John Brown understood that a faith which sided with the powerful, with the oppressor, with the tyrant was a cankered and malignant faith, even if it mouthed platitudes about God. In 1837, after an abolitionist preacher and editor was lynched by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois, Brown arose in his Ohio church, and with his right hand he made a solemn oath: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” A man of rare and wild faith, Brown rejected both the conventional religious self-justifications for slavery but also the caution of many liberal abolitionists. The former rationalized the brutal system by recourse to biblical precedent and by convoluted exegesis, with most ministers south of the Mason-Dixon Line (and some north of it too) defending slavery as, in the words of one Baptist Georgian, “an institution of God.” John Brown disagreed, for his was the Lord of Exodus. For Brown, the destruction of the slave system must be complete, total, and unyielding. Any defense of human bondage, especially if it should do so by recourse to scripture, was an abomination and blasphemy.
Brown held to his dedication with complete and utter devotion; it animated his actions when he commanded anti-slavery troops during the 1856 conflagration known as Bleeding Kansas, a prelude to the Civil War, and during his 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry when he unsuccessfully tried to trigger a rebellion of enslaved people. A daguerreotype taken of Brown in the studio of African American photographer Augustus Washington a decade after he took his oath recreates the moment. Clean-shaven, Brown lacks the appearance of Hebrew prophets like Daniel and Jeremiah whom he evokes in the later iconic representations of the abolitionist during his trial and martyrdom. Yet the prophetic fire is still apparent in the image, despite Brown’s more conventional look; he is square-jawed and deadly serious, with hard eyes and a righteous gaze. That is the Brown whom Henry David Thoreau eulogizes when he described him as an “angel of light.” When the painter John Steuart Curry was commissioned to depict Brown on a mural in the Kansas State Capital, he opted to present him as Thoreau evoked – a triumphantly bearded Old Testament prophet with a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other, come to wage holy war against the slave masters and the ideology which bolstered them.
A very different circumstance would see a bible held aloft more than a century-and-a-half later and only around 75 miles to the east of where Brown was executed. When Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square a block from the White House, and posed with a leather-bound bible which he proceeded to hold above his head, the action may have been superficially similar to that of Brown in Curry’s mural, but the implications and meaning couldn’t have been more divergent. With neither consent of the Episcopal diocese nor the approval of the religious authorities who maintain St. John’s, peaceful protestors in the square were attacked with tear gas while the president strolled to the church for his photo opportunity. The significance of the image was clear – Trump wishes to marry his own political goals and positions to a nationalized Christianity, whereby theology and scripture are subverted and subsumed into the interests of the state. Brown would have well-recognized the type of dark faith which this represented, as would have his confidant, associate, and friend Frederick Douglass who said that “Between the Christianity of this land the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference,” for American religion was “corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical,” as indeed was Trump’s “faith” manifested as marketing before the two-century old church in Lafayette Square.
If Brown’s gospel was one of emancipation and liberation, then those whom he opposed held to a faith of oppression and power – same as it ever was. Both positions are varieties of what scholars call “political theology,” the way in which religious ideas influence and effect politics, even ostensible secular ideologies. Some hold to a political theology which emphasizes power, authority, and hegemony. This is the faith of the Emperor Constantine claiming to conquer in the sign of the cross, of Henry VIII declaring himself head of the Church of England, of Napoleon Bonaparte grabbing his crown from the Pope and giving himself a benediction during his Notre Dame coronation. To deny that Christianity has often been perverted into a hand-maiden of power is to deny the dark exigencies of Christian history. But there is a different gospel of power, one born from scripture itself, and Christ’s beatitude declaration that “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is the gospel of the eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was murdered by the Nazis. This is the gospel of John Brown. Both positions on power are political theologies, but one is on the side of lightness and the other of darkness.
Following the spectacle in front of St. John’s, radical theologian Jordan Miller, an analyst at the progressive Westar Institute, released a statement denouncing Trump’s political theology. He writes that by “Wielding a bible in front of a historic church after having gassed peaceful protestors sends a direct signal: the sovereign power of God is on the side of the brutal repression of anti-racist and anti-fascist protestors.” Miller rejected such authoritarian faith, and would “roundly and unequivocally condemn it as demonic.” The last word is a telling and crucial one. Useful as well. Miller could have described the photo opportunity as self-serving, hypocritical, or cynical (and it was all of those things), but he rather chose to use theological language which recognizes such a ritual for what it is – a manifestation of a dark religious vision.
When Brown struggled against the slave system, when Douglas denounced the ministerial justifications for slavery, they understood that what they were battling was its own dark faith. There is a charged power in calling something “demonic;” traditional political rhetoric is positively milquetoast when compared to the enchantment and significance of theological vocabulary and religious rhetoric. One need not believe in those literal demons to acknowledge the demonic when it’s encountered, and we lose the power of prophetic urgency if we abandon such language. How can we exorcize those demons if we can’t call them by their names? For Brown religion offered a vocabulary which made it possible to dream of utopia, to fight for emancipation, and to strive towards liberty. There is no prophetic urgency of a Brown without his prophetic language, without his understanding that disobedience to tyrants is obedience towards God.
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.