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An End to Smiting

Joe Humphreys

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Jonathan Sacks, Hodder & Stoughton, 336 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 9781473616530

Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
William Blake

Entering the world of inter-faith dialogue is a test of one’s tolerance. Those with a strong religious belief must surrender any claim to exclusive enlightenment. Those with no religious faith must approach believers in a generous spirit. Jonathan Sacks treads through this hazardous territory with respectful authority. The British rabbi and biblical scholar explores the potential for a unified reading of sacred texts by Muslims, Christians and Jews.

William Blake’s observation that diametrically opposed conclusions can be drawn from the same words is acknowledged deep into the book but Sacks unashamedly admits from the outset that he is reading “white” where others read “black”. In contrast to the hate-filled analysis of the fundamentalists, he sees the foundational stories of the three major Abrahamic faiths as lessons in love. Some will be unconvinced, among them militant atheists who believe religious texts are beyond redemption, and Sacks does little to build bridges with this constituency. “In fact, fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts,” he writes. “They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that its meaning is not self-evident.” This is superficially true. However, religious fundamentalists use sacred texts to justify terror and violence – something which Richard Dawkins can’t be accused of.

The opening line of Not in God’s Name: “When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.” – is enough to turn off many an atheist, and Sacks gives the post-9/11 secularist movement short shrift, accusing it of making “palpably false” claims and having “ruined [its] case by caricature”. But for non-believers, as for worshippers of different faiths, there are good reasons to be patient with Sacks as he tries to create a new narrative for humanity. Not in God’s Name is partly a defence of religion and partly a diagnosis of its problems. And for Sacks the problems come back to the way “people of the book” misinterpret sacred scripture. “If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end,” he announces in the opening section of his book. The italics are his, and they add to an air of prophecy that runs throughout.

Sacks is not afraid to make bold empirical claims: “The greatest threat to freedom in the postmodern world is radical, politicised religion … The indigenous populations of Europe, the most secular continent on earth, are committing long, slow suicide … Demographically … the religious will inherit the earth.” Sacks’s forte, however, is not political analysis nor social science but rather scriptural learning, and the real substance of this work lies in his careful reading, and rereading, of the central stories of Genesis, the foundational book of Abrahamic monotheism.

Three stories attract particularly close attention, all relating to sibling rivalry: the dispute within Abraham’s family over the births of Isaac and Ishmael; the trials of Jacob and Esau; and the story of Joseph and his brothers who first abandon him and are later pardoned.

While many associate Genesis with fire and brimstone, Sacks proclaims that the first book of the Hebrew Bible and of the Christian Old Testament “all begins with love”. This is based on his reading of the morals of each of the three stories. Under his account, the punishing if not sadistic God that features in the text is pushed into the background and the human drama of families overcoming their differences and making peace are brought to the fore. In a neat summary of his theological method, he writes:

Genesis is not simply a work of history, or a cosmology. It is a subtle, multilayered philosophical treatise constructed in the narrative mode. It represents truth-as-story rather than truth-as-system, and it does so for a profoundly philosophical reason: it is about meanings, and meanings cannot be conveyed except through narrative … Unlike philosophical systems, which we either understand or don’t, biblical narrative functions at many different levels of comprehension. Our understanding of it deepens as we grow. Biblical consciousness is chronological, not logical.

Journeying with Sacks, you must dismiss preconceived notions that Genesis is, or purports to be, an explanation of Man’s creation under God. Rather, it is an ethical guide. As Sacks put it: “The central question of Genesis is: are human beings friends or strangers, brother or others?” And later he answers: “Mimesis, rivalry, displacement, anger, violence, revenge – these are what the Bible challenges at their very roots.”

In reaching this conclusion, he draws upon his own depth of religious learning but also a employs a degree of literary criticism, which may jar with traditional readers of these texts. He writes of how the Bible delivers several “masterstrokes” of dramatic intent; marvels at how “in a few deft strokes, the Bible sketches a picture of tension within the family”, and expresses awe at “the full scope and ingenuity of the literary unit that is the Jacob-Esau story”.

This form of literary appreciation is combined with a specialist knowledge that at times can exclude general readers. For example, he cites, “a masterstroke in the Joseph narrative, completely missed in translation”:

It occurs in the crucial scene … where the brothers come before Joseph for the first time, not knowing who he is, thinking him to be an Egyptian. There is a rare linguistic phenomenon known as a contronym, one word with two contradictory meanings. In English, the word ‘sanction’ can mean both a permission and a prohibition. ‘Fast’ can mean immovably stuck or moving quickly… In Hebrew the root n-k-r is a contronym. It can mean ‘to recognise’ or the opposite, ‘to be a stranger’, someone who is not recognised.
If we now re-read the text … we see that it uses the root n-k-r four times in two verses, three in the sense of recognition, one in the sense of enstrangement. ‘Joseph recognised his brothers but they did not recognise him’, and Joseph ‘recognised them but acted as a stranger’ … The dual meaning of the verb n-k-r gathers into itself the whole force and dramatic conflict of Genesis as a sustained exploration of recognition and estrangement, closeness and distance. It tells us that if only we were to listen closely to the voice of the other, we would find that beneath the skin we are brothers and sisters, members of the human family under the parenthood of God.

