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Essays, Politics of Scripture, Traditions

Fear, Trembling, and Weird John Brown (Andrew Murphy)

Johannes de Silentio admits that “Abraham I cannot understand, in a certain sense there is nothing I can learn from him but astonishment.” Can we say the same about John Brown? Smith clearly wants us to learn from him and from what happened at Harpers Ferry, not to mention what happened six weeks later. But it is a curious sort of learning, since Brown’s exceptional status — like Smith’s subtitle — acknowledges the limits of ethics in making sense of the violence enacted by, and on, such a singular figure.

In conjunction with Marginalia (part of the LA Review of Books), Political Theology Today has organized a symposium on Ted Smith’s extraordinary new book Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. This is the fifth post in our six-part series, which includes responses from E. Brooks Holifield, William T. Cavanaugh, Peter Ochs, Keri Day, and Andrew Murphy, and a response to the responses from Ted Smith.

Andrew MurphyEarly in the Introduction to Weird John Brown, Ted A. Smith declares his aspiration to “tell a story in which Harper’s Ferry appears as an American Mount Moriah.” The imagery of Moriah — Abraham going up the mountain with his beloved Isaac; the brief conversation between father and son (“But father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” “God himself will provide the lamb, my son”); the binding of the boy to the altar and the drawing of the knife; the ram caught in the thicket — will be familiar to many of the readers of this review. But as Kierkegaard showed so powerfully in the Prelude to Fear and Trembling, there is not one story, but rather many stories of Moriah and whole worlds of meaning depend upon which of these stories one chooses to tell. The scenarios pour out as various details of the story are subtly re-imagined. In one, Isaac’s faith in God is strengthened, at the cost of his love for his father; in another, Abraham thinks of Hagar and Ishmael while on the road to Moriah. In still others, Abraham “knew joy no more,” and Isaac lost his faith. Which of these Moriah tales, then, is Ted Smith telling?

Later in Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio admits that “Abraham I cannot understand, in a certain sense there is nothing I can learn from him but astonishment.” Can we say the same about John Brown? Smith clearly wants us to learn from him and from what happened at Harpers Ferry, not to mention what happened six weeks later. But it is a curious sort of learning, since Brown’s exceptional status — like Smith’s subtitle — acknowledges the limits of ethics in making sense of the violence enacted by, and on, such a singular figure. For Kierkegaard, “though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me.” Ever since Harpers Ferry, John Brown has certainly aroused the admiration of many Americans, and appalled many others. But what does John Brown have to say to us, in the twenty-first century?

It turns out that he has quite a lot to say, if we are prepared to think anew and to reconsider ossified categories of analysis. Smith sets out to free John Brown from the oversimplified interpretations that have dogged him since even before his Moriah moment: John Brown as freedom fighter, John Brown as fanatic, John Brown as madman, John Brown as Bible-crazed sower of destruction. None of these accounts, Smith insists, has grappled with the implications of the divine violence that John Brown brought down on himself, his fellow raiders, state and federal authorities, and ultimately the nation itself. Many have seen Brown as a singular embodiment of a higher law that challenges the entire apparatus by which the American state supported the monstrously unjust system of chattel slavery. Smith aims to drive home the enormity of Brown’s actions and the ways in which contemporary Americans might forgive the wrong that he committed without emboldening others with their own particular ideological axes to grind. What would it mean to pardon John Brown for Harpers Ferry.

This is a rich, complex, subtle, and multifaceted book. Smith engages with a vast range of thinkers, from Schmitt, Benjamin, and Adorno on the ontology of law and violence to Blackstone, Locke, Paine, and Hamilton on prerogative and pardon. Weird John Brown begins with poetry (Melville’s “The Portent,” which gives the book its title) and fiction (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead), and considers “Tragic Prelude,” the famous mural of Brown at the Kansas Statehouse, as well as Paul Klee’s Gesetz as a visualization of a fulfilled higher law. He highlights the danger of viewing law or the rule of law as an end in itself. Divorced from a higher end under which all human action is relativized (as Kierkegaard put it, an “ethical relation…reduced to a relative position in contrast with the absolute relation to God”), such a notion of law risks making necessity into an end in itself, with fateful consequences:a president elected on a platform of change, and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize just nine months into his presidency, ends up conducting drone warfare just like his trigger-happy predecessor did.

