[Posted at the request of Alexandre Orion, from my degree journal]
In the novel I am currently writing are three groups that could be considered zealots. They spend a lot of time believing they are not like each other, but it is their zealotry and the methods by which they express that zealotry, that make them alike. Zeal and zealotry are something that I write about a lot, perhaps because I have come across people who I could consider zealots in my life. It is the extreme of belief that I find interest in. Maybe it is because I have a less than mainstream view of life and living, I see the commonplace (particularly religious in nature) and see it from the outside. I have met people I would consider zealots with a similar belief system to me of course… Satanism has a tendency sometimes to bring out those who think they are better than others because they have suddenly found something others dislike… they go ‘full Boyle’ (Brooklyn 99 reference for you there) on others to make themselves feel important.
Zeal is like a fervour, or (I was about to use the word ‘overzealous’ here) great earnestness or passion for something. But it is beyond passion, it is like a single minded focus that inspires great emotion and diligence towards what the topic or ‘thing’ is. Take passion and dial it up.
Thinking back, I am not sure that I have ever had zeal for anything. No, scratch that, writing… At the moment I am struggling to get through my mental situation to writing fiction, but when I realised that I really could write it became almost an obsession, it was all I could think of. When I started writing my novel I would spend all day lost in my head about it, it really was all I could think about. Anxiety putting pressure on me has cured me of that, but I am not sure I would be over it if not for that. But is it zeal? I think so.
With the word ‘zealot’ however I feel it has rather a negative connotation. I think it is partly because the word is often used in relation to those with a religious zeal, and religious zeal in history has often resulted in terrible things happening to people. The various inquisitions, witch hunting etc springs to mind immediately.
In theory while a zealot is merely a person with zeal, to be defined by it is to say really that one has an excess of zeal, that is to say, too much of it. An excess of zeal turns something that can be positive into something that is always negative. It is not necessarily negative by what one is a zealot about, but how one treats others as a result of that zealotry. We talk about ‘militant vegans’ which to me seems like an example of a zealot; the idea is not a bad one, but the execution does a disservice to the idea. A ‘militant vegan’ often puts down others for their choices if they do not conform to their own, and often seeks to condemn or punish rather than inform or educate.
In history, a Zealot was a member of a radical Jewish group seeking to overthrow the power of Rome, particularly the religious pagan/polytheistic influence which they considered herectical. They tried to carry out their intent by killing with violent methods Romans and Greeks indiscriminately. The Jewish Encyclopaedia calls them ‘aggressive and fanatical’. A subgroup of the Zealots were the Sicarii, a name termed from the word ‘sicæ’ meaning dagger, which they carried to stab anyone who did things they disagreed with. Historian Josephus describes them as political extremists for it. Ten Sicarii were made martyrs when they attempted to assassinate King Herod, but Herod (who was no stranger to the concept of espionage) discovered it, putting the ten to death. It is interesting to note that the general populous seemed to approve of the plot, and so killed the one who had supposedly relayed it to Herod. There is no doubt that Jerusalum at the time of Herod was one of religious and political unrest. While I cannot find so much to describe how people felt about the Zealots generally, it seems likely that if the Romans were imposing on the Jewish customs and culture, perhaps the Zealots would have been looked upon favourably.
Does that mean that fanatical and violent methods should be used in difficult times? As a pacifist I am inclined to think not. The Zealots were one of four groups of Jews in Jerusalem, and probably the smallest, so while some may have perhaps appreciated their methods not all could have been thinking as they were. One must also consider that if the Zealots were killing Romans and Greeks regardless of their participation in Jewish religious oppression, there is a moral question there with regards to the expression of their zeal. (I am not saying murder if someone was participating in oppression is moral, only that there is an even greater moral question surrounding the murder of someone who was not, at least directly, participating and is in other ways innocent of the charges. Of course it is subject to one’s opinion, but I choose not to cast judgement here for neither being Jewish, nor it being the subject of this short essay).
I think ultimately therefore that we must be careful about how we express our zeal for something. Someone who is overzealous may put in practice questionable methods, placing outcome higher than the manner of getting there. While I would not wish to cast judgement on anyone who considers themselves a zealot, we must be careful that we do not employ less than moral or ethical methods to achieve our aims. Such strong single mindedness could cause the employment of manipulative or aggressive tactics. If nothing else, being so could actually in fact alienate those we wish to see our opinion. While sometimes change comes from being pushed, we do not have to hurt people in the process of getting there. It is one thing to make someone feel uncomfortable from reassessing their opinions, it is quite another to cause physical or emotional damage instead.