Before exploring the ethics of Nat Turner’s four-day slave revolt, it is important to plainly state my position, lest, as so often happens, people refusing to carefully read my writings impose upon them what they think are my opinions so as to dismiss me or my arguments: I am against all forms of violence – physical and institutional – not because I’m a pacifist, but because I recognize my violent nature, and choose to be nonviolent.
There is much we can learn from the ethical dilemmas raised almost 200 years ago. On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner, a preacher, an educated man of the cloth and a fervent Bible-believing follower of Christ, led the deadliest slave rebellion in U.S. history in Southampton County, Virginia, a predominantly Black, impoverished neighborhood.
A solar eclipse in February of that year and the appearance of a bluish-green sun later in August, caused by volcanic activity in Sicily, were taken as divine signs to launch the insurrection – which occurred the following week.
Turner gave the order to “kill all the white people.” His followers went house to house, murdering all the white people they could find and freeing all their slaves. About 60 white people were slain – men, women, and children. Lacking firearms, the whites they encountered were beaten, stabbed or hacked to death.
For some, Turner is seen as a hero for the cause of liberation; For others, a terrorist who killed innocent people.
This raises the first set of ethical questions for the oppressed to consider.
Are the disenfranchised morally justified to physically rebel against oppressive social structures?
Is violence the only language understood by the creators of violent social-political systems?
Do the oppressed have the right to kill those who look like their oppressors, even if some might be abolitionists?
Is the killing of children ever justified?
Would a nonviolent response have worked in a slavocracy system?
Does responding in violence simply provide those who own more of the firepower to unleash death and destruction on the oppressed at a grander scale?
After the rebellion was put down, whites went on a revenge frenzy. Even those who did not participate in the revolt were persecuted, tortured and murdered. Days after the rebellion, those suspected of participating were beheaded, with their severed heads mounted on poles at byways and crossroads.
Although the rebellion was local, rumors and fear gripped the entire South, which became an excuse to kill and maim Black folk on the flimsiest excuse – everywhere and anywhere – as far south as Alabama. Only God knows how many Black people perished in these legitimized revenge killings.
After Turner’s execution, his skin was used to make souvenir purses.
Subsequently, the lives of the enslaved became more unbearable as the few basic human rights they possessed were stripped away. Legislative houses throughout the South passed a series of laws prohibiting the education of Black people or preventing them from gathering unsupervised for worship. Even academic freedoms were curtailed with the criminalization of abolitionist pamphlets.
This leads to the second set of ethical questions for oppressors to consider.
Why is it that when colonizers fight for their so-called liberties, they are called freedom fighters and patriots, but when the colonized do the same, they are called terrorists?
Is any military response for the purpose of revenge justifiable?
How about the wanton murder of those who were not involved in the rebellion but nonetheless share the same hue as the attackers?
Can the bloodshed caused by the initial attack be used to justify tightening the noose of oppression by eliminating – legislatively or physically – any possible future threat to white supremacy?
Now imagine living in the northern states during this time, away from the carnage but reading about it in the local newspaper. If you are an abolitionist, you face being incriminated as favoring the killing of white children, of being anti-American and of being anti-white. Worse, you might face death threats as a supporter of “terrorism.”
Imagine institutions of higher education also facing threats, specifically economic threats. They might lose endowments established by those with pro-slavery sentiments simply because, in the name of academic freedom, these institutions sought to explore the dilemma faced by the enslaved.
Some professors refusing the pro-America party-line might even face possible dismissal.
Sympathetic students might even be labeled anti-white and threatened with the loss of their scholarships or even potential future employment upon graduation.
This “take back America” attitude can become pervasive.
Here, then, are the third and last set of ethical questions for the rest of us to consider.
Can one mourn the children slaughtered on both sides of the conflict?
Can one grieve the spilling of so much blood while condemning those complicit with the structures that give rise to such violence?
Recognizing that no modern secular government is ordained by God, does criticizing a state mean you are being discriminatory against its people?
And what if your government embraces those benefiting from oppression? Does that make you complicit? How should you respond then to your government’s stance?
And finally, can those who benefit from oppressive structures cry victimhood when those on their underside demand that justice rain down like living waters and righteousness flow like an everlasting stream?
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.