Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Why Religious Violence is Dead Wrong

Good and evil don’t exist apart. They are inextricably intertwined in mankind. Humans are more complex than a caricature.

Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabb, in the garden of his Saint John's Wood, North London home June 16th, 2009. Picture by Ben Gurr

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Acts of war and violence are done in the name of God in the belief that a cause is righteous and an opponent is devilish.

We celebrate the chosen and ridicule the rejected.

And we may be dead wrong, according to biblical teachings.

Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and author of Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, argues that tolerance is a religious tenet, not a religious compromise.

Religious inspied riot“Dividing the world into saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the children of God and the children of the devil,” Sacks writes, “is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God.”

In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel, Sacks traced much of the world’s violence to some religious root. And he warned the world could become more violent because, despite the predictions of secularists, religion is growing, not going way.

“What we are seeing, after a set of failed secular ideologies and, in the Middle East, secular nationalisms, is a set of religious counterrevolutions that are combining religion with politics in the most destructive way,” Sacks said.

most-wars-have-been-because-of-religionIf more people are turning to religion for guidance, then it makes sense to understand where the guidance is intended to lead.

Sacks points to a series of sibling rivalries in the Book of Genesis, which teach something quite different than what many have supposedly learned. “A superficial reading of those stories always says there’s a chosen one and a rejected one,” Sacks explained to Siegel. “But actually, it’s not hard to see, if without any preconceptions, you read the story.”

hagarfinal“For instance, of the birth of Isaac, when Sarah says to Abraham, send away that slave woman and her son, Ishmael, and we see Hagar and her child, Ishmael, going out into the desert in the midday sun – their water supply runs out. They’re both about to die. Hagar can’t bear to see her son, Ishmael, about to die. And there is no way that you can read that story without your heart going out to Hagar and to Ishmael.

“In other words, our sympathies are enlisted not for the chosen, but for the other, the apparently rejected one. And you can see that in all those [Genesis] stories. So what you are seeing is that on the surface, these are stories of God choosing X and rejecting Y. But read seriously from a position of some maturity, we can see that God’s choice is not like that. His love is not like that. To love X, he doesn’t have to hate Y. To choose X, he doesn’t have to reject Y.

“In other words, the very theologies that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have at their roots and the violence between them through the centuries may actually be the wrong way of reading those texts.”

Sacks admits trying to convince jihadists they are wrong is “fairly quixotic.” It may be just as quixotic to convince religious fundamentalists of any faith – or no faith – they may be partially right, but partially wrong, part good, part evil.

The rabbi’s claim that a universal God has spoken to many people, not just one, has gotten him into hot water with some of his own orthodox Jewish brethren, who branded him a heretic.

Brushing off the charge, Sacks told Siegel he aimed his new book at religious people.

“It is written as a religious book. So much of the critique of Islam today comes from a secular perspective. So much of the criticism of religion has come from fundamentalist atheists who are every bit as angry as some of their religious extremist counterparts. I’m not saying they commit acts of violence, but they do regard everyone who disagrees with them as less than fully sane. And what I’ve tried to do is to speak in a religious language to show people that tolerance is not a matter of religious compromise. If we read our sacred texts correctly, that is what God is calling us to do.”

Interestingly, Sacks said the warmest reception to his written words have come from Young Muslim men. That’s a Bible story definitely worth hearing.

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