Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Zealot

Zealotry makes me absolutely sick. By zealot, I mean those individuals who do not see the other side of the coin, those who answer the complexities of life with a definitive yes or a definitive no, rather than yes and no, which is the only honest response of any critical thinker to a particular issue. Such partisan frenzy doesn't take into account the complexity of human nature and the human condition.  (For the record, as a former historian I'm well aware of the origins of the term zealot: a knife-wielding Jew who opposed Roman rule in first-century Palestine.  However, I use the term in its more conventional meaning.)  First off, I apologize for starting right out of the chute with such a nasty tone. This blogger is still committed to the avoidance of partisan politics, but some recent unspecified political activities that have gotten everyone in my neck of the woods in a ruckus lately has forced me once again to think about the less than savory aspects of the human condition. I intend to speak more philosophically than politically, however, lest you think I’m breaking my commitments.

I’ll even practice what I preach when it comes to seeing two sides of an issue by saying that the zealot does have one benefit over those less vociferous souls such as myself who sit back in amazement at the spectacle of political protest. Zealots are the ones who often get things done. After all, most of us have heard of a firebrand named Martin Luther, but who, other than Renaissance buffs, remembers his contemporary Erasmus of Rotterdam, a scholar recognized and respected by contemporaries throughout Europe and who argued for moderation and restraint when it came to reform?

Here’s the irony. I am for the most part for the protestors; indeed, I have—for unspecified reasons—a stake in their success. At the same time I recognize virtues of the other side. Moreover, I see corruption and selfishness on both sides of the fence. Here’s my objections to the protestors, however, and I realize I can’t paint all of them with such a broad brushstroke. They deem those who do not participate with the same zeal that they possess almost as apostates or heretics. Moreover, if you’re not wearing the prescribed color or the right patch on your arm or what have you, you reveal yourself to be a heretic. It’s a classic Us and Them mentality, bequeathed to us from our evolutionary ancestors. Second, I have no objections to protesting for the sake of maintaining one’s livelihood, but don’t dress it up with lofty rhetoric about democracy and doing it for the children. And most certainly do not compare your plight to, say, Egyptians who have risked life and limb to revolt against a government that tortures and abuses its people.

I get it.  Zealotry, like terrorism, is in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps I'll modify my viewpoint midstream in one regard.  It's not so much the zealot who makes lasting change, but the moderate zealot, or reformer, shall we say.  To return to my historical analogy, Luther was not exactly a zealot when compared with other German firebrand theologians of the early 16th century like his colleague Andreas von Karlstadt.  Have you ever heard of a Karlstadtian Church?

Since my head is evidently stuck in the 16th century now, let me give Michel de Montaigne the last word.  He observed the horrific rape and plunder of his times.  He's addressing the zealotry of ardent Catholics and Protestants here, but his words can have wider applicability:

Our zeal does marvels when it supports our inclination toward hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, slander, rebellion.  On the contrary, toward kindness, gentleness, temperance...it neither runs nor flies.