Symposium Introduction

These are undoubtedly times of violence and terror. There is a war on – a war of, and a war against, terror. Violence is everywhere, it seems, and the antidote, the resistance, the countermeasures of peace, of love, of nonviolence seem to be anemic, unable to properly counter the seductive force of hate, fear, and yes, evil. The well-worn appeals to toleration, deliberation, and consensus seem to lack persuasive effect in the face of a foundational, systemic installation of inner logics that make up everything about contemporary life, that determines what bodies, what lives, what histories matter.

It is such a context that figures like John Brown, with all their eccentricity and extremity – their essential weirdness – make their way back into our figuring out of the world, our thinking about what be necessary to change our social order, to resist systemic and objective violence, and to struggle against evil. It is not immediately obvious that political theology would emerge as a central resource for this kind of thinking, and yet, perhaps political theology is helpful precisely because of its weirdness, its awkwardness, the fact that it does not fit into available coordinates. Political theology holds within itself the ostensible and palatable tensions between seemingly oppositional forces and terms: sovereignty and freedom, love and justice, religion and violence, law and the exemption, sin and grace, zealotry and practical reasoning, fanaticism and toleration. No wonder then that so many of us who work at the intersection of religion and politics, of theology and ethics, find ourselves particularly uncomfortable at cocktail parties.

In this symposium, we are graced with four thoughtful essays that provoke in the best way possible: that is, they press Smith to think and work in directions that were taken in the book, but also vectors yet unexplored. At issue in this book – and as such, is taken up in many times and in various ways in the essays – is the legacy of John Brown, both for American imagination about race and violence, but also Christian ethics. Not surprisingly, the essays all take issue –in only the best way – with the role that John Brown seems to play in the book. Learnt in the traditions of thought that surround this question, Ted Smith certainly engages these readings from history, but does so in a way that points beyond this question, asking what this question says (and what its various answers mean) about the current discussion about the relation of religion to politics and law, but also the very limits of ethics – what ethics can and cannot be. To bring John Brown into our time is to take John Brown seriously within his own context, a historical challenge that Smith reconfigures as a specific kind of theological task with moral weight. American historian James P. Byrd, writing with Alan Murphy, take this up, wondering what this task of telling theological history means for the relationship, not only between the normative commitments of theology and the empirical descriptions of history, but also the universalizable moral obligations of ethics.

Sociologist of religion Angela Cowser’s questions are more direct; they are expressed in a critical assessment of divine violence and rooted in resistance to anti-blackness.  How much we use this text, these ideas, she wonders, in seminary courses in ministry and theology in contexts of daily street violence like south Chicago? How does John Brown – much less Benjamin and Agamben – help calm these troubled waters, give voice to those very specific injustices and their systemic conditions of possibility?

Mark Douglas goes straight into the question of violence, asking just what is violent about divine violence, especially if it is, as Benjamin notes and Smith repeats, a “bloodless” disavowal of the sovereign claims of present social orders that render them illegitimate and unintelligible, thus creating space of the glimpses of an untold and unknown potencies. The violence of divine violence is not, as Slavoj Zizek has claimed, the chaotic force of Jacobin revolutionary terror; rather it is the clearing of the way for the return of practical reasoning to a political scene of address that has long been overtaken by the mythos of “bloody, earthly violence.” Whether this clearing generates an openness to ethics or as its limit.

And so, we must return to the theological questions at hand, specifically the development of Smith’s constructive position as a “negative political theology.” What does this mean? What can be said about God and about human persons in such a time of terrorizing violence? Christian Collins Winn presses Smith to explain more thoroughly the doctrinal implications of his theological history, particularly the impact that Smith’s critical use of Theodor Adorno’s ‘determinate negation’ has on his understanding of Christological and eschatological vectors in Weird John Brown. Smith defends this position by articulating along the way a theology of limit that speaks of ethical reasoning as that which exceeds the immanent frame and yet is paradoxically limited by it.

Mark Douglas


Challenging Titles: Reflections on Ted Smith’s Weird John Brown

The pattern emerges: Take a prominent (though not A-list) figure from mid-nineteenth-century US history. Explore that figure’s place in history through analysis of a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. Reveal how understanding that figure in that time helps us make sense not only of our own place in our time but of how we got from then to now, giving special attention to significant social, political, legal, and economic systems and transformations. Provide an ethically sophisticated, theologically attuned, and self-consciously reflexive set of interpretive lenses through which to interpret huge ideas like “time” and “violence.” Offer a chastened vision of hope (or, perhaps, a vision of chastened hope?) for Christians and others living in the West in the twenty-first century. Cite Walter Benjamin when possible.

In The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice, Ted did this with Charles Grandison Finney and helped us discover the sources of our contemporary Western, democratic, Christian selves. Now, in Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, he’s done the same with the abolitionist John Brown. And here’s the first trick: in spite of the pattern, they’re very different books. Where the former reminds us of the types of practices necessary to sustain faith and shape citizenship under conditions of eschatological memory, the latter confronts us with the very practices we participate in that we would most like to ignore or deny and thereby highlights just how far we have to go in even understanding faith and citizenship, let alone living into them. The former ends with a call to let our politics be leavened with lightheartedness; the latter with the call to do politics under the sign of judgment revealed in Brown’s death. The cover of The New Measures pictures a camp meeting and revival; the cover of Weird John Brown a painting of John Brown on his way to the gallows. New life and old death.

Here’s the second trick: to pull off using this pattern, one needs to be a first-rate American historian, a sophisticated and wide-read social and political theorist, a theological ethicist par excellence, (probably) a practicing Christian, and a damned fine writer—and to have read and understood The Arcades Project and Illuminations at least. Very few people—at least that I know or know of—have all those qualifications in place and can use the pattern. Really just Ted. My wish that I did is matched by my curiosity about what Ted talks about when he teaches preaching—which is, after all, a considerable part of his day job. I’ve told others what I’ll now tell him: it’s a good thing that Ted is a good friend, a generous conversation partner, and a really decent guy, or he’d really piss me off, as he does everything I do (better than I do) and some things I don’t on top of that. Ted’s range and depth, so clearly revealed in Weird John Brown, makes offering substantive reflections on the book—a book that has been described by a number of very smart people at different times but within my hearing as a “game-changer”—intimidating. Still, where angels fear to tread . . .

All I want to do here is offer three challenges to the book’s title: a challenge to “Divine Violence,” a challenge to “the Limits of Ethics” and a challenge to “Weird John Brown.” I would hasten to add that I intend these challenges neither to be snarky (certainly, a risk when taking such an approach) nor cliché (the fear of academics everywhere). Instead, I offer the challenges as ways of getting to the heart of Ted’s arguments rather than dancing around their margins. Hopefully, such an approach not only accurately names Ted’s arguments but, in its own way, advances them.

First, a challenge to “Divine Violence.” Ted’s basic argument runs thus: the sovereign (modern) state was established as a rejection of religiously-motivated violence which was, itself, mimetically dependent on theological visions of divine violence. To effect this rejection, twin narratives had to become compelling. First, the state, through its monopoly on violence, could restrict violent actions to those that reasonable persons would pursue for the benefit of social stability and advancement. And, second, that reasonable persons can work out of an ethic that is immanently framed, not only obviating any need to justify actions on theological grounds but establishing a system of law that is a sufficient basis for social stability and advancement. The problem, as Carl Schmitt, saw, is that the modern state relies on tacitly theological arguments to address those limit-occasions in which its own sovereignty is threatened. (One wonders that Ted didn’t take up Karl Barth and his use of grenzefall cases as a conversation partner here—though even Ted can only do so much in a single book.) In such limit-occasions, there aren’t really any rules because rule-making is a reason-based and immanent project. Thus, at such times, the state must be willing to play God (or at least impersonate a particular vision of an almighty, unbounded, and occasionally wrathful deity) and allow its own unique access to violence to trump and/or complete the law as a way of ensuring justice. Walter Benjamin saw the problems of such an approach and offers us a way out by replacing the state’s myth of violence with a story of divine violence based not in the full-grown obligation(s) of history but the incompleted indicative of a messianic age perpetrated not on bodies but systems of relationship. That is, divine violence functions as the negation of the state’s myth of violence, thereby shaping a new relationship to law—and, therein, to pardon and sacrifice. And while John Brown didn’t get it right when he murdered people in Kansas or seized Harper’s Ferry, his actions help us see the space between the state’s mythic violence and Benjamin’s divine violence.

So: Schmitt vs. Benjamin. Mythic violence upon which the modern state and its laws are founded vs. divine violence which reveals the gap between the law and the state and undermines claims about the supra-legal necessity of violence by the state. History lumbering toward eternity vs. a perpetually inbreaking messianic age that both negates and completes history. I think I get the contrasts.

I worry, though, that on both sides of the contrast violence remains a cipher. Benjamin is right to highlight the aporia of using violence to eliminate violence—and, implicitly, condemning all the common and misdirected advocacy of, e.g., just war thinking and capital punishment when they grow out of mythic violence. Ted’s use of Benjamin highlights not only the conceptual failings of mythic violence but funds opposition to violence. Mythic violence certainly needs negating, and Benjamin/Ted’s ideas about divine violence do that. But isn’t there an aporia in Benjamin as well? Benjamin, via Ted, describes divine violence as both negation (“The task . . . is rather to see divine violence—the moment when the fabric of the polity is torn open, when goods, processes, and institutions of a juridical order are revealed to be finite—in the negation at work in every moment. And it is to see this negation, this secularization of the political, as participating, indirectly, in the work of redemption” [81].) and in peculiarly positive ways (“Because Benjamin’s divine violence does not destroy or even suspend law, it does not remove the law as a resource for political reasoning . . . [it] therefore frees people for a new relationship with the law, one that combines freedom and fidelity” in which “nihilism is not itself ultimate [but] operates within a larger eschatology in which the pursuit of mortal happiness, precisely because it is fleeting, plays its part in the work of redemption” [82].). But by the time I’m done with that last quote, I wonder, “Where is the ‘violence’ of divine violence?” I suppose I can see a kind of violence in negation and a kind of negation of negation in the positive moment (and, therefore, distributively, a kind of constructive violence in that positive moment), but by then, I’m wondering what the term means. In a lovely criticism of just war thinking, Ted reveals the flaws of the tradition when it is built on mythic violence (160–63). Until he lays out an equivalent criticism of pacifism, though, I’m not sure where violence continues to play a role in divine violence.

After all, one of the reasons that mythic violence functions is that, as process, it actually achieves certain goods. Its coercive power can shape order out of chaos, enforce justice in the face of injustice, and even clear space for the disciplines of love in apathetic and misanthropic times. It does all these things imperfectly, certainly, and, in those imperfections, it always is judged. But can such judgment simply be an expression of negation? Wouldn’t those goods be negated as well? Instead, isn’t the judgment an expression of both the need for and possibility of violence’s transformation (instead of its negation, alone)? Why shouldn’t we hope after an uncorrupted violence much as we hope (eschatologically, of course) after a better order, a greater justice, and a more perfect love? Or, to say that all differently, why think of divine violence as the negation of mythic violence rather than its transformation? Ted would probably have to surrender a bit of Benjamin to do so, but I don’t think that would hurt too much.

There are obvious conceptual and practical problems with thinking in terms of transformed violence. What could transformed violence look like? How does violence exist in the kingdom of God? This side of that kingdom’s consummation, how can we create space for imagining transformed violence without sliding back into mythic violence? And, above all, what will we do with a violent God (or, perhaps more troublingly, what will a perfectly violent God do with us)? But those problems would seem to exist in Ted/Benjamin’s notion of divine violence as well. After all, in the rich contrast between Romulus and Cain (136ff.), violence remains. And it seems to me that “transformation” language leans toward a more emaciated and fundamentally incomplete dualism than negation language (even including “negation of negation” language) does. The nuances of transformation, after all, seem more Pauline than those of negation.

But now I’m into my second challenge: that to “the Limits of Ethics.” There is vagueness in the phrase that I’m glad for but that makes me wonder about intentionality. “Limits” is plural. The subtitle could be “Divine Violence and the Limit of Ethics,” which would be both aesthetically less pleasing and imply a set of ideas foreign to the book. But by using the plural, the subtitle at least hints at two (or more) kinds of limit. One of them—call it Limit1—has to do with the failings of any ethic that functions wholly within an immanent frame of reference. And Ted certainly wants to highlight such failings (he’s a great reader of Charles Taylor in this). But, following Taylor, we might recognize that such a frame of reference is symptomatic of the secular age in which most of us in the West live and, therein, also recognize that not everyone has lived in (or currently lives in) such an age. There were ethics before there was modernity and one doesn’t need Kant to have a vision of obligation any more than one needs Mill to do ends-oriented reasoning (or Hegel to attend to history).

Yet the turn to divine violence signals something bigger than a critique of modernity. It points toward a profoundly existential question that redounds throughout the ages: How can mortals begin to understand, let alone assess, the mighty and peculiar acts of God? Job is as much a book about the limits of ethics as Weird John Brown is, after all—and they are definitely different kinds of books. The distinctive eschatological vision that frames Ted’s description of politics is a vision that will escape the constraints of any particular age. And in that vision, ethics will always face limits because we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but not the tree of life. Call this Limit2.

So what is the relationship between Limit1 and Limit2? I’m not sure this is clear in the book. On the one hand, most of the particular concerns of the book—about the modern state, about that state’s use of law, and about race 1—are concerns about ethics and Limit1. On the other hand, Ted’s exploration of the higher law, and of pardon and eschatology, theologically considered, move well past problems with Limit1. Sometimes—as in Ted’s reading of Geuss (158–60), it seems like Ted would be content to criticize a wholly immanent ethics, albeit from within a social imaginary that has been immanentized. Other times—as in Ted’s description of “A Politics of the Open Wound” (153–55)—Ted wants to do more: to suggest a way of existing in the world that is always necessarily open and in which God works in and beyond ethics. Sometimes, Ted uses Limit2 to point to the failings of Limit1. Other times, Limit1 just sounds like the latest expression of Limit2. The vagueness of the relationship between the two kinds of limits, though, leaves me feeling a bit vertiginous—as if trying to teach ethics under conditions of both limits didn’t do so already.

