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Taking Up Arms – 12/2/2012

Everything about the photograph of the man is severe. His short, dark hair seems almost to be standing on end, his ears cut away from his face with hard edges. His mouth is a solid, resolute line with his brow drawn tight into a craggy and determined knot. With his left hand he holds a flag at his side, while his right is up and out, palm open and fingers extended. The old, scratched daguerreotype is a picture of a man at war, calling to mind the oath he swore ten years before its taking, when he stood up in church and said, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”[i]

This is perhaps the most famous image of John Brown, who was executed on December 2nd, 1859, 153 years ago today.[ii] Sometimes called America’s first domestic terrorist, his killing was made legal by his government in punishment for his illegal acts – killing chief among them.

 

Perhaps

You will remember

John Brown.

 

[The poet Langston Hughes wrote 81 years ago,]

 

John Brown

Who took his gun,

Took twenty-one companions

White and black,

Went to shoot your way to freedom

Where two rivers meet

And the hills of the

North

And the hills of the

South

Look slow at one another-

And died

For your sake.

Now that you are

Many years free,

And the echo of the Civil War

Has passed away,

And Brown himself

Has long been tried at law,

Hanged by the neck,

And buried in the ground-

Since Harpers Ferry

Is alive with ghosts today,

Immortal raiders

Come again to town-

Perhaps

You will recall

John Brown.

 

Lewis Leary, the first husband of Langston Hughes’ grandmother, was one of the free black men who fought alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and died there. Hughes’ words were written directly to an African American audience, but they are more broadly applicable than that. Any American audience has reason to remember John Brown, who took up arms to end the national sin of slavery. No person, of any color, could be rightly called free while living in a country in which such a system endured.

This morning, as part of this year’s series on the courage to risk, I want to address the courage to wage war, to risk both being killed and having to kill. It was a courage that John Brown certainly had. Unlike most of the historical exemplars I have and will point to in this series, Brown was neither a Unitarian nor a Universalist. He was a died-in the wool Calvinist, a strict doctrinal Christian from the theologically conservative end of the spectrum. That faith animated his determination to uproot the injustice of slavery by any means necessary. It was an unflinchingly, uncomplicatedly holy mission for him to oppose the system of certain human beings owning certain other human beings as property. He viewed the conflict in apocalyptic terms, an iniquity so terrible that it would bring down God’s wrath – with John Brown himself among the agents of it.

So he was not in any sense ours, but his story does deeply connect with our own history as Unitarian Universalists. Many of John Brown’s allies and coworkers in the cause of the abolition of slavery were Universalists or Unitarians. It was his plan to seize the armory at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia, and use the captured guns and ammunition to create and sustain an on-going slave rebellion that led to his arrest and execution. And that plan was supported by an alliance of Boston-area notables that came to be called the Secret Six. Of those six, four were Unitarians, and possibly the most notable among them was Rev. Theodore Parker, whose ministry and theology is one of the greatest single influences on who we are as a religious movement today. In the days when the content of a minister’s sermons could make headlines, Parker was one of the most fiery voices against slavery. His views were considered radical even by many of his technical allies, in part because he supported the right of people in slavery to fight and even kill their nominal owners in order to win their freedom. His infamy, particularly among the supporters of human bondage, was such that he once quipped with a grin that he was, “the most hated man in America.”

He was also about more than talk. Parker sheltered people escaping from slavery in his home, a link in the chain of the Underground Railroad. It is said that he wrote many of his sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk beside the manuscript – there in case he was called upon to do his duty as a host and defend the freedom of his guests. Not far from that desk, on the wall of his study hung the gun belonging to Theodore’s grandfather, Capt. John Parker, who as commander of the militia that faced the redcoats at Lexington in 1775 said, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Professor James C. Scott tells a story about being a visitor and a pedestrian in a small German city. In the evening, the car traffic dwindled to almost nothing and the long waits of the traffic lights, set to ensure safety during the day, no longer seemed necessary. And yet, none of the locals seemed willing to cross against the light. They would pile up on the corners along empty streets, waiting for the sluggish signals to grant them permission to step off the curb. When he, or any other daring soul, broke from the herd and ventured out with a red sign but no cars around, the rest of the pack would call out and scold from the pavement, continuing to wait their turn.[iii]

The experience inspired in him an idea he calls, ‘anarchist calisthenics’. This is the importance of maintaining a practice of regularly breaking small laws or social expectations, though not just any: only the very most foolish and obviously wrong-headed. This is to stay prepared for the moment when you will have to choose between following the law and the crowd, and following your own conscience. As he puts it, “One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready.” You need to keep in the practice of using, “your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable.”

