Updated: Aug 9, 2021
The violence of slavery, immersion in Biblical stories and a mystical temperament, were the ingredients that led the prayerfully contemplative Nat Turner to initiate a violent revolution. He believed it was his divine calling to liberate Black people from slavery.
Nat Turner, met with five of his disciples, on the evening of August 21, 1831, planning for the liberation task that they believed had been given to them by God. Their journey of violent revolution began with the killing of Turner’s master’s family. They secured arms and horses and moved on to the next plantation. Twenty-four hours later, about seventy freed people had joined the crusade. After two days, seventy Black soldiers had killed at least fifty-seven enslavers across a twenty-mile path of destruction before the rebellion was put down. Panic spread as newspapers everywhere blared the gory details.
Before his hanging, Turner shared his liberation theology.
“I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and hold the power of the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching, when the first should be the last and the last should be the first.”
“Do you find yourself mistaken now?” He was asked, and replied, “Was not Christ crucified?”
In the wake of Turner's rebellion, impassioned debate has been waged for nearly 2 centuries about whether or not violence was justified to strike back against the violence of slavery that was treating people like animal property, oftentimes with cruelty that included separating families.
Markedly, this debate took on a resurgent heightening during the civil rights activism against racism in the 60s. On the one hand there were activists who believed that nonviolence was getting nowhere; and on the other hand, there were activists who believed that powerful fighting against racism could most successfully be waged without asserting physical violence. The Biblical stories that informed Nat Turner, continue to be interpreted differently by each of these dissonant activist camps, in ways that support each of their strategies.
What are these stories? What does it mean for Turner's vision of the "serpent" to be released? Prior to the oral tradition supporting Old Testament stories, archaeological findings indicate that the serpent was most often seen as a companion to the Mother Goddess, who connected the domains of above and below the surface of the earth, bringing healing (This theme lives on in the symbol of the caduceus, used on the uniforms of U.S. Army medical officers and many other medically oriented institutions). The serpent is powerful. Its fangs can be poisonous and can kill. Its fangs are also milked to provide medication. In the Old Testament's 21st chapter of Numbers, Moses "held back," while also making accessible, the power of the serpent by placing it on a pole, on a cross; a symbol that is prescient of Christ on the cross (e.g. John 3:14 “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”). The O.T. Israelites who looked at the serpent, seeking forgiveness of their sins, were healed. Turner’s confessions then go on to link releasing the serpent’s power with the mission of Jesus to release slaves. He notes that “the first shall be last,” a Christ statement that links with Jesus’ initial preaching at his home synagogue in Nazareth.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives (slaves) and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (the year of the Jubilee).
The Old Testament prophet, Amos, noted that where there is not justice, the year of the Lord, the Jubilee, comes with judgment.
Amos 5: Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? …let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Put Turner’s spiritually received images together: releasing the power of the serpent and the mission of the Judeo-Christian Jubilee, together with personally knowing the agonies of slavery, one can readily see how he discerned a divine mission to violently overthrow the institution of slavery.
In Turner’s words,
I heard a loud voice in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said . . . I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons . . . for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.
Putting Turner’s visual images together with releasing the power of the serpent and the mission of the Judeo-Christian Jubilee, together with personally knowing the agonies of slavery, one can readily see how he discerned a divine mission to violently overthrow the institution of slavery. The question of how to use power to overthrow racism and slavery continues to be relevant; in the United States, we face the ongoing challenges of racism. Beyond US borders, it is estimated that in addition to the blights of racism, there are still 40 million slaves, one fourth of them being children. If necessary, is lethal violence ethically appropriate to free slaves?
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