I don’t know that this question about the relationship between the limits of ethics actually needs to be settled just now. But if Ted continues to explore the limits of ethics in arenas beyond those having to do with violence (as he has suggested to me that he might do), I do hope he’ll help us work through some of these relations more systematically.

The reason I don’t think the question needs to be settled just now is that I’m much more interested in what Ted does do in the book, which is use John Brown as a means to make sense of the senselessness of (or pursue coherence in the face of the incoherence of) violence in modern society. Which takes me to my third challenge.

Weird John Brown. Ted begins the book telling us that the adjective comes from Herman Melville’s poem “The Portent” and that he (and Melville) mean “weird” in the same way that the three sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are weird: otherworldly, portent-laden, peculiarly powerful creatures, our understandings of whom never quite get settled because they don’t fit our settled categories. Don’t lose the paradox here: Ted starts the book saying that John Brown is a sign we can’t really interpret and then spends good portions of the book interpreting Brown, frequently by addressing bad interpretations of Brown. Accepting neither the “freedom fighter” nor “fanatic” narratives usually used to describe Brown, Ted ultimately reveals Brown as a God-fearing, Bible-quoting, oddly charismatic but unsuccessful businessman whose concerns about the status of dark-skinned persons in the United States drove him to zealous and violent actions that failed to achieve the goals he pursued but who, almost in spite of himself, ignited revolutionary social change.

Well . . . that sounds pretty human to me. For that matter, it sounds almost stereotypically American. Religious in a way unlike most persons in comparable (i.e., non-American) Western societies? Check. Faith shaped by an academically unsophisticated but socially significant way of reading Scripture? Check. Charisma-driven leadership that trumps careful business practices and conventional wisdom? Check. Struggling to make sense of / deal with race? Check. Prefers revolutionary change to gradual reform and willing to use violence toward achieving those changes? Double-check. Effected social transformation, but in ways he didn’t anticipate? Check. Ted gives us a Brown that isn’t weird so much as paradigmatic.

Of course, the reason Ted does so is that Brown’s very paradigmatic-ness reveals just how weird American society was (and is). The paradoxes Ted points toward aren’t really paradoxes in Brown or in tales about Brown; they’re paradoxes in American society. We’re captured by immanent frames of reference (revealing just how modern we’ve been since our founding) while continually celebrating a kind of exceptionalism that says, “We refuse to be captured by anything—especially history.” We reject any polity that gives too much power to the state while acceding to a myth of violence (or, perhaps, myths of violence) that are premised on the state’s monopoly on violence. We celebrate freedom and good-heartedness while being peculiarly and troublingly punitive and ungracious. We white folk spend enormous amounts of psychic and social energy explaining why we’re not racist while perpetuating racist structures that benefit us and so must go unnamed. Or, to say all that differently, we’re otherworldly because we refuse to accept the natural limits of the world even as our refusal tightens the unnatural constraints of immanent frames of reference around us, we’re portent-laden because we vigorously reject the interpretations of ourselves that make the most sense, and we’re peculiarly powerful precisely because we’re so vigorous in rejecting those interpretations even as we throw an enormous amount of political, military, economic, and racist weight around. Or, differently still, we can see John Brown as weird only because he’s holding a mirror.

I’m writing this reflection still feeling haunted by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, having read that book earlier this year. The argument Alexander makes there—that race has played a central and determinate role in shaping a penal culture so enormously misshapen as to make the United States an international embarrassment and induce even prominent members of the “law and order” party, the GOP, to call for its transformation—reveals just how good we are at concealing the obvious from ourselves in order to maintain our manifold prejudices, many of which are funded by the very unnamed theological convictions Ted draws out in the latter chapters of his book. The two books are provocatively contrapuntal. Alexander, for instance, seems quite convicted by the very understanding of pardon-as-justice that Ted undermines. And Ted’s insistence on incompleteness (including the incompleteness of narratives about living in incomplete times such as those advanced by just warriors and pacifists) are probably not likely to be especially interesting to Alexander. Whatever their differences, though, both books touch on a common if discordant melody: we are a weird society.2

More troublingly, I’m writing just days after the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white man who believed deeply in portents, was preoccupied by race, and was willing to use violence to start a war. I note this not to draw lazy analogies between John Brown and Dylann Roof; the disanalogies are far more significant. After reading Weird John Brown, though, it is hard to ignore the failings of the rhetoric that have followed from the shootings or to link those failings to society’s weirdness. Commentators are busy expressing outrage and righteous confusion at Roof’s actions (replacing, perhaps, “fanatic or freedom fighter” with “evil or mentally ill,” but still with the purpose of distancing Roof from their society). They’re offering subtly—and sometimes not so subtle—racist expressions of condolence and identification with the victims (as if it took nine black murder victims to understand that the confederate flag is offensive or as if finally paying attention to that particular symbol can substitute for the myriad ways that racism pervades penal, educational, economic, and political culture in nonsymbolic ways). They’re gawking at these few Christians at Emanuel AME Church and their capacities for forgiveness and love in the face of outrageous acts (as if forgiveness and love aren’t commanded of all Christians as a way of structuring an ethic big enough to at least begin to address systems of violence). We throw away the thesaurus and then go searching for synonyms.

Instead, then, I bring up Charleston and note my location in time and space in order to highlight just how necessary books like Weird John Brown are. Until we can learn to name the forces at work that make American society weird, we are caught in the cycles of inexplicable violence, racist rhetoric, and disingenuous ethics that characterize the modern state. Ted’s book helps us in that naming. That, in itself, makes it a game-changer.

  1. Points that Willie James Jennings makes clear in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

  2. My wife, a Presbyterian minister, recently observed that throughout its history, the Christian church has noticed inadequate and misshapen social institutions and decided to do better. It then founded schools and hospitals and shelters and humanitarian organizations around the world. “Why,” she wondered, “isn’t the church looking at our penal system and thinking, ‘We can do better’ and then starting prisons that are shaped by our best theological visions of penalty, justice, redemption, and reconciliation?” I wonder how Ted and Michelle Alexander might answer her.

  • Ted Smith

    Ted Smith


    Response to Mark Douglas

    I am flattered by the kind words in Mark Douglas’s essay. Even more, I am honored by the care he has taken in reading my work and the generous intelligence he has brought to it. The connections he makes and the contrasts he draws between The New Measures and Weird John Brown help me understand both books better. They are, as he sees, two sides of the same coin. Because the Reign of God is at hand, we do politics under a sign of judgment. And because the Reign of God is at hand, we can pursue politics with a lightheartedness that is very rare these days. Both the sign of judgment and the leaven of lightheartedness depend on the fact that it is not all up to us. And they are compatible because love—a searing, wondrous love—is the substance of the judgment of God.

    (I would take parenthetical exception to a small point in Douglas’s very kind opening paragraphs. He describes my modus operandi as focusing on “prominent [thought not A-list]” figures in nineteenth-century US history. If Charles Finney and John Brown are not A-listers, I want to argue that they should be. One of the ways I thought about The New Measures, for instance, was in explicit conversation with Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition. Stout traces a democratic tradition through figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and John Dewey. I would not quarrel with any one of their places on an A-list. But I do want to insist that Finney should join them. Writing Finney in to that tradition does not strain the facts: if Finney has never been as influential in elite circles as Emerson, he reached at least as many people during his lifetime, and his impact since his death has been steady and significant across a wide swath of movements, including abolitionist, temperance, social gospel, evangelical, Pentecostal, holiness, and more. Introducing Finney to the A-list of democratic tradition opens that tradition to a much more richly plural set of religious visions. Even more, because I portray Finney with such ambivalence—for he both popularizes and co-opts the great democratic energies of revival—including Finney in a narrative of American democratic tradition disrupts any possibility of seeing that narrative as a story of progress. It demands instead a narrative that traces the ways democracy in the United States has tied itself in knots. Including Finney in the tradition of democracy therefore does more both to include the kinds of Christianity practiced by many Americans and more to stress ironic outcomes that reveal the tradition to be yearning for more than it can actually deliver. And if these things are true of Charles Finney, they are all the more true of John Brown.)

    In and beyond parentheses, Douglas offers a clear and gracious summary of the core arguments of Weird John Brown. He then raises important questions about divine violence, the limits of ethics, and whether Brown was really so weird. I will try to respond to each set of questions in turn. I give the bulk of my words to the first set of questions—about divine violence—because I think Douglas has given me the most to do on this point.

    In this first set of questions Douglas traces my elaborations of Benjamin and then asks where the “violence” is in my understanding of “divine violence.” I should have been clearer on this point, in part because I come to an understanding of the term that is different from those that are usually in circulation. By “divine violence” I mean the destruction of the legitimacy of some social order. I mean the revelation that comes when accepted notions of right and wrong come to look like power plays, when established authorities look like thugs who happened to win a contest for control, when a whole social order is revealed to be built on a foundation of broken bodies. I believe that such divine violence happens because the Reign of God has drawn near enough that we can see a counterfeit for what it is. It is like the fire that consumes the altars to Baal in Elijah’s showdown with the court prophets. Something like this happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965. The violence of law enforcement officers became visible for what it was, their own truncheons cracking the façade of their legitimate authority. And, I think, something like this happened in the fall of 1859—not so much in the raid on the Ferry as in the courtroom and then the gallows in Charlestown.

    Divine violence that destroys legitimacy often brings down a social order with remarkable speed. But this does not always happen. The current ability of the Asad regime to stagger along, long past any semblance of legitimacy, is just one sad example. But divine violence at least reveals the powers for what they are. When the Reign of God draws near, the demons can be named as such. They cannot survive this naming. But they do not always immediately disappear. As in classic Christian eschatologies, the powers of sin and death are decisively broken even as they linger on. Thus we experience history as hardship. And because we cling to different fragments of these powers so tightly that we do not know ourselves apart from them, the endurance of this age is also a mercy, for it gives creation the grace of time to turn. This is history as meantime, history in the wake of divine violence.

    But Douglas’s question endures: just where is the violence? Divine violence that destroys the appearance of legitimacy does in fact destroy something real. It is fitting to call it violence. But such violence is, as Benjamin wrote, “bloodless.” Legitimacy does not bleed. But, as the examples above suggest, divine violence is often accompanied by earthly violence that is very bloody indeed. Sometimes—as at Selma, or Golgotha—it is in bloody, earthly violence that we finally see the divine violence that has been at work all along. And very often the destruction of legitimacy brings with it spasms of bloody, earthly violence as an old order strains to survive by filling with force the vacuum created by lost authority and new parties take up arms in hopes of establishing an order they can call their own. But such bloody violence is extrinsic to what I mean by divine violence. Bloody violence that precedes or follows divine violence is related to it only contingently. It is not integral to the substance of the coming of the Reign of God.

    This way of seeing history does much to undercut the justifications that are usually put forward for bloody, earthly violence. It refuses to take for granted the legitimacy of established powers. In our age, especially, it undermines the state’s claim to necessity and to godlike sovereignty. It unravels the binding force of the “should” of ethical reasoning that concludes for violent action, for it insists on freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. And perhaps most of all, it delivers us from the bloody despair that comes when we assume that the work of saving the world depends entirely on our own efforts. As Douglas notes, I bundle these arguments together into a critique of just war principles.

    Douglas helps me see that I should have offered a parallel critique of pacifism. Because divine violence shatters the absolute claims of social orders, it undercuts the promise of purity offered by a principled pacifism. By “principled pacifism” I mean the kind of pacifism that comes from obedience to a code of ethics that prohibits violence. As I argue in the book, the fulfillment of the law in Jesus does not bring with it some new and improved version of Roman Law. Fulfillment is not about different content for the law so much as a different relationship to the law. And so the arguments that I make in the book against what Charles Taylor calls “code fetishism” and “excarnate” law would apply to pacifist codes of ethics that have been wrenched from wider visions of history. Thus many of the arguments I make against just war ethics can be transposed to a principled pacifism, for a pacifist code, like a just war code, is constructed by abstracting norms from lived history and so obscuring the collusion of those norms with the violent powers that have shaped that history. I do not mean to give shelter, for instance, to armchair pacifists whose confidence in the cleanliness of their own hands forgets the rings of systemic violence that make their choice cost so little.

    Divine violence negates the pretensions of codes of every kind. But it does not undercut practical reasoning. Instead it restores the law as resource for practical reasoning. It recreates the conditions of politics. Practical, political deliberation in the wake of divine violence might arrive at many different kinds of conclusions. If I think that divine violence undoes most of the forces that would push us to bloody, earthly violence, I do not think that such bloody violence is ruled out in advance. Whatever justification it might have, though, would lack the mythical force that we too often give the conclusions of the “should’s” that conclude our ethical syllogisms. Divine violence instead opens up a space in which we are responsible for choices that we make about how to respond to God’s redeeming presence in our midst. We might see the real but temporal goods that Douglas argues earthly violence can achieve. And we might decide to act for those goods. But our earthly violence would not be “transformed,” in Douglas’s sense, by the achievement of real but temporal goods. The good is not a step along the way to the holy.

    With that said, though, I do not mean to say that the redeeming work of God has no connection to the age in which we live. But that connection is not forged when we make little steps of progress toward outcomes that can be judged good within an immanent frame (as important as those steps might be). The connection is rather created by the negation that makes a new start possible. It is in the Reign of God that draws near, breaks the power of sin and death, renews the possibility of freedom, and so abides in the more and less faithful works that grow out of that freedom. These works do not make progress toward a Reign of God that is not yet present. They do not repeat a Reign of God that has already been consummated. They rather respond to the divine violence of a Reign of God that has broken into history. They live out of the freedom that inbreaking creates and by the hope that it will be fulfilled.

