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Detail of Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Does Faith Breed Violence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks probes the shared roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Review

Nathaniel Peters

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Old secularization theories die hard. The twenty-first century was supposed to be a new age of enlightenment in which progressive politics and bourgeois economics domesticated religion, family, and bonds of national kinship, making us morally unencumbered global citizens. Then came ISIS, Boko Haram, and other representatives of the vicious new wave of Islamic extremism. More surprising than the brutality and violence of their crimes is the way these groups have infiltrated our society. Why do young people who should be enjoying the fruits of liberal democracy become radicalized? Much of our intellectual elite does not see religion as a significant factor in human society and history. For them, the answer to this question must be economic or social – hence President Obama’s persistent assertion that, despite its own claims to the contrary, ISIS is not an Islamic or theological problem.

But as the violence mounts and as men and women who are neither poor nor culturally marginalized commit mass atrocities, the heads have begun to come out of the sand. In one of the most read and debated articles of the past year, Graeme Wood argued in The Atlantic that ISIS and Boko Haram are a theological problem (“What ISIS Really Wants,” March 2015). Whatever the influence of economics or other factors, their followers are driven by a particular theology with a particular – albeit ­minority – pedigree and roots in Islam. Wood is right: Islamic extremism is a theological problem. But how do we go about solving it? The solution to the theological problem must be theological, not military. And the best proposal to date comes from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.

Not in God’s Name is primarily a work of ancient biblical interpretation, but it begins with contemporary social theory. Sacks calls evil committed in the name of a sacred cause “altruistic evil,” the kind that turns “ordinary non-psychopathic people into cold-blooded murderers.” They slaughter with delight, confident that they are doing God’s work. The problem is not religion, per se; as the twentieth century’s body count from totalitarian regimes makes clear, substitutes for religion lead to more violence. Rather, it comes from two factors: our “groupishness” – the fact that we are dependent, relational animals – and dualism. Our social nature leads us not only to altruism (usually directed toward members of our group), but also to suspicion and aggression toward outsiders.

Detail of Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

Religion is implicated as the most powerful source of group identity many have. And religion offers a way to explain why the world is not as it should be. If these explanations retain a complexity matching the world’s, they can be healthy. The problem arises, Sacks argues, when they become pathologically dualistic – when the evil in the world is monochromatically attributed to “them.” This kind of dualism dehumanizes opponents and allows believers to see themselves always as victims, irrespective of evidence to the contrary.

What is it that makes dualism pathological? Here Sacks borrows from the French theorist René Girard (1923–2015), who argued that societies begin with murder and violence between two figures or groups. The most effective way to resolve that violence, according to Girard, is to blame it on a third, the scape­goat. Sacrificing the outsider allows both sides to feel that justice has been done, but not at the expense of either group. Religion performs the important task of casting out and ending the violence that would otherwise rend society asunder. But Girard’s theory has a second part. The violence comes in the first place from mimetic desire: desire that imitates the desire of another (think of Cain and Abel). Sibling rivalry – the desire to have what your brother has and be what he is – lies at the heart of our conflicts.

Detail of Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail)
Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France
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Sacks sees this sibling rivalry at the heart of the relations between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Believers of each faith feel that within humanity God has a favored son or chosen people, and they fight other claimants who would rob them of God’s paternal love. Paul claims that faith in Jesus, not Jewish ancestry, makes one a child of God’s promise. Islam incorporates both Judaism and Christianity into its understanding of salvation. Meanwhile the Hebrew Scriptures’ view of sibling rivalry seems straightforward: Ishmael is sent away, and Isaac is blessed; Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. Below the surface, however, a deeper and different interpretation lies hidden. In order to overcome this sibling rivalry, Sacks argues, we need to look at these texts anew and read them as we have not read them before. Or, to be more precise, we need to read them as the great rabbis and Talmudists did. Accordingly, in the book’s remaining pages, Sacks offers rabbinic commentary on Genesis and suggests ways of applying it to conflicts in our own time.

