Confronting Religious Violence: An Interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
By Jack West | January 5, 2016
On November 3, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave a lecture at Washington University in St. Louis based on his most recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. The John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis hosted the event, which included student interactions on campus and a lecture the previous night at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Sacks is a member of the British House of Lords, and he holds academic appointments at New York University, Yeshiva University, and King’s College London. He served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth until 2013. He is the author of more than 20 books, and his newest book explores the roots of religious violence, focusing on the tensions between the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
During his visit, Sacks sat down with R&P’s Jack West for an interview. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
R&P: My first question for you is how has your experience as a rabbi in the House of Lords affected your view on the interaction between religion and politics?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I don’t believe religion has any special insights into the details of politics, still less in the tribal nature of party politics.
But what I really welcome in the House of Lords is this ability to have debates where we look at, in the most generic form, the kind of society we want to create for our grandchildren. What are the values that should be informing politics?
R&P: What motivated you to write Not In God’s Name?
JS: Initially what motivated me was the experience of standing at Ground Zero in January 2002. The World Economic Forum was moved from Davos for one year to New York out of sympathy, just to show solidarity with New York. And I stood with the chief rabbi of Israel, and the archbishop of Canterbury, leading imams from the Middle East, gurus, and we shared our prayers at Ground Zero.
And I suddenly had this revelation of the power of evil, to harm and to heal. It couldn’t have been clearer because here we were of all faiths coming together, in prayer and in grief. I felt we had to make that choice, which kind of religion did we want to take us into the twenty-first century?
I wrote a book, which was published on the first anniversary of 9/11, called The Dignity of Difference. It caused a lot of controversy. But, you know, I was determined to make it as bold as I could, though maybe in some respects it was too bold. Hence, I realized that I needed to go more deeply into the theology. So I’ve been thinking about this book ever since.
But it was actually what was happening, the brutalities and barbarisms of ISIS, during the summer of 2014 that made me say, “I can’t delay this any longer.”
R&P: In your lecture, you talked in depth about the concept of dualism. Can you explain this term for us, especially in relation to monotheism, and how it allows the individual to defeat his or her inherent morality?
JS: Dualism is a sort of pathological form of monotheism, when there seems to be so much wrong happening in the world, especially to your people, who have done their best to obey God, that in the end there comes a point in which you can no longer say, “All this comes from God.” It must come from the enemies of God. And that’s where dualism happens.
R&P: In your book, you argue that religious extremists are often motivated by “altruistic evil.” Can you elaborate on this term a little bit?
JS: It’s when you say to yourself, “I am killing these innocent people because they are members of a people that has humiliated my people.” Altruistic evil is usually done to restore the honor of the people of whom you feel yourself a part, and so it is justified in highly moral terms.
I call it evil because I don’t think good and evil are relativistic terms. I think murdering the innocent is something that everyone would accept is evil. So, when people are doing this, they’re usually using an overlay of language, and the overlay is usually highly altruistic.
R&P: You also identify sibling rivalry as a source of tension among the Abrahamic faiths. Can you tell us more about that?
JS: In the book, going beyond dualism, which is a vast phenomenon and occurs in many contexts—many of which are not religious at all—there is a particular and a unique feature of the Abrahamic monotheisms that each of them has a story of origins that sets them in sibling rivalry vis-a-vis the others. I showed how those stories of sibling rivalry begin in Judaism, because they are the Genesis narratives: Cane and Abel, Isaac-Ishmael, Jacob-Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and to some extent Leah and Rachel.
You have five stories of sibling rivalry, and they are then imported into Christianity in the Pauline epistles and the writings of the church fathers. Paul in his letter to the Galatians speaks about Christians as the children of the free woman, whereas Jews are slaves to the lords, so they’re the children of the slave woman. In other words, he defines Christians as Isaac and Jews as Ishmael. In Romans he defines the relationship in terms of elder and younger brothers, so Christians are Jacob and Jews are Esau.
