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"Black drapery on our door"

What is the peacemaker's responsibility to the warmaker? And, what, especially, is that responsibility when both the peacemaker and the warmaker share the same goals?

I wrote earlier about visiting John Brown's home and marveling at his violence in the name of the Golden Rule. His last words, passed to a friend at his hanging, forecast more violence to come:

I, John Brown, am 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.

Brown was, of course, right that violence was on the way, as the Civil War started soon after. Still, it seems fair to ask the question of whether slavery could have - somehow - ended without violence.

Angelika remembered mention of John Brown in Howard Brinton's Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience Among Friends. That turned out to point to the Quaker Reader, which included an except from Elizabeth Buffum Chace's Two Quaker Sisters.

The story below is an excerpt of that excerpt, one which leaves me wondering about what the right thing to do in situation like this could possibly be.

When John Brown attempted to free the slaves at Harper's Ferry, our family was stirred by strong emotions. On the dark day, when the grand, but mistaken. old man was hung on a Virginia gallows, a solitary strip of black drapery on our door reminded our neighbors that, with us, it was a day of mourning....

My sister was deeply agitated at the news for she felt that John Brown and his men had, although unwisely, taken the first positive step toward ending the impossible conditions under which the country was laboring... (346)

"Although unwisely, taken the first positive step"? I'm not used to hearing "unwise" and "positive" in the same sentence that way. Is this the contradiction we feel when those with ends we support choose means we abhor?

It was just at this time that my sister Rebecca decided to go to see John Brown (347)....

At last Avis [the jailer] returned and led us into the prison-room. On one bed lay John Brown, on the other, Stevens. Mr. Brown attempted to rise, but could not stand. I gave him the rose, which he laid on his pillow....

We drew our chairs near Mr. Brown's bed; the jailer sat on a bench back in a corner; I unrolled some worsted work and began to knit; Brown looked gratified and was inclined to talk...

"'I want to ask you one question,' said I, 'not for myself, but for others. In what you did at Harper's Ferry were you actuated by a spirit of revenge?" Brown started, looked surprised, and then replied:

"'No, not in all the wrongs done to me and to my family in Kansas did I ever have a feeling of revenge.'

"The shyness that I believe he felt in the presence of strangers was wearing off. He spoke several times to my son and looked at him tenderly. He was becoming more communicative when a loud voice called "Avis!" It was Sheriff Campbell. The crowd had become impatient and threatened violence if I were allowed to stay longer. Avis hastened out and returned instantly with the verdict that I must leave. I shook hands with Brown on parting. 'The Lord will bless you for coming here,' said he.

"The great, tall sheriff opened the door and hurried out a little woman and a boy into the face of a furious mob of the worst-looking men I ever saw. We stood for a moment on the little platform at the top of the steps, and looked down over a sea of angry eyes and clenched and threatening hands and I did not feel afraid! I, who dare not pass a cow and who have such a terror of great dogs, was so uplifted in spirit that I had lost all feeling of fear, and walked through the mob, which opened just wide enough to let us pass, without thinking of the mob at all. I believe I was safer because I was not afraid. It was when Peter was afraid that he began to sink. It is good sometimes to get a glimpse of the power inside us.

[She returns...]

"What a different man I now found! Capt. Brown was sitting at a table, writing. He looked well; his hair, that had been matted with dried clots of blood, was washed and brushed. Thrown up from his brow, it made a soft white halo around his head. His high white forehead expressed a sort of glory. He looked like an inspired old prophet. He had just finished a letter to his wife and children. This he requested me to read and take to his wife, to whom he sent many messages. The last farewell was a silent one. Our hearts were too full for words. Stevens lay on his bed, apparently dying, but his great eyes shone, and his face was full of joy.

"Capt. Brown stood by the table as I left the room - a commanding figure, the white halo about his high head, on his face a look of peace. For twenty years he had believed himself divinely called to free the slaves. He had tried and failed. The slave power seemed stronger than ever; his little band of earnest young men were scattered, dead, or imprisoned, and he himself was condemned to die on the scaffold. But his faith never flinched.

"On November 24th John Brown wrote to me, 'I am always grateful for anything you do or write. You have laid me and my family under many and great obligations.'

John Brown died on December 2nd... (353)

Rebecca's telling of her walking through the crowd is a classic moment of a peaceful person confronting a violent situation and walking through it unharmed, carried "uplifted by the spirit." At the same time, she seems only to question Brown whether his motivation was revenge. She doesn't report the entire conversation, settling more for hagiography, portraying "a commanding figure, the white halo about his high head, on his face a look of peace."

Is this ministering to a prisoner, or is this burnishing a legend of a man of violence?

How far does sharing the same ends permit the forgiveness of the choice of means?

Or am I misreading Rebecca's interpretation of the Peace Testimony? She may well be following the path that it applies to her but not necessarily to non-Quakers.

The story raises many questions. I have few answers, none of them good.


I was just looking, today, at a book at the university library. I left it there, but I believe it was Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America.

Naturally, I looked in the index for references to Quakers, and I found several.

When John Brown came to an inn, already with a reputation from fighting in Kansas, the Quaker innkeeper marked his hat with a piece of chalk signifying that he could stay and eat there without paying.

John Brown and company trained for three months in the vicinity of a largely Quaker town in Iowa, and although Friends distanced themselves from the weaponry and talk of militarism, they were otherwise hospitable.

Two young men from the community joined them and when the group left, many Friends came to see these two off, knowing full well where they were headed.

Dear Simon,

You ask:

How far does sharing the same ends permit the forgiveness of the choice of means?

I think the answer is: far enough.

You asked about forgiveness, after all.

A choice of ruinous means can indeed betray noble ends. But shouldn't such betrayal be considered recompense in itself? "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord". (Not that I generally find my philosophy in the Bible. But here as elsewhere I think it speaks to the point.)

Practitioners of ahimsa such as Thoreau, Gandhi and King all acknowledged that one had to be ready, without violence, to face the consequences of one's choices of how to stand up to injustice. (Gandhi also claimed that to resist injustice violently was far nobler than acquiescing in it.) This would seem to me to include accepting how a ruinous choice of means will lead to ruin. Brown went to his death like an early Christian martyr, in glory; or at least this was the perception of his sympathetic public. The word "martyr" means "witness"; the martyr's role is not to die, but to witness to the truth that there are some things more important than one's own life. That much he did even if his cause was compromised by the means he chose.

While you implicitly ask "can we forgive Brown his choice of violent means", the tantrist might ask in rebuttal "can we forgive Brown the actions he took that encouraged his murderers to add to their karma the burden of having killed him?" The answer, of course, is yes, we can, just as we can forgive him for not striking sooner, allowing them for so long to compound their crimes. Wrong means are wrong; but the relation between ends and the means that get us there is nevertheless too dark for us to know, at least in the moment.

Or at any rate, we should forgive him, were we only large enough. I can think of many people I find it hard to forgive. Largely, I think this is due to my lack of faith that they will (or already do) face the consequences of their misdeeds. Can we really defer justice, cultivating in ourselves only a spirit of forgiveness? The teacher of ahimsa might say we don't have to: cultivate the spirit of forgiveness, and in that spirit, live the justice you demand.

Wow, Wendell. I'd only been thinking of 'forgiveness' in the shallow sense of 'overlook', but you took that and changed the question beautifully.