Not In God's Name

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This book study begins July 5, 2020 only on Zoom.

In this powerful and timely book, one of the most admired and authoritative religious leaders of our time tackles the phenomenon of religious extremism and violence committed in the name of God. If religion is perceived as being part of the problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, then it must also form part of the solution. When religion becomes a zero-sum conceit—that is, my religion is the only right path to God, therefore your religion is by definition wrong—and individuals are motivated by what Rabbi Sacks calls “altruistic evil,” violence between peoples of different beliefs appears to be the only natural outcome.

But through an exploration of the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, and employing groundbreaking biblical analysis and interpretation, Rabbi Sacks shows that religiously inspired violence has as its source misreadings of biblical texts at the heart of all three Abrahamic faiths. By looking anew at the book of Genesis, with its foundational stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Rabbi Sacks offers a radical rereading of many of the Bible’s seminal stories of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Rachel and Leah.

“Abraham himself,” writes Rabbi Sacks, “sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry . . . To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.” Here is an eloquent call for people of goodwill from all faiths and none to stand together, confront the religious extremism that threatens to destroy us, and declare: Not in God’s Name.

Comments

1 – Do you know of anything you want BECAUSE someone else has it? Is this something we outgrow as we mature? 87
2 – Describe the sibling rivalry in your family. 89
3 – How, if a tall, does our author’s description of the various sibling rivalries convince you of how important it is in the development of Judeo-Christianity? 92
4 – How ‘real’ do you think Abraham was, and if not, why was he ‘invented’? 96
5 – We know that each of us is the product of both nature (genetics) and nurture (culture). How much do you trust your own experience to be definitive for humanity? (from Freud’s haunting experience) 100
6 – If substitutes for religion (Nationalism, Racism, etc) have been failures in curing violence, is it possible that progressive, more fully developed religion may help us in this endeavor? 101
7 – If Genesis (or the Bible) is a more complicated text than we have taken it to be, is that because it was originally written that way or because we are reading into it more developed ideas of modernity? 103

1. Do you know of anything you want BECAUSE someone else has it? Is this something we outgrow as we mature? (p.87)

This is not as easy as a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. Yes, I’ve always wanted the spiritual centeredness of shalom (peace, harmony, well-being…self-actualization) – even before I understood the depth and power of that religious concept. I wanted it, yes, because others had achieved it, so I came to realize that it was possible – i.e., others had it; I could have it as well. But I do not see my desire as the same thing as the “mimetic desire” that our author’s addressing here – i.e., the kind of petty childish jealousy or sibling rivalry that leads one to want to have what another has simply because s/he has it and I don’t. We can “outgrow” that kind of resentful envy if we can mature and have good teachers to help us along the way.

So, there is a positive aspect of wanting to be what someone else is – without taking that being away from the other person. My lifelong longing for shalom is like that. I’ve always wanted to have “the peace…which passes all understanding,” akin to what Paul speaks about (Philippians 4: 7). I believe Jesus had it. I believe Mohandas Gandhi had it. I believe The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to have it – as did his own disciple, the late John Robert Lewis. Others, from other cultures, must have had it – the Buddha, for instance. Maybe the Muslim Prophet Muhammad had it, I don’t know. May we never “outgrow” that kind of longing.

2. Describe the sibling rivalry in your family. (p.89)

Curiously enough, I never fell into this – even though I had four brothers! Maybe it was because I was the middle son. I do remember trying to shoulder my way in between my dad and older brothers as he was showing them things in his shop out in the garage – but I gave up on that at a very early age. My two older brothers squabbled and fought; so did my two younger brothers. If I did feel any sibling rivalry brewing, I usually walked away from it – went outside and climbed a tree, went to the beach, hopped on my bicycle and went for a ride. For the most part, I went my own way. I guess that pretty much describes me even to this day. It also must be why I’ve always loved, so much, this poem by Robert Frost:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

3. How, if at all, does our author’s description of the various sibling rivalries convince you of how important it is in the development of Judeo-Christianity? (p.92)

I think this kind of mimetic desire has been present throughout the entire evolutionary development of human civilization. What’s more, as Sacks rightly points out, “sibling rivalry is not confined to humans … In many species the urge for dominance is part of the instinct for survival” (p.89). It’s quite natural, then, that such rivalry would manifest itself in all kinds of ways – even within religion. It’s something that, by our very nature, we’ll always have to deal with. That we haven’t done a very good job at it remains to be at the root of most of the rivalries that continue to remain rampant to this day.

