“I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something he is willing to die for – he is not fit to live.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
You don’t want to know about the men who crashed United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines flight 77 into the World Trade Center Towers on the morning of September 11th.
Really know about them.
You don’t want to hear about their families. Or about what they were like when they were growing up, when they could still be called kids and not monsters. You think there’s no reason to laugh at the stories of the times they shared together. You don’t want to understand who they were, what they went through, where they came from. The lives they touched but didn’t destroy.
But the thing is, you can’t possibly understand what they did if you don’t know who they were. What brought them to their fate. Because, for us, their fate was not the death of a son or a husband or a lover – it was the death of thousands.
So you don’t want to understand them. But maybe, if not them – you might want to understand the man who brought them together.
Because without him, they never would’ve become who they are to us now. And yet, understanding that man is at best wrought with cultural barriers and complications – so it’s probably better to start somewhere a little closer to home. With a man who acted as the catalyst for the most brutal and lethal wave of violence ever to sweep across American soil. But it was a wave that not only swept away hundreds of thousands of lives, but with them the most vile and oppressive institution to ever take root in our soil.
Despite being separated by so many generations and such a wide cultural divide, there’s surprisingly little on the ledger of revolution that Osama bin Ladin and John Brown don’t share
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John Brown, you’ll likely remember from your bespectacled high school history teacher’s monotone, was the batshit insane abolitionist who attacked Harpers Ferry in a harebrained assault that only ended up getting him lynched like one of the negroes he was trying to free. At most, he seems a nutty footnote in the epic struggle for the soul of our nation that was the Civil War.
But like a lot you learned in high school history, this characterization is inaccurate. The deeper you dig in history, the more truth you’ll find in beliefs that at first might seem heretical. One example is the untarnished characterization we got in elementary school of Christopher Columbus – who, when he wasn’t intrepidly exploring the New World, may have overseen a vast and brutal genocide of tens of thousands of Native Americans..5 However our communal oversight of Christopher Columbus at least standing by as a whole lot of one-sided killing went on, and the continued celebration of a federal holiday bearing his name, doesn’t bring much to the discussion of Political Terrorism.
John Brown most certainly does. Because John Brown is the greatest Political Terrorist ever to have called our shores his home.
Great in both senses of the word – in terms of raw power and impact, and in terms of achieving a commendable moral goal. Without John Brown, it’s questionable if the Civil War would have occurred at all. And certainly without him it would not have occurred precisely when it did or gone down in anything close to the same manner.
Much more than Abe Lincoln, it was John Brown who is responsible for single-handedly harnessing all the moral, social, religious, and economic tensions of that era and crafting them into an armed conflict powerful enough to break the bonds of slavery.
Out of these tensions, the one that’s likely the most unfamiliar is the religious. Of all the turmoil America was in leading up to the Civil War, we don’t often think of the country as being in any sort of religious crisis. And yet it was.
As without that crisis John Brown wouldn’t have been able to unite his supporters with ideas of racial tolerance and inclusiveness, since at the time “most American Christians would have considered [his] tolerant racial attitudes heretical.”1 And speaking of heretical, synthesizing the similarities between John Brown and Osama bin Ladin requires the telling of one additional biography. It’s the story of a man who had what might’ve been Western Civilization’s most important beefs with heretics.
His neighbors knew him as “the Apple Dragon,” but to understand who he really was there’s a lot you have to keep in mind.
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As it was previously explained, early Christianity didn’t simply preach itself into existence following the death of Jesus. What’s narrated in the Bible as a very straightforward path of authority from Jesus to Paul to Church was actually a Darwinian struggle for survival. Immediately following Jesus’s death scores of different religious gurus all claimed to have the correct interpretation of Jesus’s teachings and possess the religious authority worthy of passing on the faith as he intended.
One of the larger factions among them were the Gnostics, who saw Jesus’s message as imploring us to turn inward on ourselves and find the path to salvation inside ourselves. They stressed self-knowledge, achieving gnosis through the careful meditation and genuine reflection which would bring each individual, in his own time and in his own way, to a Kingdom of God that isn’t some abstract place but instead: inside of us all.
For the Gnostics there was no need for the priestly intercessor and his institutionalized rituals, since salvation lay in your own heart and incumbent upon your own patience – not on anyone else’s shoulders.
At odds with the Gnostics were the growing ranks of the Universal Church, who sought to secure their power base through the concept of membership. Membership which would be proved not by any unverifiable sense of self-awareness or immeasurable depth of self-understanding, but by publicly reciting certain creeds and publicly partaking in certain rituals. Which is really the only practical way of codifying and institutionalizing both group membership and a systematic acceptance of leadership. Over time the Universal Church won out over the Gnostics, whose texts and beliefs have largely been sent to moulder in the cellars of history.