Weird John Brown: A Response to Cavanaugh, Day, Holifield, Murphy, and Ochs (by Ted Smith)


. . . 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.

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. Today we conclude our six-part series with a response to the responses by Ted Smith himself.

ted-smithI am grateful for the charity and insight of William Cavanaugh, Keri Day, Brooks Holifield, Andrew Murphy, and Peter Ochs in reviewing Weird John Brown. I admire the work of each of these scholars. I had learned from them before I ever started to write the book. And I have learned even more from their responses to it. I appreciate their willingness to take time for this conversation.

Brooks Holifield rightly describes the book as “elusive” at key points in the argument. He offers the most charitable reading possible of this elusiveness. The book is trying to think theologically about history, and — just as Holifield says — some elusiveness “is ingredient in the subject matter whenever one tries to talk about transcendence in relation to history.” The alternative is a theologically infused idealism that must omit or distort facts to fit a narrative. Such narratives can be clear. But they tend to become ideological, even mythological in the strict sense of the term. The risks of such mythologizing are especially high in discussions of violence. And so a measure of elusiveness is necessary.

Some of the elusiveness of the book’s argument, though, comes simply from failures of intellect, courage, and rhetoric on my part. With those failings in mind, and in hopes of responding to the questions raised by these thoughtful reviews, it seems worth trying to state the argument of the book as clearly as I can.

The purpose of the book is to critique a constellation composed of a mode of reasoning and an arrangement of power. The mode of reasoning confines deliberations about violence within the bounds defined by universalizable norms (whether oriented to rules, consequences, or virtues) that operate within an immanent network of causes and effects. The arrangement of power centers on the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence for political ends. This mode of reasoning and this arrangement of power have come to fit together in mutually reinforcing ways.

Each of the points in this constellation invites further comment. Reasoning about violence within the frame of an immanent ethics involves reasoning without reference to actions of God in history that demand a response. It is not that there could be no role for religion. God or some other divine source might give instruction or motivation before any human action, acting in a past that is always prior to every moment of decision. Or some divine power might act over the horizon of the future, providing a destination that serves as a distant goal. But in this age it is all up to us. As William Cavanaugh notes, there is “a despair hidden behind the notion that ‘God has no hands but yours.’” This despair is born of misdirected hope, a trust only in ourselves that amounts to a kind of idolatry. This despair has consequences in the world. It distorts practices. And, as Cavanaugh sees so clearly, it “invites violence to bring the present into conformity with a higher standard.”

No logical necessity connects this mode of reasoning with the state’s monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. But the two arose together historically and fit together closely now. That fit is facilitated by the fact that the language of universalizable norms within an immanent frame has become the first language of the state. It is the language of law.

Because this mode of reasoning does so much to shape what we can imagine, and because it is now joined so tightly to the state’s monopoly on violence, we struggle to find language to evaluate both the state’s claim to violence and the meaning of violence beyond the sanction of the state. Ethics that works within an immanent frame offers few resources for this kind of deliberation. Indeed, the ways we usually think of ethics tend to presume and reinforce the state’s monopoly on violence. The legitimacy of state violence becomes mystified in ways that make it very difficult to critique. This mystification is the real target of Weird John Brown.

There may be good reasons to give the state a monopoly on legitimate violence for political purposes; one could imagine this as a wise conclusion of practical reasoning. But it is difficult to deliberate about this question — even to see it — from within our usual ethical frames. Peter Ochs is right that I worry that the guild of religious ethics has been too captured by this worldview. There are important exceptions, of course. But too often we limit ourselves to the work of offering religious reasons for one policy or another that we presume would be implemented (and enforced) by the state. That kind of reasoning makes it difficult to deliberate about cases at the margins of a state violence that is continuing to expand under the cover of law.