And that means that Christianity and Judaism see themselves in terms that they’re incompatible. One’s saying, “I’m Jacob, you’re Esau,” and the other one’s saying, “No, I’m Jacob, you’re Esau.” And that creates sibling rivalry. In Islam, the covenant passes through Ishmael, not Isaac, and Jews falsify the Bible and say they said Isaac did so. You know, again, it’s a replication of the Isaac-Ishmael sibling rivalry.
The reason I did so is because René Girard and Sigmund Freud, whose insights into violence are very profound, saw sibling rivalries as, and in some cases, the primary driver of violence. Although Girard does look at biblical texts, Freud was actually not looking at biblical texts. It suddenly all came together in this one insight, and that conflict was written into the three identity narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
R&P: Do you think religious violence and extremism have worsened globally? If so, why?
JS: This is monitored regularly by the United Nations and there is no doubt that the situation has gotten much worse. It’s not only the ones we know about involving Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We have violence against Muslims in Myanmar by Buddhists, you have violence against Christians in India, you have Hindu nationalism embracing violence against Muslims and sometimes, but rarely, against Christians, and sometimes violent situations involving Sikhs. I have yet to come across Jain or Baha’i yet, although they are certainly on the suffering side, and Bahia have been persecuted in Iran.
R&P: What does the history of religious violence have to teach us about sectarian violence in the modern world?
JS: There is an American thinker named Richard Weaver who said, “The trouble with humanity is that it forgets to read the minutes of the last meeting.” I think the importance of history and memory is in allowing us not to be terrified. There is amygdala hijack, where you are so frightened that your prefrontal cortex gets paralyzed, and you react instead of reflecting. I think the value of the history of religion is in saying, “We have been here before.” History never really, fully, replicates itself. But we have been here in sufficiently similar situations to be able to say, “Yes, there is a way out.” That then restores hope to the situation, which allows us to reason together.
R&P: In your book, you write that since 9/11 the West has grown weaker while radical political Islam has grown stronger. What circumstances have allowed radical, political Islam to grow stronger and is there a solution?
JS: Radical, political Islam has grown stronger because the radicals, and most notably ISIS, but also Al Qaeda, began to use modern technology to allow them to outflank conventional communications. So if the West is relying on newspapers and ISIS is relying on Facebook and YouTube, it’s outflanking the West all along. ISIS and Al Qaeda are specifically not nationalist movements; they are global movements. Hence, this is very much in tune with the twenty-first century whereas the nation-state, as in Europe, has a distinctly nineteenth-century air about it. To get all the nation-states of Europe to agree upon, for instance, coordinated action in Syria, will never be easy. The radicals are exposing the weakness of the West because the nation-state was a nineteenth-century solution to a nineteenth-century problem, and we are now in a global age. Christianity and Islam are the two greatest and oldest global phenomena that we know of.
R&P: Would you say these organizations, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, have taken advantage of, as you write, “the multiplication of channels of communication,” while the nation-state has failed to address this issue?
JS: Yes. Elaine and I traveled to Palo Alto in May just to speak to the people at Google and Facebook and YouTube. For instance, we discovered that they have algorithms that allow them to identify an ISIS video. But the second they take it off YouTube, ISIS alone has 44,000 different websites. So the second they take it off one website, it appears on another website and there is no way they can cope with this even though they are using the very best technologies. They have come to the conclusion that the only way of fighting the negative message of ISIS is to deliver positive messages. Now we know, from many, many different fields of psychological research that if you’re going to restore any kind of balance, there has to be five times as many positive experiences as a single negative experience. We know this from how marriages work. We are conditioned to react more to a potential threat, to bad news, than we are to good news. So it’s actually quite a challenge. I think it’s eminently doable, I really do. Good stuff goes viral on the web, not just bad stuff. So I think it’s doable but we have been very slow in seeing this whole development. In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook declared that he was going to read books from here on, and the first book he chose was an interesting book by a Jewish political scientist called Moisés Naim called The End of Power. He points out that asymmetric warfare has become much more successful in the modern age than it was before. All the great companies that have appeared in the last 20 years have been small startups, not established corporations. By and large this technology is outflanking and overturning established structures of power in almost every field, not just religious and political.
