Prairie Messenger Header

Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


For Christmas: a common challenge to Abrahamic faiths


Gerald Schmitz

NOT IN GOD’S NAME: Confronting Religious Violence
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
(Penguin Random House ©2015, 320 pages)

This penetrating volume from the author of more than 25 books (see makes for timely reading as the terrible consequences of terrorist outrages claiming religious justification contrast so cruelly with a season celebrating the birth of the “Prince of Peace.” If Sacks’ message can be summed up in a single sentence it is that “Religiously motivated violence must be fought religiously as well as militarily, and with passionate intensity, for this will be one of the defining battles of the twenty-first century.”

Islam today is the Abrahamic religion undergoing the most wrenching challenge, but historically all three Abrahamic monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — have struggled with violent extremisms committed in their name. It was Christianity’s barbaric 17th century “wars of religion” that Blaise Pascal had in mind when he wrote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” That warning prefaces Part I of Sacks’ book on “Bad Faith” in which he analyzes the religious sources of what he calls “altruistic evil,” i.e. the justification of intrinsically evil actions (torture, murder, slavery) on the grounds of a religious ideal or duty.

In the ancient world polytheistic religions were linked to the holders of political power. They were cults sanctifying the rulers. Abrahamic monotheism arose as a sustained protest against idolatry, promising liberation and affirming the inherent worth of each person as children of one God. Yet Abrahamic religions too have been corrupted by alliances with power. Reformation movements have provoked violent reaction and contestation, most virulently when spread by revolutionary advances in communications technologies. It’s no accident that the invention of the printing press preceded the Protestant Reformation and Europe’s worst religious wars. Today the Islamic extremists who condemn western secularization and want to purify Islam (indeed a majority of their victims are Muslims) propagate their struggle through digital social media.

Sacks argues that an answer to such eruptions of religious violence must go to the original Abrahamic religious sources themselves: “If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no natural end (emphasis in original).” We must ask how the God of Abraham speaks to Jews, Christians and Muslims today.

Sacks observes that violence has been endemic in human society ever since our ancestors first formed into groups, competed and conflicted over territory and resources. When directed against outsiders the identities and loyalties that arise within social groups can acquire dangerous religious overtones. This is particularly the case for dualistic conceptions that divide “us” from “them.” Dualism has dire consequences if it leads to a dehumanization and demonization of the other. As he puts it: “Violence may be possible whenever there is an Us and a Them. But radical violence emerges only when we see the Us as all-good and the them as all-evil, heralding a war between the children of light and the forces of darkness. That is when altruistic evil is born.”

Anti-Semitism is the longest standing manifestation of this violence and “is important because it illustrates more clearly than any other phenomenon the psychological and social dynamic of hate.” When it took on racial as well as religious connotations, conversion would not suffice; only extermination could satisfy the haters. Jews had no power in Nazi Germany yet the Nazis presented Germany as the victim of a Jewish conspiracy. In much of the Arab world a rampant “Judeophobia” makes the tiny minorities that remain a scapegoat for various ills. This dualistic scapegoating is most lethal in times of acute social stress.

What accounts for the “sibling rivalry” that has produced violent antagonisms among the Abrahamic faiths? Sacks traces it back to the Book of Genesis, noting that in the Bible the first murder, of Abel by Cain, was a fratricide. Divergent readings of sacred Scriptures have led to contending claims to be the true heirs to the covenant God made with Abraham. Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. But for later Christians his coming could be seen as completing and superseding the original with a new covenant. For Muslims Jesus was a prophet in a line leading from Abraham to Muhammad as the messenger of God’s final revelation in the Quran.

In Part II, “Siblings,” Sacks delves further into the foundational texts of the Hebrew Bible in a detailed exegesis that reinterprets the central narratives. Take the story of the sons of Abraham, the firstborn Ishmael and his half-brother Isaac. Islam privileges its descent from Ishmael; Judaeo-Christianity from Isaac. Sacks insists that both sons should be seen as blessed by God. Similarly with the sons of Isaac: the firstborn Esau robbed of his father’s rightful blessing by Jacob’s deception. After Jacob wrestled with the angel there was a reconciliation that imparted God’s blessing to both brothers despite their different destinies. From Jacob’s line comes the story of his son Joseph, hated by his 12 jealous older brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Ultimately this story becomes one of atonement and forgiving fraternal reconciliation. To quote Sacks: “The Joseph story brings Genesis to a close by showing that sibling rivalry is not written indelibly into the human script. We can change, repent and grow. . . . The point could not be more significant in the context of the sibling rivalry between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Properly understood, these narratives provide “the Bible’s own refutation of the mindset that says that human beings who stand outside our community of faith are somehow less than fully human.”

