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.
- Log in to post comments
Week 12 Questions
1 – Have you had an experience of being free because you let go of hate? 239
2 – Can you recall when you learned that you can never rectify the past by avenging it? 245
3 – How does vengeance belong to a loving God? 247
4 – Compare the blame / penitent culture divide to either our current political divide or to racism. 248
5 – Why did God accept one offering and not the other? 252
6 – Twenty years ago Lloyd Geering was writing that religion was fading away as its ideas and reason for being was being absorbed into secular society. Our author feels that the world will become more religious. What do you think? 256
7 – Was your feeling at the end of the book more positive or more negative? How much do you think this is a reflection of our current world problems?
Responses to Week 12 Questions
As we come to a close over our discussions about this book, I think that there are a number of statements of Sacks’ here in Chapter 14 (both positive and negative) worth noting:
• “...a principle in Judaism: it is not for you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it. ... Leave guidance to those who will follow you, for it is they who will continue the work” (p.238). This is a good reminder for us all.
• “...the world of radical political Islam is awash with hate, above all with antisemitism” (p.241). Sadly, with this statement our author fails to note that modern-day Israel, itself, is awash with hatred against Palestinians. So, when he says, just a bit later, “Religion leads to violence when it consecrates hate” (Ibid.) he has chosen to ignore the horror that’s been created by orthodox Judaism itself: the hatred directed at their nearest neighbors.
• “Religions are culture-shaping institutions, and they include not just a theology, but also an anthropology. What we believe about God affects what we believe about ourselves” (p.247). This is the key, for me, to recognizing how it was that we human beings created God in our own image – not the other way around (i.e., as portrayed in Genesis 1: 27).
• “...so the human drama takes place not on the battlefield but in the mind, the soul. ... [It is] the story of an inner struggle. That rules out, in advance and on principle, the psychological alternative: it was someone else’s fault” (Ibid.). Sadly, this has been, and continues to be, a very difficult lesson for us all to learn.
...and now to Peter’s questions:
1. Have you had an experience of being free because you let go of hate? (p.239)
It was back when I was a teenager and many of us continued to be “plagued” by the school bully. I finally decided to avoid having anything to do with him. Oddly enough, when he discovered that I was a good athlete, he no longer bothered me.
2. Can you recall when you learned that you can never rectify the past by avenging it? (p.245)
I can’t point to any single point or event at which I learned this, but it must’ve involved my interactions with my four other brothers. I learned that vengeance was like an ever-swirling whirlpool that will always suck you under. You just had to learn not to put your foot into it to begin with. Walk away (or, in my case, go to the beach, go climb a tree, curl up with a good book, etc.).
3. How does vengeance belong to a loving God? (p.247)
It doesn’t. It never has. The ancient theologians that shaped our Bible just made it up – desperately hoping that it would forestall the endless cycles of vengeance that were so much a part of the short-sighted tribal cultures of that era.
4. Compare the blame / penitent culture divide to either our current political divide or to racism. (p.248)
To begin with, I think that it’s a bit of an over-assumption by Sacks that monotheism is always the penitent culture and never assigns blame. Monotheism also does a lot of looking toward the past and maybe not enough looking toward the future. In support of monotheism and the penitential culture our author also says, “If bad things happen to us, it is up to us to put them right.” Well, maybe – if your white. Talk to blacks in this country and, for over 400 years white supremacy has given them no way to “put things right.” On the contrary, white racism has kept its knee on the necks of blacks for far, far too long and kept them subjugated as a race. As Ibram X. Kendi has so starkly (and yet correctly) put it in his book "How to Be an Antiracist":
“We are surrounded by racial inequity, as visible as the law, as
hidden as our private thoughts. The question for each of us is:
What side of history will we stand on? A racist is someone who
is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or [by]
expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is
supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an
antiracist idea. .... We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist.
Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent
self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination”
So far, then, our so-called penitent culture has failed to be antiracist and, sadly, has remained its opposite.
5. Why did God accept one offering and not the other? (p.252)
God had nothing to do with it. Again, it was all about the kinds of petty tribal rivalries and power struggles common to that era – of human beings assuming to know who was “in” and who was “out” and then claiming that God was “on their side” and so “chose” them.
