Archive for the ‘Judith 13’ Tag

The Beheading of Holofernes and the Defeat of the Assyrians   Leave a comment

Above:  Judith with the Head of Holofernes, by Simon Vouet

Image in the Public Domain

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READING JUDITH

PART VII

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Judith 13:1-15:14

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The Lord struck him down by the hand of a female!

–Judith 13:15c, The New American Bible–Revised Edition (2011)

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A very attentive reader of the Hebrew Bible may think of Jael (Judges 4:17-22; 5:24-27), who used a hammer to drive a tent peg through Sisera’s temple until the tent peg went into the ground.  One may also recall David beheading Goliath (1 Samuel 17:51).

The New English Bible (1970), The Revised English Bible (1989), and The New Revised Standard Version (1989) capture the original Greek text well.  Those translations tell us that Holofernes was

dead drunk.

Renderings in other translations include the following:

  1. overcome with wine;
  2. drunk with wine;
  3. wine-sodden;
  4. overcharged with wine;
  5. drunk; and
  6. unconscious from the wine.

In a conservative, patriarchal culture, a man dying by the hand of a woman was especially disgraceful, from a certain point of view.  The dismay of male chauvinists was great.

Furthermore, sexual innuendo pervades the story.  Without delving into the depths of Freudian excesses, I point to the following elements:

  1. The decapitation of Holofernes is a form of decapitation.
  2. “Bethulia” means “virgin.”
  3. “Bagoas” means “eunuch.”

At the end of Chapter 15, the Assyrian army, without its head (and its former leader without his head), fled in panic.  Judith’s strategy was effective.  All she had to do was to kill the commander to throw the army into confusion.

And, as Judith and the people of Bethulia readily acknowledged, God was the real victor.  God had worked through Judith.

When God works through us, may we acknowledge that readily.  May we do the same when we realize that God has worked or is working through others.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 12, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE FOURTEENTH DAY OF ADVENT

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON, ABOLITIONIST AND FEMINIST; AND MARIA STEWART, ABOLITIONIST, FEMINIST, AND EDUCATOR

THE FEAST OF SAINTS BARTHOLOMEW BUONPEDONI AND VIVALDUS, MINISTERS AMONG LEPERS

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM LOUIS POTEAT, PRESIDENT OF WAKE FOREST COLLEGE, AND BIOLOGIST; HIS BROTHER, EDWIN MCNEILL POTEAT, SR., SOUTHERN AND NORTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER, SCHOLAR, AND PRESIDENT OF FURMAN UNIVERSITY; HIS SON, EDWIN MCNEILL POTEAT, JR., SOUTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER, MISSIONARY, MUSICIAN, HYMN WRITER, AND SOCIAL REFORMER; HIS BROTHER, GORDON MCNEILL POTEAT, SOUTHERN AND NORTHERN BAPTIST AND CONGREGATIONALIST MINISTER AND MISSIONARY; AND HIS COUSIN, HUBERT MCNEILL POTEAT, SOUTHERN BAPTIST ACADEMIC AND MUSICIAN

THE FEAST OF SAINT LUDWIK BARTOSIK, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1941

THE FEAST OF THOMAS CANNING, U.S. COMPOSER AND MUSIC EDUCATOR

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Judith Before Holofernes   Leave a comment

Above:  Holofernes

Image in the Public Domain

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READING JUDITH

PART VI

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Judith 10:1-12:20

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Holofernes was like his master, King Nebuchadnezzar II.  He was vain, boastful, and quick to accept flattery.  The general also consumed lies as easily and in great quantities as easily as he drank too much wine.

Judith played the role of the seductress well.  She understood male nature, which she exploited.  In doing so, Judith placed herself in much danger.  She was even sleeping in the tent of Holofernes.  Her undercover (pardon the pun) mission was always perilous.

A few aspects of these three chapters are especially worthy of explanation and elaboration.  

