Consequentialism in Historical Interpretation

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The confluence of Tom's post the other day on Disputations, and my proximity to some of the most horrendous historical atrocities to deface our fair country provoked a line of thought that has long been brewing.

I spent a week in West Virginia within several miles of Harper's Ferry and could not bring myself to visit. Harper's Ferry has been much written about, by writers great than me and by historians with a fuller comprehension of all of the subtleties. To recap--John Brown--a known agitator and militant abolitionist from Kansas made his way eastward to stage an attack on a Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry. He and some twenty men attacked and took the arsenal for a short span of time, killing some people (I wasn't able to determine the exact number) during the event. John Brown was stopped, arrested, tried, and hanged for treason. But this brief insurrection served its motive purpose--to bring the cause of abolition to the forefront of the already heated debate between North and South.

In the aftermath, we have made a hero of John Brown. We've taken a nineteenth century crazed jihadist terrorist and turned him into the man who showed us our conscience and who brought to a head the crisis that would result in the War Between the States and, incidentally, (non consequentially) the freedom of the slaves.

Now, we can go back and forth about whether the South was on the brink of revising an economic system or not, whether economic pressure from the North might not have been sufficient to bring about the reformation that we were seeking, about what the War was really about. But the bottom line is, John Brown was a terrorist. He killed innocent people in a religious struggle to bring about an end he saw as the greater good. That the end did result is something to be truly thankful for, but his zeal for that end resulted in one of the great tragedies of our nation. Could slavery have been brought to an end without the War--who knows? I certainly could not say--most assuredly it would have taken a great deal longer--and the institution was insufferable. Does this in any way excuse John Brown's zeal?

Well, only if you're willing to grant that Iraqi insurgents bombing open marketplaces and killing innocents in the process is a justifiable means of accomplishing an end.

John Brown was a terrorist--plain and simple. His terrorism ignited the powder keg that was the War between the States. Would the war have occurred otherwise? It's difficult to say; however, no reasonable person looking back on the events can excuse John Brown any more than they could excuse the bombing of abortion clinics. In each case an unacceptable, immoral means was used to accomplish a real good. That does not justify the action.

And yet we insist on lauding John Brown and paying tribute to his great spirit that led us to the state we have today. We pay tribute to consequentialism, it seems, at every turn of the historical wheel. We justify events by the results. Did slavery need to be abolished? Absolutely! Did John Brown's action help to precipitate this? It would certainly seem so. Was John Brown's action then justifiable because of the end that resulted? Absolutely not.

Which brings up another point. The War cast a shadow over the states that lingers to this very day. Reconstruction and its horrors saw the rise of the KKK and the unleashing of a virulent racism that lingers in the oddest places today. Undoubtedly the racism of slavery was even greater, but I have to wonder if just means had been used to bring about its end, would the evils that trailed in its wake have been as severe? By this I mean to ask, are there spiritual consequences entailed with using an illegitimate means to achieve a noble goal? Is this another example of a spiritual law? Can we equate this to something like the Hindu concept of Karma in which a person, or an entire society bears the weight of the spiritual wrongs done?

Spiritual laws are interesting things. I don't know if they have been quantified, qualified, or discussed in any detail in the Catholic Tradition. But other traditions, particularly the Pentecostal tradition, focuses a lot of attention on spiritual laws. Over time, I have come to believe that these laws are every bit as exacting (and even more so) than the physical laws that we live with every day. However, we don't spend a lot of time thinking about or studying the spiritual laws. Perhaps that is because, like Angels, most of what we know comes from hints and snippets, and it would be difficult to erect an exact science on so little information. And yet, there is clear information given about some of these laws. "Judge not, lest ye be judged with the judgement ye have rendered." "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you hold bound are held bound." Tantilizing--not enough to write a full scale law book, and yet, I wonder, if we paid careful attention, what spiritual laws might we uncover experientially?

It's a pity we are too wrapped up in other things to spend a good deal of time studying what happens when right means and wrong means are used to effect the same end. I suspect such research would be endlessly rewarding, providing as it were, another weapon in the arsenal of apologists, and another mainstay of surety when we pass through times of trouble.

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And yet we insist on lauding John Brown and paying tribute to his great spirit that led us to the state we have today.

We do? I was educated in Pennsylvania (where slavery was outlawed (more or less) twenty years before Brown was born), and as I recall he was presented as a wild-eyed fanatic who led a failed insurrection.

I visited Harper's Ferry once about twenty years ago and recall it as quite lovely.

By this I mean to ask, are there spiritual consequences entailed with using an illegitimate means to achieve a noble goal?

Sure. There is an absence of grace that ought to be present. On the other hand, by God's providence there may also be a presence of grace that would not otherwise be present had the evil act not been done.

Dear Tom,

You speak of textbooks some twenty or more years ago when there was some attempt at objectivity. Now history is dictated by the end, not the means. And much of the literature surrounding John Brown is nearly adulatory for his role in the destruction of slavery. What we knew then is not what it taught now, thanks to our good friends the Post-Modernists who have made every discipline a form of victim-studies.



Well, were the folks at Harper's Ferry truly innocent? And if so, innocent of what? Is an arsenal the same as an undefended, or ill-defended, marketplace? I don't laud him as a hero, and yes, he was a terrorist of sorts, although he didn't skulk in the shadows and direct a gang of wild-eyed nihilists with an addiction to semtex and road-side bombs. Besides, I'm hard-pressed to say that I wouldn't have shot a few soldiers or done something equally nasty in the midst of such a crisis.

Oh, and there are no spiritual laws - the economy of creation and redemption is not a mechanical device with forces that can be leveraged according to rationalized formulae. I love science, Steven, but really now, this addiction to method and cause-effect logic is ridiculous. Though could not, ultimately, make the leap to Rome, even from the outside I've never thought such mechanistic thinking was in any way essentially Roman Catholic - it's more like human hubris.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 10, 2005 4:37 PM.

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