4. How ‘real’ do you think Abraham was, and if not, why was he ‘invented’? (p.96)

This is a very important question. If you’re talking about historical anthropology, there’s not a shred of evidence that the biblical Abraham ever existed – much less any of the events as they’re depicted in the book of Genesis. What’s more, I remain convinced that most of its theological premises are symbolic mythology. However, the spiritual efficacy of the so-called “Abrahamic faiths” doesn’t stand or fall on any uncertain conclusions of historical scholarship. So, even though the Bible is not literal history, its religious narrative, allegory and mythic symbolism often reveal profound and enduring truth. That’s what we should uncover and then pay very close attention to.

5. We know that each of us is the product of both nature (genetics) and nurture (culture). How much do you trust your own experience to be definitive for humanity? (from Freud’s haunting experience). (p.100)

I fervently believe that loving, positive, and compassionate nurturing can overcome any genetic proclivity toward hostility and hatred – anytime. As the African proverb recognizes, “It takes a community to raise a child.” But without that familial and communal nurturing, all kinds of rivalries, hostilities, and petty jealousies can – all too easily – take over.

I have been the beneficiary of a nurturing family and community, myself, so I do trust my own experience that it can be “definitive for humanity.” Tragically, however, such nurture has either been absent or has broken down in cultures and societies all across the globe. There is, quite literally, then, no better reason in the world why we ought to be supporting families with children in ways that we’ve been unwilling to for far, far too long.

6. If substitutes for religion (Nationalism, Racism, etc.) have been failures in curing violence, is it possible that progressive, more fully developed religion may help us in this endeavor? (p.101)

Yes, it is possible. But let’s not stop with just religion. It ought to be joined with and supported by “progressive, more fully developed” governance, education, philosophy, sociology, psychology, science and global cooperation, as well. But that will take a much more enlightened and effective leadership and citizenry than, regrettably, we have now.

7. If Genesis (or the Bible) is a more complicated text than we have taken it to be, is that because it was originally written that way or because we are reading into it more developed ideas of modernity? (p.103)

If you believe our author (and, at least in this, I do), our scriptures, in fact, were “originally written that way” by extraordinarily enlightened theologians. We just didn’t get it. Sadly, very early on, the biblical literalists and fundamentalists took over and, if they didn’t corrupt the message outright, they misinterpreted and reinterpreted it to match their own preconceived notions. The current religious factions that continue to make war against each other is the result. But just because this is what we’ve inherited, doesn’t mean we can’t fix it. We can. We’ve been given the Way. But, do we have the will?

It will take an extraordinary and global reformation. In that regard, I wholeheartedly affirm what Sacks says here: “that violence in a sacred cause is not holy but an act of desecration” – never mind that he anthropomorphizes God all throughout his narrative and in the title of his book. It’s not that the world has changed that much, but our relationships, indeed, “have gone global. Our destinies are interlinked” (p.103). But, again, in the face of that reality, do we yet have the will to look beyond our “differences and dissonances” so that we might “at last dwell together in peace” (p.104)? That question has yet to be answered.

1 – Before reading any further than the question on page 69: Why the Jews?, what do you think?
2 – What is the difference between hating someone for their religion vs. hating them for their race? 72
3 - “It is violence that gives rise to religion.” Comments? 74
4 – Can you think of a better way to end the cycle of retaliation than murdering an outsider? 75
5 – Find a NON Jewish example of understanding that what a group really intends by looking at accusations against its enemies. 83
6 – COVID-19 is presenting an “outside” threat, but it doesn’t seem to be producing a strong sense of cohesion within. Why is this? 85

1. Before reading any further than the question on page 69: “Why the Jews?” – what do you think?

My first thought, when I saw that question, was to write in the margin of my book next to it a question of my own: “Why anyone?” The issue that our author wants to point out is the rampant nature of antisemitism* – or, as he understands that term, hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial group that’s led to a millennia of discrimination against them as it has no one else. To be sure, such hatred is unconscionable, but the Jews haven’t been the only ones singled out in such a way. There have been, and are, others: from the ancient Canaanites (and other indigenous tribes – who suffered genocide at the hands of the Jews, themselves, by the way – re-read Genesis 15: 18-21 and Joshua 10: 40 – 42, 11: 1-23), to native people all over the world who’ve been victims of colonialism, to immigrants (both legal and “illegal”), people of color, up to the present day with Uighurs and the Rohingya – not to mention the repeated attempts to exterminate LGBT people (or, as the initialism at its most extreme, LGBTTQQIAAP: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, & pansexual). The list throughout human history, tragically, is very long showing that any diminishment of the “other” can lead any person to hate any other person for any reason. It seems we constantly need to be reminded that in all such cases it’s unfair, unethical, and outrageous to ever dehumanize and exterminate any person or culture in this way.

