In discussion with EJ Dionne and Bill Galston
The Brookings Institution
Just 24 hours before Paris was subject to a series of terrorist attacks that killed more than 120 people, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks appeared at Brookings to discuss his exceptionally relevant book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.
In the book, Rabbi Sacks, a global religious leader, challenges the assertion that religion is an intrinsic source of violence and describes how theology can be central to combating religious violence and extremism. Through analysis of biblical texts tied to the three Abrahamic faiths, Rabbi Sacks illustrates how religiously-inspired violence stems from a critical misreading of these texts.
In his appearance at Brookings, Rabbi Sacks shared with an enthralled crowd the inspiration behind his timely book.
“It was three misreadings of the modern world that made me think that maybe we’re in trouble,” declared Rabbi Sacks, “and that’s why I wrote Not in God’s Name.”
He went on to explain the three ways in which modern, western civilisation has been wrong about religion:
- There was a belief for centuries that modernisation meant westernisation and secularisation. As Rabbi Sacks described, the 17th through 20th centuries were witness to the secularisation of knowledge, power, culture, and morality. However, this secularisation is not sustainable. According to Rabbi Sacks, the 21st century will be more religious than the 20th, even if not one religious believer persuades any skeptic, because “the more intensely you believe religiously, the more children you have.”
- It was assumed that all religions in the modern world would accommodate and make peace with modernity and that the fringe elements that did not wouldn’t survive. However, the opposite is true. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, fringe elements that are resistant to modernity are growing and flourishing.
- The western world believed that the modern period began in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. In reality, argues Rabbi Sacks, the modern period began months earlier when two critical events occurred: first, the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. This was the first example of the transnational power of a fatwa, and the quiet hint of a beginning of a global call to jihad according to Rabbi Sacks. Second—the most important event in modern times—the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan. This told radical Muslims that a handful of dedicated radical mujahidin could cause the humiliating retreat of one of the world’s two super powers. And nine months later, the Soviet Union imploded. According to Rabbi Sacks, this encouraged other radicals to wonder how they could do the same to the world’s other super power, and led them to conclude that they could humiliate the United States in exactly the same way they had humiliated the Soviet Union—in Afghanistan. Rabbi Sacks argues that this notion directly led to 9/11, which was conceived as a means to make America forget to think things through and to stumble blindly into Afghanistan.
We are in a pretty difficult situation and I don’t yet see a clear way through,” concluded Rabbi Sacks after discussing the current state of religion and religious extremism in the world. One of the biggest obstacles to solving these problems, he said, is a lack of new ideas in the battle against extremism. “That is why I wrote Not in God’s Name,” he said, “just to see, can we put new ideas on the table?”
To download this video as an audio file, click here
MR. DIONNE: I want to welcome everyone here today. I’m sorry we don’t have enough chairs for everyone, but I am very happy that we have so many people here and I’m not at all surprised. I’m E. J. Dionne, a senior fellow here at Brookings and I have to say I have had the honour of introducing a lot of Brookings events over the years, but I can’t think of one that I am more honoured to introduce. It’s a real, it’s a great honour for us to have Rabbi Jonathan Sacks here to talk about his new book. I actually have the British version, but I will hold up the American version for you all, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. It is, as you will learn today, if you haven’t read it already, an extraordinary book and a very, very important book. Rabbi Sacks is both a brilliant and a lovely man. He is a global religious leader, respected public intellectual. He has written more than 25 books, which puts the rest of us to shame. He is a frequent contributor to radio, television and the press around the world. He holds professorships at New York University and Yeshiva University in the U.S. and King’s College, London in the U.K. He’s been awarded 16 honorary degrees, numerous prizes. The Prince of Wales described him as a light unto the nation. He was Chief Rabbi of the U.K. and the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.
His latest book that we’re here to talk about is Not in God’s Name and it has received some extraordinary reviews already in the United States. I’d like to just quote Irshad Manji in the New York Times book review. He said that Rabbi Sack’s brilliance as a theologian radiates. He offers an ingenious reading of Genesis and Rabbi Sacks, by the way, will be telling you early on why he wrote this book, the context of writing the book and then we will explore in the Q&A what is in the book.
The way the event is going to be organised, we will have Rabbi Sacks speak for half hour. Bill Galston and I will have an exchange with him and then we open it to questions from the audience. And since I don’t want to have to pop up again, I just want to say that Bill Galston is my brilliant colleague. He teaches me theology and politics every day. And he’s probably one of the closest students around of Rabbi Sack’s work. So we couldn’t have anyone better to open the questioning. I just want to close by quoting from the New York Times book review about Rabbi Sacks, “He thinks two matters need tackling. There is identity without universality or solidarity only within one’s group, and then there is universality without identity, the unbearable likeness of humans in a transactional, but not transcended world. Sacks wants to preserve the joy of participating in something bigger than the self while averting the hostility to strangers that goes with tribal membership.” In other words, Rabbi Sacks only takes on the really, really, really hard questions and he will do so again right now. Welcome Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It’s a great honour to have you here.
RABBI SACKS: Friends, thank you so much. Thank you E.J. for that lovely introduction. I have to say we’ve been traveling around, or ‘schlepping around’ as we put it in Britain, rather a lot these days. And I kind of sometimes not quite sure whether I’m awake or not awake. You know, I have felt from time to time, these last few days like the English aristocrat who dreamt he was giving a speech in the House of Lords, and woke up to discover he was. (Laughter)
But I woke up just a few minutes ago to find myself in the Brookings Institute sitting with E.J. Dionne and Bill Galston and I said, I must be in heaven because I cannot think of a finer institute or two more inspiring, to me personally, inspiring writers and thinkers.
Friends, let me begin with a little story. I love this story. I heard it from many years ago when I was a student. I began life as a philosopher. And when I was a student, undergraduate, I invited to Cambridge the Regius professor of Roman law at Oxford, wonderful man called David Daube. I don’t know if the name is familiar to you, a great, great scholar. And he asked me what I was studying and I said, “I’m studying philosophy.” And he said “Give it up immediately. Philosophers are completely useless. They are so absorbed in abstract speculation that they completely fail to realise what world they’re in, you know, you can’t rely on them to do anything.”
And he said, “Who is your favourite philosopher?” and I said of course, being at Cambridge at the time, everyone would have said this, “Wittgenstein.” “Exactly,” he said, “I will tell you a story, a story that’s Wittgenstein and two of his pupils, Professor H.L.A. Hart and Elizabeth Anscombe were standing at the Cambridge Station, waiting for the London train. So absorbed however, were they in metaphysical speculation that they entirely failed to notice the train as it steamed into the station. They were still talking as people were getting off and getting on, and only as it was about to leave did the look out and see the train.” And I can still remember this wonderful Germanic man saying, “And Professor Hart ran and heaved himself on board, and Elizabeth Anscombe, an enormous woman, ran and heaved herself on board and Wittgenstein ran and ran but could not catch up with the train and was left standing alone on the station looking utterly disconsolate, looking so bereft that a woman was moved to come up and say to him, ‘Don’t worry, there will be another train in an hour’s time’. To which he replied, ‘But you don’t understand. They came to see me off.’” (Laughter) From which I infer that it sometimes helps to know where you’re going.