Of the many questions and puzzles that this book presents to its readers, I’d like to raise just four.

1. Harpers Ferry vs. North Elba. Calling Harpers Ferry “an American Mount Moriah” might suggest that all interpretations should bend towards this central and culminating event in John Brown’s life, at the expense of all the many other steps along the way. Smith reads Brown’s significance backward, in other words, from his violent end. But of course Brown did not drop into Harpers Ferry from the sky in 1859. Smith calls the raid “a fallen, faithful witness to the messianic fulfillment of law” (emphasis added), and observes that “Brown bore his most transparent witness to the higher law not when he sought to enforce it but when he lived the life it already made possible.” If the raid represents Brown’s ultimate failure — “a desperate act of politics in a desperate time,” in which he gave in to the temptation of theocracy — should we turn our attention to Brown’s daily interactions with African-Americans in upstate New York?

We could read Brown’s experience in North Elba as the prelude that made the drama at Harpers Ferry possible. In this sense, North Elba might stand in judgment of Brown’s ultimately fateful decision to go ahead with the raid. The most transformative aspect of John Brown might not be the immediate events that led to his death, but rather his entire life, which “displayed the shape of a new social imaginary, a new America marked by equality and love between people of all races.” Russell Banks has gloriously fictionalized the North Elba years in Cloudsplitter, his novel told through the eyes of Brown’s son Owen, the sole survivor of the Harpers Ferry raid. John Brown lived a higher law, Smith argues, not simply — and perhaps not at all — in the unleashing of violence in the pursuit of a religious end but in the rhythms of his daily life among African-Americans in North Elba. (Then again, to be fair, Brown himself spent relatively little time in North Elba, and was frequently traveling, often laying plans for Kansas actions or ultimately Harpers Ferry.)

Does converting Harpers Ferry into Mount Moriah therefore crowd out another view of Brown (or Abraham, for that matter), a view that takes his significance in the everyday efforts to live in community 500 miles away from Harpers Ferry?Or is North Elba simply one step on a road that was destined to be trod, a road made up of a number of steps, including Osawatamie, Lawrence, and Pottawatomie, which led John Brown inexorably to his Mount Moriah?

2. The sovereignty of God. What precisely does it mean to say that “instead of taking the state’s sovereignty for granted, I assume the sovereignty of God,” or to ask “what it would mean for Brown — and for the America he has so often represented — to be part of the story of God’s redeeming work in the world”? This challenge, this gauntlet thrown down to those who would recruit John Brown to their side of an ethical argument about law, violence, the divine, or American history, stands at the heart of Smith’s book, and yet he does not answer it. He clearly wants to move away from the kind of small-minded empiricism that “reads off” God’s verdict on earthly actors based on the success or failure of their undertakings. His critique of “mythic violence” is lucid and cogent. It is fairly easy to see what “assum[ing] the sovereignty of God” does not mean, be it Paul Hill’s justification of murdering abortion doctors (notwithstanding Hill’s invocation of John Brown) or the all-too-frequent examples of theocratic politics more generally. But the outlines, content, and parameters of Smith’s own political theology remain elusive. Smith’s theological position rests on a series of implicit assumptions about the nature, quality, and very existence of God.

3. The theory and practice of pardon. In the penultimate chapter of Weird John Brown, Smith discusses a potential pardon of John Brown — not due to some belated American acknowledgement of the righteousness of Brown’s cause, not as a mark of justice long-delayed, but rather as “rooted in a willingness to reason about singularities, even to declare exceptions, to rules that remain valid.” “Pardon,” he writes, “should be understood not as the work of reconciling law to justice but as the sovereign naming of an exception to the law.” A remarkable discussion follows in which Smith distinguishes between Romulus and Cain, two murderers who founded cities.

But who might offer a pardon to Brown and the raiders? In what form would such a pardon arrive? Who would authorize it? And what relation would it bear to Americans past and present? Would it really, as Smith suggests, “transform the nation’s understanding of itself” by changing the narrative of the Civil War and subsequent American history? I find myself intrigued and provoked, yet not ultimately convinced.