    Douglas’s second line of argument distinguishes two senses of the “limits of ethics” at work in the book and asks about the relation between them. As I read him, what Douglas calls Limit1 names “the failings of any ethic that functions wholly within an immanent frame of reference.” Limit2, on the other hand, points to the gap between the ways of humans and the ways of God. Whatever God is doing, Limit2 recognizes, it does not fit easily with our sense of right and wrong. I think that what Douglas calls Limit2 is the deeper and more basic limit. It creates, just as Douglas says, a perennial question. What, then, is Limit1? It is the particular way that our age has devised to dissolve this question. We dissolve it when we identify God with what we take to be the good. A relation of identity can be accomplished by dressing up what we take to be good in such finery that it becomes a god, or like a god, or the thing that promises to save us so completely that we do not need a god. A relation of identity can also be accomplished by pulling down our understandings of God so that they fit within our understandings of what is good for us. Both strategies are widespread today. Examples abound both within and beyond the borders of what we usually think of as religious institutions.

    Douglas’s third point—about John Brown as both weird and typical—seems just right to me. I enjoy and admire the riffs he develops on John Brown as a mirror to Weird America. My hope in the book is to do something like that. I want to break Brown out of “ethicalist” and statist narratives that frame him as freedom fighter or fanatic. With those frames stripped away, I hope he can regain his status as a weird sign of both the judgment pronounced on the people of this nation and the responses that freedom demands of us. Under that judgment, and out of that freedom, we have a chance to work together to address the systemic, racialized violence that continues to breathe death into every part of our life together. I’d hope to be as deeply committed to resisting that power in our time as John Brown was in his. Because it is not all up to us.

    • Mark Douglas

      Mark Douglas


      Finding the Kingdom in a Conversation

      A Reply to a Response

      Ted’s response to my review of Weird John Brown focuses on my first question to him–about the “violence” in divine violence–for good reason:  it is not only one of the most subtle aspects of his thought but also one of the most important for all of us to address.  It pushes us all to try to make (limited) sense of and live into the paradox of a Reign of God which is both infinitely distant from our current power structures (and so an expression of judgment on all of them) and yet also infinitely close to us (and so an expression of a “searing, wondrous” divine love).  I take relief not only in the fact that our labors to make sense of this reveal that making sense of it is not all up to us but also that others have been doing so for centuries and have taught us both in their successes and failures (what else would we call Augustine’s City of God  after all?).  I, too, want to focus on this first question and Ted’s response to it by raising a few worries I have that are not so much about what Ted says or thinks but about some things that continue to preoccupy me as I try to make sense of this paradox.

      My first worry has to do with just how crafty those who produce the counterfeits to the Kingdom of God are.  These persons and groups are perfectly good at clothing themselves in condemnations of “the system” as biased, of “justice” as reducible to expressions of power, of “social stability” as a rigged game, and as “revolution” as the means for transformation.  That is, those who produce counterfeits to the Kingdom can play the game of exposing hypocrisy and lies as well as anyone.  

      So, for instance, the political campaigns we’ve seen over the past months (and will see a good bit more of in those to come) have traded on the production of such language:  just listen to how much of the Tea Party on the right and the Berners on the left use such language.  Whether they really believe what they say (most, it seems, do) or can give reasons for what they say beyond using language provided for them by those with particular interests in stoking unrest for their own benefits (reflexivity being in rather short supply among revolutionaries) is almost immaterial:  being an outsider is the way to be an insider.  D.C., they remind us, is rigged.  The paranoid style in American politics is currently expressed as a kind of populist rage, but it’s still paranoid, it’s still driven by suspicions about systems, and it’s still used to manipulate and coerce.

      Perhaps this is another aspect of the “weirdness” at the center of Ted’s book:  that part of American weirdness is the way that counterfeits of the Kingdom trade on the currencies of the fake and the authentic, the co-opted and the excluded, the false consciousness and the avant garde.  Everyone is Holden Caulfield.  Maybe we’re even more troublingly weird than Ted (or I) fear.    

      My second worry has to do with what happens when those in the business of promoting the reign of God inevitably manufacture our own counterfeits.  So, to take an example which is perhaps more troubling for those of us in the “Christian ethics” guild than outside it, a cottage industry has sprung up over the past few decades that is built around naming/engaging/unmasking the “powers and principalities” of Ephesians 6.  Through such an approach, we are encouraged to set up or live in an alternative polis, to focus our actions on resistance, and to be rather than have a social ethic.  Setting aside the fact that such an approach seems to be a pretty successful way to sell books and get invited to give lectures, the softly Manichean vision of the world that such an approach reinforces sometimes hardly seem to be a better approximation of the Kingdom of God than any of the other systems that it so heartily condemns.

      This is not to say that we can’t or ought not learn from the Stringfellow/Wink/Hauerwas vision:  such scholars have proven to be quite helpful–at least in mainline U.S. seminaries–in helping students begin to name the systemic qualities of sin as those qualities manifest themselves in the various violences of racism, classism, sexism, etc.  But in my observations of teaching Christian ethics for the past few decades, it’s a short step from coming to recognize systemic sin in the world to becoming a revolutionary for righteousness–as if anyone of us gets to claim that we act on the side of the angels and against an encroaching external darkness.

      My third worry has to do with how we attend to the vagaries of history without losing sight of a God who is Emmanuel.  So, to take yet a third example that goes more to the heart of the very vital questions about race and violence that Ted is helping us address, what are we to do when we’re not faced with the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 but with the violence perpetrated by Albany, GA, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett against the Albany Movement in 1961?  Pritchett read the civil rights playbook and, recognizing its power, responded to nonviolence with nonviolence:  Jail protesters, but don’t beat them.  Ship them to jails throughout the area so they couldn’t organize and the public wouldn’t see jails overcrowded with black youth.  Bend so as not to break.  

      To be clear:  I’m not arguing that the Albany Movement wasn’t successful.  It was, not only in the lessons it taught to Civil Rights leaders, but in building momentum for the movement and in actually bringing about some changes in Albany.  Instead, I’m wondering how to make discriminate and pragmatic evaluations about the varied ways violence expresses itself when divine violence judges them all.  Revealing the falseness and illegitimately claimed expressions of righteousness behind current systems of law and justice and their varied justifications for violence is important, but what do we do about them when we ought to do something even as it’s not all up to us?

      Maybe what I’m looking for is for Ted to do my own work for me since (as he’s aware) I’m currently at work on a big project about pacifist, just war, and just peacemaking thinking as we confront conflicts that are being (and will be) shaped by climate change.  And I should note that his comments on principled pacifism are reassuring to me as I’m in the midst of making quite similar arguments and while I could still be wrong, I’ll be wrong in excellent company.  I would also note that Ted does provide vital diagnostic tools even though I wish for more discriminant (and immanent) resources for judging between actions that are both judged by and leavened by the reign of God.  That is, Ted helps me in offering a better sense of the weight of such judgments and motives that can drive them, but would some (loosely held) principles be too much to ask?         

      Or maybe what I’m looking for is a vision of divine violence, an eschatological violence, that reveals that there are no other powers.  That, ultimately, the only real power is the power of God precisely because the powers of sin and death have already been decisively broken.  That the battles we continue to fight (yes: the martial verb is intentional) are against illusions that we cannot help but create rather than forces aligned against us by dark powers.  That all that actually is left is transformation–a transformation that we cannot bring about but also that we are freed from the need to bring about because, as Ted notes, “it is not all up to us.”  And such a transformation may feel like a kind of violence since we’re so committed to our illusions, but is better understood as a kind of liberation or, perhaps better still, a kind of healing rather than a kind of violence.  Yes:  I recognize that such a vision comes off as naive, as an expression of a lack of attention to my own power and place in systems of injustice, and as troublingly Platonic.  But under the sign of judgment that is the Reign of God, how is this worse than other blinkered visions?                     

      And maybe the tension between those last two paragraphs reveals my own failures as I look for a vision of divine violence that simultaneously does more work than I should ask of it and reveals that I want it not to have to do any more work at all.  Or maybe it reveals how far I still am from understanding Ted.  But I don’t think so.  Nor, I think, does Ted, since what I’m looking for is a way of seeing every counterfeit to or approximation of the reign of God as a small gateway through which the Messiah enters.  Hopefully, Ted won’t see my turning Benjamin’s statement of potential into an actual as too much of a violation of his thought.  The differences between Benjamin’s potential and my actual are, I think, due more to the fact that Benjamin and I have obviously different theological starting points (as I think the Messiah has actually come already and will return)–and I would like to think that Ted and I are fairly close theologically on that point, at least.  

      To be clear, then: I am not saying that D.C. isn’t rigged.  It is.  I am, though, wondering how D.C. is also a place where eternity peeks through.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t experience history as hardship.  We should.  It seems to me, though, that history also always offers resources for hope because if eternity means anything, it means that history can’t be separated from it.  And, perhaps contra Ted, I am saying that the fulfillment of the law in Jesus is exactly a “new and improved version of Roman law”–but only in the same sense that the fulfillment of the law in Jesus brings with it a new and improved version all law, provided we read “new and improved” in eschatological rather than immanent terms.  Pursuing such a way of thinking may allow us to hold politics, history, and the law all more loosely (which is one way of having a different relationship with them) without getting lost in their infinite distance from an infinitely close reign of God.  

      Maybe, then, there is another kind of weirdness that Ted hints at in Weird John Brown (and I’m just now coming to see in his work):  the weirdness of a life lived vertiginously between “the already” and “the not yet.”  This is not the weirdness of portents so much as providence; not so much the weirdness of sanctioned violence as of sacred vision; not so much the weirdness of divine distance as of our own eccentric existence; not so much the weirdness of excarnate law as of an incarnate Lord.  Such weirdness is worth pursuing with levity in spite of the fact that (and maybe even because) it reveals the judgment of a love that has pursued us.

    • Ted Smith

      Ted Smith


      On weirdness, redemption, and ethical criteria

      I think Mark Douglas is right to point to the ways that many groups today are seeking legitimation by presenting themselves as “outsiders” or “counter-cultural.” This kind of claim promises not only the allure of cool, but also a kind of purity, for it shields the person who makes it from responsibility for the way things are. As The Baffler has been pointing out for more than two decades, the claim to be a radical outsider can be fully integrated into conventional economic and political structures. This kind of appeal, in its form, is not counter-cultural at all. On the contrary, it is one of the signature tropes of our time.
      In saying this, I don’t mean to deny that many people are pushed to and beyond the margins of American society. Whether sitting in a supermax prison or living without papers that prove citizenship or just selling CD’s in a parking lot, there are millions of people who are “outsiders” to present constellations of power. There are powerful processes that push people to a status where they are not recognized as persons. I want to resist those processes, not deny that they exist. What I want to critique is the dynamic Mark names: claiming outsider status as a source of legitimation. There are few things less weird than a “Keep Austin Weird” bumper sticker. On this I think Mark and I are in full agreement.


      Weirdness, in the sense that I mean to use the word, has less to do with how far one is from some presumed dominant culture and more to do with how near one is to the Reign of God. I mean it to describe those moments and lives in which the Reign of God becomes more visible to more of us. I have in mind lives like those of Shields Green and John Brown, moments like Bloody Sunday on Edmund Pettus Bridge. Mark asks if the Reign of God did not also draw near in Albany, Georgia in 1961, when a savvy sheriff helped a racist social system hold on longer to a fig leaf of legitimacy. I’d argue that the Reign of God is always at hand – even in Albany – and so that divine violence in the sense that I describe it is always at work. Those with eyes to see can see this process much of the time. Most of us, though, see it only in flashes. And even those flashes are not legible to all. George Wallace did not see the destruction of the legitimacy of the social order over which he presided that Sunday, just as Caesar did not see it that Friday.

      If divine violence is always at work, isn’t it fair, as Mark asks, to assume that some kind of redemption is always at work, too? After all, the Reign of God brings both, and both at once. I trust that is true.  I trust that God works for the redemption of all creation in and in spite of historical realities. I’m more explicit about a hope that “eternity peeks through” history, to borrow Mark’s words, in the last move of each chapter of The New Measures. Weird John Brown does more to accentuate the negative, the “in spite of” in this slogan. But I’m convinced that these are two perspectives on the same act. Judgment and redemption are two ways of describing the love of God for the world.

      Mark then makes the reasonable request for some criteria that could aid our discernment of these processes. “Ted helps me in offering a better sense of the weight of such judgments and motives that can drive them,” he writes, “but would some (loosely held) principles be too much to ask?”

      I’m glad that the book offers a revised sense of the status of our ethical judgments and the kinds of motives that might infuse them. Those are some of my primary intentions. One reason I did not offer principles is that I did not want to undercut those moves. I worry that principles can be strip-mined from a form of life and turned into code. This is exactly the dynamic I want to resist. I hope it is not too perverse to be pleased that a reader as sharp-eyed as Mark would finish the book with this question.
      I mean the book to be a kind of prolegomena to ethics and politics, a work that – as Mark writes – gives a sense of the “weight” that our ethical and political judgments should have and the “motives that can drive them.” I mean the book to describe the ways God makes politics – real politics – possible, even in a fallen world. Divine violence is not the end of politics, but the beginning.


      That’s really where the book leaves off. But of course naming the beginning in this way has implications for a politics that would follow. I want to argue that our politics should take seriously the determinate quality of the negation that makes our politics possible. To say that the Reign of God is present to every moment in history is not to make an abstract claim, for even the sum total of every moment in history is still a particular sum. Besides, we live our lives in very particular ages, in very particular places, in the wake of very particular negations. In Weird John Brown I’m trying to argue for a vision of politics in the United States today that takes its starting-point in God’s “no” to slavery and its many legacies. That “no” has a particular shape. It sets us free in particular ways. And it invites particular kinds of response, lives that receive that “no” as a blessing and seek to echo it.

      I do not think that God leaves us bereft in the work of crafting our responses. On the contrary, I think that all kinds of moral reasoning return to us in the wake of judgment. Histories, hagiographies, stories, parables, epigrams, proverbs, tall tales and more are in this mix. Even criteria are included. But they return transformed – not just a little less certain, but different in kind, even raised to new life. The law, for instance, comes to us not as code but as beatitude. We might even get something like just war criteria back … but not with the power to make war “just,” let alone morally obligatory, but only as fallible, partial guides that might be a blessing as we muddle through the mean time.
      In naming these limits to what ethics can do and be, I’m not trying to undermine all moral reasoning. I’m just trying to deliver it from the idolatrous status to which we have too often elevated it. And I’m convinced that ethics can flourish – and help us flourish – when restored to this more modest place.

