John Brown Broke Rank

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from social media and his blog Easy Yolk

For centuries, white people from lower economic classes have been hired as police patrol by the white ruling class. White folks have been given guns and badges to exercise unlimited force on enslaved people, poor people of color and dark-skinned immigrant labor. This power is so intoxicating that white people consistently choose to police vulnerable people instead of finding solidarity with them in a common struggle against wealthy white exploiters. Sure, Kyle Rittenhouse shot white protestors. But his mother drove him to Kenosha to police people of color—and protect wealthier white people and their property. Policing people of color remains common practice in classrooms, curriculums, churches, stores and neighborhoods, where white people do not necessarily need guns and badges to demand “others” know their place.  

In the wake of the Rittenhouse trial, I’ve been reflecting on the life of John Brown, a 19th century white boy who took up arms for a completely different cause. He consistently organized armed men to protect and serve runaway slaves. When his white neighbors asked him if he would help them drive out Indigenous peoples who hunted annually in the area, Brown adamantly refused, telling them that he’d rather use his gun to drive his white neighbors out of the country. He was also on record saying that Black folk would have ten times as many white friends if white people cared half as much about the Black freedom struggle as they did about keeping up with the extravagance and luxury of their white neighbors.

I’m not advocating violence. I just believe that John Brown offers us white folk a transformative spirituality. John Brown broke rank with whiteness. He took his cues from Black leaders like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. He committed his life to protecting and serving people of color, not only with his guns, but with his prayers, pocketbook and politics—and it really pissed off white people. While Rittenhouse was acquitted, Brown was given the death penalty. At his trial, he was asked why he plotted a slave-freeing insurrection. Brown pointed to the bible, quoting it from memory. It was the text in Hebrews that taught him “to remember those who are in bonds as being bound with them.” John Brown flipped white Christianity on its head. He adamantly believed that he belonged to Black people. Because the bible said so.

Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and coach from Southern California now committed to a ministry of soul accompaniment through radical friendship, intentional gathering and the written word. He is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank.

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