Cotton Patch Easter

April 03, 1994|By MICHAEL NELSON

"When he entered Atlanta, the whole city was all shook up. 'Who is this guy?' they asked. And the crowd replied, 'He is a man of God -- Jesus from Valdosta, Georgia!' " So begins the "Cotton Patch Version" of the Easter story, as told and translated by Clarence Jordan.

Mr. Jordan was the South Georgia farmer-scholar-preacher who founded the still-thriving Koinonia Farm Christian community in Sumter County, Ga., nearly 50 years ago. (Koinonia's offshoots include Habitat for Humanity.)

In 1963, working from the Greek, Mr. Jordan began to translate the New Testament. By the time he died six years later, he had managed to complete the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, the general epistles, and part of the Gospel of John.

Clarence Jordan made his translations out of a nagging concern that other editions of the New Testament did not mean very much to late 20th century Americans. Even the best translations, he felt, "have left us stranded in some fantasy land in the long and distant past. We need to have the good news come to us not only in our own tongue but in our own time.`

Thus, in the Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and Luke, Joseph Davidson and his pregnant wife to north to Gainesville, Ga., to register in a census ordered by President Augustus. After Jesus is born, an angel informs the family that Governor Herod is sending assassins from Atlanta, and they flee to Mexico. When the coast is clear, the Davidsons return home to Valdosta. Jesus begins his ministry some years later after being baptized in the Chattahoochee River. To help him, he recruits 12 "ambassadors," including Simon "Rock" Johnson, Matt the Revenuer (an ex-IRS agent), and Judas Iscariot.

Jesus' preaching takes him to Savannah, Augusta, and the other cities and towns of Georgia. His opponents are not Pharisees and Sadducees, but proper Christian churchgoers. His followers are Yankees, blacks, and "nigger-lovers."

Jesus teaches with "comparisons" (parables). In the comparison the Good Samaritan, for example, a man traveling from Atlanta to Albany is robbed on the highway and his car is stolen. A white preacher sees him and steps on the gas. A white gospel singer also speeds by.

Then a black man stops his car, takes the victim to a hospital, and tells the nurse, "You all take care of this white man I found on the highway. Here's the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can't pay it, I'll settle up with you when I make a pay day."

Eventually Jesus makes his way to Atlanta, just in time for the church's state convention. After his tumultuous Palm Sunday entry, he "went into First Church, pitched out the whole finance committee, tore up the investment records, and scrapped the long-range expansion plans."

Church leaders, fearing Jesus's popular support, "hire some detectives to pose as Christians and collect evidence from his preaching, so he could be arrested." The detectives try unsuccessfully to trip Jesus up with thorny theological questions. For example, when one asks if it is "right to pay federal taxes," Jesus replies: "Give government things to the government and God's things to God.`

Every day, Jesus preaches at First Church; every night he retreats to a campsite outside of town called Peach Orchard Hill. The church hierarchy grows increasingly angry and worried as Jesus warns people to "keep away from those religious leaders who insist on wearing academic robes and who love the back-slapping at the civic clubs." The leaders get a break, however, when Judas approaches with an offer to lead them to Jesus' camp.

That night, after his last supper with Matt, Rock and the rest, Jesus prays in lonely torment. "O my Father, if it's possible, please relieve me of this agony. But I want you to decide it, not me." God's answer comes in the form of "a crowd, and the fellow named Judas, one of the 12, was leading them."

Jesus is arrested.

At daybreak the state convention's executive board deliberates on how to put Jesus to death. Afterward, "they beat him up real good, and took him over to Governor Pilate.`

The leaders beseech the governor: "He's agitating the people, spreading his ideas through the whole state of Georgia. Kill him. Kill him."

"Why?" Pilate asks. "What's his crime? I've found no reason to give him the death penalty. So I'm going to whip him and let him go."

"But they screamed at the top of their voices, demanding that he be killed.

"And their voices won.

"Pilate decided to grant their request."

State troopers take Jesus to their barracks, where they taunt and beat him. Then, accompanied by a crowd of people, they lead him out of town to execute him.

"And when they came to a place called 'Skull,' there they killed him and [two ordinary] criminals, the one to his right and the other on his left."

From the cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're up to." At noon, he dies.

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