Life & Culture

Jonathan Sacks Exclusive: Abraham’s true legacy

In an extract from his new book, the former Chief Rabbi explores how we can conquer radicalism


Today, Jews, Christians and Muslims must stand together, in defence of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honour of God himself. The real clash of the 21st century will not be between civilisations or religions, but within them. It will be between those who accept and those who reject the separation of religion and power. Those who believe that political problems have religious solutions are deluding themselves as well as failing to understand who Abraham was and what he represented.The confusion of religion and politics was what Abraham and his heirs opposed, not what they endorsed.

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 professorship 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. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication.

If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.

There must be an international campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate. Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan, if radio, television, websites and social media pour out a non-stop stream of paranoia and incitement, then Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its commitment to religious freedom, will mean nothing. All the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.

We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbour and stranger, the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faith and races, can live together in grace and peace.

These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and none. This does not mean that human nature will change, or that politics will cease to be an arena of conflict. All it means is that politics will remain politics, and not become religion.

We need also to insist on the simplest moral principle of all, the first to be confirmed by computer simulation: the principle of reciprocal altruism, otherwise known as Tit-for-Tat. This says: as you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect. If you ask for tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance. If you wish not to be offended, then you must make sure you do not offend.

As John Locke said, ‘‘It is unreasonable that any should have a free liberty of their religion who do not acknowledge it as a principle of theirs that nobody ought to persecute or molest another because he dissents from him in religion.’’ This principle alone, properly applied, would have banned at the outset the preachers-of-hate who radicalised so many impressionable minds in the West, turning them into murderers in God’s name.

Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace. This book has been about one such idea: an alternative to the sibling rivalry that has been a source of fratricide and religious violence throughout history. It is a bad idea and wrongly diminishes Abraham’s God. The truth that shines through the Genesis texts is that we are each blessed by God, each precious in his sight, each with our role in his story, each with our own song in the music of humankind. To be a child of Abraham is to learn to respect the other children of Abraham even if their way is not ours, their covenant not ours, their understanding of God different from ours. We know that we are loved. That must be enough.To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself.

It has also been about the dual covenant in Genesis, first with Noah, then with Abraham. This is the best solution I know to the potential violence implicit in the fact that we derive our identities from groups, and groups conflict. The altruism we show to the people like us goes hand in hand with the aggression we show to the people not like us, and both are deeply embedded in human nature. That is why the great attempts to escape from identity — into either universalism or individualism — have always failed, whether they were religious or secular. Sooner or later the tribes return, fully armed and breathing fire. The only adequate alternative, proposed by Genesis precisely as God’s protest against violence, is to say that he has made two covenants with us, one in our common humanity, the other in our specific identity. The first is about the universality of justice, the second about the particularity of love, and in that order.

Our common humanity precedes our religious differences. That must be the basis of any Abrahamic theology capable of defeating the false god of violence and the idolatry of the pursuit of power. And, yes, there are hard texts. There are passages in the sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms which, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war.

But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them in the larger context of coexistence, respect for difference and the pursuit of peace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism — text without context, and application without interpretation — is not faith but an aberration of faith.

No soul was ever saved by hate. No truth was ever proved by violence. No redemption was ever brought by holy war. No religion won the admiration of the world by its capacity to inflict suffering on its enemies. Despite the fact that these things have been endorsed in their time by sincere religious believers, they are a travesty of faith and, until we learn this, religion will remain one of the great threats to the peace of the world.

The crimes of religion have one thing in common. They involve making God in our image instead of letting him remake us in his. The highest truth does not cast its mantle over our lowest instincts — the search for power, the urge for conquest, the use of religious language to spread the aura of sanctity over ignoble crimes. These are forms of imperialism, not faith.

Terror is the epitome of idolatry. Its language is force, its principle to kill those with whom you disagree. That is the oldest and most primitive form of conflict resolution. It is the way of Cain. If anything is evil, terror is. In suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks, the victims are chosen at random, arbitrarily and indiscriminately. Terrorists, writes Michael Walzer, ‘‘are like killers on a rampage, except that their rampage is not just expressive of rage or madness; the rage is purposeful and programmatic. It aims at a general vulnerability: Kill these people in order to terrify those.’’ The victims of terror are not only the dead and injured, but the very values on which a free society is built: trust, security, civil liberty, tolerance, the willingness of countries to open their doors to asylum seekers, the gracious safety of public places.

Religiously motivated terror desecrates and defames religion. It is sacrilege against God and the life he endowed with his image. Islam, like Judaism, counts a single life as a universe. Suicide and murder are forbidden in the Abrahamic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all know the phenomenon of martyrdom — but martyrdom means being willing to die for your faith, not being willing to kill for your faith.

Terror is not a justifiable means to an acceptable end, because it does not end. Terrorists eventually turn against their own people. Walzer again: ‘‘The terrorists aim to rule, and murder is their method. They begin by killing or intimidating those comrades who stand in their way, and they proceed to do the same, if they can, among the people they claim to represent. If terrorists are successful, they rule tyrannically, and their people bear, without consent, the costs of the terrorists’ rule.’’ There is no route from terror to a free society.

Nor is it the cry of despair of the weak. The weak have different weapons. They know that justice is on their side. That is why the prophets used not weapons but words. It is why Gandhi and Martin Luther King preferred non-violent civil disobedience, knowing that it spoke to the world’s conscience, not its fears. True need never needs terror to make its voice heard. The deliberate targeting of the innocent is an evil means to an evil end, to achieve a solution that does violence to the humanity and integrity of those we oppose. To give religious justification to it is to commit sacrilege against the God of Abraham, who is the God of life. Altruistic evil is still evil, and not all the piety in the world can purify it.

Abraham’s God is the power that rescues the powerless, the God of glory who turns the radiance of his face to those without worldly glory: the poor, the destitute, the lonely, the marginal, the outsiders of the world. God hears the cry of the unheard, and so, if we follow him, do we. Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God.

We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind.

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