John Brown and Violence: A Response
A thoughtful reader, Professor John Rudy, made the following comment on the other entry for Nov. 3rd on this blog. He writes:
I think my chief problem with Brown has always sprung from his use of violence, because I've never been convinced that taking another's life, whether perpetrated by a slaveholder on another human being or by Brown and his men at Harpers Ferry and Pottawatomie, can ever be deemed just.
I have had my students in the class I am teaching on Brown this semester ruminating on that very concept, as well as investigating the divide between Garrisonians and Immediatists, as they try to dissect who Brown was and why he chose to do what he did. I would love to hear your thoughts on when and if it is just and right to end another person's life by force.
Prof. Rudy is kind enough to offer a thoughtful comment and also solicits my thoughts on whether the use of violence is ever "just and right" to use force to kill someone. Obviously, his remarks require extensive reflection and discussion, but I will attempt to make some response in the hopes it is helpful, even if he does not agree.
First, I'd say that the issue of John Brown and violence is typically a theme raised by people who are not pacifists in principle. Therefore we need not get bogged down addressing their criticisms, which essentially reflect some degree of political double standard or hypocrisy. You pose a different question than people who like to attack Brown’s legacy because he used violence while turning a blind eye to the violence of slavery, the violence of their nation against other nations, and the violence of their heroes (often exerted against people of color).
Second, I would only say that if your students want to know who Brown was and the source of his actions, they must fairly understand not only the political but also the religious themes of Brown’s culture and past. Simplistic treatments of the “violent Old Testament God” versus the “peaceful New Testament God” is anachronistic gnosticism that has no validity in itself let alone in Brown’s case. Your students should be willing to consider why a sincere, essentially peaceful, and extremely moral and gentle Christian man like John Brown would fundamentally differ with someone like William Lloyd Garrison. I hope they will consider reading my “religious life” of Brown which may help to some degree. They should also explore the long debate in Christian history between pacifists and advocates of “just” force, but also keep in mind that many Christians like Brown were both peacefully oriented but could not subscribe to pacifism in principle as a binding stricture for all circumstances.
Third, you have asked me what I believe as to the use of force in ending human life. My view is probably closer to that of John Brown. My understanding is living a peaceful, nonviolent existence should be normative for a Christian. While Christians like Brown believed that humans are made in the image of God, the sanctity of human life does not take precedent in all situations for them. Certainly, Brown believed that government was granted the right to capital punishment and to wage war under conditions that did not violate biblical morality. He also believed that under certain circumstances, individual Christians could employ some degree of force to oppose injustice for the sake of the weak and oppressed.
Obviously, there is not enough space or time to debate these presuppositions. There is a long tradition of pacifism within Christianity, and it is arguable that the early church (for instance) did not begin to change until the “Christianization” of the Roman empire. Whether or not that’s true, the preponderant voice of early Christianity was non-violent and extremely so. But later Christians took a different view, particularly the “Just War” view coming out of Augustine and Aquinas. The Protestant Reformers, as seen in the case of the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and others, were not pacifists like the Anabaptists. Brown was quite consciously rooted in the Calvinistic-Puritan tradition and probably never was a pacifist, although it seems that in his twenties and early thirties, he was somewhat influenced by a conservative bent that amounted to de facto pacifism. It was only as the slave power grew in militancy and violence that Brown began to conclude that force might be necessary to win back the nation and liberate the enslaved from its grip. Indeed, we can see that Brown did not openly espouse the use of force until the Fugitive Slave Law if 1850 effectively forced the entire nation under the domain of slavery. Certainly by 1859, there was no possibility of any kind of liberation—every legal and practical avenue toward peaceful resolution of the problem of slavery was gone. While the South was increasingly threatening secession, it was itself promoting the most radically violent and terroristic program in Kansas.
