(Biola University has been working hard to make tangible progress in two of our core commitments: the integration of faith and learning and cultural diversity. One of the ways we have been doing this is to facilitate small groups of faculty members meeting together for an extended period of time to discuss the implications of these issues within their research and teaching. On January 15th, 2011, we brought together these groups to go to a play at Lamb’s Players Theater in Coronado. The play was called Glory Man, a fascinating look both at the life of its protagonist, Clarence Jordan, and more broadly at the issue of racism and the Gospel. We encouraged the participants to blog about the experience.)
We watched Glory Man last night with a group of about 20 faculty members from Biola.
It is a stage play that portrays the life of Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, and leader of Koinonia Farm, an alternative Christian community in rural Georgia in the mid 1900’s. He was also influential in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. But the play is about racism and the Gospel. It is a story of division. Long division.
I remember long division from my elementary school days. It is an apt metaphor for racism if for no other reason because we all hate it. But it is also apt because long division is division. It divides two numbers instead of putting them together. And the worst thing about long division is that it is long. It never stops with the first division. It divides, and divides, and divides until there is nothing left. Nothing, that is, except the remainder—the small little number at the bottom of the sheet that you can’t do anything with.
Racism in America is long division. It pre-dates the arrival of the pilgrims in Plymouth. It began in 1619 as a strange accident—an English pirate ship had taken booty from a Portuguese trading ship that included a good number of Angolan slaves. The pirate ship was damaged in the battle so they sold some of their human cargo for food and repair services upon coming into port in Virginia. This twist of fate soon grew into a legal activity, a major industry, and then a source of economic wealth for both England and the colonies. It also began the long division. It divided black from white, owners from slaves. It divided parents from their children; it divided brothers from sisters. It divided the legal and social systems of southern and northern colonies. The division was so deep that the founding of the country required a “3/5 compromise”—a provocative division if there ever was one. One might say it divided human beings into two categories: those who were fully human and those who were only 3/5 human. The long division turned violent with the Civil War, but even a bloody conflict couldn’t stop the division . Having decided that the “all people” who are created equal included the descendants of black African slaves, attempts were made to continue the division nonetheless, constructing the strange artifice of Jim Crow laws as a way to maintain division even in the midst of equality: “separate but equal”. Only in the last few decades have these laws been dismantled. And most people doubt that even now we are at the remainder as we encounter racist attitudes and the countless unlegislated features of racism in America.
It is here, at the back end of our long division problem that Clarence Jordan made his entrance. He was not so much a man attempting to change corrupt and racist laws as he was a man attempting to live out an experiment in community building. His intent was to construct a good community, not to dismantle a bad one. He was not trying to reduce a problem of long division to its remainder, but rather trying to solve a different mathematical problem all together. He wanted to add set of numbers and get a single sum. He dreamed of uniting individuals into a single community regardless of whether they were black or white, slave or free. He wanted to build a community that valued human beings more than material goods, that viewed fellow workers as partners not competitors, that lived in harmony with one another and with the earth itself, and that demonstrated the reality that love can cover a multitude of sins.
He failed, of course.
Some say he failed because he was starting to work on addition before he had finished his long division. There is no doubt that the unresolved division of racism dismantled the community he was attempting to build. His community was mercilessly persecuted by segregationist forces throughout his years there. Boycotts were organized, crosses were burned, bombs were exploded, buildings were burned, bullets were fired, women were raped. It is a sad and ugly reminder that whatever else is true of the long division of racism, it is certain that its remainder is not yet small.
But I, for one, am not convinced that Clarence Jordan was so off track. He was captured a vision of the Gospel, not the law; of Good News not of bad news. It is not entirely clear that his vision was a failure. The community itself imploded, from a high of over 70 members to a remnant of a half dozen or so. I’ve led small groups for over thirty years—I’ve never had one that small. So in human terms, Clarence Jordan’s community was the cause of very few lasting effects. It was a demonstration community that didn’t succeed in demonstrating community. It was a demonstration farm that never really demonstrated better farming practices. It led very few people, if any, out of poverty. If one measures success by lasting effects, this was not an impressive story.
But often the story of the Gospel is not a story of cause and effect. It is a story of crucifixion and resurrection. The seed of the Koinonia Farm community fell into the ground and died. Indeed, in 1969, Jordan himself fell into the ground and died—buried in the ground of Koinonia Farms. But the ground itself became the new life of the community. Shortly before his death, Jordan befriended Millard and Linda Fuller. They ultimately joined the community and lended their organizational genius to a remarkable transformation. The farm was divided into housing plots that were given to people as a way out of poverty. Houses were built on the plots by the labor of volunteers, side by side with the future owner of the house. The cost of materials and other necessities that couldn’t be donated was paid by no-interest mortgages. About seven years after his death, Koinonia Farms became Habitat for Humanity. And in this unexpected and unforeseen way, Koinonia Farms has by far its greatest lasting impact—an impact mediated not so much by the laws of cause and effect, but by the gospel of crucifixion and resurrection.
And I’m grateful that Clarence Jordan’s was not locked into the long division and started trying to put things together instead. His original vision was never realized, but his work was not wasted. His labor in the Lord was not in vain. His life was not about the long division but rather about a long obedience in same direction. His life was a long march toward living out the Gospel in the darkness of the fallen world. His work never ushered in the Kingdom, but he did make this world glimmer, just a little bit, with the light of the next. And for that, I’m grateful.
By the way, if you happen to be in San Diego in the next week or two, check out The Glory Man at the Lamb’s Player’s Theater on Coronado Island. It is a great production!