The Dark Side of “Zeal for the Lord”
A sermon on Galatians 1:11-24 by Nathan Nettleton, 10 June 2007

Religious zeal often turns violent, but the revelation of Jesus Christ makes known a God who repudiates our violence and sets us free from it.


The Dalai Lama has been in town this past week, and a dispute broke out on the Victorian Baptist Ministers’ email discussion list over him. One of our Victorian pastors said that, “as a leader of a false religion is not the Dalai Lama on the same level as the false prophets of Baal?” After a couple of people challenged him about it, and a couple of others cheered him for it, he went further and asserted that “there is only Christian and Non Christian, there are not shades of grey,” and that “thus world religions that teach many paths to God” (such as the religion represented by the Dalai Lama) “are in the same place spiritually as Satanists.”

I would hazard a guess that there are not too many people in this congregation who would have applauded such statements about the Dalai Lama, but I think it is worth us reflecting on the nature of such views and whether we might sometimes be much the same, but just on different sides, and if so, what is God’s call to us? I need to say, before I go any further, that I am not in a position to know exactly where this pastor was coming from. I know him a little but not well, and I can’t know his motives or even whether I have correctly understood what he intended to say. That’s why I’m not naming him. But some of you will know who he is, or will find out, so please hear that I am leaping from his comments to generalisations about religious behaviour, and I don’ know whether my generalisations are actually applicable to him. It is the generalisations I am talking about, not him or any of the individuals who supported his view. I know I am walking a fine line here, and I’m not exactly sure where the line is, but I’ll do my best.

There is an intriguing connection between the sort of things that were said about the Dalai Lama, and what the Apostle Paul had to say in the reading we heard tonight from his letter to the church in Galatia. Paul was defending his credentials as an Apostle, and part of his defence involved telling a bit of the story of the religious perspectives he held prior to his conversion to Christ, and the behaviour that flowed from those perspectives. Paul was a religious person before his conversion to Christ. And he makes it clear, here and in several other places, that he was an exceptionally committed and devout religious person. In fact he is quite clear that in any way you might care to measure such things, he was way out in front of his peers. He was, he says, zealous for the religion he had been raised in, zealous to the point of militant fanaticism. He was on a violent mission to destroy the Christian Church because he was certain that it was a dangerous heresy, a false religion, a vile betrayal of the true religion of Israel.

Now that’s not an obvious connection to the comments about the Dalai Lama yet, but bear with me. In the process of telling his story, as he speaks of how God called him, Paul makes clear allusions to the stories of the prophets Elijah and Isaiah, and of course, we heard a story of Elijah in one of our other readings and we’ll be having a series of them over coming weeks. Elijah was one of the two great heroes of Jewish religious zeal. The other one was a guy called Phinehas who appears briefly in the book of Numbers (25:6-18). At a time when maintaining the ethnic purity of Israel was seen as an essential act of religious devotion, Phinehas had saved the people from God’s anger through an act of vigilante ethnic violence by spearing to death an Israelite man and his foreign wife, apparently while they were having sex. Phinehas is commended there, and in later Israelite literature, for his exemplary “zeal for the Lord”. Elijah is similarly lauded as a hero for his “zeal for the Lord” because of the episode where, after winning the fire on the mountain competition, he took the sword and slaughtered four hundred prophets of Baal. Who? The prophets of Baal; exactly the group with whom a Baptist pastor this week equated the Dalai Lama.

Now perhaps you are beginning to see what I am getting at. Zealous religious devotion, whether associated with the one true God or with false gods, is always in danger of turning violent. A commendable passion for the truth and holiness and uniqueness of God, with just a little little twist, easily turns into a violent hostility towards those who are seen to be promoting rival gods or rival religions. And when that happens, we inevitably interpret our own violence and hostility as being expressions of what God is calling us to. In other words, we project the cause of our violence onto God and thus portray God as both violent and as calling for and endorsing our violence.