Who pardons? Smith takes issue with historian David Reynolds’s call for the Governor of Virginia or the President of the United States to pardon John Brown, but he dissents from Reynolds’s reasoning without objecting to the locus of apparent authority from which such a pardon might issue. Elsewhere he writes that “the Commonwealth of Virginia — or the United States, acting where it should have acted before — would have standing … to pardon the raiders for murder as a crime against itself.” His focus on Abraham Lincoln’s proclamations laying out procedures for reintegrating Confederate states back into the Union further suggests that the nation’s chief executive would be the one doing the pardoning, since the Constitution grants the president “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”

But surely this could be no ordinary pardon. John Brown’s was no ordinary crime. One thinks, of course, of some of the low points in the history of presidential pardons: Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001 (his last day in office, on which he also pardoned his own half-brother), or Gerald Ford’s pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixon “for all offenses against the United States which he … has committed or may have committed or taken part in” over the entirety of his presidency. Does this history of the political reality of presidential pardons have anything to say about the ideal of pardon as Smith intends it in the case of John Brown? Smith’s call for a pardon of Brown and his raiders presumes a kind of organic connection between the American government and the American people, one that — given widespread disaffection with government, partisan polarization, and deepening inequality along a number of domains — may no longer exist.  It seems an open question, whether the American political system now has — if it ever had — the capacity to engage in the sort of transformative political action that a pardon of John Brown would represent.

4. Cultivating capacities for deliberation. Time and again Smith uses the imagery of cultivation to lay out his aspirations for Americans’ common life. He highlights the need to “cultivate the ability to reason about situations in ways that leave room for exceptions,” to “cultivate forms of life that can engage in reasoned discourse about exceptions,” and to “cultivate the capacity for reasoning together about the form of a higher law.” In other words, the American nation needs to cultivate its people’s capacity to engage in substantive political theologizing if it is to reckon with John Brown and the legacy of racial atrocity that he laid bare in his violent actions in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. Perhaps all the talk of a pardon for John Brown and his raiders is more important for its potential to reinvigorate popular deliberation. Perhaps rather than a presidential proclamation, we might hope for a grassroots movement of local resolutions calling for Brown’s pardon, a gathering crescendo of political theologizing that sees the exceptional nature of what Brown did and is not afraid to name it.

Smith repeatedly calls for the development of modes of reasoning (and, presumably, concrete institutional facilitators of such deliberation). Where might those conversations take place? Where might we go to find, or more accurately to construct, “a space in which practical reasoning about public goods can be developed and refined in conversation”? If such conversations were to emerge from new civic spaces, or newly energized existing civic spaces, perhaps the legacy of weird John Brown — the meteor of the war — might finally give rise to the kind of transformative public dialogue toward which Ted Smith’s book so insistently points us.

* * *

On Mount Moriah, Abraham showed himself willing to kill the earthly thing he loved the most: his beloved Isaac. That he was not required by God to go through with that final sacrifice does not lessen the magnitude of the events on the mountain. John Brown — proud grandson of revolutionary patriots of 1776 — went to Harpers Ferry to destroy the country he so loved, the country that had claimed to hold the “self-evident” truths of human equality, in the hope of giving birth to a new America. Was Captain John Brown’s grandson, in requesting burial under the same headstone that marked his patriot grandfather’s final resting place, “seeking to be inscribed into the legacy of revolutionary violence that had founded the country”? If so, then perhaps the portent hanging from the Charles Town gallows is not so weird after all.


Andrew R. Murphy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.  His research focuses on the interconnections of political and religious thought in the Anglo-American tradition.  He is the author of Prodigal Nation:  Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (Oxford, 2008) and Conscience and Community:  Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (Penn State, 2001); and the editor of The Political Writings of William Penn (Liberty Fund, 2002), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and co-editor, with David S. Gutterman, of Religion, Politics, and American Identity:  New Directions, New Controversies (Lexington/Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).

Professor Murphy is currently finishing a study of the political thought of William Penn, and is co-author, with David S. Gutterman, of Negotiating Identities: Politics and Religion in the United States (forthcoming, Routledge).

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