Now, this is the point I want to make. I want to explain to you why I wrote this book. Because, after many years, I came to the conclusion that I’m not sure that we fully understood where the world is going. I published a book on the first anniversary of 9/11 called The Dignity of Difference. It was a controversial book. It was about that time that Rowan Williams was elected to be Archbishop of Canterbury. And he had attended, the week before, a druid ceremony, which is not part of the Church of England and I still remember the headline in The Guardian. I should have cut it out because you don’t often get headlines like that. It said, “Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi accused of heresy”. I thought that was headline to cherish. But having written Dignity of Difference, in the 13 years since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to think a little deeper about the way the world is going. What happens when an entire culture gets it wrong?
So let me give you three areas where I think western civilisation has got it wrong. Number one, there was a belief, consistently, from the 17th Century to the end of the 20th, that modernisation meant westernisation, meant secularisation. And indeed, western history, over four centuries exemplified that. In the 17th Century, there was the secularisation of knowledge, Newtonian physics, Cartesian philosophy with no religious presuppositions, knowledge as a secular phenomenon. In the 18th Century, the secularisation of power in the form of separation of church and state in the United States and in the form of the secular nation state, beginning with France in 1789. In the 19th Century, came the secularisation of culture. Compare the music of Bach to that of Beethoven. Bach’s is dedicated to the greater glory of God. Beethoven’s is dedicated to the sublime power of the human spirit. The art gallery, the museum, were substitutes for what houses of worship as places where you encountered the sublime. Hegal said modern man reads the morning newspaper in place of daily prayer. So you have this secularisation of culture.
In the 20th Century, the most radical move of all, beginning in the early 1960s, the secularisation of morality, the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian ethic that had governed Europe since the conversion of Constantine, primarily in two areas, number one, the sanctity of life at beginning and end, and number two, the sanctity of marriage, traditional marriage. So four areas of secularisation and the assumption was that this was a linear process that was irreversible. It was actually, I think, 1999 that a sociologist that I admire very greatly, Peter Berger, of where was he, at Boston University I think, published a book. I wrote one of the chapters called, “The De-secularisation of the World”. That’s the first time somebody had realised that this process wasn’t linear and irreversible.
And the 21st Century is going to be, very decidedly more religious than the 20th. And that will be so, even if no religious believer persuades any skeptic. Why? Because the more intensely you believe religiously, the more children you have. And secular Europe, today Europe is more secular than at any time since the conversion of Constantine. In secular Europe, there’s not one of the 27 countries that has the 2.1 birth rate that gives you a stable population. Britain is high at 1.8. Germany and Italy are down at 1.3. That’s why all the population growth in Europe is through immigration, very often, through non-western immigrant populations. So it follows that the 21st Century is going to be very surprising to people who think that we’re going to carry on secularising. It’s not going to be like that at all. By 2050, for instance, in Europe, probably France and Holland will have majority Muslim populations. But what is also less commented on, and it surprises me, that by 2050, there will be 50 percent more Muslims in America than Jews. And I’m not sure who has woken up to this yet. So secularisation isn’t inevitable, and even if there’s no argument at all, even if we don’t look at the intellectual or emotional or spiritual reasons for the return of religion, the fact is that there’s been no record in history of a country becoming secularised and being able to maintain its population. There’s no incidents in history. This historians have looked, and they can’t find. That’s number one, so we got it wrong about secularisation.
Number two, we assumed that all religions in the modern world would be accommodationists, they would make their peace with modernity, only a few fringe elements wouldn’t. But of course, we have now realised that exactly the reverse is true, that the fastest growing elements in all the great religions are in fact on the extreme right, I mean religiously. I think it was Martin Marty who pointed out why the conservative church is growing and already in the 1970s. Only now has American Jewry woken up to the fact. I think Commentary Magazine, this month or next month has this big, 66 people predicting what American Jewry is going to look like 50 years from now, and every one of them says that the biggest element in American Jewry will be Haredi, that is ultraorthodox. Now everyone says this and most of the contributors are not religious at all. So they’ve done the actuarial projections. Already one in three children in primary school in Israel are ultraorthodox. So not only is this happening in Christianity, it’s happening in Judaism, but of course, mostly conspicuously, it is happening in Islam. Wahhabi Islam, which dominates so many parts of the world today was a fringe phenomenon, pretty much restricted to Saudi Arabia until relatively recently.
So you have this huge hinterland of moderate Islam whether you looked in the Middle East, or even more so in Africa, or in India, you know, and all of a sudden, this tiny little set of fringe elements, Wahhabi, Salafis, the Ibadi, have suddenly taken over. So the second assumption was also wrong, that it’s accomodationists religions that will flourish. Actually, the ones that are flourishing are the ones opposed to and resistance to modernity.
But it’s the third that’s the most interesting, and here it is. Here is the story that we used to tell. The modern age, the postmodern age, whatever it is, this moment in history began in 1989. The Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War came to an end, the Soviet Union began to implode and Francis Fukuyama, bless him, said, end of history. The market economy and liberal democracy will quietly conquer the world. It didn’t last for terribly long, I have to say, because by 1991, we were already at Bosnia and then Kosovo. So even in the middle of Europe, ethnic war broke out. But I want to tell you another way of telling the story that I’ve never heard. But you’re going to hear it for the first time. And here it goes. The modern period began in 1989, but not in November, 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, but several months earlier, when two things happened. Seemingly not that world changing at the time, but quite different, now that we can stand and look at them from a distance. One was the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran against Salman Rushdie, an English writer, who had written a book called the Satanic Verses. This was the first moment that Islam was able to show that a religious degree in Iran could affect behaviour in Midlands towns in Britain. It was the first transnational power of a fatwa. And of course, they burned Salman Rushdie’s books in Bradford. And you remember what Heinrich Heine said, where they begin burning books, they end by burning people. So that was the beginning of a global call to jihad. It was the quiet hint of a beginning. That began as since then made radical Islam, jihadist Islam, a global phenomenon.
