Michael Kessler, "John Brown's disobedience: Just Law and Religion."
150 years ago--in October 1859--John Brown led a raid on a U.S. armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He hoped to gather arms and lead an army to fight slaveholders. Instead, he was quickly stopped and hanged for his lawless actions. Is he a hero, a martyr, or a criminal?
Or is he all three at once? Whatever you judge, his legacy of violent resistance to slavery still raises questions about when resistance to lawful authority is meritorious.
Brown was angry--angry that some of the people in his nation held slaves. He was also angry at the peaceful abolitionists who refused to advocate for forceful overthrow of the institution of slavery. Something must be done, and Brown was the man to do it. His actions helped set off a chain of events that ended in the Civil War.
Brown hoped to raise an army of the willing who would fight against slaveholding factions. He led a group of 21 other men--a mix of blacks and whites--on a raid of the Harper's Ferry arsenal in hopes of securing enough arms to pose a serious challenge. He was wounded, quickly captured, and tried for treason.
By December 1859, he was hanging from the gallows. He left a note with a prison guard that predicted the bloodshed about to engulf the nation: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood." Within a year and a half, the nation was torn asunder in bloody battles.
At his trial, he described his deeply religious convictions for the plight of his enslaved brethren and his deep sense of the injustice that slavery perpetrated. Consider his speech upon being convicted:
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, of a design on my part to free the slaves. I intended, certainly, to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended to do. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite the slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.... This court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done - as I have always freely admitted I have done - in behalf of His despised poor is no wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments - I say, let it be done!
It is hard to quarrel with Brown's claim: a gross injustice like slavery perpetrated under the banner of law should be stopped. Since the legislative changes had not been forthcoming, Brown considered the only option he had to be armed resistance. Disrupt the institution of slavery that God Himself finds despicable.
Indeed, Brown's conviction was borne out to be true--the gross injustice of slavery has been universally condemned for a century by all but the most ardent haters. We have many reasons for the conviction that slavery should be unlawful, most especially widely held religious convictions about the dignity and equality of each human being and rational grounds for thinking of each person as free and equal.
We still struggle, however, with the extent to which laws we judge to be inconsistent with a higher law should be followed. This is an old legacy. Thomas More's famous refusal to swear the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy in 1534 left him parted with his head. His last words on the scaffold were "The King's good servant, but God's First."
Abortion is one area of contemporary debate. Even most who condemn abortion cringe at those who advocate for violence to stop abortion. The murder of Dr. George Tiller was condemned by most groups, including many who advocate for outlawing access to abortion. But when pushed, some people may consider it acceptable to commit unlawful actions in the pursuit of higher justice. The person who killed Dr. Tiller claims to be God's servant.
It's easy to make Brown a hero--he certainly fought for a worthy cause--even while he was, technically, a criminal. What do we do in other cases--like abortion--in which there is wider disagreement about the moral legitimacy of the laws in question? Can we condone people who appeal to a higher law while ignoring the civil law? Do we hold those like Brown accountable to the civil law, even while privately agreeing with their actions? If we condone their disobedience, how do we protect the social order from chaos if everyone is judging for themselves what "higher law" should be followed?
What do you think?
Michael Kessler, Ph.D., is Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Assistant Director at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. His current work is on legal and political notions of fundamental rights, particularly about individual moral liberties and religious freedom. Kessler received his Ph.D. in Religion and Moral and Political Theory from the University of Chicago, where he was a William Rainey Harper Fellow and held a Henry Luce Dissertation Fellowship. He graduated with a BA with honors in Theology, a second major in Philosophy, and a Classics minor, from Valparaiso University. Kessler has also studied law at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of a number of articles and reviews, and co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia (University of Chicago Press, 2003).