R&P: In your book, you cite “radical, politicised religion” as “the greatest threat to freedom in the postmodern world.” Does this imply that religion should have a very limited, or even nonexistent role in politics?
JS: The proper domain of religion in civil society is very much diagnosed by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. I think religion should knit us together rather than split us apart. So when religion strengthens values, builds communities, creates educational networks, motivates people to social action and to philanthropic work, it is speaking to the better angels of our nature. Those are what Stephen Carter calls the “pre-political virtues” that sort of earth the topsoil in which democracy can flourish. To build democracies you have to build democrats. To build democrats you have to build a sense of social responsibility, and that is what religion does better than any other force that we know. As evidenced by the very overwhelming research of Robert Putnam and others at Harvard in his book, American Grace, that social capital is alive and well in America but mainly in religious congregations.
R&P: Why has religious extremism seemingly grown, in what some would argue is an increasingly secular world?
JS: Because, number one, the thesis of secularization was a belief much cherished by Western intellectuals since the eighteenth century, but even in 1831 as de Tocqueville was saying, all eighteenth-century religious intellectuals believed that religion was dying and the truth doesn’t bear that out at all. We are 180-plus years on, and Western intellectuals are still making the same mistakes. In the end, there are three questions that any serious, self-reflective human being will ask: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? Those three questions are not and cannot be answered by the four major institutions of modernity: science, technology, the liberal democratic state, and market economics. Those are procedural rather than substantive and they therefore cannot answer those three questions. Since we will continue always to ask those questions because we are meaning-seeking animals, religion will always have a place in our thinking as social beings in our pursuit of meaning.
R&P: You frequently work on interfaith initiatives. How does Judaism inform this work?
JS: Judaism has a structure different from that of Christianity and Islam. You believe in a dual covenant, a covenant with Noah and through him all humanity, and a covenant with Abraham, and one particular subsection of humanity. In my book, I try to give it some definition by talking about the universality of justice and the particularity of love—which means that Jews find it very natural to recognize the presence of goodness and indeed, of godliness, in people outside of Judaism. Job, the most perfect human being in the Bible, is not Jewish. Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High God, Abraham’s contemporary, is not Jewish. The hero of the Exodus is actually a heroine, and she is called Pharaoh’s daughter—you know, Hitler’s daughter. This is an odd place to find greatness, but she risks defying her own father’s edict to kill every male Israelite child by adopting a child she knows to be an Israelite child. I think the Bible forces us almost to see virtue and even godliness, and the two are almost synonymous. The Mosaic books tend to use yirat Elohim—God-fearingness—as a synonym for virtue.
R&P: Final question, a big question: What are the best solutions to reducing religious violence?
JS: I think we have to give the moderates the space, sheltered space, and a voice. Sheltered space is space like the [academic] one we are sitting in at this moment. Don’t try and be a moderate in the epicenter of a conflict. You get forced into extremist positions; it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in. You have to provide space outside the conflict, where you can train the healers of the future.
The second thing you have to do is give them voice. Now one way you can do this is by knowing that there are people in other faiths who are wrestling with the same issues, who are honest enough to say, “My faith also has these problems,” who don’t see themselves as children of light against the children of the darkness. The fact that you can, that a Muslim can see Jews and Christians wrestling with their own faiths, I’d make it very clear and not in God’s name that all three Abrahamic monotheisms have had their violent moments. They’ve all had their dualistic moments. So there’s nothing that is happening in one religion today that has not happened in other religions at other times. And that, then, kind of empowers the moderates, and allows them voice. So voice and space is the way you do it.
R&P: Thank you very much for your time.
Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.