The second thing, however, is much more consequential. And that is what happened in February, 1989, which is the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan. That was the most important event of modern times, because it told radical Muslims that a handful of fanatical, dedicated mujahideen can cause the retreat, the humiliating retreat of one of the two world’s superpowers. And from that perspective, nine months later, the Soviet Union implodes. So somebody says this, if we could, just a handful of mujahideen bring down one of the world’s two great superpowers, how about doing it to the other one as well? How will we do this? Well, let’s do it exactly the same way. Let’s do it in Afghanistan because no one gets out of Afghanistan without humiliation. Now, how on earth are you going to get anyone into Afghanistan when everyone knows that the one place you don’t go is Afghanistan? Well, Daniel Kahneman has sold a lot of books called Thinking Fast and Slow. If you come across this book, well, you have these two little bits of the brain, one that thinks fast and one that things slow. The one that thinks slow is called the prefrontal cortex. It’s rational. The one that thinks fast is emotional. It’s called the limbic system. And the limbic system has the most elemental and powerful bit of the whole lot called the amygdala. If somebody threatens you, you can experience what Daniel Goleman who has written all the books on emotional intelligence calls an amygdala hijack. You become literally blind with rage. And your entire capacity for thinking slowly through the prefrontal cortex is disabled. It’s cancelled. So let us give America an amygdala hijack so that it will forget to think things through and stumble into Afghanistan, and that is how 9/11 was conceived. And that is what happened. And just as Russia had to leave in a humiliating way, so America has had and will have to leave in a humiliating way. I don’t think the invasion of Iraq or the Arab Spring or Syria were part of the original plan, but, unexpected benefits. And that is what has happened since 1989, the very moment that somebody was saying liberal democracy and market economics are going to conquer the world, a movement was born to take the world back to the dark ages, and we are right in the middle of it right now. And I have to say that 14 years after 9/11, I don’t see Al-Qaeda eliminated as a force. On the contrary, it’s given rise to endless numbers of hybrids, whether it’s ISIS or Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab, or Al-Muestra or a half a dozen others and you eliminate any one of those and another half dozen will appear. You cannot defeat this movement in a simple linear way because it is a religious movement, it’s not a political force. You eliminate it here, another half dozen appearances appear somewhere else.
So, it was those three mis-readings of the modern world that made me think maybe we’re in trouble. And that’s why I wrote Not in God’s Name. But I want to tell you where I think we are actually in trouble. And I’m going to begin, speaking as a Jew. And I certainly don’t think it’s Jews alone who are in trouble, I really don’t. Not in God’s Name is not a particularly Jewish book. But number one, Israel is today more isolated than it has been perhaps ever. You saw yesterday’s vote or the day before, I’ve lost all sense of time, the EU vote about labelling. Israel has lost Europe, it lost the elites, it lost the academics, it lost the churches, and now it’s lost the governments. Israel is isolated. In Europe, the case is lost.
Number two, relations between Israel and America I think are probably, at least in terms of recent decades, at a historic low. I don’t think this has anything to do whatsoever with the personality of the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Israel. Not that it hurts, you know, I mean it helps, you know. But the fact is that you have here in America, a very remarkable pollster, Frank Luntz, credited with designing George W. Bush’s election victory, by me he has “street cred”, because he was advisor the first or second year of The West Wing, so to me he’s a hero. (Laughter) Frank Luntz did a survey. He wanted to know how will America be thinking about Israel 20 years from now. So he surveyed attitudes towards America among the graduate schools of the Ivy League universities here, and discovered in 2005 that Israel has already lost the arguments with those elites. Those elites will be running America ten years from now. He said this ten years ago, Jewish community buried his report because they didn’t like reading it. But everything that’s happened shows that Frank was right. So we have a problem, even in America.
Number three, the thing that really worries me, antisemitism has returned to Europe within living memory of the Holocaust. Today, Jews in France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, are asking should we stay or should we leave. Can you begin to imagine a unified Europe within living memory of the Holocaust? I mean I’ve been very blunt, I’ve said if it’s not safe to be a Jew in the streets of Europe, then it’s not safe to be a European in the streets of the Europe. It should be a concern to all of us. But that’s number three.
Number four, I think it was Bret Stephens in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal who quotes some research from Daniel Polisar which has either just been published in the L.A. Times or tomorrow, it’s going to be published in the L.A. Times, which tells us that 83 percent of Palestinians envisage a Palestinian state extending from the Jordon to the Mediterranean, 83 percent of Palestinians believe there should not be any state of Israel whatsoever. Seventy-two percent of Palestinians deny that Jews had any historical connection with Jerusalem. In 2014, 78 percent of Palestinians held that stabbing Israelis or running them down in cars was legitimate. That’s a year ago. That’s what they’re doing right now. But of course, what we know from survey after survey is that this isn’t just Palestinians, it’s the majority of Muslims worldwide, who support suicide bombing for instance. So when it comes to the, one of the most central issues in the Middle East, the Israel Palestinian dispute, it is very far from clear that there is any will on the Palestinian side for there to be any state of Israel whatsoever. They’re quite prepared to wait until Jews discover that there is sunshine and oranges in Florida and California as well. After all, Miami is Hebrew for, of my people, if I’m not mistaken in my Hebrew (inaudible). Am I right? Mind you British is the Hebrew for man of the covenant. ‘Brit’ is ‘man’ in Hebrew, ‘ish‘ is et cetera. This is where the lost ten tribes got to, as you probably know. (Laughter)
So, you know, not only is antiSemitism alive and well, but Israel is isolated in Europe, losing support in America and with no one to talk to on the other side. The Tony Blair Foundation, on October 6th, just five weeks ago, published a report called Inside the Jihadi Mind, saying that these, the attitudes that you find in ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the extreme attitudes, find a broad echo in broad swathes of the Muslim population. Very few Muslims are actually willing to go to Syria to become jihadists or suicide bombers in Europe. But the support for what they stand for is very widespread indeed. But of course, add to that the fact that there has been no major prominent voice of moderation within the religious world of Islam. That is the problem. Where are the answering voices? And here of course, I absolutely accept people like Irshad Manji, who is a very, very courageous Muslim woman. I think some of the most courageous Muslims today are Muslim women. I mean I really salute so many of them. And tomorrow I think, well no, tonight. Tonight at the American University, again, I will be in conversation with Akbar Ahmed who is head of Islamic Studies at the American University, former Pakistani high commissioner in Britain, another very courageous Muslim moderate. But we’re very short of interlocutors there. President el-Sisi of Egypt has been a very courageous voice but not a religious voice. Be aware of that. And meanwhile, that world is creating a vortex of its own between the radial Sunnis of alQaeda and ISIS and the radical Shia of an Iran that will be nuclear with international consent ten years from now and its proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas. So when you take all of this into account, we are in a pretty difficult situation. And I don’t yet see a clear way through.
And I identify two problems here in getting to deal with these problems because these are problems that we can solve. There are two problems that stop us solving them. Number one, what is the average attention span in the West? I think I’ve just exceeded it by several minutes. (Laughter) But I mean I ask the question, how long is the longest a Western politician can think about?
The short answer probably is until the next election. In other words, four years in America, five years in Britain. We are dealing with extremists whose minimum unit of currency is a decade, who are thinking in centuries. So they’re thinking long term, we’re thinking short term. The Ottoman Empire ended in 1922. In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed. In 1950 Sayyid Qutb was writing his radical texts. In early 1970s, after the rising oil prices, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states started funding radical madrassas throughout Pakistan and thus, creating an entire generation of extremists. So our opponents have been thinking in decades and centuries and we’re thinking no longer than four or five years.