Angela Cowser


Working Out Divine Violence: The Exceptional John Brown

In 2006, I was a first-year doctoral student in the Graduate Department of Religion and in the Theology and Practice (T&P) program, with a focus on social ethics, at Vanderbilt University. At that time, Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith was an assistant professor of ethics and homiletics and the director of the T&P program. During our first T&P seminar, Dr. Smith introduced the class to W. E. B. Du Bois’s book, John Brown. That book opened up a discursive space for Dr. Smith and me to engage in an ongoing conversation about John Brown, theology and ethics, and Brown’s use of violence to confront the monstrous evil that was American chattel slavery. I am honored to submit this essay in response to a book that is an impressive addition to the theological scholarship on Brown and provocative in its exploration of the limits of ethics and the relationship between religion and violence.

In Weird John Brown, Smith demonstrates the “limits of ethics for thinking about the violence done to and by John Brown, shows the costs of forgetting those limits, and stirs theological imaginations that can remember Brown and the nation that tells his story as weird” (3). The universalizable immanent moral obligations that matter for ethics share three features:

  1. They apply equally to all moral agents in all situations;
  2. They have a moral quality that is first over other kinds of goods; and,
  3. They come to life within immanent (inherent) networks of cause and effect.

Because universalizable immanent moral obligations limit our ability to understand situations, Smith suggests that we need to cultivate the ability to reason about situations that leave room for exceptions, that don’t reduce all goods to moral obligations, and that don’t fit within an immanent frame. Smith argues further that the notion of divine violence can enrich our understanding of the world and our reasoning about how to live together in it.

The Limits of Ethics for Practical Reasoning and the Relationship between Religion and Violence

Smith asserts that Brown occupies an outsized place in American political imaginations in part “because of his ability to figure sovereignty,” which Smith defines as a kind of authority or righteous power that can legitimate, limit, exceed, or even overturn the law. Is there a higher law that legitimates actions which defy the laws of the state? Smith answers: “Instead of taking the state’s sovereignty for granted, I assume the sovereignty of God” (39).

When modern states exclude any talk of divine violence, they occlude their own mythologies and in so doing legitimate their own brands of sacred violence. In order to limit violence, we must have “conversations with reasoning about divine violence at the center” (42). Keeping politics and theology separate not only fails to solve the problem of extralegal violence, it also serves to underwrite new violence, especially violence to protect politics from religion and religion from politics. Smith suggests further that while the rule of law is a cornerstone of American national identity, situations arise that are not legal but are necessary for the survival of the nation (47). And yet, the rule of law as ideal has no place for any kind of sovereign power beyond the law (61). Still, we should have reasoned discourse about exceptions, gaps, and fissures (political theology).

Response: Who is “we”? Who are the people who should have conversations with reasoning about divine violence? I imagine reasoned, intelligent, informed conversations about political theology in undergraduate, seminary, divinity, journalism and law school classrooms, among journalists and commentators who cover religiously-inspired violence, and among members of certain theological guilds. In our broader culture, it seems to me that “reasoned discourse”—depending upon your perspective—is already happening on the far right fringes of political thought in the United States. What do we do with political discourse by religionists that incites, foments, and encourages “divine violence” by anti-abortion crusaders like the November 2015 shooter of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood office who is a self-proclaimed “warrior for the babies”? What do we do with organizations who practice political theology of a kind who see it as their divine mission to systematically dismantle Roe v. Wade in the courts and in the streets by intimidating others through killing patients, friends, and caregivers who provide medical care to women?

At this point in the text, I think the insertion of a case study that takes up modern-day “higher law” killers of abortion providers (i.e., Scott Roder, John Salvi) would test these concepts with twenty-first-century practitioners of divine violence while also concretizing and contextualizing key concepts like higher law, divine violence, political theology, and sovereignty for readers.

For twentieth-century Jewish philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin, “for law to be law, violence outside the law has to be destroyed, denied, or absorbed into justified law. Divine justice manifests itself only in destruction, which Benjamin calls divine violence, and divine violence, which destroys structures of legitimation, principalities, and power (and sometimes bodies) is the only way that justice manifests itself in this world.” As relief of law, divine violence neither revokes the commandment (thou shalt not kill) nor create a new commandment. Rather, it creates a free, responsible, and deliberative space between the commandment and action. For Smith interpreting Brown, divine (sacred) violence reveals the limits of ethics. Into the space between commandment and action, we’re left with politics and a reminder “of how even great criminals can find themselves caught up in God’s great work of redemption” (84). What do we do when that deliberative space is funded, populated, and dominated by partisans, the irresponsible, cranks, common criminals, and conspiracy theorists?

Whether he’s seen as bogeyman or inspiration, Brown plays an outsized role in American political imaginations. Brown’s inspirational sources for his agitation around the higher law include, but are not limited to, the Bible (especially the Golden Rule), the US Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. Brown used key texts from American civil religion, the Hebrew prophets (including Jesus), his own experience in the abolitionist movement, and, most importantly, relationships with his black brothers and sisters in the struggle in order to derive truth and execute the judgments of a higher law in order to “begin the war that ended American slavery and make this a free Republic” (F. Douglass).

I want to argue that a seminal, anti-slavery text—David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829–1830)—helped animate and fund Brown’s political and theological imagination. Written by a free black man and pitched toward black people, the Appeal itself was inspired by the founding of the autonomous AME Church, and the insurrections of the enslaved, including Gabriel (1800) and Denmark Vesey (1822). Walker preached hope and inspiration, and prophesied the eventual destruction of the American status quo. He argued, as did Brown, that slavery, white racism, and hypocrisy were essential features of American life; that God is a God of justice to all creatures; and that the work of and call to black freedom would lead to a violent, bloody cataclysm.

While there were no great insurrections in the immediate aftermath of The Appeal’s publication, Frederick Douglass would remember it as one of the key abolitionist works, and later historians would find, in Walker’s apocalyptic passages and contempt for whites as his natural enemies, the intellectual funding for black nationalism and the ministry of Malcolm X. And, unlike Brown, Walker’s hopeful vision of redemption, and his alliances with white allies and commitment to a revolutionary kind of American democracy, would echo in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of and work for full black emancipation in America.

The Significance of Race for Any Truthful Story about the United States

Should John Brown (and the raiders) be pardoned? Smith argues that an exceptional pardon would declare that Brown and his raiders were not right, but were forgiven. Unlike a pardon, which would be fraught with problems, forgiveness would enable Americans “to tell a more truthful story and make possible a more just politics by refusing to let slavery’s cycles of violence continue to determine national memory. In so doing, it would make possible a different set of relationships and a different kind of polity” (146). The accompanying penance would include significant reparations for “the monstrous crime of slavery.”

In spring 2016, I’ll be co-teaching an MDiv seminar on violence as a power and a principality to seminary students and United Methodist pastors who minister in the greater Chicago urban area. I will use concepts from Dr. Smith’s book—divine violence, higher law, exceptions, and forgiveness—in my teaching. We’re locating the class at a church on the South Side of Chicago, where street violence is at epidemic and crisis levels. I needed Dr. Smith to spend more than one-fifth of the book on the criminal legacies of slavery for African Americans and contend more expansively with those of us who hunger and thirst for justice in the imperative now, not just in the indicative time to come. For example, who should be telling a more truthful story, what kinds of relationships would be different, and how would a polity riven by permanent ideological polarization, primordial racial divisions, and instinctive animus against “blackness” (e.g., a majority of the American church) be different? How would a pardon of Brown make a nation which has spent considerable energy (theological, civil, secular, pagan) denying the wages of sin and death that are the American Holocaust acknowledge its past (and present and future) wrongful crimes? It seems to me that in order to arrive at a different set of relationships we (who is we?) need to be honest and repentant about a white, American history that features the longest running crime against humanity in the world over the last five hundred years (Robinson) and make concrete the connections between the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children, and various other acts meant to deny black people the right to secure and govern our own lives, liberties, labors, and lands. 1 It is in the prosecution of 246 years of chattel slavery and 104 years of de jure discrimination (lynching, restrictive covenants, mortgage discrimination, job discrimination, housing discrimination, etc.) and segregation as crimes against humanity that would/will make possible a different set of relationships and a different kind of polity. That prosecution could begin with forgiveness of the Raiders and Brown and include a program of reparations to African Americans for as many years as there was and are enslavement and de jure discrimination and segregation: 350+ years.

  1. Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

  • Ted Smith

    Ted Smith


    Reply to Angela Cowser

    I am grateful for Angela Cowser’s generous review, and for the many years of conversations in which she has taught me through her insights and her integrity. I am especially glad that Cowser lifted up the importance of David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. I share Cowser’s understanding of the importance of this work—as did John Brown. Brown found Walker’s Appeal so compelling that he used his family’s shaky, meager resources to help finance publication of an edition. That relationship—with Brown in the background and Walker in the foreground—points to the main change I would make if I were to write this book again: I would focus more on the political theologies of African American abolitionists like David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Nat Turner, and Frances Ellen Watkins, and less on John Brown as a singular figure. I would do more to locate Brown as part of a larger conversation in which African American people played key leadership roles and developed extraordinarily rich political theological reflections on all the questions of the book. I began to emphasize that vision in a few places, and, I hope, especially in focusing on Shields Green at the end of the book. But if I were to start the book again, I’d do more to position Brown as one member of a movement that included many black and white women and men.

    I chose to focus on Brown because he has been such a touchstone for American reflections on political theology. He has been interpreted and reinterpreted by every generation since his death. Indeed, I argue in the book that reflecting on John Brown is one of the main American traditions for doing political theology. Arguments about Brown span academic and vernacular discourses. They cut across the lines that too often divide religion, politics, and history. They include both black and white voices. They involve the left, right, and center. Brown is a touchstone. But the better book would not just have rubbed the nation against that stone one more time, but done more to call attention to other touchstones that might do more to transform American imaginations—like David Walker’s Appeal. I am grateful to Cowser for helping to name that need.

    I also share Cowser’s concern that Weird John Brown’s talk of “divine violence” could end up legitimating physical violence by extremists of many different kinds. She asks, in particular, about radical opponents of abortion who have cast themselves as heirs to John Brown. “What do we do,” Cowser asks, “with political discourse by religionists that incites, foments, and encourages ‘divine violence’ by anti-abortion crusaders like the November 2015 shooter of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood office who is a self-proclaimed ‘warrior for the babies’?” She suggests that the book’s argument could be clarified by a “case study that takes up modern-day ‘higher law’ killers of abortion providers” to ground and test key concepts in the book.

    I try to provide something like that case study in my extended discussion of Paul Hill, who appealed to what he called “the Moral Law of God” to justify his 1994 shootings of John Britton, a physician who performed abortions at the Pensacola Ladies Center, and James Barrett, a man who worked as Britton’s bodyguard (see WJB, 101–2). Hill claimed that the Moral Law of God did not just permit, but positively demanded, the killing of abortion providers. “This duty exists,” Hill wrote, “even if horribly unjust laws, which sanction murder, and forbid the use of these means, are in force. Under these circumstances we must obey God rather than men.” Hill appealed to a higher law to justify his violence. And in doing so he explicitly cast himself as an heir to John Brown.

    I agree with Cowser that any serious reflection on John Brown must consider people like Paul Hill. And I want to resist those who affirm divine authorizations for violence when they agree with the cause in whose name they come together but then call for a separation of theology and politics when they disagree with the cause. I am trying to articulate a consistent position that rejects all kinds of theological justifications for violence—whether those justifications take the form of a crusader’s claim to know the will of God or, more commonly, a “realist’s” unspoken assumption of the sanctity of the state.

    I try to argue against theological justifications for violence like those used by Paul Hill without assuming that the answer is to banish theological thinking from our reasoning about politics in general and violence in particular. The call for such strictly secular thinking tends to take the current constellations of power as a given and so invest those constellations with a mythological aura all their own. Instead I work in conversation with Walter Benjamin to develop a notion of “divine violence” as that which makes politics possible. In developing this notion, I start with a Christian trust that the Reign of God has drawn near. The Reign of God is not yet consummated in important ways. But it is also present, even now. And it is present not as an imperative that we must strain to fulfill, but as an indicative that God has already established. This indicative could never be taken as a simple, positive description of how things are. In trying to conceptualize this kind of eschatology, I have been helped by Benjamin’s claim that “authentic divine power can manifest itself other than destructively only in the world to come (the world of fulfillment)” (quoted on WJB, 72). The presence of the Reign of God in this age takes the form of negation. The fulfillment of the law of God therefore does not legitimate violence, as Paul Hill assumed. For the fulfillment of the law does not require our action. The fulfillment of the law rather interrupts the processes by which systems of ethics—and the violence that gives rise to them and sustains them—claim ultimate legitimacy.

    I hope that this account of politics in the wake divine violence would have something to offer the seminar that Cowser taught on the South Side of Chicago. I think that contribution might operate on three levels.

    First, the book offers a way to think about the relationships between religion and politics that might inform the work of a group like the one Cowser describes. If a Christian trust that the Reign of God has drawn near does not directly authorize particular politics—neither violent nor nonviolent—it should be understood as rejecting the mythological claim on too many American imaginations of what Cowser calls “primordial racial divisions, and instinctive animus against ‘blackness.’” A different kind of politics can begin on the other side of that negation. I do not mean to suggest that the power of racism would go away. But I trust that the power of the Reign of God does not go away, either, and that it is of a different and more decisive order.

    Second, I hope that the book describes a particular direction to the negating power of the Reign of God. The negating arrival of the Reign of God has a particular trajectory. And in calling for a pardon of John Brown, Shields Green, and other raiders on Harpers Ferry, I mean to trace that trajectory in a way that has concrete significance for American national memories—and so for contemporary politics. The more I worked on this book the more I became convinced that historians, especially of the Revolution and the Civil War, were doing the most powerful political theology in the United States today. For they are shaping collective memories, and so our sense of who we are as a nation, and so the kinds of political choices today that “make sense” in relation to that background. The pardon of Robert E. Lee frames the Civil War—and the nation that flowed from it—in a way that downplays slavery and its legacies to promote the unity of a nation that puts white lives at its center. A pardon of the Harpers Ferry raiders would negate the power of that story. And it would open the way to a vision of who “we” are—Cowser’s recurring, excellent question—that incorporates the bodies of both Shields Green and John Brown. Such visions might not offer immediate tactical counsel for the urgent work before us. But I would hope that they would chasten and enrich our collective conversations about the ways to address the problems Cowser names.

