Zeal Without Understanding: Reflections on Rambo and Oliver North

by Robert Jewett

Robert Jewett is Henry R. Kendall Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 9-16, 1987, p. 573. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Patriotism of the type popularized by the fictional John Rambo and the real-life Ollie North is gravely threatening to a constitution democracy. What is required now in our society is to combine zeal with understanding, a process that calls for discussion, argument, debate and clarification.

Twice during this summer’s joint congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra affair, Senator Paul S. Sarbanes (D., Md.) used the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, particularly in connection with the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. The words are engraved in the Capitol Building itself: "The Greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." Sarbanes gave no indication that he recognized the ultimate source of this idea, which the famous Jewish Supreme Court Justice Brandeis evidently had derived from a great Christian theologian -- the Apostle Paul. The words are contained in the dissenting opinion that Brandeis wrote in 1928 limiting the power of the government to wiretap telephone conversations; they follow these sentences:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.

What Brandeis warned against -- the abuse of power by idealistic and well-meaning agents of the government -- is at the root of the events uncovered by this summer’s congressional investigation. The crucial issue is zeal. The phrase "zeal without understanding" (Rom. 10:2) was the key to Paul’s interpretation of his former life as a Jewish zealot.

Paul’s reference to such incomplete

zeal occurs in a passage that begins in Romans 9:30, in which the apostle ponders why Israel failed to respond to the revelation of divine righteousness in the Christ event. In the opening verse of chapter 10. Paul describes his anguish over the fact that not all his fellow Jews accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. He goes on to acknowledge the sincerity and intensity of faithful Jews: "They have zeal for God" (Rom. 10:2) ; that is, they are honest in their passionate devotion. "Zeal" in this instance is the technical term for religious passion in the Jewish religion. It connotes an attitude of such unlimited devotion that no compromises are allowed. Zeal brooks no interference. It will break any law or shatter any taboo to accomplish its goal.

The problem with such uncompromising devotion, as the end of verse 2 states, is that it is misguided and thus counterproductive. When a person is passionately committed to a false cause or a destructive end, no amount of sincerity can rectify the situation. In the context of the argument in Romans, this lack of knowledge and understanding has two dimensions. The first has to do with the revolutionary impact of the Christ event on Jewish passion for the law. In first-century Judaism it was believed that if Israel were sufficiently devoted to the law and to the high principle of the oneness of God, the messiah would appear and all of Israel’s troubles as a colony of Rome would disappear. The zealot movement, in particular, held that passion for God required absolute repudiation of any earthly king, and hence called for revolutionary resistance against Roman rule.

Jesus had rejected such zeal, calling instead for love and understanding of the enemy and coexistence with Rome. He died in place of the zealot Barabbas, having refused, upon being captured, to play the role of the militant messiah and summon a legion of warrior angels. Later he refused to respond to taunts to prove his messiahship by coming down from the cross. His resurrection meant that God had indeed confirmed Jesus as the promised messiah, and that the method of bringing about the messiah’s rule through zealous violence was obsolete. Therefore, to persist in the zeal-oriented tradition is to lack "understanding" of this pivotal event in Israel’s messianic history. To use the words of Romans 10:4, "Christ is the goal of the law." Christ reveals the ultimate purpose of Israel’s law, which is that Israel should live in harmony with its circumstances and not put the world at risk in the quest to be the No. 1 nation.

The second aspect of this lack of knowledge or understanding has to do with law as a form of cultural conformity. Paul’s earlier argument in Romans was that no one is made right by conformity to the law because humans tend to use their obedience as a means of proving their superiority over others. This theme is explicitly stated in Romans 12:2:

"Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." Zeal is passionate conformity to a particular aspect of the world.