Any great injustice must be enforced by social order, and some semblance of law; otherwise it would collapse of its own accord. Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist leader and friend of John Brown, who made his home for many years in that hotbed of progressive thinking, my hometown of Rochester, NY., wrote, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”[iv]

I have mentioned that John Brown’s abolitionist fervor had deeply religious roots, but it was also personal for him in a way that it was not for many of his fellow white agitators. Abolitionism grew steadily in popularity in the 1800s in the North, but for many of the people who spoke or wrote or gave money on behalf of the cause, the plight of actual slaves was fairly abstract. Even if they had met someone who had experienced slavery, and many would not have, such people were not family, were not friends, were almost never neighbors. This was not the case for John Brown: he was raised in a staunchly abolitionist family that had close connections with free blacks living in the same town. Many of his closest allies and collaborators in the fight against slavery were former slaves themselves. John lived for a time in an intentional community in upstate New York where African and European-descent people lived, worked, and worshipped alongside each other. His rage against the institution of slavery was far more than charity or do-goodism: he did not see any line between himself and its victims, and so he fought for their freedom as passionately as he would have fought for his own. In this there is another small parallel with Theodore Parker, who had in his congregation some number of free black members and wrote of them in a letter to President Millard Fillmore (also a Unitarian): “There hangs in my study . . . the gun my grandfather fought with at the battle of Lexington… and also the musket he captured from a British soldier on that day…If I would not peril my property, my liberty, nay my life to keep my parishioners out of slavery, then I should throw away these trophies, and should think I was the son of some coward and not a brave man’s child.”[v]

The courage to fight is most likely to come from a sense that you are defending your life, or something that you love nearly as deeply or more so, because undertaking armed conflict is a great risk: a physical risk, and also a moral risk. The risk of losing a life, and also of taking lives. Harming a human being can be necessary: to stop them from harming others, but it is never a good thing. It is always a sad state of affairs; there is no good killing. And because of this, the decision to fight creates an enormous moral burden. It is a weight that our society largely chooses to deny, rhapsodizing about the nobility of military service, and turning away from what it costs to those who serve. Even the most careful and limited use of force has the risk of unsought harm.

The coda to Professor Scott’s story of the folly of waiting too long for the traffic light to change, is that one day he was walking on the street with a friend. This fellow was an old radical, with no time for the status quo, ready to uproot every form of prior authority and begin a new world in its place. So James Scott thought that at least this one local would understand his attitude towards the frustratingly slow traffic lights. He stepped out into the road with confidence, and the older man chided him. Deflated, he returned to the curb arguing that no cars were coming. “James,” the fellow pointed out, “it would be a bad example for the children.”

In conducting the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown took great pains to spare as many lives as possible. He took hostages by surprise, including the armory’s commander, and treated them with dignity and politeness while they were in his care. But the train passing through town posed the threat of carrying a warning to the outside world too soon. Brown and his company tried to stop it, and failed, and in the process Heyward Shepherd was shot. He was a free black man who worked as a porter on the train. He wasn’t the only person killed in the raid on Harper’s Ferry – he was just the first.[vi]

We Unitarian Universalists are not exactly a peace church, not quite like the Quakers or the Mennonites. It is possible, from our values and our history, to arrive at pacifism as an ethical position: some of us here this morning are already there. But it is also possible to draw from the same tradition a moral mandate to use the power we have, as individuals and as groups, to confront systems of evil wherever we encounter them, and to struggle against them by any means, including violence. However, if we reach that conclusion, we need each other to help clarify the decision. That is one of the key things we come together for: to help each other choose more wisely in life, and protect one another from losing our moral way. Just as Professor Scott’s friend pointed out to him that even when the law itself seemed foolish, following it served the important purpose of teaching children to be careful crossing the street.

In this, I would suggest the counsel of Mahatma Gandhi, who contrary to popular impressions did not consider violence to be the greatest wrong. The nonviolence he practiced, though sometimes called pacifism, was entirely the opposite of passive. It was active, focused, determined. Too often, his name is invoked to support inaction, to reassure the comfortable and abandon the destitute. And yet, he said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”[vii]

To those of us who would wish to avoid that choice, it is necessary to create a third option; an active peace, which entails even more risk than an active war. 235 years ago, our forebears saw fit to engage in a conflict, against the British, and stored, I am told, their gunpowder beneath the floor of an earlier incarnation of this meetinghouse. Do not think, therefore, that the era of moral urgency has passed forever. It is possible that one day, we will be called upon by justice to confront its opposite, with force or some more creative means. Our responsibility is to pay attention, to try to be ready for the challenge when it comes, and to seek to recognize when there is something so wrong before us, that it poses a greater harm than the violence necessary to assail it.



[i] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/filmmore/description.html

[ii] You can view the picture here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/John-Browns-Famous-Photograph.html

[iii] From the article “Anarchist Calisthenics”, published in Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press (2012)

goes carrying not just. And http://www.leviattias.com/buy-exelon-online-no-prescription.php and foundation skin most.

August 3, 1857

[v] http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/toolbox/session8/sessionplan/stories/109685.shtml

[vi] http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh56-1.html

[vii] From Young India, August 11, 1920

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