    If Weird John Brown’s account of divine violence does make a contribution to tactical conversations—a third level—it might be in the affinities it shows with Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s call for an “electoral blank-out” in the 2016 presidential election (see Democracy in Black, 223ff.). Glaude diagnoses a “value gap” in the ways black and white lives are treated, a gap that runs so deep that it shapes not only explicitly racist candidates and policies but also many of the candidates and policies that seem to oppose them. “Business as usual isn’t sufficient,” Glaude argues. We need “to reboot national politics—change the flow of the current” (225). That will require a moment of negation, Glaude writes, the kind of interruption of what has become ordinary that makes the taken-for-granted visible for what it is and calls its legitimacy into question. I don’t mean to suggest a divine sanction for voting “none of the above.” Divine violence is not ours to accomplish. But even a glimpse of the Reign of God in the present indicative can shatter the usual sense of what is practical or necessary and set us free to imagine taking the kind of action that Glaude describes.

    • Angela Cowser

      Angela Cowser


      The Reign of God

      Thank you, Dr. Smith, for acknowledging the contributions of black freedom fighters to the work of black liberation and human freedom and dignity (Walker, Douglas, Garnet, etc). Among the list of black abolitionist luminaries, I would add the political theology of Harriet Tubman (pre and post-Civil War) as worthy of inclusion and study.  I also think she’s an important actor to consider around questions and categories and practices of “divine violence” and “divine justice”.

      The Reign of God

      ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1: 15-16).  May I push you to please on the hope and power of the coming Reign of God in the present indicative to negate racist, white supremacist lies, myths, and practices?  You are persuasive in arguing that the pardon of Brown, Green and the Raiders would amplify abolitionism, black power, and black agency as a corrective to a veneration of slavery, fake unity, and the (only) white (Southern) lives matter movements as exemplified in Lee’s pardon. In Jesus’ (and the Baptizer’s) construction the kingdom of God nearing meant that the people needed to repent as an outward-inward manifestation of a moral-ethical turnaround.

      In his work with God, family, friends, church, and nation, Brown (Walker, Douglass, Truth, etc) was working out his salvation with fear and trembling; he was repenting and believing in the Good News.  He knew that the Reign of God was at hand, and made concrete that knowledge and confession by taking up the cause of black freedom.  He used the deliberative space between commandments and action to do metanoia. I think that the call to white people, white Americans, and white Christians specifically to repent has not changed.  It was whites who created this mess, and whites primarily who need to lead to repent and repair. And because segregated white churches are still primary sites for the continued socialization of white people into whiteness, it is white congregations and white clergy who – working out their salvation with fear and trembling – could and should lead their people to name and reject the myths, half-truths, denials, and negations which fund animus to blackness and black people (globally).  Bible studies, sermon series, and mission projects would “shatter deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the suffering of others and expose the clever forms of evasion and escape created to hide and conceal injustice” (Cornel West, Democracy Matters).  These kinds of actions would demonstrate repentant hearts and would yield fruit worthy of repentance; more fruit I think than an electoral blank-out! The white American imagination needs to be reconstructed, the white soul needs to be reformed, and white courage and white organizing initiated to help address and heal the Great White Depression. Some pardon – Presidential or otherwise – could serve as a powerful symbol of repentance and justice, which might launch deeper introspection and labor with the White soul, which is where the work must begin.  

    • Ted Smith

      Ted Smith



      My gratitude to Angela Cowser only grows as our conversation continues.  In reply, I would like to underscore three points from her most recent post.  I think she is exactly right when she says that “The white American imagination needs to be reconstructed, the white soul needs to be reformed, and white courage and white organizing initiated to help address and heal the Great White Depression.”  Indeed, one of the main reasons I began this project was because of my conviction on this point.  I wanted to take more time to think about John Brown because his example presses me – as I think it should press every American who identifies as white.  If we really oppose slavery and its legacies, why aren’t we living like Brown – and not just at Harpers Ferry, but in the radical, peaceful community of North Elba?  Why aren’t we spending whatever we’ve got to help the words of someone like David Walker reach a wider audience?  We may have answers to these questions.  But the questions do not go away.

      I think Cowser is also right when she frames the task for white Americans as metanoia.  Crucially, metanoia is not undertaken as a work of charity.  It should not be framed as “doing something for others,” as we white people have often framed work for racial justice.  It is rather a turning from our own sin and the powers that sustain it and that we too often believe sustain us, too.

      It is also important, as Cowser writes, that this metanoia takes place because the Reign of God is already at hand.  Repentance is the response that the arrival of the Reign of God makes possible and demands.  Getting the sequence right matters.  The repentance of white people does not bring in the Reign.  Repentance, then, cannot be inscribed into a story of progress.  It is rather a response to an interruption of history that has already happened.

Christian Collins Winn


Keeping Theology Weird: John Brown and Christian Doctrine

Ted Smith has given us a weird book—strange and provocative in the best possible ways. Does old John Brown still matter? Can the events of the raid on Harpers Ferry which happened some 156 years ago still be productive for how we think about the relationship between the political and the theological, religion and violence, sovereignty and the exception, justice and law, and America’s ongoing original sin of racism? Through an engagement with an eclectic host of dialogue partners—Carl Schmitt, Gorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Charles Taylor, Raymond Geuss, W. E. B. Du Bois, Gillian Rose, and others—Smith’s book clearly demonstrates that the answers to these questions is yes. Along the way, however, he accomplishes his task by provoking deeper, less straightforward questions whose answers remain elusive if not still productive. What does it mean to read parabolically? Can we read events in history as parables of the kingdom of God? What criteria and attentive practices would be necessary to allow an event to speak parabolically or typologically? Since the image (and language) of the kingdom of God in the Christian gospel necessarily belongs to the realm of sovereignty, to learn to read events in history as parables of God’s kingdom is to engage in a political act. If we were to learn to read in such a way, how might such parables reshape our political imagination, our understanding of divine presence in the world, and how we might engage in common action today? Weird John Brown is a kind of thought-experiment moving along the channel of these questions. It offers what amounts to a negative political theology that is attuned especially to the peculiar challenges of the democratic polity that is the United States.

In lucid prose Smith recounts the events of October 1859, and their subsequent interpretation, revealing a history wherein Brown and his companions have functioned as a touchstone for thinking about the entwined relationship of religion, politics, violence, and racism. Almost immediately after the failed raid on Harpers Ferry two dominant interpretations of Brown appeared: he was either a fanatic or a freedom fighter. As Smith shows, these options presented themselves for a variety of reasons. Brown’s assault on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry for the cause of liberating enslaved African Americans necessarily raises questions about the relationship between law and justice and whether violence was a legitimate tool whereby the two could be reconciled. The theological register in which Brown articulated the means by which he meant to overcome the opening between law and justice also raises profound questions about the relationship between religion and violence.

Initially described as a lunatic by both Southerners and Northerners, the more flexible category of fanatic eventually became preferable. Brown’s fanaticism was rooted in his willingness to use violence outside the law, choosing instead to appeal to a “higher law” not subject to the rationality of immanent legal obligations; the pursuit of a politics of purity as opposed to a politics of the possible. The opposing view, “Brown as freedom fighter,” was inspired in part by an element in Brown’s own self-interpretation. Brown sought to write himself into the founding violence at the origin of the American Republic: “Brown cast himself not as a fanatic but as the sane heir to the American Revolution” (29). Deeply aware of the power of symbols, Brown had drawn up a “Declaration of Liberty” which echoed the Declaration of Independence; had managed to secure and carried throughout the raid on Harper’s Ferry the sword that Fredrick the Great had presented to George Washington, the nation’s first president; and had requested that the tombstone of his grandfather—Captain John Brown, who had died in 1776 in the Revolutionary War—be removed to North Elba, New York, so that Brown could be buried under it. In other words: “Brown was seeking to be inscribed into the legacy of revolutionary violence that had founded the country” (30). In this interpretation Brown is configured as a hero of the nation, his actions are assimilated into the founding violence of the country, and he is acquitted of the unfortunate but necessary means he employed to realize freedom for all.

Smith, however, is not interested in adjudicating between these two assessments of Brown. Rather, his goal is to allow the case of Brown to function as a kind of rough touchstone, which when it rubs up against the legitimacy of the state monopoly on violence and the rule of law reveals the substructure of the secular order. The real violence done by Brown is not that which can be mapped by forensic science, but a divine violence which calls into question the fated necessity of the status quo. To make this point, Smith shows that notwithstanding the differences between the two interpretations of Brown, both are at root expressions of a single form of reasoning, one that is disciplined by and sequestered in an immanent frame of cause and effect. As he notes, “those two options seem to exhaust the field only because the prevailing social imaginary is so deeply structured by the twin assumptions that violence should be considered within the bounds of ethics alone and that the state should have a monopoly on legitimate violence for political ends” (12). Both interpretations share in what Smith names the “disenchantment of violence,” wherein violence can only be countenanced if it contributes in some way to an immanent account of human flourishing; that is, does the violence under consideration fit within, or contribute to, the rule of law?

The rule of law, so the story goes (pace Mark Lilla and others), has risen to ascendancy because it represents the enlightened disciplining of human violence, especially so-called “religious violence,” which threatens to tear society apart. This ascendancy occurred when theological and religious appeals were removed from political discourse during the early modern period and the “great separation” between politics and religion was secured through the founding of a secular order. In this account, religious violence represents a direct threat to the social order and must be contained by the twin axioms of the rule of law and the state’s monopoly on violence. State violence represents violence sanctioned by law for the necessary purpose of upholding the law and thereby securing human community. Thus, secular violence is understood as necessary to human flourishing; it is enlightened and rational.

Such accounts of the relationship between law and violence, however, elide the role of exceptional (i.e., extra-legal) violence in the founding of the social order itself, a fact that the case of John Brown makes remarkably clear. The particular social order that is the United States came into existence through an extra-legal act of violence (i.e., the American Revolution). This is the exception which founds the law, an exception which takes on a kind of mythic quality. “Mythic violence” a category that Smith borrows from Walter Benjamin, is the “expression of an order imposed by fate” (71). Such founding, mythic violence is an expression of the legal order itself. It is the originary or exceptional space, wherein the legal order is birthed, which in turn sanctions violence for the sake of continuing the existence of the legal order. The collusion of law and violence in the founding of the legal order named by the concept of “mythic violence” raises the thorny question of the rationality and therefore legitimacy of the current regime. If the present regime is founded by an act of extra-legal violence, what makes it legitimate?

In Brown’s context, the legal system was an arrangement of injustice, for the law of the land justified slavery, which legitimated “murder, rape, kidnapping, forcible servitude, torture, humiliation, and other evils on a massive scale” (7). The assault on Harpers Ferry re-performed the dynamics of the sovereign exception that founded the law, and therefore produced a moment of disruptive crisis. In an appeal to a “higher law” he rejected the legitimacy of the present social order as well as the state’s monopoly on violence. Notwithstanding Brown’s own self-understanding and attempt to figure himself within the narrative of revolutionary violence, what makes Brown important for Smith is that he represents a moment in which the structure of the social order is exposed and called into question by an act which is of the same order as that which had founded the social order. His assault mimics the founding of the Republic, but for the purpose of undoing the arrangement of injustice. Benjamin had opposed “mythic violence” with another concept, “divine violence,” which referred to the destructive intrusion of an exceptional action into an immanent realm whose effect was to call into question the legitimacy of that order. On Smith’s reading, Brown’s appeal to a “higher law” and raid was just such an exceptional action.

The notion of divine violence is what Smith means by negative political theology. It expresses the conviction that divine presence/action can only relate to the world in the form of negation; in the form of judgment. Thus, the politico-theological does violence not through the typical tools of violence, but by calling into question the legal political order itself as well as its mythic-violent foundations. Smith does not deny the ambivalent nature of this claim in regard to Brown, who clearly did take up the typical tools of violence. However, he does help to qualify Brown’s use of those tools, thereby freeing Brown to function as a kind of “Great Criminal,” whose actions cannot be justified, but whose significance cannot be denied. Qualifications such as the fact that Brown’s plot had little chance of success; that Brown appears to have assumed that his death bore an atoning significance for the sins of the nation; and that much of Brown’s earlier life was remarkable not for its violence, but for its refusal to conform to the logic of the American racial regime. Smith details Brown’s lived-experience with African Americans in the small town of North Elba, where he attended a mostly African American church, and lived among freedmen, embodying the free commerce and rich fellowship that was meant to mark all human relations. Though these qualifications place Brown’s violence in an ambivalent light, ultimately Brown’s intentionality seems not to matter in regard to the formal argument that Smith wants to make—that Brown represents, perhaps unwittingly, an expression of divine negation which is ultimately revelatory of the arbitrary violence at the base of our society.

Smith has given us a complex and brilliant meditation on Brown, composed of numerous elements, which would be impossible to do justice to here. I was especially drawn to his account of the indicative character of the “higher law,” as opposed to the imperative notions which produce a kind of code fetishism that seems necessarily to fall prey to violence. From a Christian theo-political vantage, the law is fulfilled by messiah Jesus, which places it in the category of the indicative. Such a conception no longer imagines the “higher law” to which one might appeal as a code that must be realized by us, but as the announcement of a fulfilled, reconciled reality which stands outside the law. Appeal to such a state of affairs is precisely what loosens the legal bonds forged in violence, setting the community free to imagine and improvise a free response to God and neighbor. The free space created by the indicative evokes ethical responses, but does not build a new law in the place of the old.

