Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has been described by Prince Charles of Great Britain as "a light unto this nation," referring to his moral, spiritual and intellectual leadership in the United Kingdom. While recognizing Sacks' distinctive contributions to Britain, where he served from 1991 to 2013 as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and where he continues to be one of the most respected public intellectuals, this is too narrow an assessment of his significance. Jonathan Sacks is an enlightening presence for the whole world, and his message resonates today more powerfully than ever.
In his influential book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), he lamented: "For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God." Jonathan Sacks won the 2004 Grawemeyer Award in Religion from the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for that book, and his presence in our community and his presentations on the subject of religious pluralism before a variety of audiences are gratefully remembered. Indeed, I am sure his thought contributed to our seminary's own commitment to preparing the next generation of Christian ministers to respect, understand and work closely with people whose faith differs from our own.
Rabbi Sacks has returned to the subject of religious difference in a new book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015). The book, which was in bookstores in Britain this past summer, will be released in the United States in October.
Rabbi Sacks opens the book with a familiar passage from Blaise Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions." Sacks' own opening sentence is arguably even more powerful, and it sets the tone for the entire book: "When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps." From the pages of the Bible to the pages of today's newspaper, religiously justified violence meets our gaze. Despite the claims of divine sanction made by those who commit these acts, Sacks writes, "God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamor of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such a time is: Not in My Name." (p. 3)
Not in God's Name is a passionate exploration of the religious sources of violence, warning people of faith of the danger of legitimizing their own lust to destroy while appealing to divine endorsements. While it is all too easy for us to see motes in the eyes of adherents of other faiths, we continue to resist seeing the beams in our own eyes. Rabbi Sacks provides a mirror so we can take another look at ourselves. And, by doing so, he helps us understand the tragedy of our world's religious justification of violence. As he says in this new book: "To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege. It is a kind of blasphemy. It is to take God's name in vain." (p. 5)
Sacks uses the term "altruistic evil" to describe violence committed for religious reasons while recognizing that the term includes causes of evil that go beyond religion. All sorts of movements, for example, which see themselves as ultimately benevolent (especially those Utopian ideologies that promise a perfect society in the long-run) have justified all sorts of cruelties, repression and violence in the short-term. His discussion of the most common three ways in which violence is linked to religion de-mythologizes some secular arguments against religion as the principal cause of violence in the world today (in fact, studies show that religion is not by any means the primary cause of violence), while it also corrects misguided and inaccurate arguments that try to minimize any connection between the motives of certain military and terrorist groups and their religious faith. He also critiques the "in-group biases" that operate within us all: "Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority." (p. 11) This is as true for religious groups as for any other. Sacks' discussion of this bias may help us comprehend how it is possible (according to a study not cited in Sacks' book) for only 11% of Kuwaitis and 3% of Pakistanis to believe that those who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Arab Muslims. Of course, Christians have our own biases. Rabbi Sacks reminds us that such biases run deep and can affect people of any faith including his own Judaism.
Throughout this book, Sacks' analysis reflects an erudite mind fully engaged with philosophy, politics and social studies of the most rigorous kind. It is when he turns his attention and all of these resources to a theological engagement with the connection between religious faith and violence that he makes, what I believe is, his greatest contribution in this book. After reflecting on a variety of ways that various people and states have attempted to intervene in the violence of our time, the spread of religious and racial hatred, he says, "The work to be done now is theological." (p. 20)
"As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorize unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly? What is God saying to us, here, now? We are not prophets but we are their heirs and we are not bereft of guidance on these fateful issues." (p. 21)
I cannot think of a more important new book for people of faith to read and study together than this book. It is so important, in fact, that I am tempted to walk through its contents. But a blog of thousands of words is no longer a blog, and you would be better off investing your time in reading Sacks' book anyway. I do encourage you to read this book, especially Jonathan Sacks' exploration of why the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been so often so toxic and how the very texts that divide us can provide a solution to the problem.
In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Rabbi Sacks asks, "Can the world be changed?" "Yes," he answers. "And the proof is one of the most uplifting stories in the religious history of humankind: the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust." In particular, he mentions a statement written in 2013 by Pope Francis that says: "God's fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and ... through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity." (pp. 261-262).
Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims share common ideals and commitments deeper than our differences. Because of these high ideals and deep commitments, we "must stand together, in defense of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honor of God. ... The real clash of the twenty-first century will not be between civilizations or religions, but within them." (p. 262)
The problems we face are real problems, problems with long histories and tangled causes, but they are not insoluble. There are things we can and must do, among the first of which, according to Rabbi Sacks, is this:
"We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world of diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity. There must be an international campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate." (p. 262-263)
For those of us engaged in theological education, these are badly needed words of encouragement, especially in the face of opposition to this mission.
"We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbor and stranger, the insistence of peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colors, faiths and races, can live together in grace and peace. These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and none." (p. 263)
Rabbi Sacks calls upon us to have hope; not mere optimism, but hope grounded in the deepest sources of our faith. Like a builder, digging down to bedrock to sink beams that support a great temple, he recalls the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to our common source. He reminds us that God's love, mercy and justice are not the exclusive possessions of any one faith, but are the gifts of God for the sake of all.