But this deliberation is just the work we need to be doing now, in an age when terrorism and state responses to terrorism feed off one another in cycles of violence. It is the work we need to be doing at a time when violence by people charged with enforcing the law and responses to that violence raise again the question of the law’s power to legitimate violence in a country whose laws have colluded with slavery and its legacies for centuries. It is the work we need to be doing in the wake of Ferguson and 9/11.

The wager of the book, as Keri Day sees, is that thinking about John Brown can open up some fresh perspectives on these questions. Brown has this power in part because he took up violence outside the law for explicitly theological reasons. He did the unthinkable. But Brown’s story has the power to open our imaginations because he worked for a cause — the end of slavery — that almost everyone today would support and because he appealed to a religion — Christianity — that has long been the religion of a majority of people in the United States. Even more, Brown raises questions about the legacies of slavery that run so deep in the history of this country that they put pressure both on the limits of ethics and on the limits set by the state’s monopoly on violence.

Brooks Holifield names these dynamics clearly, arguing that “any ethical reflection that remains within the limits of a this-worldly calculation of consequences or duties will find it hard to assess either the meaning of John Brown or the implications of his actions for the continuing American agony over race. John Brown illustrates the ‘limits of ethics.’”


William Cavanaugh affirms the core argument of the book but raises pointed questions about the book’s emphasis on negation. Cavanaugh is correct that I insist on negation in an attempt to avoid Carl Schmitt’s “identification of divine power with a worldly power” (and, I’d add, in an attempt to make sense of the world as we experience it and of biblical understandings of the Reign of God). This accent on negation, Cavanaugh writes, “leaves me with questions about what positive work the book does … .” He worries that “[Walter] Benjamin’s insistence that there be no organization based on divine power will end up relegating God’s action to an interiorized ‘different sort of consciousness’ that nevertheless still must express itself through the state, because there is no other forum for politics.” There is, Cavanaugh worries, “no ecclesiology in the book.”

Andrew Murphy voices similar concerns in a different key. “Smith repeatedly calls for the development of modes of reasoning (and, presumably, concrete institutional facilitators of such deliberation),” he writes. “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?’”

These are some of the most important questions to be asked of this book. Any project that draws heavily on Benjamin runs the risk of slipping into a “politics” that is nothing more than a new way of seeing the world, an individual mysticism that cannot connect in meaningful ways with other people or with movements for social change.

I do not think Benjamin’s thought necessarily leads in those directions. But my purpose here is not to defend Benjamin but to clarify my own line of argument. I mean to avoid the consolations of a trippy solipsism by insisting on the determinate nature of the negation accomplished by the Reign of God. This determinate negation — this divine violence — does not perform an abstract negation of every kind of value. Instead it undoes the legitimacy of very particular social formations. Because the destruction is of legitimacy, it does not involve the shedding of blood (though we should not celebrate this too blithely, for bloodshed often comes before or after such divine violence as a result of human choices).

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.

Because the negation of divine violence is a negation of some particular powers and principalities, the new forms of life it makes possible take particular forms. In breaking the hold of the slave system, divine violence does not unleash the kind of willy-nilly relativism that would flow from an abstract negation of every kind of value. It rather sets people free from particular powers and principalities. It makes possible a particular range of responses, including both the raid on Harpers Ferry and the daily relations of neighbors in North Elba. Both of these responses involved black and white people coming together in communities that worked for social change.


Andrew Murphy asks some very insightful questions about the relation between these two communities in Brown’s life. In responding, I would say that North Elba was not just a stage along the way to Harpers Ferry; nor was Harpers Ferry a fall from the grace attained at North Elba. I would rather see the two as part of the range of responses that became possible once the spell of race-based slavery has been broken. That unraveling of legitimacy made possible a practical reasoning that might lead some to North Elba and some to Harpers Ferry. Both of these communities were still marked by the racism from which they had been delivered. But if neither of these communities lived into the perfection of its freedom, both of them represented new possibilities in history.

