I have this strange habit of reading books on planes that scare the person next to me. Happens every time. After the initial awkward introduction, the standard trapped-on-an-airplane question to a twenty-something with a book in her hand is, “So, what are you reading?”
And I answer, “A novel about the Holocaust.” Or “The memoir of a guy with an abusive father.” Or “A Shakespearean tragedy about racism and deception where all the good guys either kill each other themselves.”
“Oh,” they say, edging away.
The rest of the flight is relatively quiet.
Last night, I stood in line to board a plane, inching along and reading the story of John Brown sitting on his own coffin, riding to the scaffold in the pages of Tony Horowitz’s Midnight Rising. The biography details the life and violent insurrection of a religious extremist who believed himself appointed by God to kill for the cause of freedom.
I didn’t advertise the topic of the book to TSA agents as I went through security.
At one point, I glanced up and noticed that the girl next to me was also carrying a book—Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
I’ve never read the book, but I’m familiar with the musical, and began absently humming one of the songs. Two paragraphs, five shuffling steps, and one interview about the Paris terrorist attacks later, I realize which song I’ve chosen. The lyrics go like this:
No one mourns the Wicked.
No one cries, “They won’t return!”
No one lays a lily on their grave
The good man scorns the Wicked.
Through their lives, our children learn
What we miss
When we misbehave.
The song goes on, a solemn warning about the death of the Wicked Witch. But as the musical progresses, the audience learns that things aren’t quite so simple. The show adds a new subtext of motives and good intentions and reveals the distortions to her story by the winners who wrote the history books of Oz.
It could basically be John Brown’s soundtrack too, because no one quite knew whether he was a hero or a villain either. Here are the two opposing opinions about who he was and what he did:
John Brown was a high-ideals madman who hacked a bunch of pro-slavery guys to death with a sword in front of their families in Kansas and never got caught. He led a raid on Harpers Ferry to seize weapons to arm slaves to murder their masters (and their wives and children) in their sleep. The first person his men shot was a free black man. They took hostages, killed more innocent townsfolk, and committed treason against their country. Basically, John Brown was a cruel, authoritarian terrorist who deserved what he got. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Also, he was possibly literally crazy. (No, probably crazy. Look at his eyes!)
John Brown was a passionate abolitionist who peacefully helped a number of slaves escape from Canada on the Underground Railroad. He treated black people with dignity and respect, and knew that slavery was so entrenched in American culture that it would never go away slowly and peacefully, which is what many whites of his day used as an excuse for not acting. He led a raid on Harpers Ferry in order to free all the slaves in Virginia, effectively weakening slavery enough to end it in the South. He was proud to die for a worthy cause, and his last speech put the institution of slavery on trial as a moral disgrace and a sin against God.
Well then. Which was he? Devil or saint? Hero or lunatic? Both…or neither?
I’ll let you think about that yourself, but here are a few things I think modern Christians can learn from John Brown.
- Don’t lead a badly-planned raid that kills civilians, doesn’t attract a single slave to join the uprising, ends with most of your men dead or captured, and utterly fails to end the evil of slavery.
Wait, that doesn’t apply to your life? Okay, fine. Let’s try again.
- Be very careful when you claim to speak or act for God. Think and pray before you say that God is on your side or that the Bible agrees with your opinion. Both John Brown and the slaveholders he opposed were quite sure they had correctly interpreted the Scriptures (and I personally don’t think either of them did). That’s a sobering realization.
- When faced with a complex issue—political, theological, ethical, whatever—resist the urge to simplify. There are probably more positions to take than two extremes. People rarely fall neatly into caricatures or even categories. Some questions might be harder than you thought when you talk to someone with a different point of view.
- The world has always been evil. Human beings turning to violence in a way that terrifies those around them is nothing new. I’m not entirely convinced that the world is getting worse, though I think technology gives greater weight, statistic-wise, to our terrible choices. But you see the same depravity no matter what era you go back to.
- It’s easier to cast our heroes and villains in dramatic shades of black and white, making sweeping generalizations and forgetting that most people are just…people. For example, both Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln strongly condemned John Brown’s actions. (And, incidentally, both thought that slavery was wrong but would fade away on its own over time.)
Those are my first thoughts. I might have more later, but I wanted to give these now, because we’re living in dark and scary times, where it feels like things are just about to fall apart. Let’s learn from the past and think carefully about what our faith looks like applied to current events.