Making Peace among Brothers

At the start of Not In God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks writes: “Religiously motivated violence must be fought religiously as well as militarily,” and he adds that “this will be one of the defining battles of the twenty-first century.”

Few would seem better qualified to rally the support of decent people against religiously motivated extremists. After gaining a double-first in philosophy at Cambridge (under the supervision of Roger Scruton) and a doctorate in ethics, Sacks went on to become an orthodox rabbi, and later served for two decades as Britain’s Chief Rabbi. He did so with such distinction that he was awarded a knighthood and then a peerage. After stepping down from that post, he now occupies university chairs on both sides of the Atlantic.

How, and how successfully, does Sacks deploy his vast knowledge and profound understanding of the oldest of the three Abrahamic faiths against those today who would kill in the name of the youngest?

The first task is to locate the source of the human propensities for religion and violence. Sacks traces the first to the supreme serviceability religion has in conferring meaningful forms of group identity without which many are prone to anomie. He traces the second to the no less deep-seated human tendency to resort to what he calls dualistic thinking. By this expression, Sacks intends to denote those forms of thought in which reality is split into an idealized good against which is pitted some imagined thoroughly evil demonic power or force, and the two are locked in eternal combat.

Outside infantile phantasy, dualistic thinking typically emerges, he says, whenever the gap or dissonance between the world as-it-is and as we would have it be becomes too great to be borne. Sometimes such thought assumes a religious guise, as in the cases of Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, or the now defunct, early Jewish and Christian sects responsible respectively for the Dead Sea Scrolls and the gnostic gospels.

Not all dualistic thinking issues in violence, even when it has adopted a religious guise—as the quietistic nature of these two sects attests. There is, however, one form of dualistic thought especially prone to generate violence irrespective of whether it assumes a religious or non-religious cast. Sacks calls it pathological dualism. It arises, he says, whenever humanity becomes divided in thought into two groups: the unimpeachably good (Us) and irredeemably bad (Them) held responsible for whatever misfortune befalls the good. Of this pathological variety of dualistic thought, Sacks observes:

When confined to small sectarian groups, it may not pose a danger. But . . . among larger populations, it is a prelude to tragedy of world historic proportions. Pathological dualism does three things. It makes you dehumanise and demonise your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim. And it allows you to commit altruistic evil.

In non-religious form, pathological dualism lay behind the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Now in a religious guise, it underlies the virulent anti-Semitism rampant throughout the Muslim world since the advent of a Jewish state in its midst.

Having located the source of most contemporary religious violence in pathological dualism, Sacks then proffers an explanation of today’s religious form of this malady by invoking the theory of scapegoating that the late French anthropologist Rene Girard advanced to account for the origin and function of religion. According to Girard, organized religions originally arose around ritualized human sacrifice, a ritual that served to unite societies otherwise prone to internecine conflict. By nominating and then disposing of some suitable victim, potential antagonists could unite and divest themselves of aggression in socially harmless ways.

To serve successfully in that capacity, a scapegoat had to be some relatively weak outsider, who was yet capable of being portrayed as a threat by whichever group it served as one. Jews fitted the scapegoat role supremely well in Europe in past ages. They continue to do so today in the Middle East which, having divested itself of Jews (outside of Israel) now finds itself consumed by internecine warfare.

Thus far in his account of religious violence and its causes, Sacks has hardly needed to draw on his theological erudition and expertise. These only come into play when, turning to a consideration of the especially fraught relationships between the three Abrahamic faiths, he asks: “What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children of a common father, to such animosity for so long?”

The vital clue to the answer to this question, for Sacks, is contained in the very wording in which he formulates it. Brothers fall out because of sibling rivalry. They contend for the affection and special favor of their father and the blessing and inheritance that go along with it. This, in Sacks’s view, has been what all the mutual contention of the three faiths has essentially been about. He writes:

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all define themselves by a set of narratives about . . . sibling rivalry. This is where we need to focus our attention if we are to understand and heal the hate that leads to violence in the name of God.

Assuming Sacks is right that sibling rivalry for God’s special favor lies at the root of the historic contention between the three Abrahamic faiths, how does he think appreciation of this fact can help end the religious violence that currently afflicts so much of the world today?

It is precisely at this juncture that he unveils a Biblical hermeneutic of his own devising that displays just why he is so widely held in high regard as a religious thinker and scholar, and not just by his coreligionists. “As soon as we state the problem,” writes Sacks,

we begin to discern . . . the glimmerings of a solution. For can it really be true that God . . . loves me but not you? Or you but not me? . . . The Hebrew Bible does talk about sibling rivalry . . . But what if [its stories about it] do not mean what people have thought them to mean? . . . What if, rather than endorsing it, [the Bible] set out to undermine it . . . and eventually replace it, with another, quite different way of understanding our relationship with God and with the human Other? . . . What if it turned out to be God’s way of saying . . . that violence in a sacred cause is not holy but an act of desecration? What if God were saying: Not in My Name?

His new way of reading these well-known Biblical stories about sibling rivalry is precisely what Sacks goes on to provide in the central four chapters of his book. They are quite brilliant and put the stories they discuss in an entirely new light.

The account of the banishment of Abraham’s eldest son Ishmael at the behest of Isaac’s mother Sarah, argues Sacks, was not intended to portray the younger sibling as having displaced the elder in the eyes of either God or their common earthly father. To the contrary, through highlighting subtle details in the sparse Biblical narrative (whose true significance, so Sacks contends, was discerned by early Jewish sages), its true intention is showing the equally high esteem in which both brothers were held by God and Abraham. Only the destined religious vocation of their respective descendants was intended to be portrayed as being different.

Sacks offers comparably novel and impressive re-readings of the other Biblical narratives that deal with sibling rivalry. Their details will have to go without summary. Instead what can be offered is the author’s own succinct summary of what he would have us take from these narratives:

On the surface, Genesis is a series of stories in which the elder is supplanted by the younger. Beneath the surface . . . it tells the opposite story . . . At the end of the first . . . Abel is dead and Cain wears the mark of a murderer. At the end of the second, Isaac and Ishmael are standing together at their father’s grave. At the end of the third, Jacob and Esau meet, embrace and go their separate ways. At the end of the fourth, Joseph and his brothers work through a process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The message of these stories?

That sibling rivalry may be natural, but it is not inevitable . . . [They are] the Bible’s own theological refutation of the mindset that says that humans beings who stand outside our community of faith are somehow less than fully human. This is God’s reply to those who commit violence in his name.

These are beguiling, and in several cases persuasive, readings. But of course they can only sway those open to persuasion. Sadly, however brilliantly illuminating Sacks’s reworking of Biblical narratives about sibling rivalry unquestionably is, it will have little purchase among the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and for one very simple reason: However full the Quran might be of stories about Judaism’s patriarchs and other Old Testament prophets, unlike Christianity Islam regards the Hebrew Bible as a text that has woefully distorted the historical facts about them. Consequently, Muslims do not regard the Bible as a sacred text. They are not prepared to derive theological lessons from it or even bother to read it, let alone books about it.

Having said that, a work such as Sacks’s could well have a powerful prophylactic effect upon young Muslims in the West, if read as part of a course in comparative religion. That would be for the many; dealing with the few—those who have fallen victim to pathological dualism—will require much stronger medicine than Sacks dispenses.