*A postscript: The term “antisemitism” has been used, almost exclusively, as unreasonable hatred of Jews; and Jews are Hebrews, therefore Semites. However, 90+% of Jews say that they are Ashkenazi – citizens of northern Europe – and, therefore, not actually Semite. Semites are those people of Sephardic ancestry, so antisemitism would, technically, only apply to the ways we mistreat Arabs, Palestinians and the Jews of Middle-Eastern origin. How ironic is that?

2. What is the difference between hating someone for their religion vs. hating them for their race? (p.72)

There’s very little difference – hate is hate, whatever the reason it’s there. When it comes to hating the Jews, however, the two aren’t always the same – i.e., not all people identifying as Jews are religious; they’re secular Jews because they don’t follow the tenets of Judaism. Either way, the hatred can be just as toxic.

To be sure, if the reason for the hatred is one, but not the other, it becomes tragically nonsensical. It’s like Trump saying that all Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists while he also implies that all Muslims are terrorists. It’s outrageous xenophobia simply meant to pander to the other white supremacists he represents.

3. “It is violence that gives rise to religion.” Comments? (p.74).

As ridiculous as that sounds, on the surface, it’s important to note that this opinion is not necessarily our author’s. He’s unpacking viewpoints that René Girard shared with Freud – reversing “conventional wisdom,” as the sentence just before says.

In any event, that’s certainly not the way that I understand what religion actually is; it’s supposed to give birth to the blessings of a shared community. Religion ought to bring all of humanity together because it should offer us ways to do just that – bring us together as a species, and not separate us into isolated groups that (history has shown us) have caused us to include some while excluding others. That kind of approach to “doing religion,” indeed, has caused more harm than it has happiness, and been more of a curse than a blessing.

4. Can you think of a better way to end the cycle of retaliation other than murdering an outsider? (p.75).

Absolutely. Find ways to make that “outsider” an “insider.” Widen your circle to bring them in; or, at least, find the space where your circles can comfortably overlap. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but – as we’ve seen – murderous retaliation just leads to more of the same. I’d say, start with the kind of meaningful dialogue that challenges both sides to be still long enough to really listen to the other’s point of view. Then, instead of immediately disagreeing and trying to change the other, try to find points of agreement, values shared, and move forward from there.

If one side or the other simply refuses to listen, however, and is adamant that the only way forward is others coming over to their side – to only their way of viewing reality – then, regrettably, failure is inevitable. If that happens – short of retaliation, violence, or all-out war – the only choice you’re left with would be to discover how to safely live while completely separated from each other. At best, sadly, that keeps us at-arms-length and frozen in a kind of Cold War – but we’ve been in that moment for some time now, haven’t we?

5. Sacks emphasizes: “If you seek to understand what a group truly intends, look at the accusations it levels against its enemies” (p.83). There must be current, different cases we could apply. Find a non-Jewish example of understanding what a group really intends by looking at accusations against its enemies.

Of course, by asking for a “non-Jewish example,” you would take away my first reaction to this statement of Sacks’ – because I wrote in the margin of my book there at that statement: “Now, it is Israel who is scapegoating the Palestinians.”

I regret to keep saying it, but you can hear it in the current accusations from both the Right and the Left as they outline their demands. No wonder each side is frightened by or angry with the other, because each knows how much they’re being asked to give up should the other side prevail. This isn’t just true within the political pushing and shoving that we’re seeing between the Republicans and the Democrats in our country; you hear it between the populists and the globalists, and between governing bodies and their own citizens all over the world.

6. COVID-19 is presenting an “outside” threat, but it doesn’t seem to be producing a strong sense of cohesion within. Why is this? (p.85).

If you mean “within the USA,” tragically, it’s because there was no “cohesion within” our country to begin with – the virus has just become a stark example of how deeply separated we have become from one another.

