Weird John Brown and the Uses of Elusiveness (E. Brooks Holifield)

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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 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. 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.

Brooks HolifieldTed Smith’s intriguing assessment of the raid on Harper’s Ferry and its implications for ethics, practical reasoning, history, and theology stands among a small handful of truly remarkable American Christian reflections on violence that have appeared during the past century. Written during a period in which many fear that religion intensifies violence and complicates attempts to talk about it, Smith advances the case that theological reflection can actually enhance the public conversation about both violence and race. He explores an act of non-state violence by a group who acted outside the law, believing themselves to be agents of divine redemption. Weird John Brown illustrates Smith’s call for “thick concrete histories” as modes of practical reasoning and theological work that illumine political quandaries and cast new light on ethical reflection.

At one level, the book is a straightforward account of John Brown, Shields Green, John Copeland and the other raiders who attacked the Harper’s Ferry armory in 1859, along with a critique of the interpretations that have surrounded that event. Smith writes lucidly, and the narrative sections of the book display the surface-level simplicity of a skillful storyteller. But even at the level of narration, Smith’s analysis asks questions that elude easy answers. Was John Brown a fanatic or a freedom fighter? Answering the question posed in this way — as tellers of the story have often posed it—draws the interpreter, Smith argues, into an unintended collusion with the violence through which the nation-state is grounded. If Brown was a fanatic he was rightfully judged by a state built on the violence of slavery; if a freedom fighter, his own violence was a necessary (and therefore legitimate) means to a good end. Either way Brown’s interpreters seem stuck in a circle of violence, whether by legitimating the violence of the state or by providing an implicit ethical imprimatur for violent, even murderous, actions performed for a good cause. Such a dilemma can also be seen in the actions of the American state after the disasters of 9/11. The Bush administration chose violence irrespective of legality; the Obama administration elected to legitimate violence by enclosing it within an ever-expanding mantle of law. Both set precedents that can lend themselves to deadly abuse. And 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.”

Smith’s alternative is to see John Brown as a possible — the qualifier is necessary — “sign,” a “portent” of a “divine violence” that counteracts the “mythic violence” of the state (and of actors outside the state) by negating the structures through which state violence operates,  exposing them to view and calling their authority into question. With this claim Smith begins to chart an elusive path, not because the exposition is unclear but because elusiveness, I think, is essential to the argument that Smith wants to make. John Brown’s actions and execution reveal the limits of the law and expose its hidden violence, which is precisely what occurs in a moment of divine violence. But those events cannot be straightforwardly designated as expressions of divine violence. Brown should receive a pardon, but not because he deserves it. Brown wrongly appealed to a higher law to justify his actions, but appeals to a higher law are legitimate.

More generally, Smith uses the example of Brown to make a series of larger claims: law almost invariably fails to issue in justice, but it participates in justice and suggests a yearning for it. Divine violence exposes the failure of the law but also restores it. Divine violence can manifest itself in particular moments, but it is at work in every moment.  In any case, no criteria are available for confidently designating its manifestations. Or consider these theological assertions: the Reign of God is always present, but it is present as a negation. It is, in that sense, negatively present, which in popular Christianity would mean it is not present at all. Reconciliation is no all-pervasive Hegelian process that justifies the evils of history as necessary moments producing a higher good, but reconciliation nonetheless permeates history. The created order participates, as the apostle Paul said, in the work of the Spirit, but it participates only through its passing away. It speaks silently with a cry “too deep for words.”

 

Why the elusiveness? Smith is trying to clarify what a Christian theology might offer to a discussion of a democratic polity. On the one hand, he is wary of an ethic (even a religious ethic) that calculates ends, duties, and consequences. Viewed as a guide to action within the political order, such an ethic assumes the legitimacy of that order and therefore implicitly legitimates the violence on which every political order rests. On the other hand, Smith is also wary of any code of ethics that presumes to represent the will of God. This presumption, as we know all too well, also intensifies violence. Ethical codes, moreover, establish precedents that leave no room for exceptions and foreclose free discussion and decision making. Conflicting codes, in fact, exacerbate the violence. So Smith asks whether the Christian tradition offers resources that enable one to say, in effect, that this violent order of which we are a part stands under judgment and that no one possesses the moral code that will set things right. But he adds that if we choose the indicative rather than the imperative mood for practical reasoning, the ambiguity is no cause for despair.

