What makes terror so hard to understand is that its perpetrators often confound our stereotypes of evil. They can be well integrated, successful, with no apparent reason to commit an act of violence. We forget that wrong can be done in the name of right, sometimes in the name of the holy itself.
There is no more searching exploration of this theme than the biblical story of Elijah. Elijah was one of the greatest of the prophets, a man of justice unafraid to confront kings, condemn corruption and speak truth to power. What distressed him most was the spread of idolatry among his people. He decided to stake his faith on a trial at Mount Carmel between himself and prophets of Baal. He and they would offer a sacrifice. The God who sent fire to consume the offering would be the true God.
His opponents prepared the sacrifice, said their prayers and waited. No fire came. Elijah taunted them. They began working themselves into a frenzy. Still no fire came. Then Elijah said a prayer. Fire descended from heaven. Elijah was decisively vindicated. The people proclaimed “The Lord is God” and slew the false prophets.
Thus far the story is what you might expect from a religious narrative. Truth wins, falsehood is defeated, faith is restored. But the story does not end there. What happens next is one of the strangest episodes in the entire history of the Abrahamic faiths.
Queen Jezebel orders Elijah’s arrest. He eventually takes refuge on Mount Horeb, otherwise known as Mount Sinai, where God had revealed himself to the Israelites.
God asks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replies: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.” God says: “Go and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Suddenly there was a whirlwind, “tearing the mountains apart and shattering the rocks”. But God was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then came a “still, small voice”. Immediately, Elijah recognised that this was the voice of God.
God then repeated his question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replied in the same words as before. God then told Elijah to appoint Elisha as his successor. Elisha’s career was similar to that of Elijah. He spoke the same message. He performed similar miracles. There was only one difference: Elisha was not a zealot.
In effect, God was saying to Elijah: false prophets believe in power. At Mount Carmel you showed that I am a greater power. You defeated idolatry on its own terms. That may be fine for those tempted by idolatry, but that is not who I am. The supreme power cares for the powerless. The creator of life loves life. The voice that summoned the universe into being is still and small, hardly louder than a whisper. To hear God you have to listen.
Elijah had to learn that zealotry is profoundly dangerous. Jewish tradition went further, holding that Elijah would one day return to earth to herald an age of peace.
God is not in the fire, or the whirlwind, or the earthquake. Zealotry wins the battle but not the war. It creates fear, not love. It risks desecrating the very cause it seeks to sanctify. Faith speaks in an altogether different voice, urging us, in Robert Kennedy’s fine phrase, to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”.
Religion fails when it seeks to impose truth by force, whatever the truth, whatever the force. Only when it divests itself of earthly power does faith learn to speak the healing truths of heaven. This applies even to the greatest of the prophets, how much more so to their imitators in lesser times.
Until we understand this, good men and women will do evil for altruistic reasons, turning people away from the very God they seek to serve. The purity of their motives will not cleanse the blood they seek to shed.
(First published in The Times)