7. [NOTE: This is my own observation and question.] As we consider Sacks' presentation of the Jews as scapegoats (pp. 76ff.), ask yourself, haven't there been other people or cultures misused in just such a way – the Uighurs in China, for example, or LGBTQ people in our own country? Are there (or have there been) others? What makes anyone "a perfect scapegoat" anyway and why?

I’ve both asked and answered my own question here – to some extent. Keeping within our own country’s history, I think the scapegoating began with our misunderstanding and mistreatment of the Native Americans (or, First Nation, as Canadians name them). By calling them “savages,” we then thought that we could justify exterminating them. Tragically, we followed that near genocide by importing slaves and then blamed them for many of the wrongdoings, mistakes or faults that, in fact, we’re of our own making. Ongoing and rampant xenophobia has kept the virus of scapegoating alive to this day.

If there is “a perfect scapegoat” it is one without the will, power or privilege who can then be taken advantage of by those who do have both the power and the privilege to do whatever they want to keep it. Why this continues to happen might simply be attributed to greed and fear – greed for still more power and privilege, and fear that some “other” is going to take it all away from you.

1. What difference does the number of Gods make? (p.46)

My first (albeit, somewhat flippant) thought was “Well, that way you have more gods from which to choose the one(s) you like best.”

For me, God has long been enough of a mystery that I consider all of the stories about God in the Bible to be human constructs to begin with, so why bother with “demiurges” or “fallen angels?” All of this talk about how imperfect the world is – with its “disease and death, violence and pain” – that the One-True-God would not have allowed, is just an attempt at the ancients shielding themselves from their own sacred image of God who, surely, would not have allowed such things. As I’ve noted before, these issues have created an entire discipline of theology referred to as theodicy which asks the question, “If God is a god of love, why is there evil?” Indeed. But my answer to that question would not be to create yet another god who’s responsible for that evil, but to finally accept the fact that we human beings are responsible for most of the evil, violence, and pain that we experience in this world.* As far as disease is concerned, we can leave that discussion to some other time, but no god is responsible for AIDS, SARS, or COVID-19; they’re just the nature of a reality that we need to learn how to understand and control.

So, would everyone please start wearing a mask, keep the required distance from their neighbors, and let the scientists tell us what to do? It’s the only way that we’re going to break the grip of this pandemic that we find ourselves in.

[*NOTE: I have a real problem with our author’s apparent conclusion to this question – that “the bad God does is a response to the bad we do” (p.53).

“…to think of God as both a father and a judge. A judge punishes, a parent
forgives. A judge enforces the law, a parent embodies love. God is both,
but it is hard to think of both at the same time” (Ibid.).

Really? If that’s our author’s explanation for evil – or even why “bad things happen to good people” – then such a god is no god I could ever believe in. His final statement is no help either: “But what if monotheism requires the ability to handle complexity?” (loc. cit.). That simply sounds like another theologian’s feint to me.]

2. Where do you see dualism most obviously today? (p.49)

Let’s start with the split between the Republican and Democratic Parties, shall we? Each is trying to wield its power to defeat the other without rational minds coming together to see ways in which we might compromise and negotiate a better future for all citizens of the United States – not just a privileged minority. This is not really about a battle between good and evil; it’s about a struggle for power. As our author notes, farther on, “we have a natural tendency to in-group bias. We think more favorably of Us and less favorably of Them” (p.52). So, Sacks has got it completely right when he said this, earlier:

“Violence may be possible wherever there is an Us and a Them. But radical
violence emerges only when we see the Us as all-good and the Them as all-
evil, heralding a war between the children of light and the forces of darkness.
That is when altruistic evil is born” (p.48).

3. What happens to our identity if we try to minimize the importance of difference and “make all men [sic] brothers”? (p.52)

Minimizing the importance of difference will only lead those in power to define for everyone else just who’s in and who’s out. That’s part of the curse we’re living under at this present moment and what people of color have faced ever since they set foot in this country. Some of the most creative and forward movements of civilization have come from rebels who had different points of view, and had the courage to resist the assumptions of the dominant culture – people like Aristotle, Plato, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi, or The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The list is long. Surely there are others whose difference has made all the “difference” in how we now see and understand our world.

4. Do you see any outside threat that could help unite our divided nation? (p.56)

It might be the outside threats from Russia or China that continue to happen, but I sincerely hope that we deal with our divisions from within before any such “outsiders” motivate us to change our ways. For me, movements like Black Lives Matter – along with all of the other progressive movements on behalf of equality and justice – might be the positive impetus that will finally help unite us. I’m hoping, as well, that our current president’s outrageous behavior will provide a kind of negative impetus for us to get rid of people like him in positions of power. Until the people wake up and demand change, however, our divisions will remain.

