Religious Violence – Not in God’s Name

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a man of astounding learning and, at last count, sixteen honorary degrees.  When he writes a book with the above title, and the sub-title Confronting Religious Violence, we really should take note.  Not least because his conclusions will frighten you out of your wits.

…the world will be more religious a generation from now, not less…It has to do with demography.  The more religious people are, the more children they have.  The indigenous populations of Europe, the most secular continent on earth are committing long slow suicide…..Within religion, the most extreme, anti-modern or anti-Western movements will prevail.  This is happening in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The old marriage of religion and culture has ended in divorce.  Today the secular West has largely lost the values that used to be called the Judeo-Christian heritage….Losing its religious faith, the west is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic…..The moral relativism that prevails today in the secular West is no defence of freedom…..In a world of relativism, what talks is power….So there will be more terror, more bloodshed….The West, indeed the world, has never faced a challenge quite like this.

As it happens, although I am as unreligious as you can decently get, I agree with every word.  As I think the author says elsewhere, the threat is not so much between the religions as within them – or at least the three that we most focus on.

The book looks at the origins of violence among humans, develops a theory of sibling rivalry, and offers explanations for some unsavoury parts of the bible.  I offer a few comments.

First, in looking at history, theology, philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis – Freud is prominent – not to mention the huge literature of Judaism, it is not surprising if we get spread a bit thin.  For example, the author finds that we are subject to ‘two sets of instincts, honed and refined by many centuries of evolutionary history’ – the readiness to co-operate within our own group and to fight those in another group.  Darwin’s theory of evolution supplies the answer.

Let us put to one side that some people – a substantial part of the US Congress – do not accept that theory, what part does God have to play in our propensity for violence, whether we started in the Garden of Eden or in the backblocks of Africa?  It is a little disconcerting that when the author comes to Nazi ideology, he says it was pagan and propped up by ideas thought at the time to be scientific – including ‘social Darwinism’ the theory that the same processes operating in nature operate in society also.  The strong survive by eliminating the weak.’

It is not surprising that the process, whatever it is, continues in us, since we are its current end product, but it is a little worrying that the author’s starting point on human violence is the same theory.  Similarly, the author flirts with the suggestion that violence does not come from religion – religion comes out of violence.  That is a dangerous place to go for a man of God.

Secondly, Muslims are not the only ones with long memories when it comes to the Crusades.  The author dates the massacres of Jews before the first crusade as the time when Jews became a scapegoat leading, for example, to the Black Death.  ‘That period added to the vocabulary of the West such ideas as public disputation, book burning, forced conversion, Inquisition, auto-da fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom.’

Thirdly, Freud figures largely in the theory about sibling rivalry being at the core of the problem of violence.  Any parent of more than one child knows about this.  When she was about three and her sister about twelve months, our number one, a propos of nothing, picked up a handful of sand and pushed it firmly into the face of number two on Green Island, and number two let the mainland know.  A few years later, on Christmas Day, I heard number one pick up a broken toy ukulele and say ‘that one’s buggered – it can be Amy’s.’  But how do you verify the theory that this rivalry is at the core of violence between groups?  And where does it lead you?  Well, one thing it tells you is that it is madness, moral madness, for a parent to treat one child differently to others without good reason

That leads to the next point.  To deal with the complaint that God plays favourites by doing special deals with people he likes, Lord Sacks develops a distinction between the universality of God as Creator and Sovereign, and the particularity of the covenant with Abraham, Moses and the Israelites.  There are two covenants – one with Noah and the rest of us, and the other with Abraham and one particular people.  One represents universality and justice; the other particularity and love.  There is a dualism – a spectre elsewhere for the Rabbi – in Hebrew spirituality.  ‘It accepts the inevitability of the here-and- now.  We are not all the same.  There is an Us and Them.  But God is universal as well as particular, which means he can be found among Them as well as Us.  God transcends our particularities.’

Why in heaven’s name does He bother?  I had thought that excessive, sense-defying intellectualism was a virus peculiar to Christianity.  If it is silly for me to second-guess Einstein, why should I try it on with God?  Does the ordinary member of the congregation understand or accept any of this?