Now I don’t imagine that those Baptist pastors this week actually feel a violent hatred or hostility towards the Dalai Lama, and I don’t think for a moment that they would endorse any expression of violence towards him, or think that God would want such violence. But the trouble is, one of them quite explicitly linked him with a group whose slaughter is applauded in our Bibles and in the traditions we have inherited. The Apostle Paul would have seen himself as following in this tradition as he participated in the vigilante murder of early Christians. And when Islamic preachers equate anyone in our community with people who the Koran said should be killed, we accuse them of fomenting terrorist sentiments.

And we can’t be naive about this. There are people who would invoke the name of Christ to justify murder. I’ve not heard any calling for the murder of the Dalai Lama, but they probably exist. There are certainly groups who invoke the name of Christ to justify acts of violence and murder against other ethnic groups, against homosexuals, against abortionists, or against satanists. And lest we think the violence is confined to the extreme right-wing conservative section of the church, let’s remember that there are and have been numerous left-wing vigilante and guerilla groups, invoking the name of Christ to justify their violence in struggles around the world. And there are plenty of Christians who support the violence that our country is inflicting on the people of Iraq. It is a simple fact of the history of violence, that most violence is seen as justified by its perpetrators, and those of any religious persuasion almost invariably see their violence as being committed at the request of God or in defence of God.

And it is so subtle and seductive. I got sucked into it again myself this week. I found myself feeling angry and hostile towards some of the participants in the Baptist debate, and I undoubtedly shot off some responses that had violent intent. Didn’t Jesus say something about dealing with the logs in our own eyes?! But of course I thought I was defending God’s honour, and so of course did those on the other side of the debate. And in the end, the sad irony was that our response to the visit of the Dalai Lama was to turn on each other. And our passion for truth and effective evangelism simply led us into precisely the sort of ungracious behaviour that will ensure that we look far less attractive to the world around us than the faith that the Dalai Lama represents!

The point the Apostle Paul is making in owning up to his own history of involvement is religious violence is to contrast it to the life that is now his in Christ. He is pointing out that the sort of religious zeal he was involved in actually mutated and created an idol, a false god of violence and vengeance. Our passion for God’s truth can turn that very truth into an idol in whose name we are willing to hate and attack and destroy. And the change for Paul comes when Jesus himself confronts him and identifies himself with the victims of Paul’s zealous quest. Jesus is not just siding with the victims because they were his followers, but also because they were victims - victims, like himself, of religious zeal turned to violence.

And Paul is at pains to make clear, in this passage, that his new understanding of God was not cooked up by any clever religious teachers, but was revealed by God in the revealing of Jesus the Messiah. It is Jesus himself, and him victimised and crucified, that makes known to us who God really is and what God’s relationship to religious violence always is. God is always the victim of it, and never the perpetrator of it. The cross reveals all our justifications of violence and hostility to be idols, to be heresies, blasphemously projected onto God. For at the cross we see that God’s way of dealing with dissenters and heretics and opponents and the prophets of false religions is not to destroy them or mandate hatred and hostility towards them, but to die for them, breathing words of forgiveness and gracious invitation even with his dying breath.

And, Paul is saying, this revelation of the God in whom there is no violence is also the call of God to us. Despite the way some English Bibles translate it, Paul doesn’t actually say that “God revealed his Son to me,” but that “God revealed his Son in me.” We are called to embody the message, to be the ones in whom the gracious truth of Jesus Christ is revealed and seen. I know I failed significantly to live out that call this week, and I would hazard a guess that most of us, in some area or instance this week also failed to embody the resilient grace of Christ that offers only love and mercy in the face of hostility, or even in the face of violent persecution.

But now we are invited again to this table. Here we hear again the words of grace and the offer of life. Here we are again graciously offered Christ’s own brokenness, that we might be lifted into his wholeness and strengthened for the living out of his grace in the days ahead. Here our failures are not counted against us, for even as Christ identifies himself as the victim of our bitterness and hostility, he welcomes us with open arms and wounded hands and invites us to feast on his love that we might be raised from death to life, to the life that is free of violence and hatred and the us-and-them divisiveness that so quickly mutates into the tearing apart again of the body of Christ. Here is life, revealed in Christ crucified, and offered that we might be saved and live.