The second thing is this. Shortly after 9/11, Tony Blair got George Bush, and everyone else said the battle against al-Qaeda has to be not just a battle of weapons, but it is a battle of ideas. And I’ve been waiting, where are the ideas? The last time the West faced a period of religiously inspired warfare was the 16th and 17th Centuries following the Reformation, culminating in the Thirty Years War, 1618 to 1648. It was then that serious thinkers sat down and came up with new ideas. John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza. The five ideas that frame the modern world, social contract, the moral limits of power, liberty of conscious, the doctrine of toleration, and above all, human rights, all born in the 17th Century by people trying to save the world from further wars of religion.
The Cold War gave rise to new defences of freedom by Friedrich Hayek, by Sir Karl Popper, by Sir Isaiah Berlin. These were new ideas. We’ve had 14 years since 9/11, where are the new ideas? And that is why I wrote Not in God’s Name. Just to see, and I don’t say I’ve succeeded, but just to see can we put new ideas on the table. This is not a naïve book. It was not written on the assumption that all you’ve got to do is write a book and the universe changes. It’s enough if you write a book and somebody reads it. I mean that’s an unexpected benefit. But to change the world, you don’t do this.
I did not write this book expecting that jihadists would sit down read it, and say, you know what, the Chief Rabbi is right, let’s. (Laughter). I did not think we are going to turn the Middle East into a bunch of Victorian English vicars sipping lukewarm tea, eating thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches on the vicarage lawn while watching episodes of Downtown Abbey together. The truth is, I think, quite simply this, that we are facing a force of religious extremism and let us counter it with as strong and radical voice of religious coexistence. That is what this book is about. It’s a book of saying let us, the Abrahamic faiths, Jews, Christians and Muslims, make space for one another. Let us stand together to fight for the liberties of all of us together.
But I believe as a Jew, we have to do this, because there are 2.4 billion Christians, there are 1.6 billion Muslims, there are 13 million Jews, which means if you do the arithmetic, for every Jew, there are 123 Muslims and 185 Christians. If I were a Jew, I would not take on all of that all at once. I think we have together. We have to stand together, Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims, because we can’t do it, Jews alone. And Israel can’t do it itself alone. So I am reaching out a hand of friendship in this book to moderates within Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I want to say the time has come for us to think bold thoughts, stand together, and raise generations of young Jews, Christians and Muslims who will be as committed to moderation as the extremists are to extremism. If you can fund madrassas to turn moderates into extremists, then we can fund schools to turn ordinary Muslims into moderates. (Applause)
This is my alarm call. It is a long term vision for what we might achieve together, but we better get moving right now, because the hour is late and the time is here. Thank you very much indeed. (Applause)
MR. GALSTON: Man reads the daily newspaper in the place of prayer, which made me wonder – Are the problems publishers having in getting people to read the daily newspaper a sign of de-secularisation or a further secularisation. But I will not start there. I’m going to turn it over to Bill. Thank you, for an inspiring talk, Rabbi. Bill Galston.
MR. GALSTON: Well, let me begin Rabbi Sacks, as I told you I would, by stating the obvious and that is it’s an honour for me to share a stage with you. And I will also say that your exegesis of Genesis, which is the centerpiece of the book, is one of the most thrilling pieces of biblical interpretation that I’ve ever had the opportunity to encounter, and I hope that everybody in the room will read that book and in particular, go carefully through Rabbi Sack’s extraordinary reversal of everything we thought we knew about Genesis, and by the end of those chapters, you’ll believe in your bones that he’s right. Incredible achievement.
RABBI SACKS: Thank you.
MR. GALSTON: I also thought at the beginning, it would be appropriate to note the passing just last week of René Girard who’s masterpiece Violence and the Sacred plays such a significant role in your book. So I want to pick up where you left off, and that is you see this book as the first step towards meeting the challenge of putting new ideas on the table to counter an urgent threat, which you described in your talk. And so, let’s explore some of those ideas. Perhaps the centre-piece, theoretically of your book is an account of the origins of violence. And I’d like to put this question to you because there seemed to two theoretical narratives at work and I’m interested in their relationship.
On the one hand, you propose a fundamental relationship between violence and social groups. You say at one point that violence is born together with the better angels of our nature in the phenomenon of human groupishness. You go on to say that violence exists because we are social animals. We live and find our identity in groups and groups conflict. And then, you explicitly sum up your argument towards the end by saying we saw in chapter two why humans are violent. It has to do with the fact that we are social animals, we form groups, we are tribal beings, identity is inescapably plural. That is why it leads to violence. That’s on the one hand.
But there’s another theoretical narrative at work in the book because you also invoke intra-psychic mechanisms within the individual, mechanisms drawn from Freud and Melanie Klein to explain how a stark dualism of good and evil, which you labeled pathological, arises within individuals. And individuals within the grips of pathological dualism of capable of violence without reference, necessarily to group membership. Nor, for that matter, as you point out, is membership in the same group, however intimate, any protection against violence. As you insist, the first act of violence recorded in Genesis is a fratricide. And citing Freud and Girard, you say that, quote, “sibling rivalry is a primal source of violence”. So whence my question, how essential is the link between group identity and violence? Is it not also possible to say that violence lurks as a possibility within the individual human breast, and perhaps even, you could speculate, as a scholar, you cite (inaudible) does, that social violence is individual violence writ large. So how are these two theoretical narratives related?
RABBI SACKS: What I wanted to do in this book was not simplify a complex phenomenon. And there are few phenomena as complex and puzzling and shocking as violence. And there’s kind of normal violence and there’s abnormal violence and there’s really, really abnormal violence. And so I kind of layered it, three levels. Is there a relationship between violence and religion, to which I answer yes, and it’s got to do with identity. Religion is the most basic form, for many people, of identity. So, our group versus the other group, that comes from our social nature. Is there a relationship between violence and religion, the second question, is there a relationship between violence and monotheism, and thirdly, is there a relationship between violence and the Abrahamic monotheisms. So I gave three different stories because I was dealing at three different levels. Your standard first model of violence is when two groups meet, they tend to fight. What happened in the 18th Century after so many devastating wars in Europe is that philosophers sat down, most famous was Montesquieu, who said, maybe, well, this was Mandeville in the parable of the bees and Adam Smith, and The Wealth of Nations, maybe you can link our base instincts to the common good, hence the idea of the market economy. Because each one of us seeks our own advantage, we create economic growth and we all benefit.
And it was Montesquieu who pointed out that when two countries meet, they can either fight or they can trade. So business and economics became a major alternative to war. And I have to say, you know, that remains the case. There are a lot of people working for peace in the Middle East right now, a lot of Jews, I have to tell you, who are working with the Palestinians in Ramallah and elsewhere, building Palestinian businesses in order for there to be an economic roadmap to peace rather than a political one. So you can use economics to soften the kind of violence that happened between two countries.
