The propensity to violence in fallen mankind is undeniable: the idea that it was ’caused’ by religion led to Enlightenment thinkers supposing that other ways of organising mankind – by nations or by ideas – would beak the propensity; that did not happen; the notion that free-market individualism would do the trick has also not worked. Indeed, as Rabbi Sacks put is ‘Religious extremism, profoundly hostile to the values of the West is growing’ (p. 179). He also notes that even the most altruistic religions have proved to be capable of seeing those outside of their faith as Satans, infidels and anti-Christs, and of subjecting them to extreme violence. He suggests that only if we are capable of ‘role reversal’, that is of putting ourselves in the shoes of others, can we escape this tendency, and cites the example of a former Hungarian nationalist anti-Semite, who, after discovering he was, himself, Jewish, underwent a change of heart and now works to combat what he once worked to promote. Read as he advises us to read them, the great OT narratives invite us not to condemn Ishmael and Hagar and Esau, but to empathise with them and to understand them. Biblical heroes, he suggests, subvert the narrative of simple goodness versus pure evil, showing us that even great men like King David and Moses, have serious flaws in their character. If we will really ‘love our neighbour’ as ourselves, we will recognise our common humanity – even in the presence of the stranger. it is not, he suggests, accidental that so much of Exodus, and the post Exodus teaching emphasises that Jews, who once were strangers in exile in Egypt, should remember the stranger in their own gate and be welcoming to them. Even those outside the Covenant are children of God and are to be loved.
Although, of course, he does not cite it, Rabbi Sacks’ point is driven even further home by Christ’s parable of the Prodigal, which extends understanding and forgiveness even to those within the covenant group who have sinned. But, of course, given Christianity’s record of not following Jesus’ teaching here, Sacks’ main point stands – which is that if we cannot identify the others as equally children of God, then we will end by committing violence of one sort or another against them, claiming we act in God’s name.
Examining the Babel and the Flood narratives, Rabbi Sacks suggests that we misread them. The Flood really shows what happens in a society where there is no over-arching law – a state of sinful chaos. But Babel, he suggests, shows the opposite problem – what happens when men seek to destroy God’s diversity by making everyone speak and think alike: we cannot have freedom without order, he suggests, but neither can we have order witout freedom (p. 193). Diversity is created by God, it is part of what makes our lives here on earth fuller – we sin against His will when we seek to destroy it. We can have our own covenantal relationship with God as a group, but there is, he suggests, a common ethic which all humans need to observe – it is to do with fairness, justice and not causing harm to others. There is Justice, but there is also Love. As Christians, we can go one further than Lord Sacks, because we know that God is love, and we know from the revealed Word how much God loves us. We cannot, and do not know why there is such diversity of belief among the children of God, but even if we believe our own covenanted group is the chosen one, we should not mistreat others in God’s name – that is blasphemy.
In the end, he suggests, the holding of real power by religious groups has never worked to their ultimate advantage, or that of the God they proclaim; they have succumbed to the temptation to use power to coerce belief and close down dissent; they have also succumbed to the other obvious temptations offered by power in the form of money and luxury – and fractionalism over who should weild power. As a Jew, the Rabbi is not arguing for powerlessness, no one who has suffered as the Jews have could think that state a good thing, but he is arguing for something like the original American model of a Government which respects and recognises religion, but which keeps it at arm’s length: ‘religion and power are two separate enterprises that must never be confused’ (p. 225). The best war we can wage of the children of darkness is to be the light.
Lord Sacks ends on a note of warning. If, as he does from time to time, he mentions anti-Semitism, it is not for the obvious reason, it is because it is the carary in the mine – it is the early warning side of a toxic attack. It is ‘the first warning sign of a culture in a state of cognitive collapse’ )p. 259). Can mankind really change though, or are we doomed to repeat the cycles of violence? Here, he sees the work of the Catholic Church is reconciling with the Jews as the sign of hope. If, as happened under the last four Popes, the Church can move beyond milennia of hatred and mistrust, then yes, he thinks, mankind can change – if the will is there, if we recognise each other as children of God – and act accordingly.