Privilege, Righteousness, and John Brown
I want to be forthright from the start. Old John Brown was a murderous thug. The fact is, he went looking for trouble when he moved to Kansas. Old John Brown was itching for a fight and the crackers in Missouri were tripping over one another in order to bring it to him. It is often forgotten that, in response to night raids that targeted abolitionist Kansan settlers and executed them without ceremony, Brown and his sons rode one night and killed a man and his son within earshot of the family matriarch. Pottawattamie Brown killed the night rider Doyle and his son, sparing a third while Mrs. Doyle begged for his life. If nothing else, John Brown was a murder.
John Brown was sinner. A man full of an anger that drove him to discipline his children, and just as often his detractors and supporters alike, with a violence that he could not possibly make sense of in light of his experience of the divine. John Brown was a man that was blinded to the nature of his violence and the wrongness of it because John Brown was a man in pursuit of righteousness. There is no excusing Brown's violence, despite the ease with which we can make sense of it in hindsight. However, John Brown was driven by love every bit as much as he was driven by anger. John Brown understood his failures, he understood his circumstances, and he understood grace. Above all, Brown understood grace. And then, Old John Brown understood righteousness.
The biblical concept of righteousness is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented themes in our history of faith. For centuries, Christians have allowed concepts of righteousness to be confused with human goodness. Far worse is the tendency we have to believe that righteousness is represented by good behaviors, or rather, the absence of sin. I must add that this absence of sin as an indicator of righteousness is such a severe misrepresentation of biblical faith and understanding that it betrays even the most basic “cheap-grace” narratives of American conservative Christiandom.
Righteousness is, in a common sense, a matter of justice in Scripture. However, the reduction of righteousness to matters of justice has too-often paralyzed deeper relational nuances that are necessary to an understanding of how murderers like John Brown can be deemed righteous, especially in circumstances where absence of grace is the most obvious truth. I believe that it is in men and women like Old John Brown that Americans of European ancestry can finally understand, not only righteousness, but the very reason that Jesus as Christ is so absolutely fucking necessary to our salvation.
James Cone candidly states that whites would best understand the historical and divine nature of the cross only after we understand how the crime of lynching blacks and marginalized whites was, or is, our national embodiment of what the cross truly and historically represented. I know experientially that righteousness can only be known to whites if we consider the nature of John Brown as the one righteous white man – a murderer who may be our only real bridge to understanding what grace and salvation means in a biblical sense. John Brown is the American David. By this, I mean a David that can finally make sense to us as a man after God's own heart because a murderer like Old John Brown was a man after God's own heart, and indeed, perhaps our only modern instance of a man who understood that nature of the cross is salvific and the nature of cross-bearing is righteousness.
Biblical righteousness has nothing to do with goodness. Abraham was not a good man. David was not a good man. Noah was a righteous man, but there is no indication that he was necessarily a good man. As stated above, there certainly no indication that these righteous men were without sin. Yet, the men above, and like Rachel, and Hannah not to mention the midwives of Exodus; like Deborah and women like Tamar, were ever concerned with being good people, or even sinless. The were concerned about being in faithful relationship to the one true God. This is the only way we can make sense of a murderer like Brown and how on earth we can understand righteousness without erring on the side of fancied arguments of heaven and postmortem bliss.
Righteousness is covenant faithfulness. Like marriage, like family bonds, like loving God with all of our heart, soul, and might; righteousness is about faithfulness and not about sinlessness. Righteousness is loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. This is our covenant obligation. I now present the following as examples of how we might begin to understand biblical righteousness before moving back to the issue of Brown.
First is the issue of Abram. We know the narratives of faithfulness well. While we want the story of Abraham and his readiness to sacrifice his son Issac as commanded, we tend to prioritize these narratives of faith that we understand may never really confront us in any real way. However, I ask that we consider the covenant made between YHWH and Abram in Genesis 15 as our first example of righteousness. Most often disregarded is the manner in which Abram struggles with faith. Abram, when given the opportunity, challenges God to uphold the promises that have been made.
When YHWH communicates with Abram in the wilderness, God reiterates a promise that he has been making to the patriarch. The promise is of land, and descendants, and blessings to all generations of the future. It is easy to read and believe that Abram was not quite ready to let God off the hook so easily. Abram had been promised all of this before, and it wasn't playing out the way he anticipated. It is important to remember that this is a person who bargains with God. To Abraham, God is not just deity, but fellow. God is relational as well as author of all. As such, Abraham wants God to provide some sort of evidence that these promises will be realized.