6. Twenty years ago Lloyd Geering was writing that religion was fading away as its ideas and reason for being was being absorbed into secular society. Our author feels that the world will become more religious. What do you think? (p.256)
I think that humankind will always have religious feelings; but in the distant future I hope that we’ll be in control of them – not any pope, bishop, imam, rabbi, church, mosque, or synagogue that, in the past, has enforced orthodox positions. One day, I hope we may not have orthodoxies at all so that “right belief” would no longer be manipulated by institutionalized hierarchies who’ve always attempted to dictate what we should and should not believe.
7. Was your feeling at the end of the book more positive or more negative? How much do you think this is a reflection of our current world problems?
Overall, I feel more positive about this book than negative. However, “our current world problems” did give rise to negative feelings in me in at least one aspect: our author’s absolute silence in the face of the long-standing Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I was disappointed about that. In the end, in spite of our author’s careful avoidance of confronting Israel’s maltreatment of their nearest neighbors, the Palestinians, he must know that self-criticism is necessary when here in our final chapter, Chapter 15, he can say this:
• “We need also to insist on the simplest moral principle of all,...reciprocal altruism.... This says: as you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect. If you ask for tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance. If you wish not to be offended, then you must make sure you do not offend” (p.263). May we all learn this lesson – someday soon.
In addition, while I was not completely surprised by it, I was also put off by Sacks’ ongoing anthropomorphic and patriarchal portrait of God throughout his narrative. He is a rabbi, after all, yes, but I didn’t expect such conservative and orthodox language from an otherwise progressive and erudite theologian.
And, finally, this sobering reminder to us all:
• “Our common humanity precedes our religious differences” (p.264). May we, at long last, come to recognize this. If we do not, we do so at our own peril.
In spite of all of the disagreements that I have had with Rabbi Sacks, "Not in God’s Name" is a magnificent book. I’m very glad to have read it.
Week 11 Questions
1 – What is your favorite Hard Text and why? 211
2 – Do we have “a symbol of gratuitous evil”? What is it? 214
3 – How does “the real battles … take place in the mind and the soul.” apply today? 218
4 – What is the difference between religion with power and religion without power? 222
5 – What do you think is our current best example of using power against our own people? 225
6 – “Monotheism allied to power fails.” But power seems to be part of almost every religion. (Quakers?) Comments? 227
7 – Rewrite the end of the first paragraph on pg. 230 starting with “Republican politics…” instead of Democratic politics…
8 – When the world comes to us as a raging fire, will we still be able to hear the still, small voice of God? 237
Responses to Week 11 Questons
While there are a few problematic “head scratchers” for me here in Chapter 12 (e.g., “…we are dealing with sacred scripture, texts invested with the ultimate authority of God himself” – p.209. Oh, really?), there are also a series of quotes about scripture that are very important for us to remember – a couple at the beginning, and a couple at the end:
• “The rabbis said: ‘One who translates a verse literally is a liar.’ The point is clear: no text without interpretation; no interpretation without tradition...” (p.208).
• “Religions develop rules of interpretation and structures of authority. Without these, as we see today, any group can do almost anything in the name of religion, selecting texts, taking them out of context, reading them literally and ignoring the rest” (p.209).
• “Living traditions constantly reinterpret their canonical texts. That is what makes fundamentalism – text without interpretation – an act of violence against tradition” (p.218-219).
• “The word, given in love, invites its interpretation in love” (p.219).
For me, however, the problem throughout all of this is to ask ourselves at least two questions:
(1) Just who should be given the authority within the tradition – if anyone – to do all of this interpretation?
This is tricky. While our denomination leaves such decisions to the General Conference, the system has become so heavily politicized and dominated by the ultra-conservative groups within our denomination (e.g., “Good News” et al.), there is no longer any room – if there ever was – for the more progressive/liberal expressions of Methodist Christianity. Beyond complete expulsion (i.e., excommunication), a place must be made for minority groups within the organization whose points of view differ from the majority. Without such a reorganization of the institution making that possible, the dominant voices will simply continue to prevail.
(2) If the tradition, itself, has erred, how can it be corrected, and by whom?