In Britain, we also do it by something called soccer. (Laughter) I think you do this in America as well, don’t you. We kind of ritualise things. You do a baseball and football and so on, because we kind of ritualise this violence, so we get that out of our system. So that kind of normal, political violence, which was dealt with by the Westphalian World order in 1648, created a world of nation states in which there is a balance of power. And you try and inhibit countries from fighting because if they fight, the people they fight against will make allies and they’ll eventually lose, et cetera et cetera. That’s one level of violence. There’s a second level of violence, which I call dualism, which has got to do with splitting projection and dividing the world into the people like us who are all good, and the people like them who are all bad. And that is happening right now in the ISIS Al-Qaeda mindset. We are the innocent victims of the Shia crusader Zionist alliance. Every bad thing in the world comes either from America or from Israel or from Jews. And that is dualism, which I deal with in the second bit of the book. Dualism isn’t limited to the Abrahamic monotheisms because Nazi Germany was dualist. Stalinist communism was dualist, the children of light against the children of darkness. And then there’s the third thing which really is up close and personal between Jews, Christians and Muslims, which is the fact that as we all see ourselves as children of Abraham, we are in a relationship of sibling rivalry. That was the Girard, René Girard insight. And the truth is, did everyone here, does everyone here have siblings? Can you remember what it was like when your brother or sister got a new toy and all of a sudden, you suddenly discovered you wanted exactly that toy. You never thought about it before, but because they have it, you want it. Now, that–
MR. GALSTON: Steve Jobs built an empire on exactly that principle. (Laughter)
RABBI SACKS: So, yeah, listen, that’s why I have grandchildren, so somebody knows how to use the smartphone. I’ve got to tell you, my smartphone gives me an inferiority complex. It knows a hell of a lot more than I do. Anyway, so I was really dealing here with these three interwoven strands, but it’s the sibling rivalry thing that says, look, put it bluntly, Hamlet begins with Hamlet’s uncle Claudius murdering Hamlet’s father, whose name I forget offhand. And why? To take the throne. So if you want the throne, and your brother is in the way because he’s wearing the crown, you have to kill him in order to get the crown. Now, the crown at stake here is most favoured child of Abraham. So if you are a Jew or you are a Christian and you’re claiming to wear the crown and I’m a Muslim, I have to kill you to get that crown. And that is why the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been fraught with the possibility of violence for so long. And we’ve suppressed it very effectively, and suddenly, it’s resurfaced and it’s very terrifying. And that’s why I did all that re-reading of the sibling rivalry stories in Genesis.
MR. GALSTON: Well, thank you so much for that answer. I’m going to put one more question, before, in the interest of time, I turn the questioning over to E.J. And I want to come back to the issue of dualism which you put on the table in this book so very forcefully and the exegesis of sibling rivalry undermines the idea of dualism very frontally by pointing out that the surface narrative where one is the good one and the other is the bad one ends up being subverted. Subverted not through a fanciful Midrash, but the letter of the text, if you read it carefully, subverts it. From that analysis of dualism, you draw a theological conclusion and I hope you won’t think it’s irrelevant if I put a theological question to you because it arises straight on the text, straight from the text. And I’ll begin with a quotation.
You say that dualism, you know, the children of light versus the children of darkness, creates blame cultures. It says it wasn’t us and it wasn’t God, so it must be them, close quote. And you contrast this to the voice of Jewish prophecy. Another quotation, when mishaps befall the Israelites, they say it is because we the people have sinned. We dishonoured the covenant, we betrayed God’s trust. Never is someone else blamed for Israel’s troubles, close quote. And so, for example, you point out, you know, the old rabbinical explanation, because of our sins, we were exiled from our land. Now, I will take the risk of opposing an objection. I think the problem with this argument is that proves too much. Do we really want to say as regrettably some do, that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for our sins? Do we really want to say that? Isn’t it more plausible to attribute that catastrophe to human beings abusing their freedom in the worst conceivable way?
So, from my standpoint, which I think is widely shared, it wasn’t us, and it wasn’t God. It was, indeed, them. And I would link this intuition, this intuition that I have to a theological argument that if only God is perfect, then God’s creation is by necessity and by ontological definition imperfect, even if it is as good as it can be. And so human freedom, which includes the possibility of doing evil is the closest possible approximation to God’s will which can only will what is good. At most we can say that by creating human beings God is responsible for the fact that God is not responsible for everything, especially the Holocaust. We can say rightly, that others have wronged us without falling prey to either passivity or hatred. So you know, I sort of jokingly–
RABBI SACKS: You’re right. You’re right. I mean you don’t have, I accept you’re right. I’m wrong. You’re right.
MR. GALTSON: That was easy. (Laughter)
MR. DIONNE: I’ve never seen that before.
RABBI SACKS: I tell you something, Bill. I have this awful problem, you know. I have this awful problem because I came to the conclusion that you can’t write all books at once.
MR. GALSTON: Yes.
RABBI SACKS: So I wrote a book about the thing you are raising right now, called To Heal a Fractured World, subtitled, The Ethics of Responsibility.
MR. GALSTON: One of my favourite books.
RABBI SACKS: I write a weekly thing on the biblical portion of the week, and it was last week, Chayei Sarah, that I spoke specifically about this issue. I asked the question why, you know, Chayei Sarah begins in Genesis 23. Abraham has just been through an extreme trauma and an extreme bereavement. The trauma was he almost had to sacrifice the son whom he had waited a lifetime, the bereavement was he had lost his wife, of a lifetime, who had accompanied him on all his travels and saved his life on two occasions. Now, he certainly doesn’t blame himself for these bad things that happened to him. But what he does is he doesn’t sit and grieve. This is the thing that I find extraordinary. Five words and that’s it, Abram came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. That’s it, five words, and immediately he gets up from his Shiva, from his mourning and becomes hyperactive again and buys the first plot of land in Israel in which to bury her, arranges for a wife for his son because we all want nice grandchildren, et cetera et cetera.
But I couldn’t understand this. Why you have this deeply, human, human being. Why does Abram not sit and weep at what has happened to him? And I say in this, in my parsha, I learnt the answer from Holocaust survivors. I have learned more from Holocaust survivors than from any one else. Because they didn’t ask who did this to us, because they did not look back. The Holocaust survivors I knew, all of them strangers in a strange land, most of them who had lost their entire families focused on building a career, building a family, building a home, building a life. And only after 30, 40 or in often, 50 years, did they even begin to speak about what they had been through, even to their closest family. And I suddenly realised that they learned from Abraham, first build the future, then mourn the past. I wrote a book about that as well. It was called Future Tense. I said Judaism is faith in the future tense.
God, when Moses asked Him, who are you, replies in three Hebrew words, which until very recently every non-Jewish English translation got wrong. They all said “I am that I am”, “I am who I am”, or my favourite translation, “I am, that’s who I am.” (Laughter) But I mean any five year old Jewish child knows “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means “I will be what I will be.” I am the God of the future tense. There are certain bad things for which you can’t blame yourself and it is an expensive spirit and a waste of shame sitting and blaming the world, so look forward.