  1. Judith lied when she said her people were so desperate they were about to violate the food laws in the Law of Moses.  She referenced Leviticus 17:10-16 and Numbers 18:8-32.  Yet, at the time of the composition of the Book of Judith, any violation of the Law of Moses for the purpose of preserving human life was acceptable, according to one school of Jewish thought (1 Maccabees 2:29-41).
  2. Ironically, Holofernes told the truth, at least partially.  He said that Judith was renowned throughout the world (11:20-23).  The Book of Judith has long provided inspiration for artists.
  3. Judith was in extreme sexual danger (12:5).  So was Sarah in Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:17.
  4. Judith established her routine of leaving the Assyrian army camp unchallenged each night (12:6-9).  This strategy paid off in 13:11.
  5. Judith had to work quickly.  She had only five days to deliver her people (7:29-32; 8:32-35).
  6. Judith obeyed kosher food laws, even in the Assyrian army camp.  (One may think of Daniel and his friends in Daniel 1, too.)
  7. Judith’s unnamed female maid/servant was loyal and essential.  Judith’s servant was intelligent, unlike the gullible Bagoas, servant of Holofernes. 
  8. In 11:19-23, Judith used language laced with allusions to the prophets and the Book of Psalms.  Verses 19 and 20, for example, echoed Isaiah 40:3-4; 35:8-10; 42:16; 51:11; 56:10-11;; as well as 2 Samuel 7:13; Psalm 89:4; Ezekiel 34:8; Zechariah 10:2 and 13:7.
  9. Ironically, the wisdom at which Holofernes marveled was deception.
  10. The words of Holofernes, “…your God will be my God…” (11:22), an echo of Ruth 1:16, are vague.  Perhaps the character had no idea what he was saying.
  11. Holofernes lusted after Judith (11:16).
  12. The texts depict Judith as a great beauty.  They also describe Assyrian soldiers as drooling over her.  Therein resided part of Judith’s power, which she used to the full extent necessary.

The Book of Judith contains elements of satire and comedy.  The text is rich with irony in many places.  For example, even a boastful fool accidentally tells the truth sometimes.  The intoxicated Holofernes also imagines himself to be in control of the situation.  He has no idea how wrong he is.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 11, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE THIRTEENTH DAY OF ADVENT

THE FEAST OF LUKE OF PRAGUE AND JOHN AUGUSTA, MORAVIAN BISHOPS AND HYMN WRITERS

THE FEAST OF SAINT KAZIMIERZ TOMASZ SYKULSKI, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1942

THE FEAST OF LARS OLSEN SKREFSRUD, HANS PETER BOERRESEN, AND PAUL OLAF BODDING, LUTHERAN MISSIONARIES IN INDIA

THE FEAST OF MARYRS OF EL MOZOTE, EL SALVADOR, DECEMBER 11-12, 1981

THE FEAST OF SAINT SEVERIN OTT, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK

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The Character and Prayer of Judith   Leave a comment

Above:  Blanche Sweet as Judith in Judith of Bethulia (1914)

Image in the Public Domain

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READING JUDITH

PART V

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Judith 8:1-9:14

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The Book of Judith exists in two parts:  Chapters 1-7 and Chapters 8-16.  We finally meet the titular character in Chapter 8.

Judith was a pious widow and an ascetic.  Her status as a widow enabled her to execute her plan to liberate her people.  Judith, as a widow, was not under the control of any man in a patriarchal society.  She also spared no words in criticizing many of her frightened compatriots for their faithlessness.  She accused them of testing God and putting God on a human timetable.  And, as I wrote in the previous post, Judith rejected the popular interpretation that the present predicament constituted divine punishment for their sins and the sins of their ancestors.  No, Judith insisted, the predicament was a test of their faith.  

Judith’s prayer repeats the theme that God defends the downtrodden.  God’s power is greater than might based on force.  Sometimes God works through unexpected people, such as a widow.  Judith’s prayer also includes a reference to the rape of Dinah and the subsequent revenge on the tribe of Simeon (Genesis 34).

Judith’s plan to avenge and deliver her people depended on deceit.  Who would expect that strategy from a pious widow?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 10, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE TWELFTH DAY OF ADVENT

THE FEAST OF KARL BARTH, SWISS REFORMED MINISTER, THEOLOGIAN, AND BIBLICAL SCHOLAR; AND HIS SON, MARKUS BARTH, SWISS LUTHERAN MINISTER AND BIBLICAL SCHOLAR

THE FEAST OF HOWELL ELVET LEWIS, WELSH CONGREGATIONALIST CLERGYMAN AND POET

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN ROBERTS, WELSH ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND MARTYR, 1610

THE FEAST OF PAUL EBER, GERMAN LUTHERAN THEOLOGIAN AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF ROBERT MURRAY, CANADIAN PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

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Campaigns of Holofernes   Leave a comment

Above:  Holofernes’s Army Crossing the Euphrates River

Image in the Public Domain

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READING JUDITH

PART II

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Judith 2:1-3:10

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The Book of Judith, like the Book of Tobit, has a bizarre sense of geography.  For example, Judith 2:21 has the army under the command of General Holofernes marching from Nineveh to Cilicia (about 300 miles) in three days.  This is unrealistic.  So is having King Nebuchadnezzar II based in Nineveh.