Today we would speak of "cultural conformity," of making oneself measure up to the expectations of a particular group. We recognize this dimension more clearly in others than in ourselves, of course. We readily identify Shi’ite Muslim suicide bombers as zealots who conform without reservation to the teachings of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Paul was making a similar point about the zealots of his day: they were conforming in a mindless, uncritical way to the values and models of their culture. To use the language of earlier chapters of Romans, they were in bondage to the law but failed to comprehend their motivations or the implications of their actions. "Seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to the righteousness of God" (10:3) when it appeared in the form of Jesus. Their real motivation was a competitive one -- to be more devoted than others so as to gain prestige. The ultimate purpose of divine righteousness is thus lost from sight as one becomes willing, in effect, to blow up the world that the law was intended to preserve. "Zeal without knowledge" ends up destroying the very values and communities it seeks to defend.

It is important to remember that Paul speaks from experience. He had been a violent zealot, unreservedly devoted to the cause of making the messiah’s advent possible through conformity to the Jewish law. He had adhered to the values of his religious tradition out of a desire to compete, claiming at one point to have "advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal. 1:14). There was no doubt about his sincerity or his ability to pursue the high cause: he persecuted Christians and other heretics without reservation. But he had lacked understanding, either of his own deeper motivations or of the self-destructive aspect of fanatical zeal itself.

When Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, however, he had to admit that Jesus was being confirmed by God as the promised messiah, and that his own entire campaign had been on the wrong track. He discovered that the Kingdom of God is not going to be ushered in by brute force. He also discovered the unconditional love of Christ, conveyed even to someone like him who had persecuted the Christians. So Paul no longer had to remain rigidly committed to establishing his own righteousness through conformity to the law; he was accepted by Christ just as he was, and was thus set free from conformity.

biblical tradition of militant zeal. From the early Indian massacres through our foreign-war crusades, we have tended to believe that our actions would transform the world, or, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, "make the world safe for democracy." For contemporary Americans, this tradition is most persuasively embodied in tales of cowboys, cops and soldiers who relentlessly pursue the enemy, breaking laws, traducing values or doing whatever else they feel is necessary to achieve their mission. Probably the most relevant current model for the pattern of zealous behavior being investigated by Congress is the film character John Rambo.

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Rambo: First Blood, Part II relates the story of a soldier with superhuman prowess who rescues POWs who have been abandoned by what is depicted as a corrupt democratic system. Since he dares to defy democratic authority, he becomes capable of saving Americans in Vietnam and symbolically winning the long-lost Vietnam war. When Rambo is being briefed about his secret mission in search of a re-education camp in Vietnam, he asks the officer, "Sir, do we get to win this time?" "This time," the officer replies, "it’s up to you." The paranoid notion that degenerate elected officials refused to win the Vietnam war is carried forward in this film -- a notion which reviewers suggested was one of the sources of its enormous popularity. An officer describes Rambo’s soldierly qualities in David Morrell’s novelistic version of the film: "He’s the best combat soldier I’ve ever seen. . . . A genius. He’s got an instinct for fighting, and right now only one desire -- to win a war someone else forced him to lose" (Rambo [Jove, 1985], p. 39).

Rambo is dropped into the Vietnamese jungle to photograph American POWs thought still to be held there. He discovers the POW camp and, having lost his camera because of his superior’s bureaucratic bungling, rescues an American being tortured on a cross. Further developments bring him problems with an unscrupulous CIA officer and a wicked North Vietnamese. Commandeering an antiquated U.S. helicopter; Rambo rescues the bedraggled and forgotten POWs. He also destroys the garrison with bullet and arrow -- true to the frontier tradition. Rambo’s superhuman powers are further demonstrated when he triumphs in a battle with a sleek, new-model Soviet gunship that pursues his decrepit craft. When Rambo returns to the base in Thailand with the rescued men, he turns his copter’s M-60 machine gun on the computers and communication equipment that signify the corrupt command structure of a democratic army. Here is the model for the kind of zeal that has been vigorously acted out by real-life agents.