Similarly, when explaining the story of Jacob and Esau, where one brother tricks the other into getting a blessing from their father, Isaac, Sacks suggests that only the most careful reading of the episode can uncover its true meaning. In the story, Jacob has taken something that wasn’t his ‑ of out jealousy for his brother. Jacob later wrestles with a stranger, in an episode which “is cryptic almost to the point of unintelligibility”, before returning to prostrate himself before Esau. In what Sacks calls an “extraordinary literary phenomenon”, the reader is only made aware of the moral of the story by re-reading it with the knowledge of the how the events turn out. “That is when we make the discovery that changes everything. There was a second blessing” (author’s italics). This was given by Issac “to Jacob as Jacob” and “this is what transforms our entire reading of the story”.

Sacks explains that Isaac’s blessing to Jacob had nothing to do with wealth or power. “It had to do with the children he would teach to be heirs of the covenant, and the land where his descendants would seek to create a society based on the covenant of law and love.” The punch line is that “sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discovered that we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. We each have our own blessing. Brothers need not conflict.”

Some readers may struggle to share Sacks’s sense of excitement here. There are a few other “whoop-de-doo” moments, as when he writes:

What then of the words with which the story of the brothers began, namely that ‘the elder shall serve the younger’ (in Hebrew, ve-rav ya’ tsa’ir)? Here the Bible delivers a masterstroke. At first sight, the words mean what they say. Only in retrospect – and only in the original Hebrew – do we discover that they contain multiple ambiguities.

If creating multiple ambiguities is to be considered a masterstroke then clearly Genesis is the thing. For many, however, what Sacks describes as strengths of this ancient text will be seen as infuriating if not dangerous weaknesses. The glowing tributes are puzzling from a literary perspective. The truth is if you sent the Hebrew Bible to a publisher today it would be whisked off to a good editor before it got anywhere near a bookshelf. A greater concern about Sacks’s approach here is that he appears to suggest that you need the sort of sensitive appreciation of artistic quality that he possesses, combined with the same depth of learning, to understand what the stories mean. Do you really need to understand ancient Hebrew to know that sibling rivalry should not spill over into violence? More to the point, do you need to read the Bible to understand this?

Explaining the story of Jacob, Sacks says: “Peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else.” If you take God out of the equation altogether – “Peace comes when we let go of the desire to be someone else” – what you have is a very basic psychological observation, which certainly doesn’t require an ordination or a religious qualification to grasp.

With the theological groundwork done, Sacks returns to the issue of present-day religious conflict in the third and final section of the book. Here, he moves onto the Flood and the Tower of Babel stories. Emphasising their instructional power, he says they are “not just historical narratives. Together they constitute a philosophical statement about identity and violence. The Flood is what happens when there are Us and Them and no overarching law to keep the peace. The result is anarchy and violence. Babel is what happens when people attempt to impose a universal order, forcing Them to become Us. The result is imperialism and the loss of liberty.”

His analysis is juxtaposed against the assumptions of religious fundamentalists. These Sacks seeks to understand; he tries to get inside their mind, admitting that religions can make empathy for the stranger more difficult. “A humanitarian as opposed to a group ethic requires the most difficult of all imaginative exercises: role reversal – putting yourself in the place of those you despise, or pity, or simply do not understand. Not only do most religions not do this. They make it almost impossible to do … It is hard to identify with one whom you believe to be fundamentally in error, except with a view to converting him or her.”

Suggesting that the democratisation of religion has contributed to extremism, Sacks argues that biblical texts “require the most careful interpretation if they are not to do great harm”. While these arguments might seem self-serving, coming as they do from a rabbi of high office, he makes a strong case that religions need a tradition of learned and authoritative scholarship to guard against the hotheads. “What happens in the case of fundamentalism is a kind of principled impatience with this whole process,” he writes.

Pinpointing another distinguishing feature of fundamentalists, he writes that they belong to a “blame culture” rather than a “penitential culture”. The fundamentalist “says, ‘It wasn’t us, and it wasn’t God, so it must be them.’… You don’t have to be an evil person to think in such ways, but the result of such thinking is altruistic evil, and it begins when you see yourself, your nation or your people as the victim of someone else’s crime …”

Sacks rightly points out that the main victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves. He suggests Islam is working its way through its own period of maturation, something similar to Jewish and Christian upheavals in previous centuries. But there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.

Returning to the book’s central purpose – as identified in the subtitle “Confronting Religious Violence” – Sacks asks: “What then must we do? We must put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism. Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness … We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

While Sacks is right to blame the West for funding extremism, it seems wishful thinking to imagine that religious education can undo the damage. Funding economic development, strengthening the rule of law and promoting democracy might equally be considered useful means of confronting religious violence. Instead, Sacks writes:

The work to be done now is theological. The point was made in an historic speech at Al-Azhar University at the beginning of 2015 by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Calling for a ‘religious revolution’, he said, ‘The Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.’

Sisi is a strange individual to invoke here. The former military commander led the forced removal of the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and his rule of Egypt since then has been characterised by a clampdown on journalists and draconian anti-terror laws. He is no theologian, in other words.

Sacks, on the other hand, is a proper theologian, and he deserves praise for daring to seek out a common ethic within the three Abrahamic faiths. The fundamentalists may not read beyond his surname but ordinary Christians and Muslims can point to this work and say, “look at how ‘the other’ sees the best in me”. Inter-faith dialogue can only be an imperfect, tortuous and mystical journey. Any realist would say it’s doomed to failure. But reaching out across the religious divide is important work that needs to be done and, as the Bible suggests, God loves a trier.

1/11/2015

Joe Humphreys is a journalist and author. His latest book is Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now, a collection of his philosophy columns in The Irish Times. joehumphreys.com

 

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