Again, those representing “the tradition” would have to first agree that they were in error – or at least accept that others within the tradition disagree with their conclusions. Before I became a member of The United Methodist Church, I was attracted to this denomination because of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral which supposedly meant that our denomination was to be well-balanced, honoring four different perspectives: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Unfortunately, some among us will claim that one or two sides of that quadrilateral are actually more important than the others (e.g., conservatives will value tradition or scripture over reason and experience, while liberals, like me, value just the opposite). So, our quadrilateral has never really used an equilateral approach to doing theology or exegesis of the Bible.
What we have left, therefore, remains to be a conundrum that neither our Council of Bishops nor the Judicial Council itself have been able to solve. Regrettably, then, the name “United Methodist” has become an oxymoron.
[...and, now, to Peter’s questions:]
1. What is your favorite Hard Text and why? (p.211)
Favorite? This is, itself, a “hard” choice. How about the one where the Gospel According to John has Jesus say, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these,....” (John 14: 12). Does he think that we all could be as good and as influential as Jesus was? What would that make of the Christ figure so important to John? More importantly, what would that make us? Talk about hard.
2. Do we have “a symbol of gratuitous evil”? What is it? (p.214)
Yes. His name is Donald J. Trump.
3. How does “the real battles … take place in the mind and the soul” apply today? (p.218)
I think it’s being able to “enter into the feelings” of our victims, as Sacks points out (p.217). And after four centuries, or more, we’ve only begun to enter that battle as a group of white supremacists admitting that we were racists and must now become antiracists. So, it’s true what Sacks says here: “...the real visionaries were those who realised that spiritual-cultural battles are often far more significant than military ones” (p.218).
4. What is the difference between religion with power and religion without power? (p.222)
I’m reminded of that quote which goes something like this: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So, the difference between a religion with or without power will have the same dynamic. Over the sweep of history we’ve seen it happen again and again.
The “solution,” then, it seems to me, is to keep such power out of religion and allow the differences between its adherents to be guided by easily flowing and continuous dialogue – without any single group assuming power over another.
The closest to this in Judaism has been the mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud called Midrash – the word itself literally means “textual interpretation” or, simply, “study.” The key is that such study and interpretation is ongoing and no one (or, in this case, no single rabbi or rabbinical group) is given or can assume a voice of absolute authority. The dialogue and give-and-take continues (and, here’s the key) without end. Nothing remains fixed in stone. We should constantly re-examine and critically assess what we think we know and be humble enough to recognize that, in the end, we will never be able to know it all.
As I’ve mentioned before to our group, this is what I’ve liked so much about that line from the character, Fagin (famously played by Ron Moody), in the musical version of Charles Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist: “I’m reviewing the situation ... I think I’d better think it out again.”
5. What do you think is our current best example of using power against our own people? (p. 225)
This question, for me, gets to the heart of Chapter 13; you can hear it in these two statements by Sacks:
• “Violence is what happens when you try to resolve a religious dispute by means of power. It cannot be done. …might does not establish right, so victory does not establish truth. ... You cannot impose truth by force” (p.225).
• “Religion acquires influence when it relinquishes power. … It becomes the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the community, the perennial reminder that there are moral limits of power and that the task of the state is to serve the people, not the people the state” (p.236).
Given all of that, I would slightly rephrase Peter’s #5 question, above, and ask it this way:
(3) Where do we see such power being misused today – by whom, and for what reason?
Not to continue to (as the saying goes) “beat a dead horse,” but I’m convinced that politicians like Donald J. Trump (USA), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), Xi Jinping (China), Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt), Ali Khamenei (Iran), Kim Jong-un (North Korea), Bashar al-Assad (Syria), Recep Erdoğan (Turkey), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), ...and on-and-on (The list, sadly, is long); all are either current dictators or secretly aspire to be. Most of them also share a number of personality disorders – narcissism and an abnormal lust for power common to them all. They want everyone around them to defer to them about practically everything. What’s worse, anyone who opposes them will be destroyed – one way or another and by any means necessary.
For what reason? They’re all psychologically unstable and their issues surely must have begun very early on – since childhood – and only was intensified as they became adults. If you ask me, what’s needed is some form of intervention or intercession not unlike what’s being used by psychologists and psychiatrists for those suffering from addictions.
