How far are you willing to go for something you believe in?
In recent weeks, we have followed the decision of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who chose jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses.
This was not the first time someone stood in opposition to a law they viewed as wrong. Unfortunately, some of those people used the wrong method to correct a wrong.
One such event happened this week in 1859 and became the emotional fuel that sparked the Civil War.
John Brown was an abolitionist—a very ardent abolitionist. He led a few attacks on slave owners in Kansas, convinced he was doing the will of God. He apparently convinced others of that, because he gained a small following.
Brown’s ultimate goal was to fund and support an uprising among slaves. His plan was to provide the arms needed for a slave revolt. He had his eye on the military arsenal—100,000 muskets and rifles—kept at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Once he attacked and gained control of the arsensel, he expected upwards of 500 slaves to immediately join him. This uprising would spread as he and his growing army went deeper into the south.
It didn’t exactly happen that way. The raid, which occurred on October 16, was no surprise to anyone. No slave uprising ever materialized. In fact, the raid was quickly squelched by Colonel Robert E. Lee, ten of Brown’s men died, and Brown himself was captured and hung.
John Brown did not accomplish what he wanted, but his actions may have hastened the looming Civil War. Emotions were already running high, and the the debate about whether Brown was a martyr or a terrorist only increased the tension.
Historians still debate whether John Brown was a noble martyr or our first domestic terrorist. I have to approach the matter as a follower of Christ. The question of how far I am willing to go must be tempered with another question: what am I willing to do that follows the example of Christ?
A similar question was on the table during the Civil Rights Movements. Men like Malcolm X advocated violence as a way to correct the injustice. Men like Martin Luther King Jr. advocated a peaceful approach.
Do I even need to state which approach is in line with the life and teaching of Jesus?
The apostles Peter and Paul lived under the rule of Rome and experienced periodic persecution. Keep that in mind as you read their words:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2).
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Pet. 2:13-15).
No violent uprisings. No obstinate rebellion in the name of what is right. They stood for what they believed—never forcing it on anyone—and changed the culture by living for Jesus.
The story of John Brown’s life is an interesting read—but a lousy example to follow.
I’ve got a better example: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).