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Dr. Ted Smith Retrieves Divine Violence as a Topic in Christian Ethics

Byline: by Laura B. Hans

Posted: January 16, 2012

On Mon, Oct. 17, Dr. Ted Smith presented a guest lecture on "The Spirit of John Brown: Retrieving Diving Violence as a Topic in Christian Ethics." Smith, Asst. Prof of Ethics of Society at Vanderbilt University is the author of The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice. Smith's work seeks to "reconfigure ethics, as part of a larger, broader understanding, as a culture and as human beings. Ted does social ethics… with the stuff of everyday life," says David True, Assoc. Prof of Religion and History.

John Brown, local legend and controversial figure

John Brown was a controversial figure in the United States Civil War history. He was a white abolitionist who led an armed slave revolt, which attempted to seize the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown was hanged at Harpers Ferry for his actions. The case study of John Brown’s violence is interesting because as Smith notes, "Brown says, "I’m following the golden rule, ‘love thy neighbor as myself.’"

The question exists as to whether John Brown should be regarded as a "fanatic or freedom fighter" for his actions. Smith examines the discourse of violence and says, "Contemporary political formations rely on stories in which the disenchantment of violence both explains and limits violence." He acknowledges Brown differently and argues that, "these interpretations dismiss Brown’s sense that violence could relate directly to the divine."

Understanding "divine violence"


The idea of divine violence comes from Walter Benjamin. He defines both mythical violence and divine violence. Smith explains that mythical violence is violence used as a tool, which establishes law. In contrast, Smith describes Benjamin’s concept of divine violence as, "[violence that] shatters the existing system of accountability… [and] levels the system…[It] shatters the existing system of morals,…but does not build anything in its place…and is bloodless." Examining the ethics of John Brown’s violence in this sense allows for a space of deeper analysis on the ethics of violence.

Smith claims that, "divine violence can begin to make sense of the phenomenology of violence and interrupt the expansion of violence" by removing the ideology surrounding the idea. Smith then refers to Reverdy Ransom’s address, "The Spirit of John Brown" to consider the new found opportunities for Christian-based discussion about divine violence.

Fore grounding the debate


Smith presented an engaging lecture which allowed listeners to think about religion and violence, analyze the ways that we think about religion and violence and bring to light the assumptions which structure public debate

Smith says, "I am grateful for the invitation and honored that Dr. True asked me to speak."

Last Updated: March 5, 2012

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