What I found wanting more of was a properly theological account of the exception and its effects, notwithstanding the provocative reflections on a politics of pardon. It is from the life, death, and resurrection of the concrete person Jesus that we discern that nature of the exception and its effects. For the life-history of Jesus was nothing less than the apocalyptic confrontation with the powers and principalities, which not only called into question their existence, but in a number of vignettes in the life of Jesus and especially in his trial and unjust murder exposed the violent and arbitrary basis of human (i.e., Roman) law. Furthermore, though the whole life-history of Jesus is certainly an exception to the law (in the sense that Smith means it), he has also become a “life-giving Spirit,” to use Paul’s language (1 Cor 15:45). In the gospel narratives, Jesus’ apocalyptic confrontation is not merely an act of judgment, it is also an event filled with new life—a new form of life whose content is often filled out in the unremarkable practices of hospitality, forgiveness, and healing. His unqualified identification with the poor and the oppressed was an expression of God’s definitive identification with sinful humanity in the death and resurrection of the Jew from Nazareth. To Smith’s point about the indicative character of the theological exception, in the life-history of Jesus the ethical and the doxological are entwined. The event of Jesus Christ is both an event of judgment and an event of new life—cross and resurrection. It is here that two critical corrections need to be added (or perhaps made explicit?) to Smith’s account: (1) in view of the life-history of Jesus the divine must be understood to intersect with the here and now not merely negatively, but also positively; and (2) contra Benjamin, the divine violence which has been (and will be?) done to human regimes of power, is not sequestered either at the origins or ending of history, but has irrupted in its very midst.

In the “between times” (zwischen den Zeiten) or the aftermath of Jesus, the role of those people who have heard the announcement of reconciliation is to begin to perceive the new way of being toward God, neighbor, and earth made possible in Jesus, which in shorthand, we might describe as one not marked by violent exclusion. Such an imaginative act is marked by a release for creative political phronesis (à la Smith), but is also prophetic (and perhaps primarily so?) and bearing some relation to the directionality displayed in the concrete life of Jesus. I would name such imaginative acts something like an improvisational parable or parabolic improvisation. Jesus is the prototype (ikon) or forerunner whose life-history offers the standard off which Christian communities can riff both doxologically and ethically. Such riffing or improvisation can claim neither direct identity, nor absolute nonidentity with the divine, but exists in something like a parabolic correspondence—a playful movement of venturing forth and returning wherein pneumatically charged Christological motifs are present in the jars of clay that are human relations.

I don’t know if Smith would disagree with my account, but what I would wish to hear more about from him is a substantial theological account of the directionality of the prototype whose life-history marks “the fulfillment of the law” (and perhaps some discussion of precisely what this means vis-à-vis Jesus would also be helpful?); in other words, I would love to hear more about the submerged Christology that clearly informs, but is obscured from view in Smith’s project. The absence of such an account often leaves the reader wondering if the theological is ultimately only an appendage of the immanent frame, of which it is the exception. Within a Christian political theology the messianic is not simply a formal category of disruption, but a concrete person whose history has specific contours, and whose reality precedes the immanent frame in which our political and ethical reasoning are sequestered. It is precisely an account of the Jesus who provides us the necessary ethical and doxological criteria for discerning (and enacting) parables which remains elusive in Smith’s project. Such an account of Jesus would help, for instance, to tease out the deeper similarities and differences between Brown and a movement like Black Lives Matter, which I would argue is an even more faithful parable of the kingdom, irrupting and disrupting the violent racial logic in our society and its attendant indifference. Furthermore—and notwithstanding his very appropriate suspicions of freighting human action with divine meaning—does he imagine a role for the Spirit of the Crucified in reorienting our theo-political thought and energizing our doxological and prophetic, but rightly circumspect, attempts to live in the light of the reality of God’s reign which comes toward us from the future?

These, of course, are requests for another, perhaps different book; a fact that evidences the productive quality of Smith’s provocative and brilliant monograph! We are indeed indebted to Smith for teasing out the theo-political parables in our midst, which if we attend to them, have the ability to fire our political imagination anew, so that we might journey more playfully and resolutely toward the beloved community that beckons us.

  • Ted Smith

    Ted Smith


    Reply to Christian Collins Winn

    Christian Collins Winn offers an extraordinarily insightful review that asks me to make explicit some of the theological convictions that inform the historical narratives I tell in Weird John Brown. These convictions are not always explicit in the book because I think it is important to be able to narrate history in ways that are full of theological significance but not immediately transposed into doctrine. Theological thinking that moves too quickly to propositions runs the risk of an idealism that has trouble reconnecting with the world in which we actually live. Even when history gets appended to such exercises, it tends to appear as the illustration of a point. As Collins Winn sees, I’m trying to narrate history as the site of God’s redeeming activity. That means that history needs to have the integrity of an actually existing reality, not just the tidy lines of a too-slick sermon story. In Weird John Brown I have tried to tell stories that have that kind of integrity.

    The integrity of historical narratives does not require the disappearance of more explicitly doctrinal modes of discourse. On the contrary, I want to argue that simply saying what happened requires a discursive mode that delivers the story from the appearance of being complete in itself. In The New Measures I borrowed Walter Benjamin’s analogy of a picture and its caption to describe the relationship between a historical narrative and a doctrinal claim. Revelation comes neither through the picture alone nor the caption alone. It rather comes streaming through the space between them. 1

    I am therefore grateful to Collins Winn for pressing me to offer more precise doctrinal talk. If the captions cannot stand alone, they are nonetheless necessary. I am especially glad for the precision of Collins Winn’s questions, as they lead me to a clearer understanding of what I am trying to say in the book.

    Collins Winn describes Weird John Brown as a work of “negative political theology.” That’s a label I have used myself, and I think it helps illumine the book even in those places where it does not quite live up to the name. Collins Winn rightly discerns the risks of this negative course. It can end in something like what Hegel called “bad infinity.” This can become nothing more than nihilism by another name. And it does not do justice to Christian confessions about Jesus. As Collins Winn writes, “Within a Christian political theology the messianic is not simply a formal category of disruption, but a concrete person whose history has specific contours, and whose reality precedes the immanent frame in which our political and ethical reasoning are sequestered.” I agree. A Christian negative political theology begins not with an empty placeholder but with the fullness of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

    I therefore want to avoid what Theodor Adorno called “abstract negation” and pursue instead what he called “determinate negation.” Determinate negation is not just an abstract “no” to everything all at once. It is rather a very particular “no” to particular constellations of power. Determinate negation takes a form like the stone that Daniel saw, the stone cut out of the mountain, not by human hands. That stone comes hurtling in to destroy the glittering, idolatrous pretensions of the empires that would rule in the place of God. It negates . . . but not abstractly. It shatters a particular assemblage of pretenses.

    I mean to underscore this determinate quality by locating the book in relation to two materially intertwined phenomena of our time: the ongoing collusion of state power with the legacies of slavery and the expansion of state violence in the wake of 9/11. These are the mythic structures whose negations can be made visible by the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an act of domestic terrorism that aimed to strike a blow against slavery. The book is not an abstract doctrinal argument against state power. It is a grounded, particular negation, as determinate as the unburied body of Shields Green.

    Such determinate negation has not only particular content and a particular target, but also a particular trajectory. Even if it leaves only a crater, as in Karl Barth’s famous image from his commentary on Romans, that crater has meaningful contours and dimensions.2

    This account of determinate negation underwrites my responses to Collins Winn’s contention that “in view of the life-history of Jesus the divine must be understood to intersect with the here and now not merely negatively, but also positively.” I agree that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus have a particular shape, a determinate quality. Christian confessions describe some “positive” intersection of the Reign of God with history in this sense. In stressing the negative significance of the Reign of God, I do not mean to deny or neglect this determinate quality. I only mean to argue that the Reign of God that draws near in Jesus does not directly authorize particular actions, persons, or institutions as simple extensions of itself. Instead it breaks the hold of powers that make sin necessary and opens the possibility of free and faithful response.

    I think Collins Winn describes something close to these free, faithful responses in his talk of “improvisation.” But his call for “criteria for discerning (and enacting) parables” seems to request some new set of imperatives to guide our practical reasoning. I think this is a misunderstanding of what it means to say that in Jesus the law has been fulfilled. To say that the law has been fulfilled is not to suggest the gift of some new and improved code. It is to declare a new relationship with the law, to make possible a new kind of discernment, a practical reasoning that is fully practical and fully reasonable without depending on syllogisms or criteria. It is rather the kind of reasoning that can attend to singularities: the reason of a lover, a preacher, a poet, or a parent. If it can elaborate on the reasons for its choices, it cannot propose criteria that have anything but temporary, contestable, and derivative status.

    I am trying to describe faithful responses that are not identical with the life of Jesus. This lack of identity comes not from the denial of any determinate, “positive” quality to the life of Jesus, but because of the particular qualities of that life. For those who confess Jesus as Lord say that the Reign of God draws near under the sign of the cross. As I argue in the book, “In the cross Jesus does not squeeze himself into Caesar’s throne. He does not just offer a new and improved edition of Roman law. In the cross Jesus relativizes not just particular claims to authority but the whole category of earthly law. The [fulfilled] indicative of the higher law breaks the absolute hold of every earthly imperative without establishing new ones in their place” (118).

    The fulfillment of the law in the Reign of God sets us free for responses that are not simply identical to God’s own actions in Jesus. Such freedom is the condition of the love that is at the heart of every faithful response. If these responses are not identical to the life of Jesus, if they are not simply extensions of it, Jesus is nonetheless present in them. Faithful actions “never repeat the gospel,” as Michel de Certeau writes, “but they would be impossible without the gospel.” The origin that makes faithful responses possible is therefore present in and to them. Following Certeau’s reading of the ascension, I argue that the absence of the body of Jesus is linked to the gift of his Spirit. Put differently, it is the lack of identity between Jesus and faithful responses to him that makes possible the bond of love, and so the deepest kind of presence. Part of what it means to say that God is gracious is that God remains present in and to actions and lives that are not identical to God (see WJB, 120ff.).

    I therefore agree with Collins Winn that divine violence “is not sequestered either at the origins or the ending of history, but has irrupted in its very midst.” Indeed, my desire to make sense of the present quality of the Reign of God animates the whole book. It’s just that what we know about Jesus and what we know about the world suggest that the Reign of God is not simply identical with any present reality. It is instead present in and in spite of historical realities. It is like a seed growing secretly.

    Collins Winn rightly asks for more elaborations of this understanding of the gospel. In Weird John Brown I try to describe pardon—an exception for which no criteria can be given without compromising its quality as gracious pardon—as that which makes politics possible. I might add a reading of the Beatitudes that stresses their indicative quality. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Luke writes, “for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). The Beatitudes do not propose a new code. They do not offer new criteria. They are not in the imperative mood at all. They rather announce the real presence of a kingdom that negates prevailing understandings of who is blessed. The shattering of this understanding sets us free for new kinds of lives—and not just any kinds of lives, but the particular kinds of lives made possible by the announcement that poor people are blessed. The new lives made possible by the inbreaking of this blessing are connected to one another, but what they share cannot be picked out by stable criteria. For what they share is not the presence of the kind of quality that criteria can identify, but the freedom to be free of such criteria, and the love that is the source, substance, and goal of that freedom.

    1. Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33–42.

    2. On determinate negation, see Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1977), 3:40. English translation: Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 2000), 23. See also Elizabeth Pritchard, “Bilderverbot Meets Body in Theodor W. Adorno’s Inverse Theology,” Harvard Theological Review 95, no. 3 (2002) 291–318. For my own attempts to develop this line of thought, see Weird John Brown, 119, 139, 142, 154, and 162.

    • Christian Collins Winn

      Christian Collins Winn


      On Christological Particularity

      I should like to state here again, that I am very grateful to Ted Smith for the opportunity to engage his work, and for his thoughtful and charitable reply to my original review. Smith’s book is one of those rare kind of texts that provokes one to think creatively and productively beyond the normal boundaries of our disciplines.

      As a brief response, I should like to clarify the basic thrust of the Christological question in my original essay.

      To be clear I am not asking after the doctrinal implications of Smith’s basic thesis on divine violence. Rather, I am asking after the theological content of the political theology that is here presented.

      To elaborate a little: I can affirm that God’s reign relates to the world negatively, (i.e., by overthrowing it). My question, in part, is how do we know that? What is it that tells us that God engages the world in this way? Is it that “God” simply represents the negation of that which is? What is the deeper theological commitment that leads to this understanding of God? Is there something concrete in God’s ways that guides us in this direction of thought?

      Additionally, it isn’t just that God encounters the world in this way, but even more precisely how. That is, how is it that, or in what way does God overthrow the world? This, in a sense, is the real heart of my question about Christology: generally speaking, a Christian answer to the question of how God overthrows the world is probably going to be cruciform and Christological. Thus, I am asking after the material content, and not simply the formal mechanism, of the theology in the political theology at work in John Brown.

      Why am I asking after this? I have two reasons. The first has to do with discernment. In your reply you state the following: “It’s just that what we know about Jesus and what we know about the world suggest that the Reign of God is not simply identical with any present reality. It is instead present in and in spite of historical realities. It is like a seed growing secretly.” But that’s the rub, right? Discernment. How do we discern the shape and movement of the kingdom “in and in spite of historical realities”? It seems to me that attending to the narratives of Jesus, the exception who undoes the world “as it is”, gives us a good place to start. To attend to those narratives gives us a picture of the God who has, “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 1:52) as one of the daughters of Zion stated it. To discern necessitates a workable, flexible, but constantly contestable, criteria. This is what I am asking after.

      The second reason for my question is more general. The use of apocalyptic or eschatological categories to think the limits of the state, or the limits of ethics, or the limits of human knowledge (as with Barth), has definite value and has benefited deeply from the insights of Benjamin, Agamben, Taubes, etc. At the same time, what concerns me is the way in which the kingdom, or the apocalypse, often become formal and abstract diagnostic categories that can lead one to assume that the “theological” is indeed merely an appendage of the immanent. Pushing back against this, the point of my request regarding a Christological narration was simply to ask that alongside the necessary commitment to think about and with the particular and singular in the historical register, we also attend to the singular/particular in the theological register; and in a Christian theological register, that singularity is Jesus Christ.

