Clarence Jordan was a Southern gentleman born deep in the farming fields of Talbot County, Ga. Now, if you have never heard of Talbot County, don’t sweat it. Not many people have, not in recent years, anyway. But if you haven’t heard of Clarence Jordan, that is your tremendous loss.
Growing up in the Deep South, Jordan was witness to bitter racism and acts of injustice against African-Americans that were as numerous as the Georgia cotton bolls. But Clarence, by God’s grace, refused to become a participant. He could not understand how anyone could hate a man simply “because of the color of skin God Almighty gave to him.”
What made the dissonance even more striking for Clarence was that many of the more zealous racists were prominent Christians. They were the very people with whom he attended church. But rather than blaming God and running away from religion because of the hard-heartedness of others, he boldly embraced faith.
After earning a degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia, he completed his doctoral studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Then he returned to those same Georgia fields, those same racist communities, and those same friends and neighbors. And once there, he created a countercultural, redemptive community just outside the town of Americus, named Koinonia Farms.
Koinoniais the Greek word for “community.” And Jordan set out to create just that: A farming community where men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor would live together under the parenthood of God, using love as a substitute for violence, and sharing their possessions with the poor.
This was no utopia, however. Clarence was hated for his beliefs of equality. His fields were sabotaged with salt. His fruit stands were fire bombed. His pecan trees were cut down. The local communities instituted an embargo against his crops. Gun shots were often fired into his home late at night from the street. But through it all, Clarence persevered.
One day a man showed up at Clarence’s house angry that he and the people on his farm wouldn’t fight back. Clarence answered, “You’ve got that wrong. We’ll fight.” And then he looked across the field where a mule was sticking his head out of the barn. Clarence said, “Suppose you walked by the barn and that old mule reached out and bit you in the seat of your britches? Would you bite him back?”
The man was appalled. “Of course I wouldn’t bite him back,” the man said. “I’d get a ‘two by four,’ and hit him in the head!” Clarence, with his Southern-fried wisdom answered, “See, you would fight, but you wouldn’t use that old mule’s tactics, ‘cause you ain’t no mule. You wouldn’t bite or kick him because he would win. You would choose weapons that a mule can't compete with.”
Then Clarence delivered the clincher: “Yes sir, we will fight, but we will choose the weapons. We will fight with humility, grace, justice, and forgiveness. But we're not going to fight with the enemy’s weapons, because if we do, the enemy will whip us.”
Clarence Jordan died in 1969, still reviled by many of his neighbors, so much so that the local coroner wouldn’t even drive to the farm to pronounce the man deceased. But the man was anything but dead. His deeds and words live on. Jordan’s model of life has been followed by courageous Christian witnesses all around the world, and while he is not as well-known, it is not uncommon to hear his name spoken with the likes of Gandhi, King, and Teresa of Calcutta.
His most prominent work, “The Cotton Patch Gospel” is a masterpiece of New Testament interpretation, and Koinoniaeventually birthed the organization now known as Habitat for Humanity which has partnered with those in need to shelter more than three million people.
In the end, it appears that Clarence Jordan contended well. His life is a testimony to grace under fire and an example for all fighters to follow. Like him, let us choose our weapons carefully.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.