In the narrative, God directs Abram to perform a ceremony that is recognized to be an ancient contractual ritual. Interestingly, as the ritual is prepared, Abram never gets to the point of ratification on his part. The ritual prescribes that both parties engaged in covenant pass between the halved carcasses, treading in the blood that flows from both sides into the middle of the pathway. Yet, while Abram dozes, and even experiences some sort of terror in God's presence, the husband of Sarai refuses to participate. Yet, the story indicates that YHWH the divine-self passes between the carcasses. In fact, there are two representations of God which pass through. What is evident here is that, a covenant is made, and that because Abram was not prepared to risk breaking covenant with YHWH, he resists entering into one when the opportunity is presented. In fact, YHWH does not require Abram to do so, as YHWH, represented in two manifestations, passes through the pieces of animal and in effect promises to uphold both end of the covenant.
This narrative is important to our understanding of righteousness because the term, in the biblical context, is the maintenance of covenant obligations. If one is upholding their end of the covenant, they are in a condition of righteousness. This is the biblical concept of justice. Justice is that God's promises will be realized, and justice is also the actions undertaken by human agents that recognize covenant obligations (or, God's will and design for us) and understand these obligations as priorities in right relationships with God. To do justice is not righteous, but to do God's justice is righteous. Let's move to the story of David and Saul in the cave to better understand this.
I believe that the narrative which best exemplifies the biblical concept of righteousness is found in I Samuel 26. In this story, David is being pursued by Saul in the wilderness and makes camp within striking distance of David and his men. As soon as David is cognizant of Saul's presence, he makes a plan to descend upon the camp with only one of his men. In what can only be anticipate as David's moment of justice – the deliverance of the enemy who seeks his life into his hand – we learn that this is indeed a moment of justice, but that divine justice is not what we might believe it to be. David's actions are indicative of what God's justice is understood to be, and also, we learn what the true nature of righteousness is. David does not put an end to his anxiety by executing Saul as he lay sleeping in camp. Instead, with his cohort ready to strike Saul dead, David instructs Abishai not to harm the king. David insists that is a matter of guiltiness to raise a hand against the anointed of YHWH. Keep in mind that David is also an anointed servant of God. Both Saul and David are in covenant relationship with YHWH, just as Abraham, and all of Israel, in a variety of ways that are carefully articulated in Torah, covenant narratives, and the Psalms.
“Who can stretch out a hand against the Lord's anointed without guilt?” David asks. Yet, David immediately recognizes that YHWH is also promised to covenant faithfulness. He states with certainty: “As the Lord lives, surely the Lord will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or goes down into battle and perish.” David, in his understanding of righteousness, recognizes the nature of covenant between YHWH and his sovereigns. Just as David remains righteous to God's law against striking an anointed monarch, David fully trusts in Gods' righteousness. This is what it means to have “faith in God.” One does not have faith in some surreal promise of heaven as a reward. David has faith that God's justice will be realized without David's needing to violate covenant righteousness. David trusts in the righteousness of God.
So, David simply steals Saul's spear and water jug as an indication that, because David is righteous, and God is righteous, Saul has nothing to fear. David provides evidence of the covenant faithfulness of all involved. Except, of course, Saul. The following part of the story gives us an account of what the true nature of unrighteousness is. While it has everything to do with sin, it actually has absolutely nothing to do with sin. It has to do with faith, and with acting faithful to covenant with the expectation that God's justice will somehow vindicate your trusting apparently hopeless outcomes to be realized by a God who acts in history.
When Saul is confronted with the fact that David spared his life with evidence that David was within striking distance of killing Saul with Saul's own spear, there is fear and trembling throughout the monarch's camp. First, Saul's guard failed to meet covenant obligations because he did not properly defend the life of the anointed. Yet, the nature of Saul's unrighteousness in this matter is not simply matter of sin. Incredibly, Saul at this point is so far removed from covenant relationship with YHWH that he sees this whole episode as an indicator of his sinful nature. Saul simply states: “I have sinned” as though he is simply guilty of boorish behavior. Then Saul manipulates: “Return, my son David, because your life was precious in my sight.” Now this is pure bad behavior because, as many of you know, this is actually a record of the second time that David spared Saul's life.
