Is Religious Zeal the Problem?

This question continues to come back to me - whether through conversation, the media's coverage of terrorism, or personal reflection - is religious zeal the problem? Ever since 9/11, religious zeal in general has been identified as the source of our world's problems. Whether it's the "New Atheists" - men like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris - and their jeremiads against religion, or the "common sense" milieu of our age that takes for granted the value of moderation in all things, most especially religion, religious zeal appears as an obvious evil. Can we question this assumption? I not only want to question it, I want to actually advocate for religious zeal, properly understood.

First - questioning our assumptions. Consider the coverage of either today's "Islamic" extremists or the stereotypical knowledge of the medieval Crusades, and you will in both cases discover that our culture denounces them for the same reason - they were too zealous, too certain, and violence became the natural outgrowth of that certainty. If someone is so certain that Christianity or Islam is true (to take the two most prominent examples in the American press today), it will inevitably lead to violence or hatred or bigotry. Zealous certainty is the problem, therefore the solution is mixing in uncertainty, doubt, and global awareness of myriad of other religious or philosophical options.

The problem with that argument is twofold. First, it grants that the zealots understood the essence of their religion and consistently acted upon it. Speaking from a Christian perspective, I can say that any sort of Holy War in the name of Christ is - by definition - a MISunderstanding of Christianity because of the very essence of the New Covenant. Jesus himself is believed to have absorbed the punishment and holy destruction that we all deserve, so trying to imitate the Old Testament Holy Wars as a Christian ignores precisely what Jesus came to do. Violent Christians (those who seek to make more Christians by force) are not too certain about their Christianity, they're wrong about their Christianity!

The issue is not religious zeal. The issue is for what are we zealous. The problem in the above cases is not the certainty, it's the link to violence. One can be zealous without being violent. Instead, I say, be zealous! Just be very clear about the object of your zeal. Did Martin Luther King need to be more moderate in his fight against racial injustice? Did Gandhi need to be more moderate in his perseverance against British imperialism? Did Mother Teresa need to be more moderate in her humility to serve the poorest of the poor?

Second, not only are we tempted to give too much credit to the religiously zealous, we also lump them all in together, blinded by our own concealed zeal. Not only is this done within one religion ("if there are terrorists who claim to be Muslim, then all Muslims who are devout must be terrorists!"), but even across different religions ("if one terrorist acted on a supposedly religious certainty, then all religious certainty is to be avoided!"). We can be zealous advocates for moderation in a way that whitewashes the distinct and unique differences of religions, political ideals, or social movements. The irony around our assumptions for balance and moderation (two words I despise!) is that they are just as zealous in their condemnation of certainty. "Be balanced! Don't be so certain!" Are we certain we shouldn't be so certain? Surely the one absolute truth can't be that there are no absolute truths!

We need to meet religiously-motivated violence not with less zeal, but with more. This is what Jesus did when he commanded Peter to put away his sword, for his was not a violent revolution. He was ushering in a kingdom not of this world, and he first had to accomplish forgiveness by taking on the punishment we all deserve. He did it zealously, defeating sin and death, so that we can live a new life where we are not trapped into meeting evil with evil, but meeting evil with good. That accomplishment frees us to love our enemy because we know that violence and death are no longer the final word. We can do radical good even at risk of death, because even in death God in Christ promises to be with us. We need more zealots who believe that.