Too much zeal?

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“Surtout, pas de zele” is attributed to the French statesman, Talleyrand, who managed in turn to serve the French revolutionaries, Napoleon and the restored Bourbon monarchs; it is little wonder that when he died during a conference on the future of Belgium, the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, is supposed to have commented: ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’ In many ways this has become the modern political style – and not without reason. If we look at the zealots of the last century we see Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, men who claimed to be inspired by the ‘rights of man’ and the ‘rights of the worker’ and who, in pursuit of their vision, thought nothing of slaughtering millions of their fellow men in order to achieve what they thoughts of as a worthy end. That, of course, is the mark of the zealot – a claim to be acting in a higher cause whilst being willing to ruin the lives of millions – in Lenin’s chilling formulation: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

In our own era, the worst examples of this sort of zealotry come from ISIS, rightly categorised as a death cult, which thinks nothing of killing people and mistreating them in the most vile ways – the name of their ‘Prophet’. I can understand why so many Muslims get upset when others identify them with these people – it’s more or less my reaction when people who know I am a Christian try to blame me for the churches burning each other in the past, or for priests who covered up sex abuse, or for some of the dubious characters who have occupied high positions in the various churches. I doubt not that all these people were filled with righteous zeal for their cause – but I should not care to be ruled by such people, nor will most of us vote for such people.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have their ascetic, zealous wings, occupied by people who think that if someone is enjoying themselves, they are on the road to hell. The Puritans in Britain abolished Christmas, insisting it was a penitential season and should be marked as such; the moment the soldiers stopped enforcing such a rule, it was abandoned. ISIS insist there should be no smoking, dancing, or brightly coloured clothes; the moment their power is broken, people go and do all of those things.

The urge to tell people to behave in a certain way runs strongly in most religions. Jesus had little time for the religious authorities of his day, who seemed to him to be so obsessed with the letter of the Law that they had forgotten its purpose. The same is true of the religious zealots of our time – they imagine that if everyone lives lives of severe penance then somehow all will be well with them; if they got the chance they would try to enforce such a dour regime; they would have to, because no one would be fool enough to vote for it.

The ancient Manichean heresy survives still in such zealots. They instinctively separate the world of the flesh from that of the spirit and imagine that only the last matters, when the mainline Christian churches have, sensibly, emphasized the complementarity of the two; the Word became flesh, and the 40 days in the wilderness apart, was not given to feats of ascetic austerity, We can follow suite.

There has always been a type of personality which wants to exercise control over itself and others by imposing forms of personal austerity. One of the advantages of democracy is that such people never get elected.

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About JessicaHof
Anglican Christian, evangelist, survivor, grateful

One Response to Too much zeal?

  1. I think that it is possible to separate zealotry from asceticism. To an extent all ascetics are zealous of course but not all of them see asceticism as being universally obligatory. One of the things that struck me most when reading the sayings of the Christian Desert Fathers was the extent to which they were harsh towards themselves but gentle towards everyone else.

    It is always necessary to bear in mind that the value of an action consists in the act itself united to the motivation for the act. An externally imposed asceticism or one carried out with the desire to impress others is spiritually valueless. However, a life of voluntarily poverty, chastity, obedience and stability lived for the purpose of growing in love for God can be of great value both to the ascetic and to the wider community.

    I would argue that the problem with ISIS and the Puritans is not asceticism but a Pharasaic legalism which equates external performance of the Law with internal righteousness. Believing that they think by imposing the Law they save people from themselves. The idea that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life is, by contrast, the way which leads people to choose to embrace ascetic or at least temperate ways of living because they are freely responding to the grace of God.

    Liked by 2 people

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