In I Samuel 24, when David sneaks upon Saul and cuts of the fringe of the monarchs cloak, Saul recognizes the fact that David spared his life as an issue of covenant, because when David confronts Saul, The king sums up the nature of the event. “You have been more righteous than I... that the Lord delivered me into your hand and yet you did not kill me.” But, here is the kicker in the first event – Saul recognizes the nature of covenant righteousness when he asserts the consequences. “I know that surely you will be king, and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hand.” This is the reason that I focused on the second narrative, which in fact does not mention righteousness. Once we know that it was twice that David spared Saul's life – we see how righteousness and faith, and, faithfulness, are tied together. Once we get to the second narrative, Saul knows that he has lost the kingdom, and has lost all righteousness. In the second narrative, we find a Saul who is trying to control outcomes despite God's revealed intentions. While David is righteous – consistently so, we know that David is indeed capable of terrible sin. Yet, Saul, as he fails to be righteous, is cut off from God's covenant obligations to extend grace to Saul. Saul's good fortune has run out, entirely due to his lack of faith, and as such, his ability to exhibit faithfulness when challenged with threats to his status. In the period after Saul realized that he had lost covenant favor, he became mired in sin, controlled by his sin. As such, he could never experience redemption, even when grace was made manifest through David.
I believe we know that Old John Brown was sinful. I believe we can agree that John Brown was a murderer. Yet my intention is not to challenge or whitewash either of those assumptions. I believe them to be fact. Yet, I believe that despite his sin and his propensity for violence, John Brown and his commitment to equality as a status to be realized and enjoyed by all people was one of the few examples that we have in terms of American righteousness, at least, among those who enjoyed the privilege and status that is inherently available to a great majority of individuals who have a light skin tone. Unlike Cone's suggestion that whites can only really understand the reality of the cross through an historically informed understanding of lynchings, it is my contention that we can best understand biblical righteousness and divine grace or mercy through the faithfulness of John Brown.
There is plenty of biblical support, both historically and traditionally, to understand the gospel through the lenses of non-violence and non-resistance. I contend that the primitive church had an early commitment to non-resistance or non-violence and that it embodied messianic belief by abstaining from violence. There is sufficient evidence that early Christians not only refrained from engaging in violence as a means of reflecting the will of God, they practiced a positive ethic that served all who were affected by violence. The primitive church embodied grace and faithfulness by ministering to “the least of these.” In fact, I must confess that my own faith is firmly founded in the understanding that Christians are called specifically to reflect grace and mercy by abstaining from violence even at the threat of losing our own lives. Pacifism, I believe, is a task commissioned by the gospel.
However, it misunderstands the nature of ethics, or even moral vision, to suggest that God will not remain faithful to those who fall victim to the flesh. One need only point to David, but even the story of Peter's anger allows that the sin of violence is considered a condition understood by a righteous God as a matter of the human condition. While it might be said that war is inherently immoral, or that aggression in pursuit of mammon is immoral, it is less certain that one can discuss all violence as immoral, or even, as an act that is inherently inhuman. I suggest that violence as a condition is one that humanity must make sense of and recognize as a state of being that ultimately conditions us to forgo faithfulness, and as a result, lose our faith. For a pacifist to commit an act of aggression, even in defense of innocence, however, can easily be understood, not only as the nature of our sinful condition, but as the ultimate act of unrighteousness. For a Christian pacifist to choose war is to discredit and call to account the integrity of God's own righteousness. Like Saul, we begin to persecute and hunt down those who stand in the way of our desires and stability instead of sacrificing our status in trust that God will be faithful, and we will be vindicated.
Yet Old John Brown rejected pacifism or non-resistance as gospel order. Brown did not consider non-resistance to be biblical, nor did he consider non-violence to be righteous. Brown, in understanding the Bible as a text that documented the importance and necessity of righteousness, also understood the passion of Jesus as a primary example of how violence, self-sacrificial violence on behalf of the well-being of all others, was an act of righteousness. Yet it was not violence that ultimately leads me to suggest that we view Brown in terms of covenant faithfulness. Rather, Old John Brown was righteous because and that he was driven to murder, and, to organize aggression against the state, is the result of zealousness for gospel order and the kingdom of heaven.
There is no need to rescue Brown from history. Others have done that well without having to underwrite his treachery. Yet, what history records that is often overlooked is that Brown was righteous in God's sight because he embodied the gospel like absolutely no other American white man did. John Brown not only understood the Bible as an indictment of American slavery. He understood the gospel as the terms of covenant, a new covenant written on the hearts of men and women who were liberated from bondage to sin. For John Brown, the baptismal hymn of Galatians 3:26 – 29 and also, the text continuing through 4:7, was an indicator that slavery might be wrong, but the more improtantly, the Pauline text and other gospel ethics made it clear to Brown that Africans and American slaves were in fact equal to white people. Not only did John Brown not accept distinctions between blacks and whites, he was not willing to subvert the gospel to win the favor of his neighbors.
