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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The ups and downs of sainthood

We are less than a month from All Saints Day, nearing the culmination of the Christian calendar. In the Anglican tradition, the church discerns sainthood from not the miraculous but from the exemplary. Exemplariness does not require perfection and does not exempt one from criticism. The Anglican approach to sainthood allows us to celebrate saints and to learn from them while recognizing that all of us live under the Fall and struggle with error or inconsistency.

Koinonia Farms has been on my mind. Last month the Deep South's experiment in radical Christian community observed its 70th anniversary and also the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Clarence Jordan whom you might know from his Cotton Patch series. Jordan is proof that Baptists can be unconcerned about literalism, more interested in works of justice and reconciliation than in mere personal avoidance of sin, and left of Leon Trotsky.

Over the decades Koinonia has faced brutal difficulties -- some external, some internal -- but it survives. More importantly, it's had an impact far beyond the farm. President Jimmy Carter, who truly earned his Nobel Peace Prize, grew up a short distance from the Koinonia millieu. Koinonia and Jordan inspired the late Millard Fuller to found Habitat for Humanity, which Carter has championed. Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and successful foe of the Ku Klux Klan, was formerly Fuller's business partner.

We know that nevertheless, controversy has attached to Carter, Fuller, and Dees. Carter's administration is widely understood to have been incompetent albeit well-intentioned. Fuller was fired by HfH after allegations of impropriety and disagreements about management. Dees is paid a fat salary by the astonishingly wealthy SPLC; his personal behaviors have been under attack since marital troubles in the 1970s.

Even Mother Teresa, one assumes, had a bad day occasionally. Certainly she was criticized on occasion, particularly by the late Christopher Hitchens -- although I might argue that any target of Hitchens must have something worthwhile to offer us. Accountability is a good thing, as long as it's fair and factual. But let's not allow the occasional shortcomings of people to overshadow their contributions. Congratulations, Koinonia and well done, Clarence Jordan.