Nat Turner’s Divine Violence
Reimagining the Revolutionary Figure Through the Lens of Political Theology
I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.
–Nat Turner to Thomas Gray from Southhampton County Jail,
Southhampton, Virginia November 1, 1831
That few material facts are known about Nat Turner has not stopped writers of various backgrounds from imagining his life. In some cases, this dearth of information has spurred them on. “One of the benefits for me in Nat Turner’s story,” wrote William Styron of his 1966 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, “was not an abundance of historical material but, if anything, a scantiness.”
Proceeding with this benefit, Styron produced what he called a “meditation on history” rather than a work of one. He applied his brand of American Realism to the story of the mysterious and legendary Turner, who in 1831 led a revolt through Virginia tobacco country, killing 55 to 65 white men, women and children with the help of a hastily trained militia. Styron earned a Pulitzer Prize (in Fiction) for his work; however, critics, particularly those in the black power movement, took issue with his meditations. To champions of black liberation in the 1960s, Styron’s rendering of Nat Turner was not only misguided but deliberate in its attempt to sanitize a black hero. “The man Styron substitutes for Nat Turner is not only the antithesis of Nat Turner,” writes Lerone Bennett, Jr., “he is a standard Styron type: a neurasthenic, Hamlet-like white intellectual in blackface.” To Bennett Jr, “the real Nat Turner was a virile, commanding, courageous figure,” not the conflicted, tormented one imagined by Styron.
Just last year, the filmmaker Nate Parker posited another interpretation of Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation, which was, in many ways, a flop. In his New Yorker review, “The Birth of a Nation Isn’t Worth Defending,” Vinson Cunningham takes issue with the film’s skirting of the historical record—for one—in writing Turner as a “sociable boy,” and a “warm, encouraging preacher” (the documentary evidence shows him to be serious and aloof). Furthermore, the film eschews complexity entirely. Cunningham writes that Nate Parker’s Nat Turner “emerges as a nearly supernatural force,” the “superhero off to his great task.” The rendering of the climactic scene of the revolt is, not surprisingly, compared to “something by Marvel.”
Too complex, or not complex enough. Hewn close to the documentary record, or interpreted liberally by a white novelist. In 2016, imagining a heroic, superhuman conqueror felt overwrought and hammy—Marvel-esque—while in the sixties, the dominant Turner that Bennett and others sought may have been a useful legend during a transformational period. What is clear is that Nat Turner’s stature and mysteriousness has made necessary multiple imaginings and re-imaginings. And perhaps now, as stark, presidentially condoned displays of racism force us to once again question whose side the law is on, we might reanimate the figure of Turner, and posit another reading. Now is a period when the increased visibility of extrajudicial police killings appear once again to establish the law rather than enforce it. A moment when determining who goes “full-Nazi” is more than a macabre cocktail game. A moment when white supremacists, who by definition support a platform of ethnic genocide, have the benefit of a sympathetic ear in halls of power.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from Nat Turner and his legacy it’s that not all forms of violence are created equal, and in fact certain forms of violence are inevitable.
And yet to Styron, Nat Turner the historical figure was a lunatic. “Early on I was struck by the impression that our hero was a madman,” he writes plainly, admitting that in writing the novel, he tempered this view to benefit the narrative. He writes that he chose to give Turner “dimensions of humanity that were almost totally absent in the documentary evidence.” In doing so, he believed he was doing everyone, and his work, a service. But what exactly was it about the original Confessions that gave Styron this impression? Was Turner truly “mad”?
In the main, it was Nat Turner’s religiosity and fervor that Styron found wacky. His celestial visions: the “white spirits and black spirits doing battle” in the sky (his vision of the “sun darkening” would be attributed to a solar eclipse visible from Virginia on February 11, 1831); the way the “Spirit” was revealed to him, calling him to his fateful task; his identification with the Messianic figure. To the liberal, non-religious Styron, Turner presented as extra rational, as deluded.
But through the lens of political theology, like the work of Walter Benjamin, one sees Turner’s Messianic visions not as mania, but as part of a coherent political project. One might view his identification with the deity not as pathology, but as making use of theological concepts; as insight. One may then see the Turner revolt not as a mild catastrophe, but as an act of divine violence. We can understand Nat Turner not as a “madman” but as a Benjaminian Messiah, possessed of a kind of lucidity that rarely survived the towering edifice of antebellum state power.
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 fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.
To read Walter Benjamin is to engage in what can feel like a wrestling match. Of all his texts, “A Critique of Violence” or Zur Kritik der Gewalt is notorious for its opacity both because of challenges of translation and because of the manner in which he layers abstract concepts—like justice, fate, and morality—in complex relation to one another. “To understand something is to understand its topography,” wrote Susan Sontag of Benjamin’s manner of thinking, “and to know how to get lost.”