Finally, I respectfully disagree that the sanctity of human life always trumps every other issue. I do not understand the teaching of Jesus to advocate complete passivity in the face of wicked violence, although I believe that His followers should go the greatest length before the resort to violence. The answer is not ideal: it is not always clear what the greatest length may be, or what kind of violence is necessary. Often the resort to violence can slip into tragedy, and even good people may end up shedding blood unnecessarily in the midst of a legitimate struggle. It is interesting that Brown’s hero was Oliver Cromwell, whose legacy is forever stained by the bloody slaughter of Irish Roman Catholics at Drogheda and Wexford. Yet Brown’s case is hardly that of Cromwell. The five men killed at Pottawatomie in the Kansas territory in 1856 were collaborating with terrorists and the Browns and others had no resort to protection from the law, even as a veritable army of thugs were planning to attack Osawatomie and specifically targeted the abolitionist Browns. At Harper’s Ferry, Brown gave no order to murder people and those few killed were either shot dead in gun battle or killed by accident and/or apart from Brown’s orders amidst the attack.
Advocating for the necessary use of force and for the necessity of taking human life under certain circumstances is a difficult and often imperfect position to take. It is easy for pacifists to lampoon those who use violence because, as we acknowledge, often the efforts of even the most conscientious soldiers result in the deaths of non-combatants or slip into unforeseen, terrible outcomes.
On the other hand, the pacifist is consistently subject to the criticism that they are enslaved to a notion of peace that is not only unrealistic with respect to the human condition, but also disqualifies them from serving any real good for humanity except as Brown put it, “talk, talk, talk.” Garrison had a lot to say about the evil of slavery, but he had no plan—not even a political plan to end slavery. His solution was to destroy the constitution and “morally” persuade selfish, wicked men to give up their property, which might as well be the religion of tooth fairies and unicorns. I personally do not believe that Garrison advocated a consistently biblical view of the use of force; furthermore, people like him generally stand by while weak and oppressed people suffer without hope of relief. Pacifists never liberate people from evil forces, but rely on "violent" people to do the fighting. Pacifists are so high-minded and doctrinaire about the supposed inviolable value of every human life that they are willing to stand by and let individuals be slaughtered, raped, enslaved, and oppressed in the name of not harming a single soul! God forbid that you or I should ever find ourselves in mortal danger with only a pacifist as an ally.
The reason that Oswald Garrison Villard painted such a negative view of Brown the hero in his 1910 book was because he was not only Garrison’s grandson, but a radical pacifist. Villard himself was later criticized for having been willing to let the Nazis take over the world in the name of non-resistance. Brown and his family were quite convinced that such passivity in the face of evil was no virtue, and in the absence of any effort on the part of any anti-slavery figure of the antebellum era, he alone tried to launch a program that would use force without insurrectionary bloodletting for the liberation of enslaved people.
I think it is easy for you to sit back in the comfort of your particular situation and pin down John Brown's historical ears for having used violence. At least I hope you’re consistent in applying that presupposition to all circumstances, and I hope you would take the same position if the lives of your loved ones and community were under militant and malignant assault. I wonder whether you would reevaluate your assumption that killing bad people is unjust. Perhaps you would be true to your conviction, and allow thugs and murderers to do unspeakable evil in your presence when you have the power to resist. I hope not. I do not consider that virtue, Christian or otherwise. I consider such a response sheer folly.
I admit that taking the road to the use of force is terrible and terribly uncertain. But I believe that time and again in history, good men and women have made a difference by taking up swords and guns in the face of real threats of evil. I also believe that throughout history, the deaths of bad people or people in the service of evil systems has proven a benefit to humanity. Of course, had good people only relied on swords and guns, perhaps their actions would also amount to folly. But people like John Brown did not “live by the sword” as many assume. Brown himself believed that bearing the sword of steel was something given to him for a season and that it was also a manner of warfare inferior to the “sword of the spirit,” which he ultimately wielded with far more success. However, had he not used the sword of steel, he could not have unsheathed the sword of the spirit. Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we find ourselves entangled in conflicts that involve both, and we should worry when men and women neglect either one for the other.
When I think of John Brown, I think of a man whose extraordinary example was clearly seen and appreciated by Garrison, Quakers, and other pacifists precisely because they knew that his use of force and violence was the not the sum total of who he was or what he did in opposing slavery. It seems to me that if you are likewise a pacifist, you should explore more deeply why a whole generation of pacifists were ultimately won over by the words and character of such a “violent” man as John Brown. Were they deluded? Assuming that they were not deluded, then as a pacifist yourself, it seems to me that you have not yet grasped what they did concerning the Old Man of Harper’s Ferry. I suspect that most people are entirely clueless as to John Brown the man who lived, and that his admiring pacifist friends probably knew him better than many of us do today.