And in the Bible, somebody did look back at the destruction and that was Lot’s wife, and she turned into a pillar of salt. So I don’t claim that the Prophets, as it were, blamed us for everything. And God forbid that any Prophet, any Prophet ever would say the Holocaust was a punishment for sin. I regard that as absolutely unacceptable. These were one and half million innocent children died in the Holocaust. I reject that utterly as do you and as does anyone with human sentiment. But when we’re faced with something we can’t understand we can do two things. We can cast the darkness or we can light a candle. And I say, let’s light a candle.
MR. GALSTON: So do I. E.J.?
MR. DIONNE: I have two broad questions, and then I want to open it up. One is as I think maybe my place here is, I want to relate you to two Christian thinkers whom I admire. And one of them is around right now, which is Pope Francis and the other is Reinhold Niebuhr. And I heard some very strong echoes of both Niebuhr and Francis in you and Francis’ case, perhaps you and him. Just a couple of thoughts from Niebuhr, he wrote in the Irony of History, he was writing about Americans, but he could be writing about anyone in a way. He said, “Americans are never safe against the temptation of claiming too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire.” He went on to say even the most Christian civilisation and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be known only where there is some awareness of a contradiction between divine and human purpose, even on the highest level of human aspiration.
And he also said nations as individuals are never completely innocent in their own esteem. Then Pope Francis, in his amazing dialogues with Rabbi Skorka in Argentina, I thought maybe you had sent him a draft of this book some years ago. This is Pope Francis speaking with a Rabbi. I think it was his only book that he had published, up to the point that he became Pope was this dialogue with a Rabbi. And he said to kill in the name of God is to make ideological the religious experience. When this happens, political manoeuvring enters and a divinisation of power emerges in the name of God. Those who do it are people that construct themselves as God. In the 20th Century, they devastated entire nations because they considered themselves God. The Turkish did it with the Armenians, the Stalinist communists with the Ukrainians, the Nazis with the Jews. They used a discourse of divine attributes to kill people. It really is a sophisticated way of killing people through use of inflated ego. The second commandment proposes that you love your neighbour as yourself. No believer can limit the faith to himself, his clan, his family or his city. Could you talk a bit about Niebuhr and Francis?
RABBI SACKS: I reread The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr once a year. I love it, you know. I learn a bit of Talmud, and I learn Reinhold Niebuhr because he was America’s prophet. He spoke truth to power. He punctured the kind of balloon of self-righteousness into which any of us can fall. I think he was an incredibly powerful and important voice who has served as a role model to me on many occasions. I say quite explicitly in the book that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, it is precisely the transformation in Jewish Catholic relations that happened as a result of a meeting between the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac and Pope John XXIII, which led to the beginning of Vatican II, which ultimately issued in Nostra Aetate, who’s 50th anniversary we commemorated just a few days ago. That single act turned relations between the Catholic Church and Jews from 17 centuries of estrangement and hostility to one where today we meet as cherished and respected friends. Without that signal of hope, that relations between faiths can be transformed, I wouldn’t have written this book. I wouldn’t have had that confidence. But if it can be done between Jews and Catholics, it can be done between Jews and Muslims, Christians and Muslims, between the Abrahamic faiths, it can be done. I have called for a new Nostra Aetate of all the faiths. I think the moment is now.
As for Pope Francis, as you know, I say in the book, I didn’t quote his book with Rabbi Skorka, I quoted that slightly more recent thing that he wrote in September of 2013, one of the journalists, or the editor of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, who was an atheist or agnostic, wrote an open letter to Pope Francis, critical of the Catholic Church, including its treatment of the Jews. And in reply, Pope Francis wrote that the faithfulness of the Jews to their covenant over the centuries in the face of great suffering places us all in their debt, not only as Christians, but as humans. And I say in the book that is the most affirming utterance about Jews by a Pope in all of history. I mean there have been great popes. John XXIII was one, John Paul II was another one. I had a personal friendship with Benedict XVI whom I respected greatly as an intellectual leader. But as we say with woman of valour on our Friday evenings, thou excellest them all, and I say that about Pope Francis.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you. The second question I wanted to ask, I actually asked you a version of the very first time when we were sitting down, when I got a chance to hear you talk about this book at Mike Cromartie’s session with journalists last June when it had just come out in Britain. and it’s still a puzzle for me, and just to share with the audience, my broad question is how does your interpretive approach actually differ from traditional, liberal theology because there are, to which, by the way, the rabbi immediately interjected, E.J., first of all, I’m not a theological liberal, no way, which I fully accept.
RABBI SACKS: I call myself the acceptable face of fundamentalism.
MR. DIONNE: Right. Why don’t I just say in the good tradition of an Oxford tutor, “Discuss.” (Laughter)
RABBI SACKS: Because I think, you know, without being critical at all of liberal theologians, when liberal theologians sit down from the various faiths, they agree too easily, because they all essentially share a world view, which is great. I mean it’s beautiful. I wish all of us could agree too easily. But the trouble is that what then emerges from very soulful I-Thou encounters at the top of a Swiss mountain or in some other rarified resort or failing that, Miami was quite good as well, where we first had this conversation. And that tends to fall apart when you get to street level in Beirut and Alexandria or Aleppo. And that’s why, to my mind, you’ve got to get the orthodox theologians in each case and they really have to wrestle their way through. Because when they do it, they tend to be closer to the street of where the conflict actually is. The conflict is between the orthodox, or the ultraorthodox of each faith. And I just think that’s where the hard work has to be done. So much that’s written about good relations between the faiths is almost impossibly idealistic and it can work, you know, in Oxford or in beautiful places like Brookings Institute, but you know, when you’re really in the conflict zones, it doesn’t carry credence.
MR. DIONNE: I’ll just go one more on that and then open it up. It’s because I actually agree with you that I asked the question because in a way, I’m asking it from the right and you are steeped in what Judith Shklar called the liberalism of fear, the liberalism that came after — that’s a positive thing by the way. It came after the Thirty Years War. And the philosophers you cited were all reacting to this era of religious violence and that is what created the tradition of toleration that you described. And I guess, so my question is precisely why would an orthodox, a highly orthodox believe listen to what you have to say and not say, this is beautiful, this is a brilliant rendering of Genesis, but it is not persuasive to me because it is rooted in this 17th Century liberal view?
RABBI SACKS: Or Judith Shklar, who coined the phrase.
MR. DIONNE: Right.
RABBI SACKS: How would I persuade an orthodox believer that I didn’t need to study philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge to come to this conclusion? Quite simply. Because the Bible tells us that the first religious act led to the first murder. Cain and Abel bring offerings and God, how sees the heart accepts Abel’s and not Cain’s, and Cain gets very angry because he wants God to do what he wants him to do, rather than the other way around. And God says don’t get angry, you can control yourself, but Cain does get angry and he murders Abel. So the first religious act leads to the first act of violence. So we didn’t need Freud or Girard to tell us that religion can lead to violence. And because God says to Cain “That’s literally the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” The words that came into my mind the first time I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and made a television program for the BBC and that’s what I said.