To sketch Benjamin’s discourse here, topographically: he performs a critique by setting up a series of oppositions. Natural law and positive law; lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence; mythical violence and divine violence. While the state often justifies the “means” of violence with its ends, in order to critique violence, it must be isolated—looked at on its own terms. Then it can be categorized, and distinctions can be made. Mythical violence, according to Benjamin, is employed by the state to align itself with the divine. And mythical violence is “fundamentally identical with all legal violence.” Mythical lawmaking is similar to that used by kings and nobles to establish the right “of the mighty,” Benjamin writes, “the destruction of which thus becomes obligatory.”
Mythical violence stands in for divine law. It mimics like a monarch butterfly. And it manifests itself, in Styron’s novel, in the way slave masters would force Hark, a sturdy slave with a deathly fear of heights, up a tree. Or in the “yellow skin[ed]” Sam, “knobbed and striped by the lash,” or in the rape of Styron’s Nat’s mother by a white overseer. These acts did not enforce any law; they established it.
“Mythical violence is a projection of fantasy by human beings,” writes James Martel in his 2012 book Divine Violence, “while divine violence serves to undermine that fantasy.” Mythical violence supported the fantasy, for example, that slavery was divinely ordained. The use of churches to further institutionalize white racism is captured starkly by Styron in the character of Richard Whitehead, a preacher who tells slaves, from the pulpit, that they must “strive to be good and serve.” “Your bodies, you know, are not your own,” he says, linking eternal damnation with rebelliousness to slave masters.
Divine violence, in opposition to mythical violence, does not establish a new law—it destroys the law, and in so doing leaves space for a new revolutionary imagining. Benjamin describes divine violence as:
A pure immediate violence that might be able to call a halt to mythical violence. Just as in all spheres God opposes myth, mythical violence is confronted by the divine. And the latter constitutes its antithesis in all respects.
Styron, though raised in the South, was a modern liberal and decidedly nonreligious. His daughter Alexandra said of planning her father’s funeral in 2006, “the ceremony had been planned the way we thought he’d have liked it—short on pomp, and shorter still on religion.” It follows that Turner’s ecstatic visions as told in the original 1831 Confessions (the title of which Styron borrows for his novel) would be characterized by Styron as “apocalyptic and deranged.” To Styron’s sensibilities, Nat Turner’s “belief in his own divinely ordained retributive mission” struck him as beyond the pale—in fact, he found Turner to be a “person of conspicuous ghastliness.” Since he did not want to write about a “psychopathic monster,” Styron gave Turner much more recognizably human motivations. “When stern piety replaced demonic fanaticism, the man could be better understood.”
While Turner’s visions may have struck the liberal humanist Styron as madness, is it not true, from the perspective of a religious slave, that Christ had “laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men”? Does the divinity not die, or at least disappear under the conditions of slavery, as he did during the Holocaust to Jewish theologians like Richard Rubinstein, author of After Auschwitz? Is it not true that the Serpent (the devil) had been loosened, ever since Nat found himself in bondage, ever since the origination of the slave trade? In a state whose laws are constructed solely to oppress, mustn’t there be a new law?
That Nat Turner exceeded the everyday acts of rebellion in which slaves engaged—thefts, idleness, the mocking of slave masters—and instead embarked on a revolt of biblical proportions, was unthinkable, because of the mythic (and lived) power of state violence. As Styron’s Nat Turner says: “Ask the average Negro if he is prepared to kill a white man, and if he says yes, you may be sure that he is indulging in the sheerest brag.”
Ultimately Nat Turner’s revolt was “law-destroying in all respects.” Mythical violence, the law of the mighty, gives the state physical and extortionate power over the bodies of the oppressed. Divine violence re-centers the seat of moral authority away from the state, towards the individual. It answers not to power, but to a universal ethic. Whether or not Turner’s revolt actually changed things—many have pointed out that treatment of slaves in Virginia and elsewhere worsened in the months that followed—is beside the point; as Benjamin pointed out, a critique of violence depends on means, not on ends. The “state of exception,” Martel writes, that was opened up revealed mythical violence for the fantasy that it is. It revealed “the impotence and indecision of the terrestrial sovereign,” Martel writes. “Despite its trappings of omnipotence.”
Today, as state power in the US becomes increasingly imposing, and its alignment with violent ideologies more overt, “counter-protest” is inevitable. In the face of mythical violence, it “becomes obligatory,” in Benjamin’s estimation. Police officers’ abuse of power is not new, but with new technologies, millions are able to see, hear, and rally around it easily. There is no equal comparison between a democracy in danger and a nation with four million in state-enforced servitude, but in allying itself with Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian figures, in seeking to abridge abortion rights, detain immigrants, and reduce access to healthcare, a populace can feel state violence directly.
Over the past few months, millions have marched through the streets in protest and spirited crowds have successfully beaten back supporters of Nazism and other fascistic ideologies. And reimagining the seat of moral authority away from the state doesn’t always require violence. (“A Critique of Violence” also uses the example of a worker’s strike, in which the economy is attacked by the proletariat). But still, to Benjamin—and Nat Turner—a revolutionary project would entail not only bargaining for improvements within the current system, but a more thorough dismantling of state power as it functions today.