In seventeenth century England, Clergy and nobility, the high rollers of that day, played hard ball with each other and with most everyone else. Religion and politics weren’t only matters of one’s preferences or personal beliefs; they were a form of blood sport. You could lose your head for not playing by the house rules, that is, for not being politically or theologically correct. Excessive political and religious zeal frequently turned lethal.
I like the idea that even in the past, when intolerance and vindictiveness prevailed, somebody with a conscience was speaking out at considerable cost to themselves.
This climate of intolerance in England grated on Anglican Bishop, Jeremy Taylor and in mid-sixteen hundred Taylor preached a sermon to address prejudice. Its title, “Against Bitterness of Zeal,” caught my eye. He wrote, “Any Zeal is proper for Religion but the Zeal of the Sword and Zeal of Anger.”
Here’s the sermon:
“When Abraham sat at his Tent Door, according to his custom, waiting to entertain strangers, he espied an old Man, stooping and leaning on his Staff, weary with Age and Travel coming towards him, who was a hundred years of age, He received him kindly, washed his Feet, provided Supper, caused him to sit down; but observing the Old man Eat and prayed not nor begged a blessing on his Meat, he asked him why he did not worship the God of Heaven. The old Man told him that he worshipped the Fire, and acknowledged no other God. At which answer, Abraham grew so zealously angry that he thrust the old Man out of his Tent, and exposed him to all the Evils of the Night and an unregulated Condition. And when the old Man was gone, God called to Abraham and asked him where the Stranger was? He replied, I thrust him away because he did not worship thee.”
God answered him, ‘I have suffered him these hundred Years, although he dishonored me: and coulds’t not thou endure him one Night?”
Taylor was no stranger to the civil and religious conflicts raging in the England of his day. He apparently irritated some nobleman or offended clergy as he was imprisoned three times. Fortunately, he managed to keep his head.
Today, there’s an antagonistic religious/political atmosphere here in the states. This is why Bishop Taylor’s sermon struck me as it did; a kind of ‘déjà vu in retrospect, a discouraging one at that.
Intolerant people act hatefully, zealously, particularly in groups. Is such behavior driven by some natural law? Do men (typically men) necessarily turn cruel when they convene in groups to collectively regulate their needs? I have read accounts of atrocities committed by men in groups; there’s a theory that holds how it’s unlikely they’d behave that way as individuals.
In an old Life magazine, I read an article about a lynched black man. In an accompanying photograph, we see the man naked, dead, hanging by the neck from a tree limb, He had been castrated. An assembly of white men, and some children appear to be milling around the body, festively chatting as we might see people attending a community barbeque. I know from other accounts how church going Christians would likely be among such gatherings. These Christians would profess to love Jesus but would have no scruples brutalizing this man. They held an opinion that became a conviction: that the man hanging from the tree was not “their kind.” He was less than human, someone to be rid of.
In Bishop Taylor’s parable, Abraham was religious, ready, as his faith taught him, to provide hospitality to the stranger. When Abraham learned the old man was not a worshiper of his God, the old man was dehumanized in Abraham’s eyes. Abraham suddenly turned cruel, became punitive, putting the old man out into the night. What was he thinking?
In this tale, Abraham held a contemptuous opinion about people who didn’t worship his God. Fire worshipers, in his opinion, were inhuman. When Abraham discovered the old man’s religious preferences, all bets were off; Abraham treated the old man inhumanely. Dehumanizing those you dislike, is an ancient vice. The old man was undeserving of the normal courtesies of Abraham’s faith.
Our minds and bodies host all kinds of conditions. They live in the body or the soul but remain inert and do no harm. Circumstances, like being fearful or threatened, or affectionate and caring can activate the latent conditions to appear. I believe the habits of the human heart work in similar ways.
I have experienced two habits of my own heart that have influenced my life; the habit to love and to care, and the habit to hate and destroy. I have seen the way kindness activates the activates loving and caring. I have also experienced the fear that mobilizes violence. This is an ugly condition.
Years ago, a bat found a way into my house. He awakened me but I don’t know how, since bats on the wing are silent. However, I saw him. He scared me.
I knew that bats follow air currents and if I opened a downstairs window, he’d eventually find his way out. But I was too afraid to wait; I became possessed to get rid of him immediately. I grabbed a squash racket and waited for him to fly over the bed again. As he did, I swung hitting him square. The bat hit the wall with a thud and fell to the floor. I went over to see him. He lay on his back, his wing broken and twisted. He bled.
I looked at him –– this was the first time I’d seen a bat close up. –– and I saw how beautiful a creature he was. He had the fine features and the innocent face of a mouse only dark haired. He body was tiny with two tiny black eyes that glistened and still showed life. I looked carefully at his face and I was overwhelmed with sadness and regret. My behavior was mindless and particularly unnecessary and to this day I would swear, while he was dying, that his eyes were looking right into mine and asking me, why?
That’s when I met some of the bitterness of my own zeal inspired by fear and how destructive it can become.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.