'Not In God's Name' Confronts Religious Violence With A 'Different Voice'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his new book about religious violence, writes a great deal about the book of Genesis. All the major figures of the first book of the Hebrew Bible are complex characters. The best have their faults, he writes. The worst have their virtues. And Sacks insists on the importance of that moral complexity. He writes this. Dividing the world into saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the children of God and the children of the devil, is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God. Rabbi Sacks joins us from London. Thanks for joining us today.
JONATHAN SACKS: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: We should note that most of the political violence of the last century was the work of secular movements - Nazism, communism. How important is religion to violence in the world today?
SACKS: I think it's absolutely fundamental, certainly in the Middle East, certainly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and certainly in parts of Asia. And nobody expected this because for the last three centuries, every self-respecting Western intellectual has been predicting that religion was in intensive care and soon to leave humanity altogether. So this is really unexpected. But what we are seeing is, after a set of failed secular ideologies and, in the Middle East, secular nationalisms, a set of religious counterrevolutions that are combining religion with politics in the most destructive way.
SIEGEL: And you observe that the future is - could be more of that because demographics favor the religious.
SACKS: There is no doubt that demographically, the 21st century is going to be more religious than the 20th century because the more religious you are, the larger the family you have. And that's happening throughout the world. So even if the religious do not persuade a single skeptic or atheist, they're nonetheless going to be much more in evidence throughout the world. And I don't think people have really anticipated this.
SIEGEL: You've set out to demonstrate in the book that one can and should acknowledge the validity of another faith within the framework of one's own faith, something that I think many nonreligious people and quite a few ultra-religious people would dispute. I want you to get rabbinical for us and give us an example of a story in Genesis that's typically misunderstood and that really says you should love the other guy.
SACKS: Well, you know, Genesis is structured around a series of sibling rivalries - Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers and the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. And what I've argued is, a superficial reading of those stories always says there's a chosen one and a rejected one. But actually, it's not hard to see if you, without any preconceptions, read the story.
For instance, of the birth of Isaac, when Sarah says to Abraham, send away that slave woman and her son, Ishmael and we see Hagar and her child, Ishmael, going out into the desert in the midday sun - their water supply runs out. They're both about to die. Hagar can't bear to see her son, Ishmael, about to die. And there is no way that you can read that story without your heart going out to Hagar and to Ishmael.
In other words, our sympathies are enlisted not for the chosen but for the other, the apparently rejected one. And you can see that in all those stories. So what you are seeing is that on the surface, these are stories of God choosing X and rejecting Y. But read seriously from a position of some maturity, we can see that God's choice is not like that. His love is not like that. To love X, he doesn't have to hate Y. To choose X, he doesn't have to reject Y. In other words, the very theologies that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have at their roots and that, of course, such violence between them through the centuries may actually be the wrong way of reading those texts.
SIEGEL: I was thinking, though, in reading "Not In God's Name" that - here you're a Cambridge-educated rabbi. You're the former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. You start from a position of tolerance in a tolerant society. How does this reach out to young Muslim men in Iraq and Syria who are decapitating people in the name of their faith? What's the connection?
SACKS: I did not write this book to convince jihadists in the Middle East to sit down and read a book and change their view of the world. I think I might've realized that was a fairly quixotic thing to do. My audience here is actually young Muslims who are living or being educated in the West who really are appalled by what is being done in God's name, in the name of Islam, in the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere and who want to hear a different voice. And oddly enough, the warmest responses to the book have come from young Muslims.
SIEGEL: A few years ago when you wrote things like, no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth and, God has spoken to mankind in many languages through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims, some orthodox Rabbis in Britain came down on you as a potential heretic. If that is the reality of religious discourse in the United Kingdom, what can we expect of the Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar University in Cairo or the Shiite holy city of Qum in Iraq? It seems you're pushing the rock uphill here.
SACKS: (Laughter) I tried to explain to people at the time that when extremists call you a heretic, that's their way of giving you an honorary doctorate. So you know, I was very relaxed about that.
SIEGEL: It's claimed by some that you've retracted some of the statements.
SACKS: I toned down several of the sentences because the truth is, if you're going to be a leader, lead at a speed that people can follow. And I just think I was trying to do too much too fast. Don't forget that book was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and was published on the first anniversary of 9/11. And in the end, I said, this is going to be my first word on the subject, not my last. So I deliberately toned down just a few phrases, and that was enough.
But the truth is that this book is dedicated to religious people. It is written as a religious book. So much of the critique of Islam today comes from a secular perspective. So much of the criticism of religion has come from fundamentalist atheists who are every bit as angry as some of their religious extremist counterparts. I'm not saying they commit acts of violence, but they do regard everyone who disagrees with them as less than fully sane. And what I've tried to do is to speak in a religious language to show people that tolerance is not a matter of religious compromise. If we read our sacred texts correctly, that is what God is calling us to do.
SIEGEL: Rabbi Sacks, thanks for talking with us today.
SACKS: Robert, thank you.
SIEGEL: Rabbi Sacks' book is called "Not In God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.