The fusion of these heroic images into the Rambo model was evident in North’s military appearance. Although he had not worn his marine uniform while working at the White House, he displayed it proudly at the hearings, the rows of medals no doubt to remind the audience of soldierly prowess and bravery in Vietnam. At one point in the hearings, North repeated almost verbatim Rambo’s line about the war that America’s military had not been "allowed to win." Like Rambo, his military exploits were reportedly on the superheroic level; a fellow officer said admiringly that "Ollie could fight his way through a regiment of North Vietnamese regulars armed with nothing but a plastic fork." But the exploits that most captivated the public were, like Rambo’s, efforts to gain the release of American hostages. The accounts of North’s risky journeys, the threats against his life, and his willingness to die to avoid revealing secrets under torture led writer Cheryl Lavin to describe the country’s gushy reactions:

He came across as a hero. Not a phony Hollywood hero. A real hero. In his first week as a witness, North was dazzling. This wasn’t some good-looking actor -- Sean Connery or Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton -- playing James Bond. . . . This wasn’t Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting a play war with catsup blood. This man fought real wars. He dripped real blood. His war didn’t end when the cameras stopped turning. His enemies pursue him into his home. Right this minute they’re after him. And face to face with the scariest terrorist in the world, he doesn’t blink. Any time, any place, he told Abe Nidal. Man to man. One on one. You and me. The country watched transfixed [Chicago Tribune, July 12].

It is as if the real Rambo had suddenly emerged on live television, conforming perfectly to the superheroic ideal.

Although a career officer and an efficient bureaucrat, Oliver North also displayed the kind of contempt for constitutional process that Rambo expressed. The code name for the State Department in North’s memos had been "Wimp." He accused Congress of being "fickle, vacillating, unpredictable" in its policy toward the contras -- an opinion which he used to justify illegal, secret operations. He repeatedly voiced scorn for the Boland Amendment and other attempts on the part of Congress to act as a check and balance against executive power in foreign policy. North admitted -- but without apologizing -- that he had lied to government officials both inside and outside the Reagan administration, that he had shredded vital documents even in the presence of investigators, and that he had participated in falsifying government records. Feisty and tough, proud and humble at the same time, loyal to God and country, "The marine spoke in the language of the zealot," as R. W. Apple, Jr., observed in the July 9 New York Times.

The zealot’s willingness to go outside the law was exemplified in North’s elaborate and secret efforts to circumvent the Boland Amendment in order to aid the Nicaraguan contras by means of profits earned in the illicit sales of arms to Iran. The lawless stance was continued in the destruction of documents and the deception of investigators. A plan to create a "self-sustaining, stand-alone entity" that could carry out such activities "free from normal Congressional oversight and control" was openly acknowledged (New York Times, July 13) The stunning feature of North’s testimony was that these revelations were made without the slightest sense of shame. So long as the American superhero is devoted to the elevated cause, it seems, crimes committed in the course of redemptive crusades are incidental. As Jonathan Alter observed in his Newsweek commentary. "The instant North resolutely admitted to having lied and falsified documents, many viewers thought it unfair to hold him accountable for it. Confession became salvation before the hearings broke for lunch. Rambo too had been a lawbreaker, serving a jail sentence before he was recruited for his redemptive mission -- but his criminal conviction hardly disqualified him.

The idea of lawless, superheroic exploits restoring national honor and symbolically winning a lost war surfaced in the outpouring of public support for North. Among the 120,000 supportive telegrams received during the course of his testimony, there were many that spoke of the restoration of patriotism and pride. USA Today ran an Ollie hot line and received 58,863 calls advocating another medal for his efforts; only 1,756 callers said that he deserved a jail sentence instead. A woman from Beaver Island, Michigan, remarked that people "would like to elect Ollie president, just as soon as he’s out of jail" (reported by columnist David Broder, Chicago Tribune, July 15) After examining the astounding public response to North’s testimony, reporter Wayne King concluded: ‘Alone, Colonel North appears to have transmuted the psychic tenor of the nation from cynicism and suspicion to patriotism and belief’ (New York Times, July II)

•The view that patriotism can be measured by fervid adherence to stereotypical ideals was repudiated by Senator George I. Mitchell (D., Maine) , who told North that "it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do. . . . In America, disagreement with the policies of the Government is not evidence of lack of patriotism. Although he’s regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics" (New York Times, July l4)

• The idea that superwarriors should act in secrecy and deny those acts so as not to become accountable to the public was dealt with by Senator William S. Cohen (R., Maine). He expressed skepticism that deception should "be practiced upon Congress by deletion, or official documents reduced to confetti, while false statements are given to public officials" in covert operations (New York Times, July 14). Along with others, Representative Lee H. Hamilton (D., Ind.) pointed to North’s violation of the principle of accountability.