[...and, now, back to Peter’s questions:]
6. “Monotheism allied to power fails.” But power seems to be part of almost every religion. (Quakers?) Comments? (p.227)
Like question #4 (above), power has, indeed, been “part of almost every religion” (But I don’t know enough about the Quakers to comment about them.). I do agree with Sacks’ conclusion that “You cannot impose truth by force” (p.225), but religious leaders all across the board keep trying – admittedly, with mixed results. For those who will “bend their knee” (genuflect) before powerful religious authorities, they’ve come to believe that it will be to their own benefit. These disciples expect to receive a special blessing, either in this life or the next, from those assumed to have the power to bestow it. But this is nothing more than ignorance conflated with superstition.
7. Rewrite the end of the first paragraph on pg. 230 starting with “Republican politics…” instead of Democratic politics…
I’d like to preface that rewrite by pointing out a couple of earlier statement by Sacks:
“The degree of unity aspired to in the total society is incompatible
with human freedom and the right to disagree. Politics should be
the mediation, not the suppression, of conflict” (p.228).
I wholeheartedly agree. This current Congress of ours, however, has enough blame for those politicians to share across both houses.
But then Sacks lists a string of contradistinctions between religion and politics, most of which seem to me to be completely false dichotomies:
“Religion seeks truth, politics deals in power. Religion aims at
unity, liberal democracy is about the mediation of conflict and
respect for diversity. Religion refuses to compromise, politics is
the art of compromise. Religion aspires to the ideal, politics lives
in the real, the less-than-ideal. Religion is about the truths that do
not change, politics is about the challenges that constantly change” (p.229).
I disagree. Both religion and politics are a mix of all of those positions, goals or aspirations.
As far as the rewrite of that passage on p.230 is concerned; I would present it this way:
Republican politics has no higher aspiration than to...
...“support President Trump and continue to reject all of the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today. Therefore, be it resolved that the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda. President Trump’s boundless optimism and certainty in America’s greatness is reflected in his second-term goals and stands in stark contrast to the gloomy vision of America projected by Joe Biden and Democrats.
President Trump: Fighting for You!"
End quote. Does all of this sound strangely familiar? It is all taken word-for-word from the Republican Party Platform for 2020.
8. When the world comes to us as a raging fire, will we still be able to hear the still, small voice of God? (p.237)
Coincidentally, I did my Master’s Thesis at the Divinity School of Duke University on that entire chapter, 1 Kings 19 – God’s so-called revelation to Elijah at the mouth of a cave on Mt. Horeb. The verse in question here, however, is verse 12. Going into my study of the original Hebrew, I wanted very much to hear about this “still, small voice” as it was very similar to the ways in which the presence of God had come to me throughout my entire lifetime. Imagine my surprise, shock, and disappointment, in discovering that there is no mention of a “voice” at all. The most one could make of that Hebrew phrase would be “a low murmuring sound.” There never was a “voice” Ever since then, however, interpreters have wanted there to be a voice, so badly, that they gave God one. The rest is biblical history. How’s that for irony?
Regrettably, then, my answer to this question would be “No” – unless...unless you can “hear” the “voice” of God in all of creation. Then my answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” – even in the midst of “a raging fire” like those consuming much of California, Oregon and Washington right now. But it will be more like “a low murmuring sound” than any voice you’ve ever heard. It is a sound, or a presence, so deep that it can give rise to the most profound feeling of awe you will ever experience – if you are open to it and listening from within the deepest part of your being. I did, and I have both heard it and felt it. I still do. It is there.
However, surrounded by much of the same kind of chaos today as Elijah did then, the profoundly existential question that should be arising from within every single one of us now is the same one that he heard: “What are you doing here?”
What is your answer?
Week 10 Questions
1 – Design a video game that would cause the player to “imagine him/herself as the other.” (Nothing technical, just game characteristics, age level, moves, what is winning?, etc) 179
2 – In the military we are told that “the Other is less than human.” Comments? 182
3 – How do you see the “Biblical tutorial in role reversal” being continued from the “Old” testament to the New? 184
4 – Life before the flood had violence from lack of law. Why do we now have violence with too much law? 192
5 – Do you see science creating a “one language world”? Can you fit that into our author’s story? 193
X – Remember the Morality vs. Ethics discussion for our next book. 195
6 – Is there any relationship (or can you make one) between Elokim, God as Universal to Hashem, God as Justice AND our Christian Trinity? 196
7 – Does Jesus work better as the exemplary Jew than as a Christian Christ? 199
8 – Is your own view of god more universal or more particular? 205
Responses to Week 10 Questions
1. Design a video game that would cause the player to “imagine him/herself as the other.” (Nothing technical, just game characteristics, age level, moves, what is winning, etc.) (p.179)
I don’t do video games, so I’m not sure what’s being asked here, but how about this:
• All players must rotate through the villages/cultures of the “other” and assume family ties within each – as if they were native and come to have that group’s perspective.