This story suggests both the Christology and the ecclesiology at work in Weird John Brown. The Christology depends on a Christian confession of Jesus as the one who fulfills the law (Matthew 5:17-2). I mean to stress the indicative, already-accomplished quality of that fulfillment — and to acknowledge the ways that no community, not even a church body, is simply identical with that fulfillment in this age. Instead, the indicative of fulfillment meets this age in negation. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus delivers history from the endings that the powers and principalities would write. In the language of Ephesians, he leads captivity captive and gives gifts to humankind (4:4). At the center of those gifts is the freedom to respond in love.

Free responses like those performed at North Elba and Harpers Ferry bear traces of the divine violence that made them possible, and so bear a kind of witness to it. If these testimonies do not “repeat the Gospel,” in Michel de Certeau’s words, “they would be impossible without the Gospel.” Certeau develops these ideas with an account of the church as born in the wake of the Ascension:

The Christian language begins with the disappearance of its “author.” That is to say that Jesus effaces himself to give faithful witness to the Father who authorizes him, and to “give rise” to different but faithful communities which he makes possible. There is a close bond between the absence of Jesus (dead and not present) and the birth of the Christian language (objective and faithful testimony to his survival).[i]

Following Certeau, I mean to say that the great indicative of reconciliation accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus undoes the power of sin and death over history. It opens a new and determinate space for free response. But it does not determine the response itself. As I argue in the book, “The messianic fulfillment of law makes every free and faithful response possible, and so permeates each and of them with a presence that is never simply identical to them” (120). I mean to describe an ecclesiology marked by presence without identity.

Peter Ochs describes this way of seeing things as a “theocentric pragmatism,” and I think there is much truth in that description. Ochs is a better judge than I of any affinities between my project and that of C.S. Peirce. But I would say that I mean to describe the significance of a practical reasoning that is framed within the theological account of history that I have tried to sketch above. It is a reasoning suited to this time between the times. This practical reasoning grows out of the determinate negation accomplished in the inauguration of the Reign of God, not an abstract skepticism about the impossibility of knowing or achieving the good. And the practical reasoning I want to describe cannot be reduced to a moralism that is defined by universalizable norms that operate within an immanent frame. These features would distinguish what I’m trying to do from some of what gets called pragmatism today. But I would be pleased if they fit with what Ochs means by theocentric pragmatism.


Several of the reviewers commented upon Weird John Brown’s treatment of pardon. And the book’s considerations of pardon can do much to display the kinds of reasoning I have been trying to develop here. Pardon moves beyond the limits of ethics, especially when it is defined as an exception to norms of justice rather an after-the-fact reconciliation of law and justice. The danger of such exceptions — a danger Carl Schmitt made plain on his pages and in his life — is that they can invite arational decisionism. They can also give license to some all-too-rational forms of self-interest, as Andrew Murphy notes in recalling Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich. In the book I am trying to display a practical reasoning about pardon that can avoid both those pitfalls without becoming the kind of discourse that can be reduced to the application of universalizable norms. That is, I’m trying to engage in practical reasoning that cannot be reduced to “ethics” as the term is typically used today.

I try to do this by considering pardon in two different cases that end in two different conclusions. I argue for a pardon for John Brown, Shields Green, and the other raiders on Harpers Ferry. I do not argue that they should be pardoned because they were right, as David Reynolds does, for that would set a precedent that forgets the wrong of murder and licenses violence outside the law by anyone with a just cause. Instead I argue that pardon of the raiders would be fitting as part of the state’s ongoing and unfinished repentance for its long establishment of race-based slavery and long support for the legacies of that system. Even then, though, the decision to pardon the raiders would be free, a little miracle that did not change the laws against murder but ratified them anew in declaring an exception to them.

