When Good Zeal Goes Bad: St Stephen’s Day 2015

In a previous post on St Stephen, I stressed the connection between martyrdom and forgiveness, remarking that

we find it harder to forgive an injury done to ourselves than to be universally benevolent. We have to deal with the particular, not the general; and so often, there is a history we are not keen to let go because it somehow validates our reluctance to forgive.

I think something similar is at work in the way zeal operates. We like to think our zeal both prompts and validates our attitude or conduct towards others. Thus, we justify our anger because it is provoked by that which we consider to be wrong. We claim it as righteous anger when, in fact, it may be nothing of the sort. The consequences of our anger may be far from what we intended. I have mentioned before how uneasy I was when someone who saw himself as a champion of the right of the unborn to life became so inflamed with hatred of abortion that his anger became destructive. He radiated hatred, not love. In his case, good zeal had gone bad; and it was terrible to see.

This morning, reading anew the account of St Stephen’s martyrdom, I am struck by the fact that his death was also caused by good zeal gone bad. Those who condemned him, and those who stoned him, were not violent religious fanatics as we understand the term today. They were good men, sincerely attached to their religion, anxious that no one should be led astray by the novel doctrine of the followers of The Way (we must allow for the fact that the author of Acts is not writing a disinterested account of Stephen’s martyrdom).

As we think about all that is wrong in the world, the injustices perpetrated by individuals or what we lazily call ‘the system’, the sufferings of those who live under unjust or oppressive regimes, the horrors faced by those caught up in terrorist violence, let us also examine our own attitudes and conduct. St Stephen’s zeal was genuinely good, and the way in which he died is a lesson to us all. Years later it was to play a part in transforming the angry, zealous Saul into the compassionate, yearning Paul who would rather be eternally cut off from Christ himself than that any of his brethren should perish. I wonder how many of us can claim such pure-hearted zeal? I know I can’t, alas.