• Suitable for 10-year-olds through adults
• The moves gain points the more a player is able to find points of agreement between each culture – in spite of their differences (points for identifying places for dialogue, more points where agreements can be found in spite of cultural differences, etc.)
• Winning is when you’re able to create a larger culture out of all of the diverse cultures than any of the other players in the game. The aim is complete inclusion. Proof will be the greater number of points accrued within a specified timeframe of the game.
2. In the military we are told that “the Other is less than human.” Comments? (p.182)
It’s always been a lie. What’s more insidious, this lie has become deeply imbedded within our culture as a “truth” and so remains to this very day.
3. How do you see the “Biblical tutorial in role reversal” being continued from the “Old” testament to the New? (p.184)
I’d mention Kathryn Tolman’s favorite passage again (Matthew 25: 31-45), where Jesus tells the parable about the sheep and the goats, and the King says to those at his right hand that they are “blessed” because of this: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” To which these “righteous” then ask, “When did we see you, a stranger, and welcome you?” And Jesus gives us all the King’s answer, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
In fact, there are some biblical scholars who’ve argued that throughout the entire New Testament, “stranger” and “neighbor” are, in fact, synonymous. So, the Golden Rule has always referred, not just to people who are part of your clan, or who live next door, but must also apply to people you’ve never seen and whom you know nothing about.
As we’ve discovered in our book group, Paul has extended this concept to all “Gentiles” (the ultimate “other” of his time), when he said “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female” (Galatians 3: 26-28). We’re all kin (cf. Stephen J. Patterson’s book, The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, & Sexism). As Patterson has concluded in that book, this was actually a pre-Pauline formula that was part of “the earliest attempts to capture in words the meaning of the Jesus movement” (Ibid., p.5). I think he’s right. But we haven’t got it right, yet, ourselves!
4. Life before the flood had violence from lack of law. Why do we now have violence with too much law? (p.192)
Violence remains because the “law” – as it’s currently all too often implemented – clearly favors whites, the privileged, and the wealthy, while it is unjustly imposed upon people of color, the disenfranchised, and the impoverished. So, after 400+ years of slavery and injustice, the phrase of the Black-Lives-Matter movement is justified: “No justice, no peace.”
5. Do you see science creating a “one language world”? Can you fit that into our author’s story? (p.193) X – Remember the Morality vs. Ethics discussion for our next book. (p.195)
No. While it’s important for us to accept science – when it has definitive answers – it can’t be relied upon to create a “one language world.” There’s still a place for diversity – and that includes the perspectives and differences represented by the varieties of cultures and their languages. As Sacks rightly points out, “When a single culture is imposed on all, suppressing the diversity of languages and traditions, this is an assault on our God-given differences” (p.193).
We can talk about Sacks’ distinction between “morality” and “ethics” later. I do agree with him, though, that morality at least must mean behavior “that applies to everyone, insider and outsider alike” (p.195). But when he defines an ethic as “a specific code of conduct that frames relationships within the group” (ibid.), I’d say that he must be talking about things like customs or traditions specific to a particular culture or group. For me, an ethic seems more like a moral principle that could (or should) apply to everyone. But, then, maybe the difference is only a semantic one.
6. Is there any relationship (or can you make one) between Elokim, God as Universal to Hashem, God as Justice AND our Christian Trinity? (p.196)
Nope. To begin with – at least for me – any elevation of Jesus of Nazareth into the position of a god, misses the point of his entire life. What’s more, this “Father-Son” duality remains to be problematic for its very hyper-anthropomorphism. The plural Hebrew term, Eloḥim, then, says it quite well – not only universal, but a profoundly mysterious and creative energy that flows in and throughout all of creation.
And, by the way, I rather like the Star Wars acknowledgment, “May the Force be with you.” To which the proper liturgical response, of course, will always be, “And also with you.”