If they do, where does it take us?  God still does a special deal to single out one child from others and that is what inflames sibling rivalry – which the author says is the fount of all our problems.  And if you want to see sibling rivalry in action here it is in the author’s own words:

For all the natural pride we feel in being part of our group – the people of the covenant, a holy nation we are brought face to face with the fact that others may respond to the word of God better than we do.

If I may say so without offence, that remark gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘patronising’.

It seemed to me that a chicken-and–egg issue runs through a lot of this.  You shift the problem back one stage, but the problem or question remains.  Take the wars of conquest.  The author has to confront the problem lawyers know so well: ‘Whatever else a verse means, it means what it says.’  The Promised Land was taken by people like Joshua with appalling slaughter of men, women, and children, what today we call ethnic cleansing, ordained by God.

As I understand Lord Sacks, he says two things.  First, the victims were offered peace but refused it.  Secondly, the nation of the sword became the people of the book.  It is not hard to envisage a Palestinian response to either suggestion; indeed, as to the nation of the sword becoming the people of the book, I can imagine the reaction of most of Tel Aviv – most of them have to work for a living and help to defend the same nation; neither is within the contemplation of the people of the book.

So, we need some good news, and the author has it.  He refers to the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust.  He might have referred to the remark of Angela Merkel that the state of Israel is part of Germany’s raison d’etre, but he does quote the present pope: ‘God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and… through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God.  And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity.’  The author says that ‘this may be the first time that a pope has publicly recognised that in staying true to their faith, Jews were being loyal to God, not faithless to him.  That is a statement capable of changing the world.’

People outside the religious circle may not be so optimistic.  The author elsewhere describes the exodus of Jews from across Europe – largely, as it seems to me, in response to Muslim migration, to put it softly, and the inevitable demographic consequences.  It is not a world that I will be sorry to leave.

May I conclude with perhaps just another example of Us versus Them?  I could hardly claim that Immanuel Kant is a mate of mine, but I will certainly look up if he is attacked.  Having referred to a throwaway line by Voltaire about the Jews (‘Still, we ought not to burn them’), Lord Sacks says that Kant ‘spoke of the Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and called for ‘the euthanasia of Judaism.’

Kant is revered as a leader of the European Enlightenment, and is widely seen as the best placed to fill the ethical void left by the decline of religion.  We know that Konigsberg, where Kant lived, was the home of a large and successful Jewish community, and that Kant was very proud of the width of his friendships across the city.  (His best friend was an idiosyncratic English merchant.)  We know that Kant had almost a life-long and amicable correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn, a prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian, and the father of the composer.  We know that Kant conducted this correspondence and publicly defended Mendelsshon in a major controversy out of a deep intellectual respect – Mendelssohn had beaten Kant for a big prize.  We know that Kant backed Jewish students to overcome their disability with the establishment, and that he expressed his admiration for the achievements of Jewish students.  We know that Kant was warned off by the Prussian Establishment for his dangerous views on the state religion.  We know that Kant said that both sides would seek to make something out of the preservation of the Jewish people and religion.

One man sees in the continuation of the people to which he belongs, and in his ancient faith which remained unmixed despite the dispersion among such diverse nations, the proof of a special beneficent Providence saving this people for a future kingdom on earth; the other sees nothing but the warning ruins of a disrupted state which set itself against the coming of the kingdom of heaven – ruins, however, which a special Providence still sustains, partly to preserve in memory the ancient prophecy of a Messiah arising from this people, partly to offer, in this people, an example of punitive justice visited upon it because it stiff-neckedly sought to create a political and moral concept of the Messiah.

Kant was a supreme moral and intellectual heavyweight, and is not to be reduced by some gnat straining at a camel.  It is therefore disappointing that Lord Sacks does not give any context at all for the words alleged against Kant, and this in a book which labours the obvious point that context is indispensable in looking at statements that are controversial, and it is more than disappointing that when we go to the notes at the end, it appears that the author is not relying on the primary German source, but a citation by someone in Princeton in 1990 in a book about revolutionary antisemitism.  Really, my lord, third party sledging is not smiled upon in the universities that we most admire.  This might fairly be said to be a sample of the loose thinking and casual smearing that lie at the heart of the whole bloody problem.

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