5. Do you see any group deserving extermination? (p.58)

I would not use such a term when it applies to other human beings – i.e., to get rid of them by totally destroying them. I remain hopeful that we can change minds and hearts, not rip them from living bodies. Surely, by now, we’ve learned how terrible such a thing as genocide really is. Extermination should be used only against vermin such as flies, lice, mice, rats, bedbugs and cockroaches – not people. It’s better to do away with a movement than a person – the false assumption of white supremacy is just one example.

6. Do you feel like a victim of anything? -OR- By what do you feel most victimized? (p.62)

I don’t feel victimized by anything or anyone. While I might feel powerless, at the moment, to remove someone from political office like Trump (or his “bro-mance” buddy, Putin), at least I have a vote to help make it happen. Being victimized means one is duped, swindled or cheated. I don’t think that’s ever directly happened to me. Of course, I could have been duped and I just don’t know it.

7. What relationship do you see between the extreme individuality of our country and monotheism? (p.64)

It’s akin to the “one-size-fits-all” mentality that assumes there’s only one way of doing things, one way of understanding citizenship, freedom, country or the nature of God.

8. How would this chapter have been different if the author had been 1) a Catholic priest, 2) an Imam, 3) a Buddhist monk, 4) a _________ (you fill in the blank). (Pick one)

I’ll be heretical enough to choose #4 and imagine the author to be an agnostic. We simply do not know as much as we think we know. So, I think even Sacks makes assumptions about the nature and being of God that remain problematic. One point of view – or any cluster of views – formed from the so-called “Abrahamic faiths” cannot deliver the only answers to solve the injustices and violent tendencies of our species. But, let’s take the best from each of them, stir in the irrefutable evidence of science, and then see what we can create in the midst of this chaos. It’s worth a try.

1 – What difference does the number of Gods make? 46
2 – Where do you see dualism most obviously today? 49
3 – What happens to our identity if we try to minimize the importance of difference and “make all men [sic] brothers”? 52
4 – Do you see any outside threat that could help unite our divided nation? 56
5 – Do you see any group deserving extermination? 58
6 – Do you feel like a victim of anything? OR By what do you feel most victimized? 62
7 – What relationship do you see between the extreme individuality of our country and monotheism? 64
8 – How would this chapter have been different if the author had been 1) a Catholic priest, 2) an Imam, 3) a Buddhist monk, 4) a _________ (you fill in the blank). (Pick one)

1 – Describe a situation in which you deliberately chose either a) the common good or b) individual self interest. 27
2 – Why do you think there are so many ideas of what makes us moral? 29
3 – We are a group of heretics! When have you noticed a negative reaction to your heretical beliefs? Was it “brutal and pitiless”? 31
4 – Sacks states his main thesis for this boo on pg. 32 when he says that our violence is derived from “groupishness.” Why do you agree (or not)?
5 – Compare religious belief with membership in a religious community. What are the important aspects for you? 38
6 – What do you like and dislike among the characteristics fo the contemporary West on pg. 41?
7 – How much more suicide will we see because of social distancing required to combat COVID-19? 43

1. Describe a situation in which you deliberately chose either a) the common good or b) individual self-interest. (p.27)

I was appointed as the senior pastor of the Palo Alto First United Methodist Church in 2003 and, from the very beginning, leadership elements within that congregation objected to my progressive theology – to the point of rejecting the scholarship of the Westar Institute and even attempting to direct the kinds of statements that I should or should not make from the pulpit. I was stunned. I sought out advice from my predecessor who’d been their pastor for a decade before me – asking him what his experience had been like. His response was to say that his first four years with them were “sheer hell.” I thought to myself, right then, that I was not willing to put up with such a situation for that long. For a year-and-a-half, I tried to reason with that group of troublesome people who were in leadership positions within the congregation – but to no avail. By the end of 2004, I’d had enough, and asked the bishop to reassign me.

The immense blessing of this choice – clearly of “individual self-interest” – was that in 2005 I was appointed to be the pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Napa.

2. Why do you think there are so many ideas of what makes us moral? (p.29)

Because, with every age and culture, somebody will come up with “a second opinion” – that’s just human nature. What’s more, because science is either unable or unwilling to provide a definitive answer, politicians or religion has stepped into the breach – they always have and always will.

