By President John Garvey
One day after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead and hundreds injured, the Islamic State released a statement taking credit for the murders. “In a blessed attack for which Allah facilitated the causes for success, a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate . . . launched out, targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity, the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe, Paris.”
One response to acts of terrorism like this is to blame religion. If we want a more peaceful world, we should work for a less religious world. Another response denies that religion is the real source of violence. The real motives of violence are economic or political. If we want a more peaceful world, we need democracy, effective global leadership, more resources, and better technology.
Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, argues in his new book, Not in God’s Name, that both of these responses are wrong.
Human beings, Sacks argues, are social animals. We find our identities in community. This brings out the best and the worst in us. We tend to be kind and self-sacrificing toward members of our own group, suspicious and aggressive toward members of other groups. The more “other” we perceive a group to be, the more violent we can become toward them. Sacks offers Nazi Germany as an example. Hitler called the Jews a poison and a parasite. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, called them “the lice of civilized humanity.” The Jews were seen as an entirely foreign body that had to be surgically removed for the health of society.
Religion can contribute to such a “pathological dualism,” that divides the world sharply into children of light (us) and children of darkness (them). Sacks asks whether it must.
Sacks is particularly concerned with the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On the face of it, relations among the three faiths would seem to be inherently antagonistic. Each regards itself as the heir to the covenant with Abraham. This seems to be a zero-sum game. If we are chosen you are not. This idea seems to be affirmed in the foundational stories of Scripture. Isaac is chosen, Ishmael is not; Jacob, not Esau; Joseph, not his brothers. The drama of choice is played out on a grander scale in Exodus, when God takes Israel for his people. Israel is redeemed from Egypt; the Egyptians lose their first-born sons.
Sacks offers an alternative interpretation. The stories of sibling rivalry in Genesis, he argues, do not endorse this rivalry. They “set out to undermine it, subvert it, challenge it, and eventually replace it with another, quite different way of understanding our relationship with God and with the human Other.”
Through a careful reading of the Genesis stories of sibling rivalry, Sacks shows that while one brother is chosen, the other is not rejected. God tells Abraham that he will keep his covenant through his son Isaac. But Ishmael is not displaced or vilified. God repeatedly promises that Ishmael will also be blessed. The episode in which Hagar and Ishmael are sent away is saturated with emotion. Genesis intentionally attaches the sympathy of the reader to the “other” son. An attentive reading of this story, and the other scriptural accounts of rivalry, teaches us that God is with the Other just as we believe he is with us.
Sacks takes religion seriously. He does not twist Scripture to conform it to the standards of modern-day democratic liberalism. He listens attentively to and learns from the text. This is what makes his argument powerful. A program of moral relativism and complete autonomy cannot provide a solution to escalating religious violence, because it does not provide the sense of meaning, identity, or community that human beings naturally desire. Organizations like ISIS offer men and women a coherent vision of reality that can inform their daily lives. It promises them a purpose worth dying for. Sacks argues, and I think he is right, that the Abrahamic faiths offer a convincing alternative, one worth living for.