Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Written by Jonathan Sacks Reviewed By Matthew Rowley

In the aftermath of the Cold War many thought that convictions and certitudes—be they political, cultural, or religious—should be held loosely. This seemed confirmed by the steady-stream of violence featured in the news. However, many sense that foundation-free beliefs and moral relativism are ill equipped to defend against violence in the name of God—never mind formulating a binding universal argument that this violence should not exist (pp. 15, 256–57). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a leading Jewish voice in Britain and the United States, grounds his arguments from within deeply held beliefs and expresses them with urgency, conviction, and passion. With his worldview evident throughout, he works hard to present a multi-focal and charitable view of history, theology, sacred texts, and international relations. One could focus on areas of disagreement. For example, he tends to downplay differences between sacred texts and theology in an effort to reduce violence often based on them. However, this review intends to mainly sumarise his arguments, recommending the book as a thought-provoking, challenging, and impassioned exposition of the indispensability of the Hebrew Bible for peace-making.

Part I, ‘Bad Faith’, examines the relationship between humanity, religion, and violence. With reference to causality, ‘there is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct’ (p. 23). He also challenges predominant myths about secularisation (pp. 16–19). In seeking to provide order, secularisation led to instability and deprived communities of meaning and the thicker morality otherwise available through religious ethics (p. 37). In contrast to earlier predictions, Sacks declares that the ‘twenty-first century will be the start of an age of desecularisation’ (p. 18).

Chapter 1 introduces two primary aims. First, to understand and undermine ‘altruistic evil’—a term he coined to describe ‘evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals’ (p. 9). ‘There is nothing specifically religious about’ it (p. 10). The carnage of the last century shows that religion-substitutes have made the problem of altruistic evil worse (pp. 13–14, 40–41). His second aim, which is foundational to the first, is to provide a theology of the ‘Other’ (p. 25). Chapter 2 focuses on the nature of humans—groupish individuals who are torn between altruism and survival (p. 27). He then tackles individual and group perception in conflict (ch. 3) and scapegoating (ch. 4). In contrast to many others, he believes monotheism and a deeper understanding of the book of Genesis in the Torah are fundamental to the solution (ch. 5).

Part II, ‘Siblings’, addresses familial conflict in Genesis (pp. 105–73). First, Sacks examines the pervasive theme of sibling rivalry in the texts and challenges a simplistic reading of these narratives. He insists that the ‘counter-narrative’ he draws out of the text ‘is not an interpretation imposed by modern or postmodern sensibility’ (p. 124). Using the examples of Ishmael and Isaac (ch. 6), Esau and Jacob (ch. 7), and Joseph and his brothers (ch. 8), Sacks argues that the ‘choice’ of one person did not mean the ‘rejection’ of the other (p. 142). He maintains that God stilled loved, cared for, and remained in relationship with those not chosen to carry on Abraham’s covenant. These rivalries resulted from comparisons made between two siblings who were both loved by God (pp. 142–43). Further, he argues that the four narratives (Abel, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) end with increasing levels of reconciliation (p. 156). Chapter 9 focuses on Rachel and Leah and how love can unite and divide (pp. 161–73). His interpretation of the Genesis conflict passages is intriguing and merits serious attention. The central claim is that God’s choice of a covenant-bearer does not imply the rejection of the other siblings. Malachi 1:2–3 and—for the Christian—Romans 9:13 present the biggest obstacle to this reading. Chapter 12 tackles the problem of ‘Hard Texts’ (pp. 207–19). Without explaining them away Sacks promotes the kind of reading whereby direct application is considered overly simplistic and unacceptable.

In Part III, ‘The Open Heart’, Sacks develops his theology of the ‘Other’ based on convictions drawn from the Hebrew Bible: Violence is a foundational concern of scripture (p. 190); no human is all bad or all good (p. 183); Abraham did not coerce outsiders (p. 203); the covenant community was, and will be, foreigners and strangers who can empathise with foreigners and strangers (pp. 177–88); ‘A chosen nation is not a master race but its opposite: a servant community’ (p. 199); ‘God is active in the history of other nations’ (p. 197); all humanity is made in the image of God (pp. 194–95); all humanity is in some sort of covenantal relationship with God (pp. 169, 200). Sacks’s theology of the ‘Other’ mainly hangs on these last two points.

Chapter 13 discusses the relationship between religion, power, and violence. He advocates a liberal democracy that ‘makes space for difference’ (p. 230), and believes that Islam can also support toleration. Chapter 14 prioritises letting go of hatred because it keeps the victim enslaved. In the final chapter he exhorts the reader to choose ‘the will to life’ over the ‘will to power’ (p. 255). According to Sacks, the world needs Jews, Christians, and Muslims to recognise: (1) the radical implications that all humans are ethically bound in a mutual relationship of rights and obligations with God and each other due to the Noahic covenant; and (2) that all humans are made in the image of God. ‘This is the best solution I know to the potential violence implicit in the fact that we derive our identities from groups’ (p. 264).

At its core this book is a persuasive and impassioned exposition of the importance of the biblical book of Genesis for promoting peace. In a time when many argue that sacred beliefs should be jettisoned for the sake of harmony, Sacks helpfully defends the indispensability of the Hebrew Bible as a foundation for respecting the dignity of others.

Matthew Rowley

Matthew Rowley is a reader at Tyndale House in Cambridge and a PhD student in early modern history at the University of Leicester in Leicester, England.

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