Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Thank You John Brown

Today marks the 150 anniversary of the execution of John Brown, that 19th century martyr for what today would be referred to as "anti-racism". The New York Times has a beautifully written piece about this remarkable American:

"Today is the 150th anniversary of Brown’s hanging — the grim punishment for his raid weeks earlier on Harpers Ferry, Va. With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured. He was brought to trial in a Virginia court, convicted of treason, murder and inciting an insurrection, and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.

It’s a date we should hold in reverence. Yes, I know the response: Why remember a misguided fanatic and his absurd plan for destroying slavery?

There are compelling reasons. First, the plan was not absurd. Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

Second, he was held in high esteem by many great men of his day. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had 'come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.' " (Read the whole thing here)

The Harper's Ferry raid has particular resonance for me because research done by my father's side of the family suggests that a relative may have been among the young men who followed "Captain Brown".

I am also reminded of 'Abdu'l-Baha's encouragement of African Americans during an address at Howard University in 1912, to show gratitude to those whites who fought and sacrificed for our freedom.

"How they fought and sacrificed until they freed the blacks!.. It was for your sake that the whites of America made such an must be very thankful to the whites who were the cause of your freedom in America." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 45)

In this spirit I say, thank you John Brown for your life and your death. Thank you for showing America the inevitable consequences of the color line. Thank you for demonstrating the power of principles put into action. Thank you for fighting so that my ancestors could be free. Your truth is marching on.

O my God! O my God! Verily, thy servant, humble before the majesty of Thy divine supremacy, lowly at the door of Thy oneness, hath believed in Thee and in Thy verses, hath testified to Thy word, hath been enkindled with the fire of Thy love, hath been immersed in the depths of the ocean of Thy knowledge, hath been attracted by Thy breezes, hath relied upon his supplications to Thee, and hath been assured of Thy pardon and forgiveness. He hath abandoned this mortal life and hath flown to the kingdom of immortality, yearning for the favor of meeting Thee.

O Lord, glorify his station, shelter him under the pavilion of Thy supreme mercy, cause him to enter Thy glorious paradise, and perpetuate his existence in Thine exalted rose garden, that he may plunge into the sea of light in the world of mysteries.

Verily, Thou art the Generous, the Powerful, the Forgiver and the Bestower.

- 'Abdu'l-Bahá


  1. Anonymous3:53 PM

    Your commendation of Brown, however, might speak ill to the principal of obedience of government and thus give license to fears of Baha'i propoganda in places like Iran.

  2. I think John Brown is an odd choice of hero for a Baha'i. Capturing and hacking to pieces with broadswords five neighbors - without direct provocation - doesn't make a hero of any sort, IMO.

    see Pottawatomie Massacre

  3. Anonymous and Reed,

    You raised some points worth pondering. However I think you are both missing the point of this post. 'Abdu'l-Baha did not tell African Americans to be grateful only to those whites whose lives were morally perfect or whose behavior reflects Baha'i standards. He said to be grateful for their willingness to fight for our freedom. Related to this point is that in the Baha'i Writings a variety of historical figures are celebrated whose beliefs or behavior could be seen as contrary to Baha'i teaching. Yet these flaws are not used to invalidate the positive contributions they made to civilization or disqualify them from being honored.

    A strength of the Baha'i Faith is that its ethics embraces moral complexity rather than a simplistic black/white, right/wrong perspective. It is for this reason that I believe Baha'is can and should celebrate a man like John Brown. This Baha'i certainly does.

  4. This is a very powerful prayer, Phillipe. When we pass from this world, no doubt each of us is "humble before the majesty of [God's] divine supremacy, lowly at the door of [God's] oneness." It suggests that at the hour of death we can see our lives - see all of reality - quite clearly: "Verily, thy servant...hath been immersed in the depths of the ocean of Thy knowledge." I'm quite struck by this prayer. These words surely are as true for John Brown as they are for any one of us.

    I think you have made an admirable effort to fulfill `Abdu'l-Baha's injunction to "be very thankful to the whites who were the cause of your freedom in America."

    And as you have often helped to illuminate, the continuing inequality in this country faced by those of African descent - notably around class, education, and life expectancy - are reason enough to keep marching. Regardless of how any one of us views John Brown's actions, we each have to ask ourselves, "How will I bring my own actions more in line with my beliefs?"

  5. Lev, thanks for bringing focus to the power of the prayer I included in the post. Thanks also for shifting the focus from debating the merits of John Brown to the implications of his life for our own. Well said as always.

  6. Phillipe,
    I am not aware of any admonitions by Baha'u'llah, Abdu'l-Baha, or the Guardian that the end will justify the means. John Brown used means anathema to Baha'is - revolution against government, dragging men out of their homes at night to kill them in the most brutal manner possible, and inciting to violence.
    Should Germans honor Adolph Hitler because he freed them from the economic and social tyranny imposed by the victorious nations after WWI? The "end" of a rise in the self-esteem of the German people, liberation from oppression, and validity as a nation should make him just as great a hero as John Brown. Hitler's "means" were more horrific in scale simply because John Brown never reached his desired goal, of causing all who took part in slavery to suffer horribly.

  7. Reed, I get it, you don't like John Brown. I'm glad that I'm part of a religion where we don't all have to agree with each other. It's a beautiful thing.


  8. From my book "Jubilee and the Most Great Festival: Human Rights for the Millennium": "Those who resisted against the incommensurability of Christian values and enslavement and genocide, however, Black and White alike, whether Abolitionist or Quaker, armed with the weapons of war or armed with the weapons of moral indignation, all played a part in the collapse of a nightmare. We cannot really know the hand or heart from those days or what impelled some men to rise up or others to cower. We do know, not only, that many people fought their conscience and that none of these events would have occured at all if God had not made good on His Covenant and sent Baha'u'llah to retrain all of humanity...."

  9. Dr. Chandler, thanks so much for including this powerful selection from your book! When, where, how can I read your book?

  10. Philippe,
    You said: "I get it, you don't like John Brown."
    I know you are more intelligent than that analysis of my posts or riposts would suggest. : ) I neither like nor dislike John Brown the man. Was he flawed? Yes, but so am I.
    However, when a Baha'i honors words above deeds and would others do the same, then it merits examination. The words of Brown were "anti-slavery" couched in the language of hate - not love of his fellow man. But the deeds of Brown - his adorning, if you will, were murder in the night, dragging men from their wives and butchering them screaming in the darkness, and insurrection against the existing government.
    These are the deeds you are honoring. It is you I am addressing, not John Brown.
    Sometimes skin color or cultural identification is a greater chauvinism than extreme nationalism. When one honors evil deeds simply because they are perpetuated against one's "enemies" (e.g., pro-slavery people), then he should reconsider Baha'u'llah's words "Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country [or ethnicity?]; rqather let him glory in this, that he loves his kind..."