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ANALYSIS: Religion and Violence

Rabbi Sacks Confronts Religious Extremism

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The fight against religiously motivated violence will be one of the defining battles of the twenty-first century, wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the start of his new book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” (Schocken Books).

Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013, deplored how only too often “people have killed in the name of the God of life.”

When religion is used for political ends it is not righteousness but idolatry and to invoke God to justify violence is not an act of sanctity, but a kind of blasphemy, Sacks argued in the book’s opening chapter.

Radical political Islam has grown steadily stronger since September 11, 2001, Sacks commented, and episodes of violence committed against Christians, Muslims, and Jews have become more frequent.

He pointed out that many of the terrorists come from European homes, have had a university education and were regarded as likeable people before their radicalisation. This transformation from ordinary people into murderers was called by Sacks altruistic evil, that is, evil carried out in the name of high ideals.

Turning to the relationship between religion and violence much of what has been written has centered on three ideas, according to Sacks.

First, religion is the major source of violence, therefore if we want a more peaceful world we should abolish religion. Second, religion is not a source of violence, rather people are made violent either by the desire for power or because they are manipulated by others. Third, our religion is for peace, but other religions are violent.

None of these explanations is true, Sacks argued. In relation to the first, one survey found that of 1,800 conflicts in the Encyclopedia of War less than 10% involved religion. As for the second, when people define their violence as based on religious motives to deny this is simply wrong. And the third explanation is simply a reflection of how people tend to regard their group as superior to others.

The connection

Summarizing the argument of his book Sacks explained that there is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.

Religion, he said, is the most powerful force to create and maintain large-scale groups as it solves the problem of trust between strangers. Most conflicts and wars are about secular matters, but sometimes religion is enlisted in the support of aggression.

What makes today’s situation especially dangerous is that we are living at a time when the West is vulnerable to religious extremism. Sacks attributed this in part to the trend in past decades to moral relativism. If everything is relative then nothing is absolutely wrong, including violence.

Then, there is the possibility of widely disseminating ideas through the Internet, a disruptive force that Sacks likened to the effect that the invention of the printing press had at the time of the Reformation.

“Weapons win wars, but it takes ideas to win the peace,” said Sacks. In this context he argued that the twenty-first century will be a time of desecularization. One of the reasons why this will be the case is that religion addresses one of the great omissions of Western society, which is the need for identity.

The quest for personal autonomy, individual rights, and spirituality instead of religion has led to a situation where: “We no longer know who we are or why,” Sacks observed.

Jihadists and suicide bombers join radical movements “to alleviate the isolation of the lonely crowd and become, however briefly, part of an intense community engaged in the pursuit of something larger than the self,” Sacks commented.

No truth by force

After a number of chapters examining various aspects of Biblical spirituality and the monotheistic religions Sacks concluded that: “Religion is at its best when it relies on strength of argument and example. It is at its worst when it seeks to impose truth by force.”

In his concluding chapter Sacks returns to the book of Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel, which he maintains, reveals the fundamental conflict within the human condition: “the struggle between the will to power and the will to life.”

What drives ISIS and other extremist groups is the desire for power and conquest, political goals that, Sacks said, is the way of Cain, not that of God.

To confront this challenge the West must recover its ideals, Sacks urged. Moreover, he affirmed that the world can be changed, citing as proof of this the change in relations between Jews and Christians since World War II.

This holds out the hope that Jews, Christians, and Muslims can stand together to defend humanity, life, religious freedom and God.

“The real clash of the twenty-first century will not be between civilisations or religions, but within them,” Sacks argued. The clash will be between those who accept and those who reject the separation of religion and power.

The crimes of religion, Sacks warned “involve making God in our image instead of letting him remake us in his.” God is calling us, he concluded to let go of hate and to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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