Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterpiece ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, as well as Lev Tolstoy in his The Gospel in Brief, both comment on, recapitulate, and in some manner ‘translate’, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) with varying interesting results. Let us compare Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel accounts together to see how this story serves not only as Dostoyevsky saw them . . . nor only as Tolstoy saw them . . . but also as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation, and pointing to our way out of the systems that enslave us.
The first commandment—that Israel should have no other gods beside YHWH—is the foundation for our liberation, as it was for Israel. It delivers us from all other ideas or powers that might claim our absolute loyalty and obedience.
. . . In the book I think about what it would mean to see Brown as a “Great Criminal” who did wrong but can still be read as a sign of a divine violence that breaks the hold of the slave system on social imaginations and so makes possible not just new ways of seeing the world, but new ways of acting, new ways of connecting with others, and new ways of deliberating together.
I think that a politics of penitence and repair can disrupt old divisive racial patterns, potentially enabling the emergence of new racial communities not marked by old forms of racial hatred and violence. Smith’s argument for penitence and repair is compelling and I do think that a Christian political theology calls upon us to consider these two important practices. Smith presents a theological discussion of pardon that eventually takes us to repentance and repair when addressing racial wounds.
A bishop recently said that 90% of the homilies he has ever heard can be boiled down to two words: “Try harder.” Of all the things that Ted Smith’s book does well, the most compelling for me is his attempt to critique the ethical confines to which reflection on politics and violence — along with so much else — is often limited.
In conjunction with the 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. Over the coming two and a half weeks, we will host responses to the book from E. Brooks Holifield, William Cavanaugh, Peter Ochs, Keri Day, and Andrew Murphy, concluding with a response to the responses by author Ted Smith. Here is the first response, from E. Brooks Holifield of Emory University.
In the account of the slave with the spirit of divination, Paul, Silas, the Philippian jailer, and his family we encounter dynamics of agency and constraint, of freedom and slavery. There are a number of surprising instances of human action within this narrative which nonetheless speaks powerfully of the power and activity of God.