      I recognize, and see as salutary, your warning that such a narrative account of the kingdom not be allowed to become a new imperative. But I think there are two ways to guard against this: 1) to emphasize the fundamentally Christological content of the kingdom. That is, Jesus is the kingdom enfleshed, thus it is not up to us to realize or bring the kingdom into history. This has occurred through God’s own intrusion into history. In removing the kingdom from human hands, we are placed in a posture of longing for the kingdom to break in, but also hopefully anticipating irruptions of the kingdom already at work, discernable even if only for a moment and very much in the form of the limited, the occasional, the truncated, the parabolic. 2) I also think that such an account, though necessary, is also necessarily contestable. There is no escaping the historical and hermeneutical situation in which all human beings find themselves. Obviously, and here I take your point, this has not stopped theologians, ethicists, politicians, and demagogues from creating new imperatives. But this needn’t be the case; and I think that giving up on, or demurring from offering such an account, will lead us to lose far more than we gain if we choose to remain only apophatic regarding the direction and character of the kingdom that penultimately breaks into the world to challenge our racial regimes and abolish our arrangements of injustice.

      Again, thank you for a marvelous book and a rich conversation!

    • Ted Smith

      Ted Smith


      Determinate Negation

      I am grateful to Christian Collins Winn for naming so clearly the risk of “the theological” becoming an empty category, a merely formal device.  I appreciate his naming so precisely the tendency of contemporary negative theologies to make some content-free “theological” nothing more than “an appendage of the immanent.”  I think we’d agree that the real task is reversing that relationship, locating the immanent within a larger theological frame.  I also think we’d agree that doing that work requires that “the theological” not be simply, abstractly empty.  And I think we’d agree that Christians need to turn to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as we give substance to what we mean by “the theological.”

      Where we disagree, I think, is on the form of what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus contribute to the determinate quality of the theological.  I read Collins Winn as calling for  “workable, flexible, but constantly contestable criteria.”  I think this call echoes Mark Douglas’s argument that I should provide some kind of principles or criteria to guide our actions.  Douglas’s “reply to a response” is good to read in relation to this conversation.  I hope my reply to Douglas’s reply is relevant, too.  I’ll try to avoid simply repeating it here.

      I see the call for criteria that can guide our action as a call for something that joins positive content to an imperative function:  Go and do likewise. Making the criteria endlessly contestable does not change this basic form.

      As I’ve argued in the book and across these replies, I want to shift the emphasis from imperatives about what we humans need to do to indicative celebrations of what God has done.  And I think those divine indicatives do not lay little foundation blocks on which we build our own good works – as if our acts were of the same kind, topping up the good start made by God.  I rather see the divine indicatives as breaking the very particular holds that sin and death have on the world, and on us.  In doing so they invite and make possible free responses of love.

      The determinate quality of this negation keeps it from being the kind of abstract, contentless theological device that Collins Winn is right to raise questions about.  In the book I’m trying to describe John Brown as revealing God’s “NO” to the slave system and the state that was (and still is) inextricably intertwined with it – not to every conceivable human community.  Seeing that NO does not authorize particular actions in the ways that criteria might.  It does not legitimate an imperative to take up arms and raid the Harpers Ferries of our day, the places where the arms that sustain racialized violence are stored.  But discerning God’s NO to the slave state sets us free in very particular ways from one distinct ideology.  And it sets us free for particular kinds of actions, the kinds of actions that people can take if we are delivered from the mythology that sanctifies a state that has been intertwined with slavery and its legacies from before its beginning. When we are in the thrall of that ideology, actions that reflect and sustain the slave system/state’s monopoly on violence appear as natural, inevitable, or like the only reasonable choice.  The appearance of necessity constrains freedom.  The divine violence I’m trying to say becomes visible in John Brown does not eliminate every kind of restraint on human action.  But it does break the hold of the aura that makes actions that flow from and to a slavery-infused state seem necessary.  And so it offers a particular kind of freedom.

      I agree with Collins Winn that we learn the good news of such deliverance – and how to learn more about it – by reading stories about Jesus.  But I am wary of the desire to turn those stories into criteria.  I cited the indicative quality of the Beatitudes above.  They are declarations, not guidelines, and something important is lost when they are turned too quickly into criteria for right action.  And when Collins Winn wants to suggest what he is asking me to provide, he turns to the Magnificat, Mary’s great song of deliverance.  But it is not a song that is first of all a statement about what we should do.  It is a song about what God has done.  An indicative – and, I’d argue, an indicative of negation – is at the center of this song.

      I worry about losing that indicative.  There is a place, of course, for criteria in any kind of Christian practical reasoning.  But I worry that they have come to assume far too large a place in contemporary social imaginaries – both Christian and otherwise – that see the real meaning of any kind of religious form of life in the ethics that it underwrites.  And, as I argue in the book, I think that that tendency to translate religion into ethics has joined with other ideological sources to offer mythic sanction for the ethical violence of a secular state.  Thus my desire to keep criteria in their place is not born of a generic, timeless apophatic impulse.  Nor is it born of mere skepticism.  It arises rather from a desire to negate what I see as one of the defining constellations of power of our time.

James Byrd


Keep John Brown Weird

Moral History without Facile Moralizing

Over 150 years after his execution, John Brown remains provocative because his legacy involves issues that concern today’s world, including race, religion, and terrorism. Nearly two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Brown led a band of whites and freed slaves in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their goal was to seize weapons and lead a guerrilla war on slavery. The plan failed. Brown and his accomplices were captured, tried, convicted, and executed. This was not Brown’s first assault on slavery. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 turned the Kansas territory into a battleground between proslavery and antislavery forces, Brown did his part to create a “Bloody Kansas.” In May 1856 Brown led a nighttime attack on five proslavery men, seizing them from their homes and murdering them with broadswords.

Such attacks, Brown believed, were necessary to defeat slavery, an evil yet legal system that only violence could defeat. As historian James McPherson wrote, Brown had “the glint of a Biblical warrior in his eye”—his war against slavery was a holy war.1 It’s no wonder, then, that Brown has proven to be one of the most divisive figures in American history. We admire his zealous opposition to slavery. But what about his use of religion to inspire violence? Does abolitionism justify “terrorism,” or any violence, against the state?

These and other questions are at issue in Ted A. Smith’s groundbreaking book, Weird John Brown. Smith does not claim to be a historian: he attempts neither to “to dig up new facts about Brown’s life” nor to recount “a history of the interpretation of” Brown. Instead, Smith’s goal is “to add to the history of interpretation” of Brown as a means of showing “the difference that a theological imagination can make for questions of religion and violence.”2

“Freedom Fighter” or “Fanatic”

Smith takes his title from a line in Herman Melville’s poem “The Portent.” Here Smith finds a “weird John Brown” who seems to be “in the world but not entirely of it.” 3 In making the case for Brown’s weirdness, Smith contests the two leading interpretations of Brown: a celebration of Brown as a freedom fighter, and a dismissal of Brown as a fanatic.

Both views of Brown emerged before he hung from the gallows. At the time of his execution, many in the North regarded Brown as a champion for the noble cause of abolition or even a martyr. This was the view of Henry Ward Beecher, whom historian Mark Noll has called “the Billy Graham of his era.”4 One month before Brown’s execution, Beecher said, “Let Virginia make him a martyr.” Brown’s hanging would transform “Brown’s failure with a heroic success.”5

Henry David Thoreau agreed: “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.” Christ’s crucifixion and Brown’s execution were “the two ends of a chain,” and Brown transformed from “Old Brown” to “an angel of light.” Brown “was a superior man” and was “the most American of us all,” according to Thoreau.6

As recently as 2009 a similar view of Brown as a freedom fighter made it to the New York Times. David S. Reynolds, a professor of American literature and American studies, appealed to President Obama and the governor of Virginia to pardon Brown. In Reynolds’s view, Brown was no fanatic, but rather “freedom’s martyr” who had been “despised by history.” Brown had a realistic plan for a slave revolt that would expand through Appalachia. He hoped to terrorize Southern whites into abandoning slavery. Most impressively, African Americans such as Frederick Douglass admired Brown. Rightfully so, wrote Reynolds, because “Brown did not have a shred of racism.”

“Justice would be served,” Reynolds concluded, “if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon” Brown, thereby “rescuing John Brown from the loony bin of history.”7 Few scholars were better positioned to argue Brown’s case; Reynolds had published a biography of Brown in 2006. Reynolds’s ambitious subtitle summarizes his argument: in Reynolds’s telling, Brown was “The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.”8

As impressive as Reynolds’s argument was, not everyone agreed. Reviewing Reynolds’s book, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz disputed each point in Reynolds’s subtitle. Did Brown really “kill slavery”? No, Wilentz responded, “Abraham Lincoln, the Union Army, and the framers of the Thirteenth Amendment killed slavery.” Was Brown the one who “sparked the Civil War”? No. “Lincoln’s victory in the election of 1860 did that, and would have done it regardless of Brown’s assault.” And if Brown had something to do with inspiring the civil rights movement, Wilentz stated that Brown’s influence was no more important “than thousands of other Americans—women and men, blacks and whites—who agitated for equal rights as well as emancipation long before 1865, and before Harpers Ferry.”

In Wilentz’s view, Brown was a fanatic, not a freedom fighter. He “was a violent charismatic anti-slavery terrorist and traitor, capable of cruelty to his family as well as to his foes.” Far from being a hero, Brown was instead the sort of zealot to whom modern-day terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh might plausibly appeal.9

“Divine Violence”

There are good reasons why Americans gravitated to one of these two interpretations of Brown. One interpretation dismisses Brown, and turns his story into a cautionary tale about the dangers of mixing religion and violence. The other brands Brown a hero, and honors the nation for following his lead in abolishing slavery. Both views are similar, Smith argues, because they honor the nation and protect its monopoly on violence: the dismissal of Brown rejects him in part because his actions were criminal in his own day, while the valorization of Brown celebrates the strength and even violence of his conviction in light of the nation’s subsequent turn to violence to address the issues that animated him. Smith’s Brown fits neither of these accounts. Brown’s violence is neither dismissed nor celebrated. It is weird because Brown’s violence does not fit neatly within the earthly political frames that would make his violence either strictly criminal or unequivocally praiseworthy. Brown’s violence is otherworldly: Brown’s witness “asks what, if anything, God might make of violence.”10

Smith rejects the claim that Brown was an insane biblical zealot. Brown cited Scripture, but not only Scripture. His biblical arguments carried with them ideas about liberty learned from the American Revolution. As Frederick Douglass said, Brown believed “the Declaration of Independence to be true, and the Bible to be a guide to human conduct, and acting upon the doctrines of both, he threw himself against the serried ranks of American oppression, and translated into heroic deeds the love of liberty and hatred of tyrants.”11

Although Brown’s mixture of biblical interpretation and revolutionary zeal turned violent, that Brown mixed the two did not make him “insane”; it merely made him “American.” From the revolutionary era forward, many Americans took violent biblical texts to heart when waging war against Britain and defending the new nation. Brown’s endorsement of the biblical ideal of blood sacrifice in wartime was typical. What made Brown atypical was that he was a white man who took this biblical idea of blood sacrifice to extremes in a war against slavery.

As James McPherson wrote, Brown resembled Samson, “who slew his enemies with the jawbone of an ass,” although “Brown favored more up-to-date weapons” to punish God’s enemies.12 Brown admired both Samson’s viciousness and his self-sacrifice. Captured and blinded by his Philistine enemies, Samson’s final act was pushing down the pillars of a Philistine temple, collapsing it and killing himself and countless Philistines, which the author of Judges celebrates by writing, “So the dead which [Samson] slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life” (Judg 16:30b KJV). Brown pondered Samson in his final days, hoping that, like Samson’s, his death could “be of vastly more value than my life is.” Frederick Douglass analogized Brown directly to Samson: “Like Samson, [Brown] has laid his hands upon the pillars of this great national temple of cruelty and blood, and when he falls, that temple will speedily crumble to its final doom, burying its denizens in its ruins.”13

Similarly, Brown closed a letter from prison with his famous words, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”14 In Brown’s appeals to Samson and to expiation of sins by blood, Smith sees the “language of sacrifice, atonement, and ritual purification—the language of divine violence.”15

Almost any suggestion of divine violence is controversial today. Especially since 9/11, many people contend that religiously-inspired violence is the worst kind and that any mixture of religion and violence threatens peace. Smith recognizes these concerns and shares them. But he contests the idea that religion is uniquely prone to violence. Throughout history, Smith observes, we find examples of deplorable violence and total war that had nothing to do with religion. Here Smith cites the famous example of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who ravaged much of the South in the Civil War. General Sherman escalated the conflict and burned Atlanta not because he believed in an abolitionist higher law, but because of his “commitment to the rule of existing law” and effective military strategy.16

In addition to this negative claim that religion is not a necessary condition for high-intensity political violence, Smith also stakes a positive claim for political theology, that “appeals to a higher law can restrain violence.” Without any possibility of appealing to higher laws, the laws of the nation assume an ultimate status, irrefutable and beyond challenge. Such laws become “mythic,” Smith argues, adopting the terminology of Walter Benjamin. “Mythic” laws and nations assume something like a sacred status, and any level of violence is justifiable to defend them. Smith argues “that modern states, in the process of excluding any talk of divine violence, have tended to occlude their own mythologies and so legitimate their own brands of sacred violence.” Smith wants to “help break this spell” with a political theology that will prevent modern states from sacralizing themselves.17

The concept of divine violence is not limited to God-inspired violent acts, and more generally, divine violence is the sovereign power that reveals the “mythic violence” that supports the state. Divine violence is “the moment when the fabric of the polity is torn open, when the goods, processes, and institutions of a juridical order are revealed to be finite,” Smith writes.18

