Clarence Jordan often described the kingdom of God as a few ounces of gasoline compressed by a piston; or a bit of black powder squashed into a combustible coil. In tight, constrictive places and circumstances, it only took a little dose of such material to manifest great, explosive power. This is a proper analogy for Plough Publishing House’s latest volume about Clarence Jordan.
The Inconvenient Gospel, edited and collected by Frederick L. Downing, is a tiny book, a scant greater than a hundred pages. Yet, it is like a little stick of dynamite, containing some of Jordan’s most prescient and piercing words. Downing uses the most apt of designations for Jordan in this new work’s subtitle: “A Southern Prophet.” Indeed, for that is exactly who and what Clarence Jordan was.
As a necessary aside, I came to Jordan’s writings as a young man, this prophet who spoke my dialect and perfectly described my world, and no other theologian has had more influence on me than him.
We share much in common: We are both native Georgians; we were both reared in Southern fundamentalism that itself was baptized in racism; and we both would consider ourselves former Baptists who deep within our hearts long for our previous community of faith to “realize that we really are their sons, and that we really do love them,” a reconciliation that Jordan prayed for but never realized. This prophet was simply too much for the church-going folks of his day to take. He still is.
Maybe the most redemptive but challenging compulsion a true prophet feels is that of inviting others to discover a radically inclusive God, a God who is available to all, a God who welcomes all. In Jordan’s context, the “all” included the poor, the non-religious, and especially African-Americans. The latter had suffered under the dominant and unjust rule of white supremacy, perpetuated by those same church-going folks who maligned the prophet, and who propped their elbows on soft bleached tablecloths to say grace over their Sunday afternoon meal, only to throw those same bleached sheets over their heads later that same day to terrorize the local black population.
Clarence Jordan would have none of this violence and racism, this exclusion of the “outsider” in the name of God. He could not hedge his supper or his communion table, and Downing’s work makes this abundantly clear. This book properly recollects some of Jordan’s “greatest hits” – absolutely explosive and quotable – while also supplying the public with transcripts of lectures Clarence delivered at Goshen College in the mid-1960s. These were some of Jordan’s last public appearances, and to my knowledge have not been previously collected in this accessible form. They too are vintage Jordan, and will allow the reader to come to know this PhD-toting, pecan-farming prophet from Georgia even better.
For all that Clarence Jordan and I have in common, we have a key difference: I do not have his indomitable courage. Oh, I wish I did! On my most heroic day, motivated by the highest righteous cause, and mustering all of my inner strength, I could never hold a candle to this meek but fearless man. He was a rare, contemporary Leonidas standing in the breach with a committed few against a fomenting multitude. But it only takes a few, only a little dose of Christ-infused power, especially when that power is unarmed justice, self-sacrificing love, unconditional acceptance, and the folksy wit and wisdom of a son of the south. We readers will be served well to sit with this small book about a great man and allow it to revive some of Clarence’s courage within us. The task at hand demands it.