As one may recall from Chapter 1, King Nebuchadnezzar II had won his war against King Arphaxad of the Medes.  Nebuchadnezzar II had done this without the support of much of his empire.  He was a sore winner.  Nebuchadnezzar II dispatched Holofernes to make those disloyal populations wish they had been loyal.  Holofernes succeeded in this mission in Chapters 2 and 3.  Israel was next on his list.

Holofernes caused “fear and dread” to fall upon Sidon and Tyre in Judith 2:28.  This phrase was important because of the reversal of fortune in Judith 15:2.  In that verse, God, via Judith and Israelites, caused “fear and dread” to overcome the Assyrians.  With Nebuchadnezzar II as their king, they should have been the Chaldeans, not the Assyrians.  (The Book of Judith is a novella, not a work of history.)

In the Book of Judith, more so than in the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar II represented

worldly power run amok,

to quote Lawrence M. Wills in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume III (1999).  Tyrannical power, reduced to one man’s ego, was especially dangerous.  And, in the context of the Hellenistic Age from which the Book of Judith emerged, King Nebuchadnezzar II also represented the Hellenistic thread to Jewish life, faith, and identity.  In the story, King Nebuchadnezzar II needed people to enable and empower him and his agenda; he needed men such as General Holofernes.  The monarch was a distant figure, starting in the middle of Chapter 2.  His name occurred in 2:19; 3:2; 3:8; 4:1; 11:1; 11:4; 11:7; 11:23; 12:13; and 14:18.  From Chapters 2 to 16, Holofernes was the face of the enemy.

The power structure in the Book of Judith has remained, unfortunately.  Details and personnel have changed.  Nevertheless, the dynamic of people empowering and enabling a powerful, dangerous egomaniac has remained relevant.   Certain human beings have always had only the power others have granted them.  It has always been a form of idolatry.

In contrast to the power structure in the empire in the Book of Judith, O reader, consider the alternative in the Book of Judith.  That alternative, grounded in the worship of God, consists of balanced relationships in the context of faithful community.  We all need faithful community.  “Jesus and Me” is a heresy.  I tell you, O reader, that faithful community has saved my life and come to my aid in other crucial ways.  Anyone who says, “I did this by myself, without anybody’s help,” or “I don’t need anyone” is objectively wrong.  The Bible teaches mutuality.  It teaches complete dependence on God.  The Bible does not teach rugged individualism.  Neither does it teach empowering and enabling tyrants and would-be authoritarian rulers.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 7, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE NINTH DAY OF ADVENT

THE FEAST OF SAINT MARIA JOSEPHA ROSSELLO, COFOUNDER OF THE DAUGHTERS OF OUR LADY OF PITY

THE FEAST OF ANNE ROSS COUSIN, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF EMMA FRANCIS, LUTHERAN DEACONESS IN THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS AND HARLEM

THE FEAST OF GEORG FRIEDRICH HELLSTROM, DUTCH-GERMAN MORAVIAN MUSICIAN, COMPOSER, AND EDUCATOR

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM GUSTAVE POLACK, U.S. LUTHERAN MINISTER, LITURGIST, AND HYMN WRITER AND TRANSLATOR

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The Defeat of Arphaxad   Leave a comment

Above:  Arphaxad

Image in the Public Domain

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READING JUDITH

PART I

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Judith 1:1-16

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The Book of Judith is a novella, like the Books of Tobit and Esther.  This story exists in two parts.  Chapters 1-7 establish the crisis facing the Jews of Bethulia.  Chapters 8-16 contain the story of the titular character.  The Book of Judith, composed between 135 and 100 B.C.E., during or shortly after the reign (134-104 B.C.E.) of John Hyrcanus I (named in 1 Maccabees 13:53, 16:1-23), includes details and characters from five centuries, mixed and matched in odd combinations.  The Book of Judith also exists in four Greek recensions, four ancient translations, and a Hebrew translation from the Vulgate version.

The Book of Judith, although never in the Jewish canon of scripture, has canonical status in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.  Certain early Christian writings attest to the high esteem in which some saints held that text.  One can, for example, read St. Jerome (347-419), the great, frequently moody translator of the Vulgate, describing Judith as (1) a model widow, and (2) a type of the Church.  One can also read of St. Jerome describing St. Mary of Nazareth, the Mother and Bearer of God, as a new Judith.  One can also read St. Clement (I) of Rome, Bishop of Rome from 88/91 to 97/101, writing in his (First) Epistle to the Corinthians, cite Esther and Judith as examples of heroic love of their people.  

