Political Theology and Divine Violence: A Forum on Ted A. Smith’s Weird John Brown

A Forum Edited by Davey Henreckson

Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, Stanford University Press, 2014, 224pp., $22.95
Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, Stanford University Press, 2014, 224pp., $22.95

Does religion intensify violence? Does religion complicate attempts to address violence? Ted A. Smith argues that theological reflection can rather enhance public conversations about violence and race in America.

The Marginalia Review of Books is partnering with Political Theology Today in a joint forum on Ted Smith’s Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics.

Contributions will be posted over the next few weeks with a response from Smith to conclude the forum. Contributors include: E. Brooks Holifield, William Cavanaugh, Peter Ochs, Keri Day, and Andrew R. Murphy.

E. Brooks Holifield, The Uses of Elusiveness


Ted Smith’s intriguing assessment of the raid on Harper’s Ferry and its implications for ethics, practical reasoning, history, and theology stands among a small handful of truly remarkable American Christian reflections on violence that have appeared during the past century. Written during a period in which many fear that religion intensifies violence and complicates attempts to talk about it, Smith advances the case that theological reflection can actually enhance the public conversation about both violence and race. He explores an act of non-state violence by a group who acted outside the law, believing themselves to be agents of divine redemption. Weird John Brown illustrates Smith’s call for “thick concrete histories” as modes of practical reasoning and theological work that illumine political quandaries and cast new light on ethical reflection.

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William T. Cavanaugh, The Blurred Line between Law and Violence


Rather than simply pointing to the fact of the violence of secular social orders to puncture the myth of religious violence, Smith analyzes exactly how the attempted confinement of violence to an immanent frame actually produces violence. The secular state’s monopoly on violence is meant to contain violence within a sober, universally rational, and immanent sphere of law.

In the American case, however, the attempt to confine violence to law must occlude the moment of the law’s founding, the American Revolution, which, as revolution, is a moment of extra-legal violence. The presence of such exceptions to law-governed violence is rooted in claims to sovereignty that goes beyond the law.

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Peter Ochs, John Brown: Madman? Terrorist? Righteous warrior?


Addressed, for one, to American ethicists today — both those who teach and study in the university and those who voice their ethical judgments on street corners, in churches, and across the Sunday dinner table — Smith’s words, while gently spoken, deliver their own report of divine judgment. Smith judges the complacency of today’s ethicists who can no longer imagine ethical standards that might at times challenge those defined by the reigning social order, and by the guild in the reigning political system.

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Keri Day, A Politics of Penitence and Repair: Addressing America’s Racial Wounds


Smith asks whether this idea of pardoning slavery and racism in the United States holds the potential for opening up new ways of relating, newly restored relationships within communities, and a new future wherein mercy and forgiveness might be possibilities between Blacks and Whites (and between other divided groups as well). Although Smith poses this question, he concludes that offering a pardon for slavery would be unjust. The sheer magnitude of slavery’s crimes and its continuing impact on black communities create this impossibility. I think Smith is correct that pardon of the state may actually reinforce bitter racial divides.

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Andrew R. Murphy, Fear, Trembling, and Weird John Brown


This is a rich, complex, subtle, and multifaceted book. Smith engages with a vast range of thinkers, from Schmitt, Benjamin, and Adorno on the ontology of law and violence to Blackstone, Locke, Paine, and Hamilton on prerogative and pardon. Weird John Brown begins with poetry (Melville’s “The Portent,” which gives the book its title) and fiction (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead), and considers “Tragic Prelude,” the famous mural of Brown at the Kansas Statehouse, as well as Paul Klee’s Gesetz as a visualization of a fulfilled higher law.

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Ted A. Smith, Putting Flesh on Truthful Prayers of Confession: A Response to the Political Theology and Divine Violence Forum


The denial of cheap grace should not lead to a cul-de-sac of guilt that is one more form of self-gratification. It should rather lead white Christians, as Day affirms, to a politics of penitence and repair. A politics of repair is necessarily piecemeal. That is, it makes real but partial moves to undo the crime of slavery and its legacies. Even if it includes reparations on a massive scale — which it should — it would not presume to drive toward some reconciled state that would no longer require a further leap, a further miracle, a pardon that defied justice.

Instead, such politics should seek to tell the truth about wrong, to take concrete actions to live into confessions of responsibility for those actions and structures, to do what can be done to repair the damage that has been done, and to prevent the extension of this damage through more generations. Any repairs would be piecemeal, partial, and (almost inevitably) full of unintended consequences. A politics of penitence and repair begins with recognizing that white Christians should not try to create a reconciliation that is not ours to create. The task for white Christians is rather to put flesh on truthful prayers of confession. This is the shape of politics in the wake of divine violence.

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