READ THIS BOOK February 2015

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our February recommendation is offered by James Hudnut-Beumler, Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History.







This Month’s Book: Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics by Ted A. Smith (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014).

When I was in my first academic position at a school of public and international affairs, I was approached by some of my program’s undergraduates who were interested in combining their interests in policy and their commitments to religion. Specifically, however, they were concerned that one of their professors was absolutely closed to any such combination or consideration and they wondered if I, a person with an academic background in the study of religion, might have more success in talking to their professor. I approached my colleague, who was of Indian and Muslim dissent and quickly learned that for him religion was the source of conflict, and not the source of the deepest values that might resolve domestic and international conflict. Given where he came from and given our recent history now nearly 30 years later with religious-tinged violent conflicts, we might be tempted to agree. Clearly, however, I’ve never forgotten the conversation or the basic problematic, and for those reasons I particularly enjoyed Emory professor Ted Smith’s new book Weird John Brown, that contests the idea that banishing the divine from our politics is any guarantee of a reduction in violence.

John Brown, the villain or hero of the 1859 assault on the armory at Harpers Ferry, has been alternately depicted as a fanatic or freedom fighter in subsequent history, which has rendered Brown in terms of the ethics in what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame” of this worldly concerns. Brown, of course, saw himself doing God’s work, setting the captives free. For Smith, this disconnection between how we do ethics in the political realm, and what Brown was up to (and maybe what God was up to) is a problem. Religious claims are seen to be the source of problems in modern thought, so we do our ethics and our politics on this side of heaven as though there is no God, or by theorizing that a secular state makes the culture safe for people to have religious lives on their own time and in their own spaces–thank you very much. The modern Western state maintains a monopoly over all forms of violence (army, police, surveillance, etc.) so that it may maintain its sovereignty. Theoretically it is doing it for the people who gave it their sovereignty is an improvement over God who gave Kings the right to rule over people, but the case of Brown and the institution of slavery (together with more proximate cases of wars and drone attacks to end terrorism and spying on citizens to secure their liberties) raise, for Smith, the troubling questions what happens when the preservation of the state becomes an end in and of itself, and what happens when the state’s rules (law) violate divine law? Smith writes: “For the rule of law to be able to contribute to the legitimacy of the political order, the law must be something other than rules made by the people who happen to have the greatest capacity for violence when the laws were made.” (55)

Smith’s book is an extended reflection on the limits of continuing to do political ethics within the framework of unchallenged state sovereignty. Christians arguing the preferabilty of deontological, virtue, or consequentialist ethics under these conditions are engaging in an argument insufficient to the scope of the problem when the state is truly corrupt from a divine point of view. Smith would prefer that we see Brown as neither freedom fighter nor fanatic, but rather as what Walter Benjamin called a Great Criminal, someone who broke a real law “do not kill” which remains valid for a purpose that we can see as part of divine violence–that is God working (in this instance)  to overturn the violent regime of state sanctioned slavery. Slavery in America was violent law. The Civil War and the continuing story of emancipation is an often violent case of the divine will being done, but as we sing at this time of year, “His truth is marching on, Glory, Hallelujah.”

Ted Smith’s book is richer in its implications for ethics, statecraft, and our moral imaginations than a short review can encompass. Nevertheless, for all of us who had begun to fear that the practice of ethics had devolved into a parlor game of about how best to defend what we human beings were determined to do anyway, Smith is to be thanked for bringing the higher law and the eschatological purposes of the divine (familiar to both Weird John Brown and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), back into the conversation of how deep religious commitments might actually temper our human politics. Whatever you think of John Brown, his words before dying 155 years ago still have the power to haunt us:

You had better–all you people of the South–prepare yourself for a settlement of this question. It must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for, and the sooner you commence that preparation, the better for you. You may dispose of me very easily–I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled–this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet. (175)

The questions morph—Do black lives matter? By what right do we kill using drones in other countries?– but the divine asker does not depart, nor does the higher law go away by refusing to acknowledge it.

James Hudnut-Beumler

February 1, 2015