•On the issue of telling the truth -- which zealots believe they can abandon for the sake of the high cause -- there were many testimonies to its necessity in a democratic society. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, for example, strongly agreed with Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D., Hawaii) on the need for truthfulness. Said Shultz: "Public service is a very rewarding and honorable thing, and nobody has to think they need to lie and cheat in order to be a public servant or to work in foreign policy. Quite to the contrary. If you are really going to be effective. . . you have to be straightforward, and you have to conduct yourself in a basically honest way." (New York Times, July 24).

• Finally, in relation to our perception that the Rambo paradigm results in a politics of undemocratic and destructive fervency, Representative Dante Fascell (D., Fla.) contended that the National Security Council had "adopted the methods of a totalitarian government in pursuing democratic goals." North sharply disagreed, and Fascell backed off from this accurate observation with the admission that he was not talking about a "substitution of values." But the substitution was there for all to see.

This theme was reiterated in what, from the perspective of democratic principles, was perhaps the dramatic high-point of the hearings. During his statement at the close of North’s testimony, Senator Inouye argued that military personnel have "an obligation to disobey unlawful orders. This principle was considered so important that we . . . the Government of the United Stated proposed that it be internationally applied in the Nuremberg trials. And so in the Nuremberg trials we said that the fact that the defendant -- "

At this point defense attorney Brendan V. Sullivan rudely interrupted, shouting: "I find this offensive. I find you’re engaging in a personal attack on Colonel North and you’re far removed from the issues of this case. To make reference to the Nuremberg trials I find personally, professionally distasteful and I can no longer sit here and listen to this. . . . Why don’t you listen to the American people and what they’ve said as a result of the last week? There are 20,000 telegrams in our room outside the corridor here that came in this morning. The American people have spoken" (New York Times, July 15). This heated response revealed the profound disparity between what many of the telegrams favored and the American principle of lawful obedience. The reference to Nuremberg infuriated Sullivan because it suggested a similarity between his client’s behavior and a fascist mentality. What the public was allowed to glimpse in this exchange was the fact that pursuit of patriotism of the type popularized by John Rambo and Oliver North is gravely threatening to a constitutional democracy.

When we look to other parts of the world -- to the conflicts in the Persian Gulf, in India, in Northern Ireland, in Lebanon -- it becomes clear that fanatical zeal is a problem of global significance. Those of us who are Christian need to acknowledge that we have contributed more than our share to such destructive passion, and that indeed some of our most devoted Christian brothers and sisters are committed to it today. Oliver North is a devout Christian and he is avidly supported by millions of Christian patriots.

What is required now in our society is to combine zeal with understanding, a process that calls for discussion, argument, debate and clarification. We have an opportunity in the wake of the recent hearings to come to terms with a dangerous virus in our culture -- one that infects religion as well as politics, business as well as education. Those of us who understand what Paul was talking about need to translate it into terms that our co-workers and family members can understand, helping them to enter this discussion with vigor and effectiveness.

Christians need to become far more critical of the realm of popular entertainment, which has filled the minds of our children with the exploits of zealous superheroes who lack understanding. These tales of regeneration through violence, of breaking the law for the sake of the zealot’s ideals, are -- from the Saturday-morning cartoons to Rambo -- unrealistic and dangerous. They erode the standards of decent conduct on which our society depends. They encourage the subversion of our Constitution. Perhaps Paul’s words could be cited in this regard as well: "I bear them witness that they have zeal for God, but not according to understanding."