And I say this because in Genesis 6, God having created human beings in His image discovers that the world was filled with violence. And listen to these words, “and God regretted that He had ever made man on earth, and it grieved Him to His very core.” Genesis 6.
Not Judith Shklar, or liberalism of fear. I believe that the Bible is a sustained protest against violence in the name of religion and I have argued in the book and conceded that are violent in the Hebrew Bible, that the prophets and the rabbis wrestled with those texts, because violence is precisely what is wrong if you are an Abrahamic monotheist. Let me be blunt. The polytheists who came before monotheism, the writers of myth, of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Moabite, Canaanite myth all saw the universe as a place of conflicting powers, the gods and goddesses and their children legitimate or otherwise, their relationships, incestuous or otherwise, were busy murdering one another, it was a veritable Shakespeare play, you know, full of dead bodies everywhere. So violence and destruction and conflict are part of the texture of the universe. And when Genesis comes along in chapter one and says God created the world, it is not because He wanted to show Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking that we can find a unified field theory and just thus explain how the universe came into being. It is to tell you that conflict is not part of the fabric of the universe.
On the contrary, harmony is the essence of the universe, that all God has to do is say, “let there be”, and there was. And seven times He pronounces it good, so when human beings are violent, don’t let them do it in God’s name. That’s what the Bible says and that’s what my book is about. Thank you.
MR. DIONNE: Amen. (Applause)
MR. GALSTON: Okay. We now turn to you and I think I’m going to stand so that I can see the entire room and a few things. First of all, time is short, please state your name, your affiliation if you want, and pose a question as opposed to making a speech and number two, after I recognise you, wait until the roving microphone reaches you because we are recording this for posterity. Yes, sir.
AUDIENCE MEMBER:Thank you very much, Rabbi Sacks for a very thought provoking presentation. I have a request for clarification and a question. The request for clarification is you said that Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims should cooperate to reduce violence. Did you mean to say that moderate Christians, moderate Jews and moderate Muslims should cooperate? And the question is concerning the motivation of those who commit violence in the name of religion, would it be fair to say or to argue that religion is very often a pretext and that the issue is more a sense of great injustice that cannot be resolved in any other way? Thank you.
RABBI SACKS: I don’t mind whether they’re moderate or extreme actually. All I need is they allow me the space to be me. That is the issue. Can we make space for the other, the one who is not of our faith. And that is the issue and that is what this book is really all about. It’s a theology of making space for the other. That’s really what it is. The second question, I need to be reminded of.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. Whether those who argue or commit acts of violence in the name of religion simply use religion as a pretext and that the real cause at core is a profound sense of injustice that it is felt cannot be resolved in any other way and this would apply to violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
RABBI SACKS: Sure. I think there are two different profound senses at work here. And it may be a fine distinction, but I think it’s an important one. I think injustice is an important issue and we must recognise it. You are not going to get peace without both sides feeling that some basic justice has been done. And justice means, you know, both sides coming under the impartial verdict of the law. And justice means what had happened so rarely today in the Middle East, or indeed on campuses here in America, (Latin), the Roman law principle that for there to be justice, you have to be willing to hear the other side. So justice or a perceived lack of it is an important element in conflict and we can address that. That’s part of a political process and that can be addressed. There’s another thing which is quite similar but not the same, and that’s not a profound sense of injustice, but a profound sense of humiliation. And that leads to very irrational acts where you hit out at somebody who you feel – in America, you use this lovely phrase, to “diss” someone, is that right?
RABBI SACKS: We don’t do that in England, but I mean, but apparently in America, this is a really good word, you know, “you disrespect me.” I think there’s a human need for honour. I think that’s slightly different from justice. Justice has to do with, you know, letting the law decide between two conflicting claims, whereas humiliation is about a sense of honour and self-esteem. And very often it is a perceived sense of humiliation that leads to very violent and wild acts that don’t advance the cause of justice, that don’t do anyone any good because they are intended to hit back at the other side, which tends to harm your own side. Are you with me? When you hit back at a Russian airliner, no tourists come anymore to (inaudible) and you are harming the economy of your own people. So I think the search for justice is constructive, but the attempt to hit back at a humiliation tends to be destructive. And I think it becomes very important to separate between the two because they’re very easy to confuse.
MR. DIONNE: Yes, I see a gentleman all the way in the back, and then I’ll come back forward.
SPEAKER: Rabbi, I got some good news for you. There are six million moderate Muslims in America and I am one of them. Welcome to this land, and we are with you and we need to work together in creating cohesive societies where no one has to live in fear of the other. I have a simple question for you. Since you traced radicalism to 1979 revolution in Iran, is it possible, do you think, if at that time, President Carter had told Shah of Iran to step down, the people of Iran would not have become our enemies?
RABBI SACKS: Wow. There were two points there, a statement and a question. To the statement, if I had a bit more wire here and I were a bit more mobile, I would go straight over and give you a hug. You’ll have to wait to the end for that, so, but let’s do just that. Let’s work together. I absolutely take your point about ’79 but you know, I’m not really good at what they call technically counterfactual conditionals. What would have happened if, you know, I call, in Judaism we call that the (inaudible) you know, would that it were. And I kind of, I’m really bad at thinking along those lines because I try not to look back too much, you know. I mean here we are in a situation, I would rather look forward, how can we build friendships, rather than might things have been different if somebody had acted differently back in ’79. I take the point and it’s a good and sound point, but I just can’t comment on it, okay.
MR. DIONNE: Coming forward, I see a hand, yes, right there, on the right hand side about a quarter of the way towards the front.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Rabbi Sacks, my name is Ted Blanton. I’m a historian and as a historian, I think a lot about time, and in your opening discourse, you were talking about two different time scales, a generational time scale and an electoral time scale. And basically, our policy makers, since political power changes hands via elections, they think along an electoral time scale. But when you have a society in which power is handed down from generation to generation, those policy makers think in a dynastic, a generational time scale. And so what you were talking about earlier is how do we basically, and what basically my question is, how do we match up that disconnect when we have so many things that we have to deal with that we can only confront along a generational time span? This could be the struggle against religious extremism, this could be climate change, what have you. How do we get our elected officials detached from the electoral time scale and thinking on a generational time scale?
