Zealotry is defined as a fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals. These days, the word evokes something negative. But many outstanding missionaries have been full of zeal. I remember standing at the grave of C. T. Studd in the village of Ibambi in the Congo and thinking of what brought him there – his dogged pursuit of taking the Gospel to the geographic center of Africa. At the time, most missionaries stuck to the coasts as travel inland involved long overland treks on foot.
Studd gave up a successful career in cricket for the precarious life of a missionary in the Belgian Congo in the early 20th century, where he died of untreated gallstones in 1931. He was a certain kind of zealot.
It was near Ibambi that I first met Siangombe – a frail shell of a man riddled with health problems who had obviously once been healthy and robust. His decline was caused by his encounters with the Mai Mai militia. Their beloved country had undergone more than a century of brutal rule or interference by outside powers, and they wanted it ended. In fact, they wanted to get rid of all outside influence so that the Congo would be pure. Because Christianity came from outside, the Mai Mai opposed it the same was they opposed everything they considered not purely Congolese – violently.
Because Siangombe was a Christian and, worse, a Bible translator, the Mai Mai repeatedly beat and persecuted him. Miraculously, he survived. The Mai Mai are true zealots in the worst sense of the term. They have a reasonable, even noble, cause – the liberation of their country from foreign powers. But they add two twists:
- They interpret their cause in a radical way – opposing all outside influences even those that do not seek to control the Congo and those that try to help, and
- They are willing to hurt and kill others, including other Congolese, to accomplish it.
Some Congolese intellectuals defend the Mai Mai because of their unwavering stand against foreign influence, while excusing their atrocities or issuing weak and infrequent condemnations.
Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
With their zealous good intentions embedded in a political ideology, the Mai Mai are brutal even toward people who agree with their basic cause but who disagree with the way they twist it. So poor Siangombe could not avoid Mai Mai wrath even though he too wanted his country to be run by Congolese and according to their wishes.
The crucifixion is the opposite of zealotry. God saw people doing evil things to each other, so he sent his only Son to be falsely accused, slandered and even killed. That’s a very different response to the evil in the world than zealotry. In response to man’s inhumanity to man, God hurt himself.
Similarly, C. T. Studd’s zeal caused him to sacrifice himself, not punish others.
Good Friday is a reminder that God’s approach to evil is not zealotry toward others, and so neither should it be ours.
Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:21
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:18