An awareness of divine violence suggests the relevance of Brown for today. Smith stops short of calling Brown’s attacks on slavery divine violence. Smith prefers to say only that Brown’s attacks might or might not be divine violence, cautioning all the while against overconfident identifications of any one violent act with the divine will. However, Smith believes we can say with some confidence that Brown was at minimum what Benjamin called “a ‘great criminal.’” Brown was a criminal, and we need not condone his actions. But whether ethical or not, Brown’s violence had value in revealing the violent nature of the state itself. The raid on Harpers Ferry occurred “in a time of state-sanctioned slavery, a form of life so wrong and so pervasive that it not only damaged people’s moral vision but also put them in situations in which the application of an abstract morality—even one that might be good in other circumstances—would lead to collusion with established evil.” Brown’s greatness came from showing “the ways that the world was ‘out of joint.’” For Smith, John Brown illustrates “the limits of ethics” in “a world gone badly wrong.”19

Smith is quick to admit that the plausibility of this last evaluation of Brown depends in part upon how one defines ethics. Smith’s interpretation of Brown is intended to challenge “one particular but pervasive mode of ethics, a mode marked by its granting of a privileged place to universalizable moral obligations that play out within immanent networks of cause and effect.” Smith is very successful in positioning Brown as a counterexample to this sort of pure, worldly deontology. Readers accustomed to thinking of normative ethics as a more pluralistic endeavor may not find Smith’s Brown quite so weird or so vexing for the limits of their own ethics. But these readers will still benefit from Smith’s argument that Brown’s historical significance may not lie solely or even primarily in the moral evaluation of Brown’s actions, but rather in Brown’s witness against a political order that, having monopolized authority, countenanced and supported the evil of slavery.20

Smith wants Brown to be pardoned, but not in a way that sets a precedent or claims that such attacks are justifiable under the law. Instead he wants Brown to be pardoned as an exception to the law. So he “would not argue that the raiders were right.” Instead, he “would declare that they are forgiven.” Such a pardon as exception could be “a way of saying No to the power of the slave system to define the social order.” This pardon is needed because “the mythic violence of slavery” continue to plague the United States. It is the “original sin” that continues to mar the nation.21

Pardoning Brown and his raiders “would transform them from fanatics who had to be expelled and executed into members of the polity who deserve to be reckoned with.” It would change our memory of the Civil War, in which Robert E. Lee was pardoned but not John Brown. If Brown were pardoned as well as Lee, “the national memory would shift significantly.” The nation’s historical memory “would acknowledge slavery itself as a state of madness and war, all the more fanatical because it was established in law and custom.” Pardoning Brown would name slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War and of the war’s death and destruction, thereby challenging slavery’s enduring but often unacknowledged hold on our national identity and politics.22

Smith’s comparison of Brown and Lee resonated with Northerners following the Civil War. In a sermon following Lincoln’s assassination, Frederick Starr, a Presbyterian pastor from Penn Yan, New York, criticized the nation for pardoning Lee instead of Brown. Starr argued that the Confederates committed treason much worse than Brown’s offense, yet the nation “let noble, true, holy John Brown die!” Starr prayed to God that the nation would not be so counterfeit as “to make our national history declare, in the face of the universe and of eternity, that, in all the period” there was only “one citizen base enough to be a Traitor, and worthy to die for Treason— the Christian Martyr, John Brown!!!”23

Of the interpretations of Brown, Smith seems to prefer that of W. E. B. Du Bois. In his biography of Brown published in 1909, Du Bois called Brown “the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” Du Bois also asked, “Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth to-day?” According to Du Bois, Brown’s actions stemmed from his belief “that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.” Until Brown died, “this doctrine was a growing, conquering, social thing.” But the year that saw Brown’s death also saw, coincidentally, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Among the alleged political implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution—implications primarily developed by other late Victorian intellectuals since labeled “social Darwinists”—were the doctrines that inequality among people and races was natural and unavoidable and that progress in civilization was a war between the weak and the strong, with the strongest surviving in the end. “With this interpretation has gone the silent assumption that the white European stock represents the strong surviving peoples, and that the swarthy, yellow and black peoples are the ones rightly doomed to eventual extinction.” John Brown’s influence waned; he became “an anachronism in the age of Darwin.”24

In an age and order that continued to accept grotesque political inequality, Du Bois argued that “the memory of John Brown stands to-day as a mighty warning to this country.” Brown saw slavery’s evil and threat to the nation, and he knew that the longer the nation allowed its injustice to thrive the more disastrous its effects would become. Du Bois ended by repeating Brown’s warning: “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.”25

Smith agrees. “Du Bois described a divine violence made manifest at Harpers Ferry that shattered the system of relations that legitimated the violence of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States as well as the moral obligations that bound their citizens.” Brown’s violence broke “the death grip with which slavery and the nation held one another” and opened “space for a new freedom in relation to that which had been destroyed.” Smith concludes by arguing that John Brown was neither a freedom fighter nor a fanatic. Instead, “he was a broken, bleeding body,” a “portent” for present-day Americans who “are among the people set free to do politics under the sign of judgment revealed in his death.”26

Smith’s book is moral history at its best: it demonstrates ways in which history is morally fraught, both in its own time and in its durable implications for succeeding generations. Meticulously researched and historically astute, Smith’s Weird John Brown exemplifies the relevance of sound historical reflection for contemporary moral and theological discourse.

  1. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Oxford History of the United States 6 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 84, 152.

  2. Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, Kindle ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), loc. 218 (henceforth WJB).

  3. Smith, WJB, loc. 94.

  4. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 427.

  5. John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, eds., The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012), 104. 

  6. John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, Tribunal, 107, 109.

  7. David S. Reynolds, “Freedom’s Martyr,” New York Times, December 1, 2009.

  8. David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Knopf, 2005).

  9. Sean Wilentz, “Homegrown Terrorist,” review of John Brown, Abolitionist, by David S. Reynolds, New Republic, October 24, 2005, http:/C:/dev/home/

  10. Smith, WJB, loc. 399–403. 

  11. John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, Tribunal, 119. 

  12. McPherson, Battle Cry, 84, 152. 

  13. John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, Tribunal, 67–68, 119.

  14. Ibid., 73. Abraham Lincoln made a similar statement in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865: “If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

  15. Smith, WJB, loc. 863.

  16. Smith, WJB, loc. 2146, 2176, 2259.

  17. Smith, WJB, loc. 2146, 892, 943.[/footfnote]

    What’s needed, then, is not a rejection of any appeals to higher laws, “but critical deliberation about the nature and function of appeals to higher law.” Smith rejects appeals to higher law that take the form of yet another ethical code to be defended through violence, the trap that snared Brown. Instead, Smith suggests “a picture of the higher law marked by four qualities: an indicative mood that serves to negate absolute obligations in this age in ways that invite a free response in history that is permeated by the presence of God.” Illuminating this picture is the work of divine violence.[footnote]Smith, WJB, loc. 2193, 2421.

  18. Smith, WJB, loc. 1693.

  19. Smith, WJB, loc. 1732–1758, 3231, 1757, 3225.

  20. Smith, WJB, loc. 146–66.

  21. Smith, WJB, loc. 2766, 2913.

  22. Smith, WJB, loc. 2924, 2941, 2986.

  23. Frederick Starr Jr., The Martyr President: A Discourse, Delivered in the First Presbyterian Church, Penn Yan, N.Y., Sabbath Morning, April 16th, 1865, on the Death of Abraham Lincoln (St. Louis: Spencer, 1865), 17–19, http:/C:/dev/home/

  24. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, John Brown (Philadelphia: Jacobs, 1909), 8, 375–76.

  25. Du Bois, John Brown, 386, 396.

  26. Smith, WJB, loc. 3530, 3461.

  • Ted Smith

    Ted Smith


    Reply to James Byrd and Alan Murphy

    I appreciate the attention James Byrd and Alan Murphy give to the nature of the task that I attempt in Weird John Brown. As they write in their review, I do not claim to be a member in good standing of the guild of historians. I do want to get all the facts right. I seek to work with a rich understanding of what happened—one that includes not only ideas, but also bodies, actions, spaces, things, and more. I want to do more and better historical research than ethicists in recent years have tended to do. I respect the standards of contemporary historical studies and value their ability to adjudicate claims about the past. But I am not myself a member of that guild. And so I am especially grateful for such careful, generous reading by a historian as excellent as Byrd.

    In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language, I do not want to make what the guild of historical studies might judge to be “mistakes.” But I do think the aims of my project require me to commit what Wittgenstein called “blunders.” That is, I do not want to make errors within the social practice of historical studies. I respect that practice. I depend on its fruits on every page. But in this book I am trying to think about history theologically, by which I mean that I am trying to think about actual events and persons in relation to God’s great work of redemption. I think Christian faith requires this kind of effort, for it involves claims about God’s relation to the world in which we actually live. My desire to tell theological history leads me to break basic rules of the game of historical studies as it is now played, at least in most academic circles. But it also drives my desire to get the facts right. For truthful theological history needs to be about this world as it actually exists, not as we might construe it in a story concocted to illustrate some particular ethical or doctrinal point.

    In my first book, The New Measures, I tried to propose a way of doing theological history that could avoid both the fundamentalism that conflates empirical descriptions with theological visions and the idealism that sees no relation between history and theology at all. That is, I tried to trace the outlines of a genre in which theology and history are neither identified with one another nor ontologically separated from one another. In particular, I tried to describe what one key moment in the history of democracy in America might look like if God were working in and in spite of that moment.1

    I see Weird John Brown as an extension of that basic project. I think of it as “theological history,” rather than the “moral history” with which Byrd and Murphy credit me. A tag of “moral history” would put the book in distinguished company like Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation, which explicitly claimed that self-description. Stout’s book has been an important inspiration and guide to me, and I do not mean to argue with it here. I prefer a label of “theological history,” though, because of a commitment to theological claims that I do not think can be translated without remainder into what we usually mean by “morality” or “ethics.” Provoking an openness to the possibility of such theology is one of my principal concerns in Weird John Brown.

    As Byrd and Murphy say so clearly, I want to argue that John Brown, Shields Green, and the others who participated in the raid on Harpers Ferry cannot be properly understood within the bounds of ethics alone. Byrd and Murphy are correct that this claim depends on a particular understanding of ethics, one that stresses attention to “universalizable moral obligations that play out within immanent networks of cause and effect.” With this phrase in mind, Byrd and Murphy read me as describing a “worldly deontology.” They suggest that readers “accustomed to thinking of normative ethics as a more pluralistic endeavor may not find Smith’s Brown quite so weird and vexing for their own ethics.” That is a reasonable reading of what is in the book. But I mean to offer a more expansive argument, one that stretches to include not only “deontological” ethics, but also most of what gets framed as “consequentialist” or “virtue” ethics (to recall William Frankena’s influential trifecta). I want to stretch theological imaginations so that they can imagine the redeeming work of God as involving not only an act that violates some good rule—a possibility that is relatively easy for most rule-averse modern Americans to imagine—but a consequence that is averse to human flourishing as it is usually understood, and even the life of a person who does not embody anything like what we ordinarily think of as virtue. I want to make room for stories about God working for redemption in and in spite of the rule-breaking of Joseph’s brothers, the self-destructive outcomes of the choices of Catherine of Siena, and the abiding character flaws of Jonah. I want to make room for stories about God working even through the great evil of the crucifixion of Jesus. Such a vision relativizes the importance not just of deontology, but of the whole category of the ethical. It stresses the limits of ethics not just for our evaluations of particular people and situations, but also for our own practical reasoning. When we say that some person, action, or choice is “good” or “bad” in an ethical sense, we say something important. But we have not said all that there is to say, or even the most important things that could be said.

    So it is with our reflections on Shields Green, John Brown, and the others who joined in the raid on Harpers Ferry. Their actions have tended to be smothered under debates about ethics. These ethical evaluations might be conducted with reference to rules, consequences, virtues, or some other kind of sign. I do not want to eliminate such evaluations. I do want to relativize them, to insist on the limits of what they claim and their significance. I try to do this, as Byrd and Murphy see, by describing the raiders as what Walter Benjamin called “great criminals.” The raiders broke the law, and, I would argue, their acts of killing broke a higher law than the law of the state. But they also made manifest the depth of the collusion between the state and the slave system. In their actions and, especially, the actions they provoked in response, they stripped away the veil of legitimacy and revealed the prevailing powers for what they actually were.

    Byrd and Murphy are right that I “stop short of calling Brown’s attacks on slavery divine violence.” I do not see any human actions as simply identical with divine violence. Divine violence, as I am using the term, is the present indicative of the Reign of God. The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus make that Reign present. But an honest acknowledgement of the difference between God’s ways and our ways—an acknowledgment that is both pious and frank—requires us to reject accounts that identify that presence with some of our lives, institutions, or actions. This nonidentity would hold even if we somehow met the standards of a perfectionist ethic, for the redeeming work of God has something more than goodness as both its means and its end. It is a refiner’s fire that strips away the pretenses to ultimacy of even our best works. And it absolutely destroys the claims to legitimacy of something like the alliance between state power and slavery that prevailed in 1859 and still plagues us now.

    This destruction of legitimacy is what I mean by “divine violence.” If no human actions are simply identical to divine violence, some can make it manifest, at least to those with eyes to see. I would argue that the raid on Harpers Ferry did that. The revelatory quality of the raid is what made John Brown “weird” and “a portent” in Herman Melville’s language. The actions that make divine violence visible are sometimes violent in themselves, as the actions of the raiders were. But they need not be. I would argue that Ida B. Wells rendered divine violence visible in writing Southern Horrors and The Red Record. The nonviolent protests of children pulled back the veil of legitimacy to reveal divine violence in Birmingham in 1963. Óscar Romero bore witness to the destruction of the legitimacy of another order when he was gunned down while saying Mass in 1980. As these examples suggest, even when revelations of divine violence are not violent, they are often surrounded by violence. The powers of this age do not give up the appearance of legitimacy lightly.

    Understanding divine violence in this way does not eliminate the need for ethical reflection on violence. But it does place it on a new footing. It undercuts claims of divine warrants for human violence. It also undercuts the pretenses of a deontological pacifism to be identical with the will of God. Divine violence rather breaks the hold of the powers that make sin necessary. The present indicative of the Reign of God opens up a space for free, faithful response. And it promises that these responses—in all their ethical ambiguity—will be caught up in a redemption that is more than we can ask or imagine.

    1. Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), see especially “The Fugleman” and chapter 6.