7. Does Jesus work better as the exemplary Jew than as a Christian Christ? (p.199)
As always, it depends upon your understanding of the Christ/Messiah title. If he is to be considered “the anointed One” and then co-equal with God, you’ve lost me. I’d stick with the “exemplary Jew” – which was his reason for speaking out to begin with in critiquing the ways in which his own religion was being misunderstood. When early Christianity elevated him to the status of a god, we not only lost sight of the man, we lost sight of his message.
8. Is your own view of god more universal or more particular? (p.205)
I don’t think that the two should be separated, but I do like this statement of Sacks’: “To be a child of Abraham is to be open to the divine presence wherever it reveals itself” (p.203). So, while I may be more of a universalist – i.e., this Mysterious Force is either the same reality for everything and everyone, or it doesn’t exist at all – it becomes particular for me as I personally sense that Presence/Reality and am in awe. And that happens quite often.
Week 9 Questions
1 – When learning, do you prefer your input by reading, hearing or some other form? 161
2 – Some research: Find out when the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Bible were written. It appears that the timings I learned in college don’t agree with our author. 161
3 – What needs to be added to love to build a family? A community? 165
4 – Human love appears (to me) to be an emergent property of people. Speculate on the next level of emergence. What will follow love? 168
5 – ‘God feels the plight of the rejected.” is too anthropomorphic for me. How would you say the same thing based on your understanding of God? 168
6 – ‘We each have our own [blessing].’ How old do we have to be to understand this? 170
7 – Now that we have seen both the Democratic and Republican conventions, compare them with our chapter this week (or the book). 717
8 – Suggest how we may be able to move more people to greater moral growth faster. 173
Responses to Week 9 Questions
1. When learning, do you prefer your input by reading, hearing or some other form? (p.161)
I’ve always preferred the opportunity to ponder what I need to know by, first, reading intently about it – lifting up highlights that seem most important, questioning conclusions of the author(s), considering what the next questions might be. The next step, at least for me, is to then engage others in a dialogue about what has been presented – with friends, teachers, colleagues, others who are engaged in the subject. So, hearing from these others comes next. In the end, I’ve always appreciated the power of language to make and communicate a point. What you say, how you say it, and how you clarify your point of view is always extremely important. Through it all (as a former teacher of English), I used to remind my students that if they were always having to explain what they meant by what they wrote, maybe they should’ve spent more time proofreading their work so that it then could be edited to reflect their point of view more accurately. The convoluted statement that I always used, to have fun with them, went something like this: “I know that you think you understood what I just said, but what you heard is not what I meant.”
So, let’s keep reading, writing and talking together until we can reach some measure of consensus – or, if not that, at least a real understanding and appreciation of the variety of expressions and opinions being made by everyone involved.
2. Some research: Find out when the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Bible were written. It appears that the timings I learned in college don’t agree with our author. (p.161)
The most honest answer would be, “Who knows?” The Pentateuch, of course, is just the Greek name for the Torah and even the one claimed to be its author, Moses, was, more likely, just the most notable storyteller of that oral tradition than anything else. As Sacks points out at the beginning of this chapter: “The Hebrew Bible was a document meant to be heard rather than read.” … and, again, “To understand the Bible, you sometimes have to listen to it rather than read it” (p.161). So, from its very beginnings it was transferred from generation to generation as oral history. For centuries, nobody had a written copy of it.
To further confuse this question, though, according to rabbinic tradition, it was God who actually “wrote” the Torah in heaven before the world was created and that Moses received it by divine dictation – writing down the exact words spoken to him by God. In other words, it’s the charter myth of Israel – so it’s full of the stories of that people’s origins and the foundations of their culture and institutions. In spite of the specious claim that Moses “wrote it all down,” again, it had existed as oral history for a long, long time before any of it was ever written down. The most reputable scholarship would say that only began to happen sometime around 600 BCE and it wasn’t codified in any organized way until around 400 BCE, but then wasn’t recognized as complete, unchangeable, and sacred until around 200 BCE. So, even though this may suggest that it was all “written” by 400 BCE, there were still stories and versions of stories floating around for a couple of centuries after that.
The more reputable biblical scholars today agree, almost unanimously, that the Torah is the work of many authors over many centuries. This has been referred to as the “documentary hypothesis” which understood the Pentateuch as a composite work made up from at least four other “sources” (only one or two which may have been actual “documents”) which were compiled over centuries in a process that wasn’t concluded until long after the death of Moses.