Brown was a bad business man. It is said he was too honest. He was an expert at judging fur and had other skills, but primarily, John Brown was known for his integrity and honesty. He was a dangerous individual for this reason. John Brown not only told the truth about the products he was grading or trading, it seemed to others that he sabotaged his own ability to succeed. Not only an abolitionist, Brown was a white man who would educate his children with black children. He would worship with Africans and freed slaves. John Brown would not tolerate the patronizing of blacks. While many if not most American abolitionist were still committed to both racist assumptions of human intelligence and culturally preferred racially discriminatory social outcomes, Brown thought them balderdash. He was not an abolitionist who thought good things about blacks, he was an egalitarian who insisted that whites sit at the same table, live in the same towns and houses, and worship in the same churches. He also insisted that whites were no better in any way that blacks, and that whites should refuse privilege.
John Brown displayed righteousness in his ethics, his ability to embody the gospel commandment to love God and love one's neighbor. Brown did not just insist, he knew wholeheartedly that black Americans and Africa ex-patriots were human beings without distinction. He lived his life as such, and he did so at great risk to his ability to feed his family, and, at great risk to his family's survival. Brown trusted that God would be faithful to his family and church in light of any suffering resultant from covenant faithfulness. He should be deemed righteous because he saw the cross and resurrection as the divine embodiment of God's own covenant righteousness with creation. John Brown is a living witness to the truth of Romans 3 in a manner that most American Christian will refuse to identify with.
The ghost of Old John Brown judges us to the spite of our apparent faith. I have heard it said, there have been men and women ready to die on behalf of slaves (many of my Quaker fore-bearers among them) but John Brown was a white man that was willing to kill other white men if it meant that justice would be won. He believed he was being faithful to God's own righteousness. This should not be understood as a glorifying of violence.
There is more to discuss if we are to understand Brown as the one righteous American white man. It is that Brown's anger was a righteous anger that is evident in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Is it possible to understand righteousness in work of Brown in light of the pacifist who tried to murder Hitler? Jesus can be said to have exhibited righteous anger when he turned over the tables of the Temple. In fact, Jesus is remembered to have used a scourge in the process.
Jesus is not understood as righteous because he used a scourge. In fact, Jesus only identified the use of violence as a means of being identified as one numbered with the unrighteous. Yet, there is evidence of righteous anger playing an integral role in the manner in which Jesus embodied the divine self. Righteous anger should be understood as the anger articulated by a person of faith who sees sin and injustice, not simply as poor or destructive behavior, but as an organized disregard for covenant of the likes we see exhibited by Saul in his hunt of David. Righteous anger is the result of being witness to an ongoing disregard of covenant obligations being enacted as rituals of faith by those who claim to be the church. Jesus in the temple or against the Pharisees and Scribes is an example of a righteous man being driven to act.
Bonhoeffer exhibits righteous anger in response to the Hitler, a man who did not even claim faith as an informant of his genocide. John Brown saw the American institution of slavery as the ultimate act of sacrilege. He challenged this sacrilege wherever he found it, and we know that Old John Brown went looking for it. It must be stated here unequivocally, however, that like Jesus and Bonhoeffer, the old man was driven by love. It must be stated – John Brown was driven by love of his fellow human beings, and his love of a righteous God.
Brown easily displayed love in most all of his endeavors. He fell victim to hatred at times, and he acted upon it in murderous ways. The fact of Brown's inconsistencies is in no way, at least biblically, an indicator of righteousness. What is most evident in Brown is unalterable sin. Again, we cannot confuse sin with righteousness, because we already understand that the most righteous persons of the faith were indeed full of sin. In biographies, historical documents, public record and news accounts, John Brown was viewed as a man of integrity and a man who understood mercy, even is the presence of his enemies. Brown was a man who won the respect of his southern jailers, southern ministers, and southern academics who believed that no greater threat to the southern way of life existed than that which was discovered to dwell in a Virginia jail cell awaiting trial and execution.
There have been many histories that have attempted to discredit Brown, most always centering on the insistence that he must have been insane. No sane white man would have done what Brown did for blacks was the narrative. In fact, Brown's life could have most likely been spared if he would only have agreed to plead for mercy and state that he was not of sound mind when he launched the raid on Harper's Ferry. Yet to do so would have been the epitome of unrighteousness in the faithfulness of John Brown. Fro it was the gospel truth that stood behind his understanding of race-relations, and the evil represented in the institution of American slavery. I will state that slavery in the United States is as indicative of unrighteousness as one can find in the history of the American church, rivaled only by the reinforcement of this truth we find established in Jim Crow and other American institutions.
Sin got the best of John Brown, but if we consider the nature of his Christian faith; and the historical evidence of his willing to suffer financially - and ultimately - his willingness to suffer death; we must acknowledge that his experience of the cross understood violence, when instituted in measured ways, as an act of righteousness. Inspired by the belief in righteous self-sacrifice and a belief in the redemptive qualities of self-sacrificial violence which could in turn infuse American society with the kingdom of God, Brown led men to murder at Harpers Ferry.