3. We are a group of heretics! When have you noticed a negative reaction to your heretical beliefs? Was it “brutal and pitiless”? (p.31)

All of my life, my question “Why does it have to be this way?” has been met by voices of authority who’ve said, essentially, “That’s just the way it is.” and ended any further discussion. This has been particularly true of my experiences within “the hallowed halls” of the Church. Only my stubbornness – connected to my own conviction of the profound importance of spirituality in our lives – has kept me in this vocation. So, Sacks is right in observing (there at the top of the page), “Inclusion and exclusion go hand in hand.”

Yes, at times it has felt “brutal and pitiless,” but it’s also led me away from those places where I was not welcome to places where I was. Reno 1st UMC, The Westar Institute, Spiritual Directors International, and, finally, the 1st United Methodist Church of Napa were the most welcoming of all places. For all of them, I am most grateful. I have been deeply blessed.

4. Sacks states his main thesis for this book on pg. 32 when he says that our violence is derived from “groupishness.” Why do you agree (or not)?

In a very real sense, I agree that this kind of tribalism remains to be at the heart of how our separations from each other all too often lead to antipathy, anger and then outright acts of violence against the “other.” It’s become critical, then, that we absolutely must find workable ways to answer Sacks’ question: “how do you establish trust between strangers?” (p.35).

5. Compare religious belief with membership in a religious community. What are the important aspects for you? (p.38)

I must admit that I began to part ways with Sacks’ glowing support of “religious ethics” over against what he terms as “secular ethics” in an earlier paragraph. He uses the phrase “respect for authority” and the word “loyalty” when he talks about the “more comprehensive …morality” of the former, while only citing “fairness” and the “avoidance of harm” to describe the latter (p.37). He tries to recover his bias by, first, saying, “It is not that religious people are more moral than their secular counterparts,” but then claims that the “moralities” of religious people “tend to have a thicker and richer texture, binding groups together…”

I have defined religion as how we may be bound together (from the Latin religare “to bind”) through sharing our highest values. But a very real concern of mine has always been leaders who’ve assumed authority when they don’t deserve it. What happens when we don’t share their values? What happens when we’re called to be loyal to an institution when we disagree with its central beliefs? This has long been a problem, I think, whether institutions are led by popes or pastors, presidents or politicians. We are living through just such a time. What has followed – in too many ways – has been blind loyalty, not a well-informed allegiance (i.e., based upon science, scholarship, logic, compassion, inclusiveness, etc.).

So, let’s set aside “belief” as a prerequisite for “community” and explore more deeply our shared values. But that won’t be easy, either, because what one person may value or want to make an ethical standard (e.g., marriage only between a man and a woman) another’s value may be in opposition (e.g., marriage between any two persons, regardless of gender). One person’s morality then, regrettably, seems like immorality to another. So, Sacks asks two very poignant, but important, questions: “Why divide humanity into a Them and Us? Why not have just a common humanity?” (p.39). The “three major attempts in history” to respond to those questions, Sacks concludes, haven’t worked out all that well. “The tribes are back and fighting more fiercely than ever” (p.41). Might we at least be able to agree, finally, upon the centrality of kindness, compassion and love…and then “let the chips fall where they may”? You tell me.

6. What do you like and dislike among the characteristics for the contemporary West on pg. 41?

I think Sacks is right in noting that “The old sources of conflict, religion and ethnicity, are claiming new victims.” But, clearly, it doesn’t have to be that way. Much good has come from the influence of westernization: sanitation and public health (when it’s been allowed to work!) has worked wonders in Third World countries as well as in our own. Physicians and medicines from the West have greatly reduced sicknesses and diseases all across the world because, in large part, health care has become accessible to when it once was not. This kind of global cooperation ought to continue (in spite of Trump’s blatant disregard for such cooperation!).

Instead of imposing our will upon others, however, we ought to introduce such modern concepts as these, but then leave up to them how such ideas might be implemented in ways that are appropriate to their own culture. Let’s not decide for others in the “Father-knows-best” approach that we’ve used for far too long. Present the findings of science, expand education, introduce others to options that will enable them to make the kinds of decisions, themselves, and that meet the needs as they see them. I think history shows that the fatal mistake westernization has made has been the ways in which the West has imposed its own culture and values upon others, then expecting them to be simply absorbed or assimilated into our way of seeing and doing things.

