“When religion turns [people] into murderers, God weeps.”
So begins Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his important new book (publ. 2015) “Not in God’s Name – Confronting Religious Violence.”
This rich volume is a response to those who believe that religion is the major source of violence in the world, that when humankind abolishes religion the world will become a more peaceful place.
Not everyone, of course, interprets religion this way. Yes, there are violent streams to be found in each of the fundamental texts in Judaism (Tanakh), Christianity (New Testament) and Islam (Qoran), but he writes: “Religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.”
He challenges all faith traditions to rethink their respective truths: “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?”
At its core, Rabbi Sacks affirms that religion links people together, emotionally, behaviorally, intellectually, morally, and spiritually so as to develop a sense of greater belonging, group solidarity and identity. Most conflicts have nothing to do with religion when understood this way. Rather, conflicts are about power, territory, honor, and glory.
Rabbi Sacks describes dualism as the primary corrupting idea within the three monotheistic traditions. It’s easier, he says, for people to attribute suffering to an outside evil force and not as something inherent within God and basic to the human condition. Seeing the world as “Us” vs “Them” and Good vs Evil may resolve inner angst and complexity, but it’s a false resolution of conflict. Taken to its extreme, fear of the “other” leads to hatred and violence, and when justified by faith results in “altruistic evil.”
“Pathological dualism does three things. It makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as victim. And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love and practicing cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. It is a virus that attacks the moral sense. Dehumanization destroys empathy and sympathy. It shuts down the emotions that prevent us from doing harm…. Victimhood deflects moral responsibility. It leads people to say: It wasn’t our fault, it was theirs. Altruistic evil recruits good people to a bad cause. It turns ordinary human beings into murderers in the name of high ideas.”
Rabbi Sacks reflects on the history of the Jew as scapegoat and the role that antisemitism has played as a reflection of the breakdown of culture: “The scapegoat is the mechanism by which a society deflects violence away from itself by focusing it on an external victim. Hence, wherever you find obsessive, irrational, murderous antisemitism, there you will find a culture so internally split and fractured that if its members stopped killing Jews they would start killing one another. Dualism becomes lethal when a group of people, a nation or a faith, feel endangered by internal conflict.”
Rabbi Sacks sites the bizarre story of Csanad Szegedi, a young leader in the ultra-nationalist Hungarian political party, Jobbik, which has been described as fascist, neo-Nazi, racist, and antisemitic. One day, however, in 2012, Szegedi discovered he was a Jew and that half his family were murdered in the Holocaust. His grandparents were survivors of Auschwitz and were once Orthodox Jews, but decided to hide their identity.
Upon learning of his Jewish past, Szegedi resigned from the party, found a local Chabad rabbi with whom to study, became Shabbat observant, learned Hebrew, took on the name Dovid, and underwent circumcision.
Szegedi’s understanding of the world changed completely. Rabbi Sacks explains that “To be cured of potential violence towards the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.” Before Szegedi’s conversion, he could not empathize with the “other,” the stranger. Now he had become the stranger, the despised Jew.
Rabbi Sacks looks carefully at all the stories of sibling rivalries in the book of Genesis, and explains that God appreciates each child differently and for each has a blessing. The world as conceived in the Hebrew Bible is not a zero-sum game. The struggle for power, position and ultimate Truth is false. Whereas love characterizes relationships within a tribal unit, justice is the demand for humanity as a whole – and both can and must co-mingle thus allowing for individual/group identity and the greater human family.
Rabbi Sacks addresses his book to all the faith traditions, but most especially, he says, to the moderate Islamic world that shares with us our Jewish religious values, and he calls upon them to stand up against ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and other purveyors of fear, intolerance, hatred, and violence.
It would have been worthwhile for Rabbi Sacks to ask moderate Israelis and the liberal Jewish community abroad to imagine what it is like for Palestinians to live under the Israeli military administration in the West Bank on the one hand, and to ask Palestinian moderates to imagine living with the constant threat of extremist Islam to destroy the state of Israel and the Zionist enterprise on the other. Perhaps, if more would do that, to step into the shoes of the “other,” a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might come about more quickly.