Nat Turner and John Brown’s Role in my Conversion

It’s funny: in almost all of my time as a communist, two of my greatest idols have been Nat Turner and John Brown. It’s not strange for communists to look up to these two great men, of course, but they usually wouldn’t be the first picks. Of course, some of that is simply because both these men were fighting to free my ancestors, and white leftists don’t have that immediate personal connection to the cause of abolition. However, having now become a Christian, I’d like to think I was drawn to the spirituality of their cause as well. At least, I can say with confidence that Christianity would have nothing to offer me if they, alongside so many others, hadn’t risen up with God’s inspiration behind them.

It would be absurd to claim that Nat Turner’s visions of God telling him to strike against slavery were proof of God’s existence. My conversion isn’t that simple, and I’m quite sure that people of all religions have religious visions commanding them to enact justice (or injustice). While all of these — or at least most of these — may have their roots in a true experience with the divine, they can’t all be equally true. Nevertheless, as a black American, it’s hard to deny that the history of my people’s liberation is tied up in Christianity, and I’m inclined to believe that Turner and Brown among many others really were called by God to destroy the slave system.

The importance of this can’t be understated in my conversion. If Nat Turner truly was called to violently strike against slavery, then this not only makes it possible to believe in Christ while continuing to believe that Marxism is the only adequate tool for directly understanding the concrete political situation, but in fact means that Marxism is necessary. That is, if God’s hatred of oppression is so strong that he’d send his followers to kill if they must for the sake of their own self-liberation, than the image of God that had been built up in my mind by years of atheism was totally wrong from the outset. Given that I already had a desire for greater religious belief, this understanding made Christianity something I could open myself to in a way I never really had before.

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Of course, it could be argued that if I’d been born in a different context that Islam or Buddhism or some other religion might have been the one I latched onto. I can’t deny that, at least not fully. While I’ve rarely ever been to church, my family is at least culturally Christian and I was baptized. Certainly, all religions derived from Judaism, in containing the narrative of the Exodus, will share some concern with liberation from oppression, and presumably religious traditions that I know less about will do so as well. This is where my ability to rationalize my newfound faith with anything but faith really falls apart: I can’t deny that I’m culturally influenced, but the story of Christ draws me in a way other religions don’t, and there’s simply no other way to put that.

It could be assumed, reading this post, that I waited to convert until I could justify all of my beliefs. This isn’t true, and since finding God I’ve already shifted in a number of my positions. Certainly, a consistent natural materialism is no longer something I can believe in, though historical materialism still seems to be the best tool for understanding history itself. Nevertheless, while I’m willing to change my beliefs, it’s my faith in liberation that could not be altered, and it wasn’t until I found that God sanctioned material liberation in addition to spiritual liberation that I could truly accept Him. These two figures, who I’ve always looked up to above almost all others, were inspired by the same God, and I could be as well. Perhaps that’s silly, and to some maybe even heretical, but I had to start from somewhere.

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2 thoughts on “Nat Turner and John Brown’s Role in my Conversion

  1. It is a deeply fundamental part of my faith, that God is a god of freedom. He does not run our lives, or seek to run our lives, though people on both sides of the “controlling” line (meaning, those who use His name to enforce and enslave, and those who rebel to the point they refuse Him entirely) seem convinced that He does. They are grievously mistaken. We have the ability to choose for ourselves, always. Indeed, we *must* have that ability, or what good can we ever hope to do? Freedom, then, is a sacred cause, and one He has called many of His children to advance, including the major figures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers, the men and women who fought against slavery, and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. And that’s just a handful of people I can think off the top of my head, there are many, many more, all across the world and throughout history. The physical and spiritiual freedom of nations, of peoples, of individuals, has consistently been of utmost importance to Him. He has often intervened directly, but he must work through us, His children, using our free will to further the cause of liberty. If He didn’t then He *would* be the tyrant that so many people paint Him as.

    So, I certainly agree that He calls us to liberate ourselves and others as best we can.

    All that said, I have to say that my conclusion in regards to Marxism, at least, is a bit different from yours, precisely because of the importance of our freedom. I do not see how it frees us. Quite the contrary, I see something quite different, something which encroaches on liberty. Thus, I hope you will forgive my confusion if I ask you to explain, please. What is it about Marxism that you believe makes us free?

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    1. While Marxists have not always succeeded in making a better world, Marxism as a way of understanding society is chiefly concerned with how we get to human liberation. Marx frequently rebuked the idea that he wanted absolute equality, instead focusing on a society where humans could flourish. In showing us how to reach a world where humans work cooperatively and without coercion, I see Marxism as an ideology of liberation first and foremost. This hasn’t always worked out, but what ideology has?

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