Before getting into further detail, it is necessary to step back and see what Sacks has done. First, he has accepted contemporary accounts of how human evolution gave rise to our ethical and philosophical frameworks. But, unlike many scientists and philosophers, Sacks does not see religion, traditional morality, and the particular bonds of family and nation as evolutionary stages to outgrow. Instead, he sees them as the solution to our fundamental problems. He knows that we need meaning, identity, and purpose – the very things that secularism would undo. Likewise, Sacks shows that the solution to bad theology is not to secularize it. He does not call for an acid bath of historical criticism for the Quran or for an unmasking of the power dynamics behind the Bible, but rather for reading scripture within an ongoing tradition. We do not need more demythologizing; we need true myths.

Sacks then walks through the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph to show that God does choose some for his covenant, but never rejects those not chosen. Many biblical scholars see these stories as the justification for Israel’s conquest of the land of their neighbors. Esau is the father of the Edomites, future enemies of Israel, and God’s rejection of Esau serves as justification for fighting the Edomites. Sacks takes a different tack. Instead of vilifying Ishmael and Esau, he argues, the text makes us feel a deep sympathy for them – and we are told that God responds in the same way. Isaac may receive the covenant, but Ishmael remains Abraham’s son and will be blessed accordingly. Much of the story of Abraham’s descendants focuses on the unlikely election of the least and weakest. Instead of choosing the strong older son – Esau, for example – the obvious choice in the eyes of the world, God chooses the younger mama’s boy. The message is two-fold. First, “Israel is the people whose achievements are transparently God-given. What for others is natural, for Israel is the result of divine intervention. Israel must be weak if it is to be strong, for its strength must come from heaven.” Second, Isaac’s election does not mean Ishmael’s rejection. God has particular blessings for Ishmael and Esau. In the stories of election, “God rejects rejection.”

The Sacrifice of Ishmael, eighteenth-century fresco in the Haft Tanan Museum, Shiraz, Iran

The Sacrifice of Ishmael, eighteenth-century fresco in the Haft Tanan Museum, Shiraz, Iran

Sacks goes on to treat the story of the Exodus, in which Israel learns to care for the stranger and the vulnerable by itself becoming vulnerable. He briefly examines the so-called hard texts of the Old Testament, arguing that war becomes an option for Israel only when the opportunities for peace have been exhausted. Moreover, unlike the cultures of classical antiquity, Israel never seeks honor and glory on the battlefield. Consistent monotheism responds to evil not with blame, but with penitence: “The first focuses on external cause, the second on internal response. Blame looks to the past, ­penitence to the future. Blame is passive, penitence active. A penitential culture is constructed on the logic of responsibility. If bad things happen to us, it is up to us to put them right.”

Christians reading Sacks will be greatly edified, particularly when they discover unfamiliar modes of rabbinic exegesis. Moreover, they will find an advocate. Sacks is one of the few public figures to call the destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East “the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing,” and “one of the crimes against humanity of our time.” He writes of the history of anti-Semitism with care and nuance. He barely mentions Jesus – or Girard’s argument that the ­crucifixion unmasks the scapegoat ­mechanism – but finds Saint Paul very troubling. In a sense, Sacks’s book is a sustained response to Paul’s argument that faith in Jesus, not Jewish birth, is what makes one part of the chosen people. Sacks wants to show that Paul’s anxiety is misplaced, suggesting that even if God does not choose Gentiles in the same way as Israel, neither does he reject them. Implicitly, Sacks wants Christianity and Islam to become more Jewish: more aware of their own cultural particularity and less aimed at evangelistic claims of universal religious truth. This is perhaps the deepest point of incomprehension between Jews and Christians. Christians can join Sacks in saying no to religious hatred, but they cannot back away from the implications of the cross and resurrection.

That said, Christians should be grateful to Sacks for what he says and how he says it. Sacks connects the great traditions of scriptural interpretation to contemporary social theory. He offers theological solutions to theological problems. He makes a significant contribution to the conversation that needs to take place between traditional Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This is vital, for it is from these communities that the solution to religious violence will come.


Chagall painting © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Image from Gérard Blot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Cover of Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Jonathan Sacks (Schocken Books) Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Jonathan Sacks (Schocken Books)
Contributed By Nathaniel Peters

The author is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

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