Sacks seems to imply, here, that only religion was the source of energy within marriage, families and communities, or for moral behavior, itself, and what he calls the “covenant” of “mutual responsibility,” and “the social virtue of hope” (p.41). I’d say that philosophy, sociology, science, jurisprudence, literature, art, music, language, and the ideas of human beings, collectively, have had just as much a part in the formation of our values and morality. It wasn’t all done by religion itself.

7. How much more suicide will we see because of social distancing required to combat COVID-19? (p.42)

It seems reasonable that situations of suicidal ideation will increase due to this awful pandemic and the isolation that it’s currently imposed upon us. All the more reason, then, why we should provide help and support for lonely, isolated, and mentally ill people. But, there’s just no way of being able to quantify this – accurately or meaningfully – into some kind of percentage.

Not in God’s Name
Confronting Religious Violence
by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Week 1 Questions

1. How would you compare the story of original violence in the Bible to a scientific description of original (or early) violence? [p.3f.]

It is interesting to note that our author claims that “Polytheism was the cosmological vindication of the hierarchical society” (p.4) when monotheism has done no better – including “the Abrahamic faith” (as Sacks refers to it). As a species we have tendencies toward both peacefulness and violence. The Bible points that out as much as does the literature from any culture. Scientists remain split, though, over exactly what will cause either peacefulness or violence to become the remedy for “resolving” our differences.

However, an anthropologist by the name of Richard Wrangham, who teaches biological anthropology at Harvard (his book: The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution), claims that ancient hominids treated violence within the tribe through self-domestication – a kind of evolution toward communal harmony by “weeding out” the more violent among them (most of those, no surprise, were males). Central to his argument is the idea that cooperative killing of the incurably violent individuals played a central role in such a self-domestication of the human species.

Of course, I’m not recommending that we do the same. But, surely, we do have ways of isolating those with violent tendencies so that that they’re never allowed to run amuck within our society ever again. The more profound question then becomes, why haven’t we?

2. What changed such that we now have “crimes against humanity” where in the early Bible we had genocide? [p.10]

While so much of the Bible, itself, portrays religiously sanctioned violence, we’re finally coming to realize that such “altruistic evil” (p.9) isn’t just the extermination of a different religious, national, racial, political or cultural group – i.e., genocide. It’s a criminal act against all of humanity. Again, as I’ve frequently been referring to that 1970 quote from Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The sooner we recognize the truth of that, our will to change our ways may come about, and the better off all of us will be.

3. In the list of “modern” cures, which do you like and which do you dislike? [p.13]

While they may not be “cures,” so much, I do like these:

• “We no longer need the Bible to explain the universe. Instead we have science.”
• “We do not need sacred ritual to control human destiny.”
• While we should “have doctors, medicine and surgery,” there is a place for prayer.
• “If we are depressed there is an alternative to religious consolation….”
• “When we feel overwhelmed by guilt, we can choose psychotherapy….”
• “As for human mortality, [maybe we ought] not to think about it too often.” But reflecting on those three meaningful questions – “Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” – can greatly enhance how we do live out our lives.
• It’s okay to be uncertain about the existence of God, but keeping up the search can bring profound meaning to our lives. That’s why religion remains to be important, or as Sacks put it, “because it is hard to live without meaning.”

I dislike these assumptions:

• Science can’t replace our need to search for meaning in the spiritual realm. Both are of immeasurable worth to us.
• While technology is a good thing, it cannot, and does not, replace the power of sacred rituals – those can put us in touch with the very depths of the Sacred.
• To dismiss prayer as one powerful – even essential – part of palliative care is a mistake.
• Antidepressant drugs can help, but so can the religious consolation of compassion.
• Psychotherapy can’t cure everything; and while neither can “the confessional,” a caring spiritual companion can help relieve the burdens that many of us carry around with us.
• Rock concerts and sports matches have very little transcendent value – if any at all. Beautiful music has such value. But so can intimate relationships with wild nature and communal gatherings with others bring us to profound experiences of transcendence.
• Simply not thinking about our mortality could lead us to live lives of meaningless hedonism. It can also become a denial of death itself – which we really ought to make some plans for (e.g. a living will, et al.)! None of us “gets out of here alive,” so we should be as ready for our own death as we can – while we still have time to plan for it.
• Assuming that God is a being, like us – so “if we don’t bother him, he won’t bother us” – just perpetuates that antiquated and deeply flawed anthropomorphic concept of God. To me, God is infinitely more sacred, significant, and important to creation than we know. So, we ought to spend some time pondering that Mystery – that powerful and Creative Energy at the very heart of the universe.