Crucial to a process of reconciliation is “role reversal” — i.e. the ability to put oneself in the place of the other, to experience what it is like to be the other, the outsider, the stranger. In Part III, “The Open Heart,” Sacks begins with the contemporary story of Csanad Szegedi, a leading neofascist Hungarian politician who renounced anti-Semitism upon discovering he had Jewish grandparents who survived Auschwitz. The challenge for humanity generally is to overcome the powerful dualisms of “us” against “them” that can be most destructive when cloaked in religious or moralistic language. That means learning to love not just our neighbours but strangers (even our “enemies” in Christianity’s most demanding expression).

For Sacks, God’s injunctions form a universal covenant that precedes all others, but without imposing a uniformity erasing different identities. So Genesis “begins with universal archetypes — Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, the Flood, the covenant with Noah and the critique of Babel — and only then turns to the particularity of the Abrahamic covenant,” which gives a role to a “chosen people” — one that demands more of them as examples of God’s love, and frequently calls them to repentance too.

That said, the Bible, like the Quran, contains some “hard texts” which can be exploited by religious extremists (and militant atheists) — presented as commands justifying violence. History has proven how, in Shakespeare’s words, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” That is why fundamentalist literalist readings of troubling passages are so dangerous and why deeper theological reflection is so important.

Equally important is the relinquishing of worldly power. Judaism was first to fall prey to internecine political violence. Indeed, observes Sacks: “What makes the fall of Jerusalem relevant to the politics of the twenty-first century is that it saw the first appearance in history of religiously motivated terror.” That was terror against fellow Jews. The result was self-inflicted tragedy. In the Middle Ages Christendom and an imperial papacy dissolved into terrible religious wars. Now we are witnessing deadly schismatic wars within Islam, such as between Sunnis and Shiites. Power allied to the imposition of religious uniformity is a disaster for religious freedom and tolerance. Extreme religious violence has also arisen from apocalyptic dualisms. As is currently the case with the so-called “Islamic State,” these envisage a final conflict between good and evil ending with the triumph of God’s chosen over everyone else.

Sacks turns to the great 12th century Islamic thinker Ibn Rushd (Averroes) for some of the most profound arguments in favour of respecting a diversity of ideas and beliefs, which entails the free expression of opposing or dissenting views. These words of the influential philosopher are not in the book but are very much to the point: “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence.”

Through a deeper understanding of Abrahamic faith in God, religious reflection can and must lead to a letting go of hatreds, to an avoidance of the traps of dualistic anathemas and ideological captivities. It means choosing the will to life over the will to power. Sacks draws inspiration from Holocaust survivors “who are some of the most life-affirming people I have ever met.” They did not allow themselves to be consumed by revenge and hatred over the great evil that had been done to them.

It is a tragedy that: “Today the epicentre of hate is radical and neo-traditionalist Islam, sadly because Islam was immune from the virus for so long.” We are shocked by Islamist videos showing children being indoctrinated in hate and trained to kill, to become suicide bombers. But do we have an answer?

Sacks observes that religious impulses are increasing in much of the world even as a secularized West has been losing faith in “the values that used to be called the Judaeo-Christian heritage (and instead) chosen to worship the idols of the self. . . . Faced with a culture of individualism and hedonism, it is not surprising that young radicals . . . turn elsewhere to express their altruism, even if it involves acts that are brutal and barbaric. Every time a movement like al-Qaeda is defeated, another will arise to take its place. Young people, in search of meaning, identity and community will continue to be recruited to the cause. (. . .) All the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”

Noting that the old scourge of anti-Semitism runs through the new wave of religious violence, Sacks gives “special praise” to the Jewish-Christian dialogue promoted by popes since John XXIII and especially Pope Francis. “The church, in the West, has begun to overcome its sibling rivalry with Judaism. If it can happen between Christians and Jews, it can happen between them and Islam also.”

Sacks concludes with a hopeful challenge that deserves citing at length:

We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising 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 neighbour and stranger, the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and 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 colours, faith 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.

Why read a book by a Jewish rabbi? Because if Christmas is to mean more than shopping lists and seasonal rituals, the message he brings about the God of Abraham should resonate in every heart.