On Monday, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump held one of his ‘yuge’ rallies in Valdosta, Ga. While most people outside the Peach State are likely not familiar with that city near the Florida border, it plays a significant a role in one of the most imaginative religious texts of the 20th Century. In it we may also find a prophetic warning against the politics of Trump.
Clarence Jordan, an excommunicated Southern Baptist prophet who played an important role in the creation of Habitat for Humanity and who cofounded an interracial Christian farming community in southwestern Georgia in 1942, created the Cotton Patch Gospel translation of the New Testament in the 1960s. Using his Ph.D. in New Testament Greek, Jordan created a Bible version that not only translated the language but also the geographical and time context. Rather than someone from long ago in a culture far away, Jordan recast Jesus as a white preacher from Georgia in the middle of the 20th Century. No longer does Jesus hail from Nazareth, but Valdosta. Can anything good come from such an insignificant place as that?
The beauty of Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel comes in his brutal proximity. We can easily cheer Jesus criticizing the Pharisees and we can happily praise the ‘good Samaritan’ even if we have no clue who the Pharisees or Samaritans were in reality. But when Jordan’s coreligionists read his translation, they found Jesus attacking white Protestant churchgoers instead of Pharisees. They also found a story of a man beaten up on the road from Atlanta to Albany who is helped by a black man after a white preacher and white gospel music leader left him for dead. That’s the type of preaching that got Jesus crucified, or—as Jordan cast it—lynched. And Jordan’s opponents reacted similarly by raining hellfire of machine gun bullets and dynamite blasts on his Koinonia Farm community.
I’m sure Trump knows nothing of the Cotton Patch Gospel (or that he should call its book ‘Second Letter to the Atlanta Christians’ instead of ‘Two Letter to the Atlanta Christians’). However, as I listen to his speeches attacking Mexican immigrants, Muslims and other people—and especially as I see him winning the most votes from evangelicals—I recognize the great need for Jesus of Valdosta. Our ability to segregate our faith teachings on Sunday from our politics on Tuesday poses a serious threat to the credibility of our witness.
So I’d love to imagine what would have happened if Jesus of Valdosta had showed up to Trump’s rally on Monday. If he somehow got through the security despite looking a bit like a Bernie Sanders supporter, I doubt he would’ve lasted long. He probably would’ve said something about how we should love immigrants and Muslims. He definitely would’ve stood in solidarity with the black students who were removed from the rally on their own college campus merely for being black. Before long, security would’ve dragged Jesus of Valdosta out as well while Trump bragged about wanting to “punch him in the face” to the cheers of the crowd.
Outside the rally, perhaps Jesus of Valdosta would’ve given a little sermon for interested onlookers. Maybe he would’ve talked about the need to build bridges instead of walls, or how we should be humble and self-sacrificing. Or maybe he would’ve mentioned how years ago his parents fled with him to Mexico to avoid persecution from a corrupt political leader. Or perhaps he would’ve repeated his first sermon, the one in the fourth chapter of Luke that he gave at a church in Valdosta:
The Lord’s spirit is on me;
He has ordained me to break the good news to the poor people.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the oppressed.
And sight for the blind,
To help those who have been grievously insulted to find dignity;
To proclaim the Lord’s new era.
And then perhaps like the crowd at the church when Jesus of Valdosta preached those words, those at the Trump rally would’ve attempted to grab him and kill him. But they probably wouldn’t have tried crucifixion or lynching. Instead they’d probably hope President Trump would send that traitorous preacher to Guantanamo to be tortured with waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.”
Perhaps this all sounds a bit silly, but do we really think Jesus of Nazareth would sit idly by as a womanizing and vulgar demagogue grabbed power by preaching hate against anyone who looked different? If we do, then perhaps that shows Jordan rightly recognized how the distance of time and space makes it possible to study the Bible on Sunday and then walk out the doors and make no connection to our own context. With so many white evangelicals lining up to cheer and vote for Trump, it seems we have domesticized and spiritualized Jesus of Nazareth. So perhaps we once again need Jesus of Valdosta. Or perhaps even better, we need Jesus of Ciudad Juárez or Jesus of Santiago de Cuba.