4. At this point, before reading the whole book, what is your view on religion causing violence? [p.16]

Whenever the viewpoints and values of any religion infringe upon the basic human rights and freedoms of others, some form of a violent response is inevitable. So, I think there’s some truth in Sacks’ earlier statement that “the greatest threat to freedom in the postmodern world is radical, politicised religion. It is the face of altruistic evil in our time” (p.14). He is right to also note, however, that “All religions have had their violent moments,…and [yet] they have all also achieved periods of tolerance, generosity of spirit and peace” (p.15). I’m not as certain as he seems to be that “the great ideals, such as freedom and equality, conflict so that the more you have of one, the less you have of the other” (ibid., p.15). A balance can and should be struck between the two. In the end, though, it isn’t religion itself that leads to violence. It’s us. As with any conception of perfection, what’s good for one should be so for everyone else.

5. Do you believe in a coming “age of desecularisation”? [p.18]

I do think that Sacks is correct to observe “that in many ways religion…is a more global force than nation states” (p.17). But, If an “age of desecularisation” is to be understood as the complete negation of scientific and rational thought while religion holds sole dominance over life, nature, or the cosmos, I don’t think such an age will ever happen. There’s no way that reality will become viewed only one way or the other – as either completely religious or devoid of religion. The two should at least remain in dialogue with one another. So, if this question is asking, will the institutional Church (as it’s now organized) one day replace human governance, I’d say, no way.

I’m still uncertain, at this point in the book, just how our author defines “religion.” In brief, does he understand religion as being able “to address the most fundamental of human needs: the search for identity” (p.18)? I think science and rational thought have a place in that search. So, I’m uncomfortable with his next statement that it will be the “world’s great faiths” that will provide us with all we need to obtain this identity. He implies that only they can and will “offer meaning, direction, a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spiritual life…” (p.18). I’m enough of a heretic to bristle at the use of such phrases as “a code” or “a set of rules.” Who determines that code and those rules? Viewed through the lens of history, religious doctrine and dogma, all too often, have been a curse to humanity and not a blessing.

6. Do you feel that you are being “fragment[ed]…into a set of sects of the like-minded”? [p.21]

When it comes to media like Facebook, Fox News, or MSNBC, regrettably, most of us are exposed “only to facts and opinions that support” our points of view – and, yes, probably our “prejudices” as well. In that sense we’ve all become fragmented.

The murder of George Floyd by one police officer – as his fellow officers were complicit in letting it happen – has been a “provocation” that’s, indeed, created “anger everywhere.” But, I maintain, the response was a righteous indignation. As one enraged black woman, Kimberly Jones, pointedly put it in a YouTube video (“How Can We Win”): “They are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality, and not revenge!” She’s right. And so, too, is the Black Lives Matter mantra: “No justice = No peace.” When privileged white supremacists continue to have their knees on the necks of people of color, those of us of another mindset must be motivated enough to come together, not just to protest, but to work for justice and equality. It’s the only way we might, finally, overturn the system of apartheid that has existed in our country now for over 400 years. “Liberty and justice for all” must mean exactly that or it doesn’t mean anything at all.

In this, sadly, Sacks is correct when he says:

“What rules in this universe is interests. … What is missing is identity.
…laden with history, memory, a sense of the past and its injustices,
and a set of moral sensibilities that are inseparable from identity:
loyalty, respect and reverence. … Passions are at play that run deeper
and stronger than any calculation of interests. Reason alone will not
win this particular battle” (p.22).

7. What makes people violent in the first place? [p.27]

Any of us can become violent when we’re threatened or attacked. When reasonable dialogue fails, and running away won’t save us, we will turn and fight. In that, we will engage in very much the same response that has been used by our ancestors for thousands of years.

– How would you compare the story of original violence in the Bible to a scientific description of original (or early) violence? 1
2 – What changed such that we now have “crimes against humanity” where in the early Bible we had genocide? 10
3 – In the list of “modern” cures on pg. 13, which do you like and which do you dislike?
4 – At this point, before reading the whole book, what is your view on religion causing violence? 16
5 – Do you believe in a coming age of desecularization? 18
6 – Do you feel that you are being “fragment[ed into] a set of sects of the like minded”? 21
7 – What makes people violent in the first place? 27