Weird John Brown

Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Encountering Traditions)

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Ted A. Smith
Encountering Traditions
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many of us in the fields of ethics have become quite comfortable, and perhaps some intellectually complacent, with the modernist thesis that religion breeds violence, not just the symbolic violence of rituals and sacrifice, but also and more importantly, actual, lethal violence for political objectives. We do well, then, it is thought, to depend solely on reason’s ability to reveal at least the general contours of a common life without appeal to a transcendent, divine power. In a world of moral strangers, the fields of ethics, bound to an immanent frame, can help secure for us the crucial goal of civil peace, and do so on relatively neutral, impartial grounds to which any rational being, regardless of her comprehensive or religious beliefs, can assent. In the light of the bloody wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the mass suicides of Old Believers and congregants of the People’s Temple, the bombings of abortion clinics and Oklahoma City, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ISIL we ought not dismiss this counsel. Religion, the modernist prescribes, should be a private matter. Domesticate it. Live it with your friends and loved ones, not among strangers.

But the abolitionist John Brown was not a modern man, at least not in the modernist sense. His religion was hardly a private matter; it consumed all of him and moved him to violent political action. He drew inspiration from biblical figures, such as Moses, Samson, and Gideon. If W. E. B. Du Bois is correct, Brown fought the first battle of the American Civil War, and by blood purged slavery from this land. No surprise that Brown’s image today is one of “horror and allure” (xiii), much as it was during his later years. Even before his execution for treason and murder, the debate was already framed in the binary terms we all know today—murderer or martyr; terrorist or liberator; fanatic or freedom fighter—terms that reflect our shared understanding of sanctioned and unsanctioned violence. Who or what was John Brown? What can political theology say about this? What implications does it bring for the fields of ethics and practical reasoning?

To address these questions, Smith starts off with a narrative chapter that draws the reader into the vicious cycle of violence that grounds the nation-state by presenting a false choice: Brown was either a fanatic, which only legitimates the violence of the state (for example, in his execution); or he was a freedom fighter, sanctioning private violence as a necessary means to slavery’s end (leading to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and beyond). Either way, ethical judgment is limited to an economy of instrumental (i.e. disenchanted) and generalizable thinking that emerged historically alongside the modern state, and in which each monopolizes the spheres of practical reasoning and legitimate violence, respectively, and reinforces the other: twin pillars of the reigning order. It is our incapacity to reason morally in some mood other than a codified imperative that is at stake.

Smith then gradually develops over several chapters a subtle, multi-layered, and complex argument that aims to show how the concept of divine violence, taken from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Critique of Violence,” provides an alternative space for interpreting John Brown in a new way; perhaps, Smith suggests, as Benjamin’s “great criminal . . . who . . . defying the law, lays bare the violence of the legal system, the juridical order itself’” (83). On this account, Brown is neither a fanatic nor a freedom fighter, but a “portent” (1) that negates or “shatters” (75) the violence of the state, and points to a future that eludes any code of law or ethics serving the interests of the state.

The incapacity to reason morally other than in universalizable norms shows up in several sections of the book, especially in Smith’s interesting discussion of pardon, first for Brown and then for slavery itself. As he notes, calls for Brown’s pardon began to appear as soon as he was arrested, and more recently David S. Reynolds, “exactly 150 years after Brown’s execution” (125), has proffered a case for pardon in the name of justice: the laws were unjust, slavery had to end, and Brown’s violent actions were justified by the goodness of that end. The problem with this reasoning is that it creates precedents (142), defines a new normal, and invites imitation (134) by those who would claim the mantle of justice for their own terrorist violence. We do better, Smith suggests, to think of Brown’s pardon as “an exception to the standard set by justice” (127). To “reason about the singularity of an exception” (140) requires that we look beyond an ethics of generalizable norms that could justify Brown’s violence (142) to pardon in the name of forgiveness, as part of the state’s repentance for supporting slavery. Pardon in the name of forgiveness, however, cannot be extended to slavery itself. It was too great an evil, sanctioned by the laws of the state, while its traces still register today—for example, I would suggest, in Ferguson, Baltimore, mass incarceration, and the global capitalist system built on its back. Such forgiveness would be not only an act of tyranny, but also the embodiment of what Bonhoeffer called “‘cheap grace,’ the kind of grace people bestow upon themselves. It would not be pardon at all” (152).

Smith’s Weird John Brown deserves a close reading, and many parts are worth (and require) re-readings, by the academic ethicist or theologian, the historian or political scientist. It is a learned book building on the intriguing work of thinkers like Benjamin, Schmitt, Adorno, Geuss, and Agamben, all of them powerful writers that demand time and reflection. Read this book slowly and carefully, and you will reap many rewards.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gabriel Palmer-Fernández is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Dr. James Dale Ethics Center at Youngstown State University.

Date of Review: 
March 31, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ted A. Smith is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Emory University. He is the author of The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice.


Joseph Blankholm

This book sounds fascinating. Thank you for the review!


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