“Judith,” literally “Jewish woman,” echoes other Jewish women.  These include Jael (Judges 4), Deborah (Judges 4-5), and Sarah (Genesis 11, 12, 16-18, 20-22).

Now, for Judith 1:1-16….

Do not bother trying to keep track of historical dates, O reader; they are all over the chronology.  Likewise, the measurements of the wall of Ectabana are hyperbolic.  Who has ever seen a wall 105 feet high and 75 feet thick, with tower gates 150 feet high and 60 feet wide?

On the surface, this is a story about the warfare between King Arphaxad of the Medes and King Nebuchadnezzar II (allegedly of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, but really of the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire).  Chapter 1 ends with Jews in Samaria and Judah dreading the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar II for not supporting his campaign against Arphaxad.

A careful reader may know that King Nebuchadnezzar II governed from Babylon, not Nineveh.

Chapter 1 sets up the rest of the Book of Judith.  One theme is already evident.  That theme is whether one should be loyal to a tyrant.  The answer is “no.”

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 6, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

THE EIGHTH DAY OF ADVENT

THE FEAST OF SAINT NICHOLAS OF MYRA, BISHOP

THE FEAST OF SAINT ABRAHAM OF KRATIA, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK, ABBOT, BISHOP, AND HERMIT

THE FEAST OF ALICE FREEMAN PALMER, U.S. EDUCATOR AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF HENRY USTICK ONDERDONK, EPISCOPAL BISHOP, LITURGIST, AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF PHILIP AND DANIEL BERRIGAN, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND SOCIAL ACTIVISTS

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Wrestling with John Brown   Leave a comment

tragicprelude

Above:  Tragic Prelude (1938-1940), by John Steuart Curry, Capitol Building, Topeka, Kansas

A Fair Use Image

John Brown as a Latter-Day Moses-Christ Figure

Notice, O reader, the Alpha and the Omega on the Bible.

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Always treat others as you would like others to treat you:  that is the law and the prophets.

–Matthew 7:12, The Revised English Bible (1989)

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[Judith] went to the bed-rail beside Holofernes’s head, reached down his sword, and drawing close to the bed she gripped him by the hair.  “Now give me strength, O Lord, God of Israel,” she said, and struck at his neck twice with all her might and cut off his head.  She rolled the body off the bed and removed the mosquito-net from its posts; quickly she came out and gave Holofernes’ head to the maid, who put it in the food-bag.

–Judith 13:6-10a, The Revised English Bible (1989)

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Besides, Brown saw slavery as a state of war against an entire race.  Sometimes a social evil is so egregious, so entrenched, that violence is the only answer.  For those of John Brown’s moral vision, American slavery–a system of repression, torture, rape, and murder–had to be eliminated by any means.  And it was.

–David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist:  The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York, NY:  Random House, 2006), page x.  Paperback, 2006.

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This, then, is the truth:  the cost of liberty is less than the cost of repression, even though that cost be blood.

–William Edward Burghardt DuBois, John Brown, 1909.  Reprint, New York, NY:  The Modern Library, 2001, page 237.

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I have tried to be a pacifist.  Alas, that suit does not suit me.  I do, however, respect pacifists, for I wish that more people were nonviolent in that way.  Although I am a nonviolent person, I acknowledge the following realities:

  1. Violence is unavoidable sometimes;
  2. Nonviolence is the worst option on other occasions; and
  3. I live in freedom under the protection of police and military forces which protect me from the violence of bad people.

Violence has become an issue I have pondered deeply and regarding which I have arrived at nuanced opinions.  Many to my left and my right disagree with me strongly, often for different reasons.  In time I might change my mind, and therefore disagree with my current position.  I am a realist with a strong moral conscience, not an ideologue.  Jesus commands me to love my neighbors as I love myself and to behave toward them as I would have them to act toward me.  All people are my neighbors.  But what if one of my neighbors is holding others of my neighbors hostage and threatening their lives?  What if that criminal neighbor is thwarting all attempts to resolve the matter nonviolently?  Perhaps the violent liberation of my hostage neighbors will prove necessary, to the detriment of my criminal neighbor.

Now I step into the nineteenth century.

Frederick Douglass

Above:  Frederick Douglass, Circa 1870

Photographer = John White Hurn

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ds-07422

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), a great abolitionist, wrote of John Brown (1800-1859) in 1881:

He was a constant thorn in my side.  I could not help feeling that this man’s zeal in the cause of my enslaved people was holier and higher than mine.  I could speak for my race–he could fight for my race.  I could live for my race–John Brown could die for my race.  My zeal was bounded by time; his stretched into the silent depths of eternity.