RABBI SACKS: That’s a really, really good point. And let me tell you about this really curious, I mean I can’t, the question is a big question and I’m going to give you a tiny little detail by way of an answer, but it’s very funny. One of my main methods of communication in Britain, was I used to broadcast, well, I still do on the BBC. Partly by television, but partly by radio. And in Britain, people listen to radio for their morning news. They don’t watch breakfast television. And there is a very important radio program called the today program, which is from 7:00 in the morning until 9:00 in the morning. It’s the main news program. And at 7:48, in the middle of the news, there is for 2 minutes, 45 seconds called Thought For The Day. It is a religious reflection on some item in the news. It’s kind of mini sermon. It is the oddest thing you have ever encountered in your life. It’s been going on for decades. It happened because the person who created the BBC back in the 1920s, Lord Reith, was a very, very religious Christian. And he didn’t want people reading the newspapers to fail to think of God, to fail to pray. So he put this little religious thing. And so I do this quite often.
And people say what on earth are you doing, and I say, well everything else is the news, so I’m the ‘olds’. (Laughter) In other words, I try and use a little bit of religious time scale to step back from the response of the moment and say now, how does this look like, (inaudible) from the aspect of eternity. And actually, I think oddly enough, for instance, let me give you a very little ‘for instance’.
When we had a world summit on climate change in Copenhagen in 2010, the British government at the time turned to the Archbishop of Canterbury, myself and others and said please could we take a religious message from the faith communities to Copenhagen just because all the worlds’ religions care very much about conserving the natural environment and a sense of reverence for nature. We all have this. So it was very interesting that the British government at the time, actually asked for there to be a religious voice as part of that conference on climate change. What I’m really saying in my book, although I don’t say it, I just kind of, I’m mounting a kind of preliminary argument for it is that somehow religious leaders should be used by peace keepers or peace makers on the ground, as a kind of track to diplomacy.
We should not be in the position of politicians, never allow a religious leader to become a politician and never allow a politician to become a religious leader. (Laughter) Keep the distinction very clear. But just as NGOs will sometimes work to create peace momentum on the ground, so religious leaders can do so. And I have to say although this — may I mention the Archbishop of Canterbury or is it just not for public consumption? It all, shall we say that the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the moment, like his predecessors, which whom I worked very closely, George Carey and Rowan Williams, so Justin Welby is actively engaged in trying to do this right now, to bring religious leaders, take them out of the conflict zone, because once you’re in the conflict zone, you know, tempers flare. Just take them out, get them not necessarily to agree on anything, but get them to become friends, because sometimes when religious leaders, when Jews and Muslim and Christian leaders come together with a very inflamed population, but they are seen to be standing together, that can send a very powerful message on the street.
And sometimes, to do that, you have to take time now to create friendships that will be warm enough to be able to use when you need them. It’s just taking early action to create this. So I think we can make the religious voice, which is very much a voice that thinks in terms of centuries and millennia, and very often, sermons sound as if they take centuries and millennia, so you know, I think we can be part of that conversation and add that sense of history and of responsibility.
MR. GALSTON: Next question, coming forward again, I see a gentleman over there.
SPEAKER: Hello, thank you. Well, I, the prefrontal cortex it seems to me to be about control and the amygdala to be about survival. And since the time of Roger Bacon, I think the prefrontal cortex has created the illusion that it could really control everything. Could this not all be seen, what we’re seeing in the world today, the revenge of the amygdala? (Laughter)
RABBI SACKS: That is an extremely interesting proposition, please write the book.
MR. DIONNE: Next question, yes. I see a gentleman on the aisle.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Herbert Reginbogin. You speak of the secularism as an antithesis of religion or the question is, religion has become a part of international relations in the recent years. What does the United States government have to do to provide a policy where religion and international relations build on a greater ethics in international relations.
RABBI SACKS: Just say that last phrase again, I didn’t quite hear it. What does the United States have to do–
AUDIENCE MEMBER: United States government, religion in international relations has become a new school of thought. And as such, the United States government does not really approach the subject of religion in international relations and what would be your position in that the United States public policy would develop a greater ethics in international relations?
RABBI SACKS: Great ethics? Sorry was the question a more ethical public policy or a more religiously informed public policy.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: An ethics which is based upon the religious values of the three monolithic religions.
RABBI SACKS: I think that’s a very, very powerful point. And it ties up with this issue of justice. I mean you know, people have to feel that a superpower is not only acting in its own interest, but acting in the interests of the populations whose destiny it either controls or influences. So I think an ethical public policy becomes terribly important. You have to have populations who feel that some essential principle of fairness has been engaged in. But just think that the religious dimension in international politics caught everyone by surprise. Now, I’m not an expert here on international relations, but there was a moment that really, really impressed me when I read about it, which is that something happened after Pearl Harbor, at the end of 1941.
Once Pearl Harbor happened, America realised it was going to have to engage in a war against a nation it didn’t understand. And they did something really interesting, really interesting. They asked one of the great anthropologists at the time, Ruth Benedict, go and explain the Japanese to us, which she did. And I don’t know what exactly was the document she gave to the American government, but it was, a version of it was published after the war, as the book called The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It’s an absolutely fascinating book because it explains the difference between a guilt culture and a shame culture, or as we might put it, positively righteousness culture as against an honour culture. These are different cultures. And it helped the Americans understand a lot that they didn’t understand, I mean most notably the role of the emperor in Japanese life. They didn’t understand because he had no power, so they thought he was unimportant, when in fact he was extremely important, because he was a symbol, not because he had power. But I just don’t think that people took the trouble after 9/11 really, really to enter into the mindset of radical apocalyptic political Islam. I mean obviously the first thing I did after 9/11 was I spent the next two or three years reading every single book I could, and certainly studying at the feet of Professor Bernard Lewis who was one of the great, great experts. And I couldn’t have begun to have said anything without engaging in that huge effort at trying to get inside that mind.
It was Robert McNamara in his great documentary, The Fog of War who said the first principle is understand your enemy’s psychology. And actually I don’t think we’ve done a great job in the west of understanding our enemies’ psychology. Certainly in Europe we haven’t done this. So I think we have to realise that we are engaged with a culture or a series of cultures that we don’t understand very well in the west. But I do also say that your issue of ethics, of justice to the oppressed and to the stranger, the kind of thing that Reinhold Niebuhr constantly reminded America about, that also has to be part of the foreign policy of the west, because without justice, there is no peace, and without peace there is no future for humankind. Thank you. (Applause)
MR. GALSTON: Well, it is not our obligation to complete the task, but in the interest of time, I think it is a necessity to desist from it. Because Rabbi Sacks is on a very demanding schedule. I think of it more as a treadmill. So two conclusions. If there are indeed books on sale in the back, as there usually are in events like this, are there books back there?
MR. GALSTON: If so, I don’t know whether time permits signature, but that would wonderful and to pronounce an appropriate benediction, I call on Brother Dionne.
MR. DIONNE: Rabbi Sacks said he did not want to be confused with a politician, but at the end of this book there is an awfully good platform that I just had to read. It’s very brief and Rabbi Sacks concludes, we need to cover the absolute – I’m sorry. Let me try again. “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 individuals, 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 the case, forgiving injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faiths and races can live together in grace and peace.”
MR. GALSTON: And let us all say–
MR. DIONNE: Amen. (Applause)