Old John Brown was at his worst, however, when he murdered in Kansas.
Old John Brown was at his worst when he ran illegal guns.
Old John Brown was at his worst when he felt the need to lie instead of trust the gospel truth.
Yet, Brown was at his best when he led freed slaves to Canada. He was at his best when he provided books to blacks, and meals to slaves on the run when he could not feed his own family. Brown was full of Christian love and sacrifice, even more so that when he was full of sin. It is here that Brown is most able to bring us to Christ. While John Brown is, as I suggest, the epitome of righteousness in an unholy nation with an unholy history, he is the most prominent example of why it is only through the cross that we are truly brought into righteousness with the God of Abraham and Sarah.
Ultimately, both Abraham and YHWH understood that we could not be righteous beyond declaring what righteousness is and bearing witness to that truth. John Brown is deemed righteous in my eyes, not because he did the right thing, but because he understood the truth of the gospel and did not compromise that truth. Brown's truth and faith is not found in his murderous raids against tyranny. Brown's righteousness is found in his ability to tell the gospel truth when it did not favor him, and in fact, seemed to leave him awry of the promises of a faithful God. It is here that Old John Brown leads us to Christ, for in understanding the righteousness of the old man, we understand that while Jesus shows us how to live a life of faith, we indeed must be made righteous only through grace and mercy of a God who loves us despite our sin and brokenness. Despite his and our righteousness, we are utterly and ultimately confused about the nature of justice.
The big lie of American Christianity is the belief that Jesus' execution means we go to heaven. I'm not sure any first century Jews wanted to go to heaven. For a first-century Jew, salvation was rescue from the Romans. For a 19th -century American slave, salvation was a trip to Canada or freed status in a northern state. For contemporary white Americans, salvation means we go to heaven despite our sins. But Jesus brought a different salvation story than the one sold by American preachers and television evangelists. Jesus saw righteousness as all of humanity overcoming distinctions and accepting adoption into the family of Abraham. Jesus, and his ethic of love and inclusion, opened the way for Gentiles to sit with the people of God at the messianic banquet and become one with one another. As the text indicates, we who were not a people are a people. We who did not have a god have a God.
Americans are absent of righteousness because we sell a salvation that allows us to excuse injustice in favor of easy grace. We are in a state of unrighteousness because we say that sin is sin, and as such, refuse to recognize faithfulness as being an opportunity to acceptance grace – the joy of receiving God and covenant promises uttered long ago. John Brown is not our salvation, yet we refuse the true nature of grace and mercy because we fail to see how evident God's grace and mercy is in the life of the old man. In his story and in our brokenness, we recognize that to accept what Jesus calls us to do, which is to bear our cross, we will suffer, and we will sin, and we will experience pain and forsakenness. We are called, just as John Brown did, to empty ourselves of privilege so that others may know the righteousness of God, realizing that only the worst may happen. This is the faith of Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego..
It is because of Jesus that we can, as John Brown was, be exposed as sinners and murderers and liars and still be made righteous in the eyes of an always-faithful and always just God. In Jesus we receive righteousness as a condition of an contractual obligation being met. This does not absolve us of reflecting the grace and mercy necessary to that task. Brown is the only example of one driven by a desire to be faithful to God in gratitude for our righteous status, in that he responds to grace in a Christ-like kenotic manner. WE should recognize in Old John Brown's own faithfulness can we at once understand, not only the nature of receiving grace and mercy as a covenant response to our own murderous will, but the manner in which God allows us to fail miserable and still find redemption. We can still be made right, we can overcome brokenness. We can sin and be vindicated in the end by a righteous God.
Faith is required. Even the proof-texting civic religionist of Christendom insist upon this. And it is in John Brown, David, Hannah, and Tamar that we find out what true faith is. It is not an easy or comfortable thing, and it is not, absolutely not, belief. We can say and believe anything we want about God and the work accomplished in the life and death of Jesus. That is not representative of faith. Most critics of John Brown are invested in their won self-righteousness and the maintenance of order at the expense of true and faithful religious practice. Not only is this not Christ-like, it wholly lacks faith. If anyone was in need of grace and mercy, it was the old man. If any of us do not understand the truth of our own dire need for grace and mercy, it is because we are not known as righteous and refuse to understand it as a state of faithful relationship with the divine. I find that condition, one of righteousness, as known in the history of those of us of European ancestry in United States, to be found only in the one righteous man who was a man after God's own heart. He is John Brown