This is why Smith draws on the Christian idea of divine judgment, interpreted through Walter Benjamin’s conception of “divine violence,” both as a way to interpret John Brown and a means of thinking about ethics.  It should go without saying that Smith is not speaking about discrete acts of judgment by a divine Ruler who unleashes punishments on unruly subjects. Like Benjamin, he is disinclined to use a language that pulls the theological “down into the work of justifying morality,” an objectifying language that treats transcendence as if it were an object subject to our manipulation or our categories of morality or knowledge. Transcendence is present in the world as the negation of those categories, exposing them as finite, temporary, and permeated by the mythic violence with which political orders impose their rule.

Smith can view John Brown as possibly a “sign” of those transcendent negations, but the qualifier is necessary both because Brown was caught up in a violent order even as he exposed it and because to claim to know that his act was a moment of divine violence would be to say more than we can say.  Brown might have been “part of the story of God’s redeeming work in the world,” even if not in the sense envisioned by Brown himself, but we do not know for sure, because the meaning of John Brown “is not yet known” and will find its full meaning only in a “messianic age” that is an object of “hope” beyond any “vision,” a Not-Yet on the far side of our knowing and imagining. John Brown’s death might be a “dialectical” image of “justice and hope,” but if we claim to know too much about either Brown or justice and hope, if we omit the dialectic — the simultaneous Yes and No — then our speech tempts us, once more, to seek the absolutes that support the order grounded on violence.

For similar reasons Smith both affirms and repudiates Brown’s appeal to a higher law. He disavows Brown’s assumption that the higher law has a codified content. The higher law as Smith envisions it functions rather in the service of the divine violence. It negates the violence ingredient in our pretensions, the claim that our code represents the good and their code the evil.

It would not be precisely correct to say that the higher law is entirely devoid of content, but its content remains transcendent, untranslatable into codes that are subject to a moral calculus. Smith’s appeal to a higher law entails an awareness of the penultimate character of even our highest “ideals.” And because it encourages humility, such awareness is crucial for a humane political discourse.

All this is not to say, however, that Smith sees transcendent negation only as something “negative.” The negation bears within it moments of reconciliation and redemption. One might think of how the puncturing of pride can be a liberating moment for a person or a political order entrapped in prideful self-delusion. But no codified formulas will help us identify those moments. Politics, like ethics and like faithful existence, requires a risk. John Brown, for instance, stands in need of pardon. But the pardon always has to be a singularity, an exception. To codify the grounds for pardon, to make them less elusive, would be to draw them into the sphere of calculation that marks decision making in a political order that uses calculation as a means to power.

The elusiveness results, finally, from the complexity of making one “concrete, historically specific, contingent claim about one massive and particular evil in the life of a particular polity.” The closer one gets to Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the more ambiguous it becomes. We do not yet know how it fits in the long history of race relations in America. But the ambiguities help us frame our own ethical reasoning about race, and they also support Smith’s preference for the indicative rather than the imperative mood in ethical reflection. Both H. Richard Niebuhr and James Gustafson were wont to say that the first step of ethical reasoning is to look as closely as we can at the concrete situation, the actions and reactions that give us insight into what is going on. Smith is looking as closely as he can at one event and trying to tease out its implications. And he is illustrating how theological assumptions can facilitate such a close look not by giving us antecedent moral certainties but by reminding us of the finitude in every presumed certainty.

Elusiveness, in other words, is ingredient in the subject matter whenever one tries to talk about transcendence in relation to history. For that reason, Weird John Brown instructs us precisely because it so well exemplifies the ambiguities that intrude themselves into historical judgments, ethical assessments, and theological assertions. The clarity of the narrative is engaging; the elusiveness of the argument is clarifying. This is an important instance of a mode of ethical, historical, and theological reasoning that, one would hope, might attract other minds as subtle and thoughtful as Smith’s.

 

E. Brooks Holifield is the C.H. Candler Professor, emeritus, at Emory University, where he taught the history of modern Christianity for forty years in the Candler School of Theology.  A graduate of Hendrix College (1963), Yale Divinity School , and the Yale Graduate School, he is the author of seven books on American religious history, including Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (2003), which won the Outler prize of the American Society of Church History.  He was elected in 2011 as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  

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