Magazine article The Christian Century

Inside the Other Side

Magazine article The Christian Century

Inside the Other Side

Article excerpt

Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence

By Jonathan Sacks

Schocken, 320 pp., $28.95


Violence seems to have permeated every dimension of our common life and every dimension of our imagination, and political leaders are putting it to political use, mobilizing fear and thus skewing policy and practice. Theological teachers and preachers must respond credibly to this public reality. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Common-wealth, has made a wise and important response.

Sacks begins his book with a large-scale analysis of public violence and its roots. He observes that in the 17th century the rise of Enlightenment rationality and its attendant ethos of tolerance, which transcended national sectarianism, permitted the promulgation of the Treaty of Westphalia. Thus a rough peace was guaranteed by secularization. More recently, however, that secularization has diminished in authority, so "religious violence" has been able to reemerge with immense energy.

But so-called religious violence is not rooted in religion, and religion has nothing to do with generating it. Rather, Sacks suggests, the source of violence is found in a dualism that separates "us" from "them," in Manichaean fashion, and that freely treats "them" with hostility and hatred.

Such a dualism occurs in three steps. First, the adversary--them--is dehumanized and demonized. Second, we come to regard ourselves as victims of them. Third, victimization creates a warrant for doing "altruistic evil"--that is, the elimination of them becomes a great good. Once this ideological reduction is set in motion, it can surface in main stream monotheism as readily as it can anywhere else.

Sacks is rightly insistent that the Jewish interpretive tradition, followed by the catholic tradition of Christianity, powerfully refuses every such dualism. In an appeal to Isaiah 45:7, he witnesses to the God who "creates weal and woe" and thereby refuses all "splitting" that can turn violence into a religious or patriotic virtue.

The heart of Sacks's powerful argument in the second part of his book consists of a compelling exposition of Genesis. He judges that pervasive violence is deeply rooted in the sibling narratives of Genesis that have set brother against brother, one preferred and one rejected--preferences and rejections that have been variously taken up by Jews, Christians, and Muslims with respect to Isaac and Ishmael and Esau and Jacob. Sacks contends that surface readings of these narratives, which set brother against brother and so feed ongoing hostility, are misreadings.

Sacks suggests an astonishing rereading of the narratives that appeals to the long tradition of rabbinic exegesis. His reading of Isaac and Ishmael is a counternarrative in which the chosenness of Isaac does not displace Ishmael. The rabbis understood that Abraham continued to love Ishmael and to care for him.

In a second case, he recognizes that by the end of the complex narrative of Esau and Jacob the two brothers have reversed roles. As a result, Jacob receives a second blessing, which is no longer about wealth and power, but rather a blessing of covenant.

Sacks's third and most compelling exposition is of the Joseph narrative. …

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