Introducing the possibility of pardon as an exception to justice raises the question of a pardon for the crime of slavery. Keri Day and I agree about the reasons that pardon of slavery would be unjust: the magnitude of the crime, the fact that it still has not been acknowledged, and the fact that its legacies drag on in lethal ways only begin the endless list. “The past is still quite present,” exactly as Day says. Justice would demand that truth-telling, reparations, and efforts to make government more fully representative of the descendants of the people who were enslaved all come before pardon. Pardon for slavery could never be just. But if one has a notion of pardon as an exception to justice — like the one I invoked in calling for the pardon of the raiders on Harpers Ferry — wouldn’t pardon for slavery become possible?

The nature of pardon involves a word of forgiveness from the one who was harmed by the action to the one who did the harm. But the long history of legalized slavery followed by disenfranchisement, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, policing of “voter fraud,” and other injustices mean that there is no political body in the United States that represents enslaved people and their descendants so well that it could offer a pardon in their names. Because of this lack of standing, any political pronunciation of pardon would not just be unjust. It would not be pardon at all. It would rather be what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” the facsimile of pardon that one offers to oneself.

Here I share Andrew Murphy’s worry about the lack of the kind of “organic connection between the American government and the American people” that is necessary for true pardon. That crisis of disconnection runs even deeper than voting rights, as Murphy knows. And it is especially acute in any case having to do with slavery and its legacies in the United States. Simply moving to the grassroots level would not necessarily solve the problem. Indeed, in places like Selma and Little Rock the federal government has been more fully representative of those most harmed by slavery than White Citizen Councils and other local bodies that had stronger claims to “grassroots” status.


If the state could not pardon slavery, could God? To ask such a question is one way into thinking about politics in light of the sovereignty of God rather than the state (a task Murphy is right to push me to do more clearly). In considering this question, I would not presume to deny the freedom of God. But the risk of such a pious claim is that it could be construed as offering no practical guidance — or even, in its silence, legitimating exactly the structures that are responsible for the crime. In hopes of defying those outcomes, I would tease out three implications.

First, as a white man, one who has benefited from the legacies of slavery in more ways than I know, I could not call for pardon or proclaim pardon, even in the name of God. I could at most offer confession. Confession is closer to what Keri Day calls a “first-order” act. And confession, by its nature, makes no demands on the one it addresses. It imposes no obligations on the one to whom confession is made. It simply tries to tell the truth about the crime that creates the need for pardon.

Second, even to hope for divine pardon for slavery is to commit oneself to the view that God would have the standing to offer such pardon — and so to a theology that holds that God, in God’s own flesh, suffered the horrific violence of slavery. Such a claim would run all the way to the center of any theological worldview. Any answers to William Cavanaugh’s questions about the book’s understanding of Incarnation would need to begin here.

Third, I would argue that even divine pardon would appear in this age only as a sign of judgment. This is perhaps the best way to think about the duration of the world: it is a sign of God’s grace that God continues not just to tolerate but also to sustain and bless the world. But if we understand this pardon rightly, we understand it as a sign of judgment on the very age that it sustains.

The denial of cheap grace should not lead to a cul-de-sac of guilt that is one more form of self-gratification. It should rather lead white Christians, as Day affirms, to a politics of penitence and repair. A politics of repair is necessarily piecemeal. That is, it makes real but partial moves to undo the crime of slavery and its legacies. Even if it includes reparations on a massive scale — which it should — it would not presume to drive toward some reconciled state that would no longer require a further leap, a further miracle, a pardon that defied justice.

Instead, such politics should seek to tell the truth about wrong, to take concrete actions to live into confessions of responsibility for those actions and structures, to do what can be done to repair the damage that has been done, and to prevent the extension of this damage through more generations. Any repairs would be piecemeal, partial, and (almost inevitably) full of unintended consequences. A politics of penitence and repair begins with recognizing that white Christians should not try to create a reconciliation that is not ours to create. The task for white Christians is rather to put flesh on truthful prayers of confession. This is the shape of politics in the wake of divine violence.



[i] Michel de Certeau, “How Is Christianity Thinkable Today?” Theology Digest 19, no. 4 (Winter 1971), 336. See pp. 116-124 of Weird John Brown for a more complete development of this argument.

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