot” of God’s kingdom.
Jordan had an undergraduate major in agriculture and was an ordained minister with strong Bible training in the Southern Baptist Church. Another side of his outreach is the Cotton Patch Gospel, which loosely paraphrased the gospels and epistles in an earthy-Southern vernacular style. It was a determined effort to move the Scriptures out from the church sanctuary and into the streets and fields where real, struggling people live.
This book is a collection of Jordan’s sermons, lectures, and articles—most of them excerpts—spanning the period from 1941 to shortly before his death in 1969. His voice rings boldly and with simple clarity in each of the 13 chapters. The first chapter, one of his early articles, outlines the fundamentals of Christian discipleship as he sees them, and has the effect of familiarizing the reader with his unfailingly bold, uncompromising stance. Whether speaking or writing, his style is always humorous and refreshingly conversational. He makes regular use of the trusted device of emphasizing three main points.
Most of the chapters come from sermons he delivered at various places. (On page 114, the editor informs us of where Jordan published the full versions of these and other sermons.) His vision calls forth a broad range of “inconvenient” challenges: from his forceful arguments against the whole concept of race—his earliest one—to the many ways in which we are called to follow Jesus’s teaching. These include following his way of peace (found in Jordan’s sermon delivered in North Carolina a month after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination); escape from the veneration of addictions, such as possessions; and escape from our hypocritical unwillingness to share with the poor. Every one of these reminders of uncomfortable truths about our ways points in the same direction: living in brotherhood by learning to love outside one’s own group and creating a true family.
All this takes its most concrete form in chapter 2: “The Meaning of Christian Fellowship,” an article from 1946 that reads like his field notes. “Perhaps the time is ripe,” he writes, “for some rather bold experimentation along this line.” He outlines the three founding principles of Koinonia Farm, which was already four years underway. These steps follow the formation of spiritual family communes in Luke and Acts: (1) common ownership, (2) distribution according to need, and (3) complete racial equality.
The dangerous world in which this experiment took place is only occasionally hinted at, though he is reported to have said: “It scared the devil out of us to think of going against Southern traditions.” For its first 10 or 15 years, the farm was constantly surrounded by hostility and threats, bullets and bombs in efforts—spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan—to drive the Koinonia farmers out. The dangers reached a peak in the 1950s, and by the end of the decade, many had left the commune, some out of fear. Eventually the threats of violence dwindled, and the farm is still in operation today.
Clarence Jordan’s voice rings throughout these selections with inconvenient bluntness while softened by his humorous, light touch. This earns him the right to be seen as a prophet in the truest sense. It seems only right to think of him, in the words of African American Baptist minister Starlette Thomas (who wrote the introduction to the book), as a “patron saint of community-builders.”
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting.
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