People living in the modern west generally have no problem criticizing religiously-justified violence. It’s therefore always interesting when I discuss John Brown, a man...

People living in the modern west generally have no problem criticizing religiously-justified violence. It’s therefore always interesting when I discuss John Brown, a man who legitimized anti-slavery violence Biblically. My most recent batch of students sought to resolve this tension by declaring John Brown to be “crazy but right.” In his new book Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford University Press, 2014), Ted A. Smith unravels the tensions that led to my students’ ambiguous conclusion. By providing a profound ethical meditation on Brown and his fellow raiders to challenge how people, particularly Americans, think about morality; the relationship between religion, the state, and violence; and to the possibilities of judgment and redemption, Smith illustrates how an ethical and philosophical reading of history can help us to better understand the world we live in, what we should do, and of the importance of going beyond just what we ought to do.

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