Brown, who according to Douglass, put him to shame, has prompted a range of reactions and responses in many people.  On one end of the spectrum is the understanding of Brown as a hero and a martyr.  After his execution (December 2, 1859) many abolitionist ministers in the North, taking their inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), likened the gallows where Brown died to the cross of Christ, for example.

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Above:  John Brown–The Martyr (1870)

Image Creator = Currier & Ives

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZC2-2703

There were other opinions.  Many others supported the abolition of slavery yet condemned Brown’s tactics.  Abraham Lincoln was one prominent figure who held this opinion.  Then there were those who condemned Brown, his cause, and his tactics.  Many White Southerners of the time fit into this category.

Since Brown’s lifetime the range of opinions has persisted.  The treatment of him in public school textbooks has varied over time.  In some, for example, he was sane, but in others he was out of his mind.  I posit that his mental state was what it was, so both evaluations cannot not be accurate.  The range of opinions regarding Brown has indicated more about those who have held those perspectives than about the executed abolitionist.

John Brown

Above:  John Brown

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZ62-21600

On the positive side Brown was a radical for social justice.  At a time when most White Americans (even many abolitionists) were unapologetic racists Brown was not a racist.  He affirmed human equality and acted accordingly in a variety of ways.  For example, when he dined and spoke with African Americans, he treated them as his social equals–often to their shock and the surprise of onlooking White people.

His violence, however has caused generations of people to struggle with his legacy.  Yes, Brown was on the right side of history.  Yes, his activities (especially the raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859), sped up the coming of the Civil War, which hastened the end of slavery.  Yet hacking people to death in “Bleeding Kansas” was inconsistent with the Golden Rule, a standard he cited in court after the judge announced the death penalty on November 2, 1859:

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, — the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to do the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), — had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends — either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

The court acknowledges, 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. That 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 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, was not 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 submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. I feel no consciousness of my guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of any kind.

Let me say also, a word in regard to the statements made by some to those connected with me. I hear it has been said by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown was an Old Testament Christian who understood God to command him to smite evildoers, especially slaveholders and defenders of slavery.  He smote with skill and efficiency.

His violence–vigilantism at best and domestic terrorism at worst–was a serious matter for moral consideration at the time.  It is also such a matter in contemporary times.  Hopefully nobody who imagines himself or herself to be a latter-day John Brown will target me or someone I know for a reason he or she considers justifiable.  Although some violence becomes unavoidable due to human actions and violence becomes preferable for the same reasons, much violence is both avoidable and needless.  The cycle of violence is destructive to all involved in it.  May the level of violence in society decrease and the level of justice in society increase.

May we also give Brown his due, for he was unambiguously correct in at least one matter.  His last written statement, from December 2, 1859, the day of his execution, declared:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.  I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

(Corrected for spelling and punctuation)

The Civil War, which had become inevitable, was an extremely bloody affair.  Slavery was never going to end by means of slaves and antislavery activists asking nicely.  In states where the “Peculiar Institution of the South” (not entirely Southern, but overwhelmingly so) was the crucial to the economic, political, and social order, and was therefore entrenched, the way to end slavery was with violence.  Denmark Vesey (circa 1767-1822), Nat Turner (1800-1831), and John Brown understood this reality well.  So did certain federal officials, including Thomas Jefferson (a slaveholder) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).  So did leading Confederates, such as Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens (1812-1883), who declared to a cheering audience in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, that race-based slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

Brown simultaneously frightens me and earns my admiration and scorn.  It is a complicated response to a complicated man who was right and wrong at the same time.  In John Brown (1909), half a century after Brown died and during the latter stage of the construction of Jim Crow in the South, William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963) argued that

John Brown was right.

My evaluation is nuanced.  Brown was unambiguously correct about much, but his tactics and case should not become an excuse for any violent extremist.  The study of the past tells me that, among other things, violence can become a legitimate and necessary tactic of non-state players when the state is oppressive, stifling even nonviolent dissent.  Thus the oppressive state encourages the radicalization of its opponents.  These circumstances do not exist in many contexts in which non-state players commit violence in the name of social change.

Brown challenges me.  He defies easy categorization as either a hero or a villain.  He functions as a Rorschach test, forcing people to look into themselves.  So be it.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 4, 2015 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF ALFRED TENNYSON, ENGLISH POET

THE FEAST OF FREDERICK WILLIAM FOSTER, ENGLISH MORAVIAN BISHOP, LITURGIST, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF J. ROBERT HARRIS, SOUTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER AND WITNESS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

THE FEAST OF JOHN BROWNLIE, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, HYMN WRITER, AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

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