Friday, November 03, 2006

Clarence Showed the Way

Geoff Leslie is a pastor in a rural (drought-stricken at the moment) area on the border of Victoria and New Soth Wales in Australia. He and his wife Debbie are great musicians and they put on shows with members of their community in the local halls. Geoff has a way with words and he writes each week for the local paper. Here is one of his recent stories that has just been published.

I have a new hero. I just wrote an essay about a man who lived in Georgia USA, who died in 1969 named Clarence Jordan. He had many enemies and very little recognition in his time, but many today recognise he was a wonderful example for life and should get more recognition.

His essential focus was that he didn’t see any difference between Negroes (as he called them – ‘African Americans’ is more PC today) and the whites (er, ‘Anglo Americans’) and he started a communal farm where black and white families worked together. That generated visits from the Klu Klux Klan and incredible hostility. But let me outline the story from the beginning.

Jordan always felt that he wanted to do something like the communal farm idea but knew that he needed some training, so he studied agriculture and got a degree in that. Then he anticipated there might be some arguments with church folks so he thought he would study theology as well. He found a natural ability in New Testament Greek and ended up getting a doctorate –a PhD in Greek.

Then, in 1942, he and his wife Florence walked across a thousand-acre farm that was for sale. It was red soil degraded by too much cotton-growing, and to Clarence it cried out, ‘Heal me! Heal me!’.

With another couple, they bought it and began to implement good agricultural method while inviting other families, black and white to join them on Koinonia Farm – ‘koinonia’ being Greek for fellowship or togetherness.

One day he took a dark-skinned friend to his local church. They got thrown out and the church banned anyone from Koinonia farm from ever being a member there. Soon there was an economic boycott – all local merchants were warned not to trade with ‘those nigger-lovers’. The persecution grew through all the 1950’s and 1960’s; it was pretty rough.

Clarence was bewildered by the churches and Christians who lived with such hate and prejudice. Didn’t they read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus as he did? He decided the problem was that the Bible was not translated properly. It hid its message behind old fashioned words and its radical message was having no impact.

So he began to tell the story of Jesus as if it were happening in Georgia. ‘Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia when Herod was governor in Atlanta…’ He put the story into the contemporary landscape and it became much easier to see how radical Jesus was and why he was killed. Eventually he produced most of the New Testament in this translation and he called it the Cotton Patch Version. It’s most radical feature was that instead of the ancient terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’, he used ‘white’ and ‘Negro’, so that, for instance, when Paul’s letter to the Ephesians talks about Christ coming to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, the Cotton Patch Version reads:

“So then, always remember that previously you Negroes, who sometimes are even called "niggers" by thoughtless white church members, were at one time outside the Christian fellowship, denied your rights as fellow believers, and treated as though the gospel didn’t apply to you, hopeless and God-forsaken in the eyes of the world. Now, however, because of Christ’s supreme sacrifice, you who once were so segregated are warmly welcomed into the Christian fellowship.”

As you can imagine, in the racially segregated South, this was inflammatory material. The whole translation is now on the Internet at

The Cotton Patch version however remains a wonderful piece of work. Someone even made a musical about it called “Cotton Patch Gospel” with music by Harry Chapin. This musical is being screened free at the Baptist Church this Sunday night, at 6pm – but I digress.

I wish readers could encounter the vitality and power of Clarence’s own words. Here’s how he explains why he doesn’t use the word ‘cross’ or ‘crucifixion’ – preferring to speak of Jesus being ‘lynched’.
“There just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for "crucifixion." Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term "crucifixion" of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as "lynching," well aware that this is not technically correct. Jesus was officially tried and legally condemned, elements generally lacking in a lynching. But having observed the operation of Southern "justice," and at times having been its victim, I can testify that more people have been lynched "by judicial action" than by unofficial ropes. Pilate at least had the courage and the honesty to publicly wash his hands and disavow all legal responsibility. "See to it yourselves," he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree.”

Clarence Jordan died at the age of 58 in his study. The coroner wouldn’t come to that hated farm to check him out. A co-worker drove his body propped up in a car through the town to the coroner’s office. Next day, after an autopsy (it was a heart attack), they sent his body back nude in the back of a station wagon with his clothes in a bag. He was buried in a cardboard box on a hillside on the farm surrounded by the poor folks he spent his life amongst. The farm lives on and so does a wonderful international humanitarian organisation called Habitat for Humanity that he helped start. But in life and death, he was an unrecognised hero. We need more of them.

Thanks Geoff for permission to republish this article. More articles by Geoff Leslie are found on the Internet at

Image: Clarence Jordan