Friday, December 4, 2009

Remembering John Brown

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Hebrews 13:3

John Brown was executed 150 year ago this week, on December 1, 1859. The New York Times remembered that event with two very different essays. One compared him to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. The other argued that he was “Freedom’s Martyr” and should be given a posthumous Presidential pardon.

Brown was a martyr and a terrorist. He was a fanatic and a freedom fighter. And he was a devout Christian. In his essay comparing Brown to the terrorists of 9/11, Tony Horwitz calls Brown a “bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the institution of slavery.” Of course, Christian Fundamentalism was not developed as a theological system until many decades later, but Brown did see himself as acting out of deep Christian convictions, and he believed that he was chosen by God to free the slaves.

Brown maintained that he was living out the biblical injunction to, “Remember them that are in bonds.” With hundreds of biblical passages accepting slavery as normal and natural in biblical times, Brown focused on one of the few verses that seem to point in the other direction. Those words are the first phrase of Hebrews 13:3 in the King James Version of the Bible. They are more accurately rendered in the New Revised Standard Version as “those who are in prison.” What this means is that he based his Holy War on a false reading of the text. (One might pause here to ponder the perils of literalism.)

Of course, it wasn’t really the one phrase. Brown, like the other Abolitionists, insisted that though there were many passages seeming to condone slavery, the whole thrust of the Bible was toward freedom. And it was the second part of the verse which reveals more of Brown’s motivation. He really did identify with “those who are being tortured, as though” he himself “were being tortured.”

In the fall of 1861, Julia Ward Howe visited Washington, D.C. and saw a parade of Union troops. On her way back to her hotel, she heard regiments singing “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on.” She did not care for the lyrics, but the marching tune stuck with her and early the next morning she woke up and wrote the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Ironically, the song was not originally about the famous abolitionist. It was first sung to tease a young Massachusetts militia man who shared the same name. Later, the song spread to other regiments who had never heard of the young man from Massachusetts. More verses were added and the Massachusetts man was forgotten.

John Brown leaves a complicated legacy. We cannot condone is fanaticism, but we should not forget the compassion behind his violence.

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