In the end, then, the best answer to this question would be to say that it took, at least, over four hundred years before the final written version was codified and accepted as holy scripture. And yet, oddly enough, it’s still often referred to as “the torah of Moses.” And he never “wrote” it to begin with!
3. What needs to be added to love to build a family? A community? (p.165)
Patience. Forgiveness. Teaching. Mentoring. Persistence…and, yes, community. Within all of that, though, I think our author is correct to note that “you need justice also” (p.166). As he unpacks it, further, “Love is partial, justice is impartial. Love is particular, justice is universal. Love is for this person not that, but justice is for all” (Ibid.). May it be so.
4. Human love appears (to me) to be an emergent property of people. Speculate on the next level of emergence. What will follow love? (p.168)
Freedom. Equality. Justice for all (as noted above). And, finally, some version of global community in which no one is rejected – for any reason. That will be tough to achieve, I admit, but if the majority of humanity can embrace these additions to love as “emergent properties,” they then could emerge. Sacks recognizes, however, just how difficult this would be:
“A world in which we loved strangers as much as friends,
non-kin as deeply as kin, someone else’s children as much
as our own, would not be recognizably human at all…”(p.168).
But even he is of the opinion that the conclusion to which the whole of the Book of Genesis has been leading us is just that: “the rejection of rejection” (p.169).
5. ‘God feels the plight of the rejected.” is too anthropomorphic for me. How would you say the same thing based on your understanding of God? (p.168)
It’s too anthropomorphic for me, as well. How about this: “The community [and, someday, emerging into a property of each nation and then of all humanity] feels the plight of the rejected.” May we achieve that…some day.
6. ‘We each have our own [blessing].’ How old do we have to be to understand this? (p.170)
While a newborn may be unable to communicate it as a “blessing,” I think that, in a loving family, any child can at least sense it not long after birth. At whatever age children step outside the boundaries of family into the larger community, I think that they may then become more aware of their blessing when they notice that it may often be absent for other children their own age. They then should be moved to ask, “Why not?” And we who’ve been given the responsibility to nurture and educate them, should have a good answer to give them.
7. Now that we have seen both the Democratic and Republican conventions, compare them with our chapter this week (or the book).
The connection, it seems to me, is this quote from Sacks here near the end of Chapter 9: “only when a people has overcome its internal rivalries is it ready for the journey from slavery to freedom” (p.171). It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that we’re a long way away from being able to deal with our “rivalries” – whether they’re petty or significant. It will take hard work, and yet our author believes (as do I) that it is still possible, “and until it has been shown to be possible, the human story cannot continue” (Ibid.). I take that to mean that we may end up destroying each other if we fail. It could even mark the extinction of our species. His conclusion then is, indeed, a sobering one: “Only as a confederation of nations can the world exist” (Ibid.). We will fail if we can’t establish those kinds of alliances.
The power of the Book of Genesis, as our author points out, is its vision of creating “a world of social order, one in which every being has its integrity” and no one is “to supplant or displace others” (p.172). Even if that actually is part of God’s “natural order,” though, it’s still up to us to make it happen. There will be no divine or miraculous intervention to make it so. So, choose (cf. Deuteronomy 30: 19).
8. Suggest how we may be able to move more people to greater moral growth faster. (p.173)
Start earlier. It must begin in the bonds established within healthy families and extend from infancy to adulthood within an enlightened, compassionate, supportive, and just community. Without such a foundation very early in life, it becomes more and more difficult to begin. The history of our own civilization has shown just how difficult that has been for us.
Week 8 Questions
1 – When have you felt that you were ‘living securely in the land’ AND when have you felt the opposite? 146
2 – What do you think about ‘perfect repentance’? 155
3 – How does the idea that God created humanity with freedom of choice fit into your concept of God? 156
4 – Compare repentance with moral growth. 156
5 – Where does your world view fit on a scale from completely free to completely determined? 157
6 – ‘The way we learn not to commit evil is to experience an event from the perspective of the victim.’ Comments? 158
7 – When have you experienced either ‘a brother being a stranger’ OR ‘a stranger being a sibling’? 160
Responses to Week 8 Questions
1. When have you felt that you were ‘living securely in the land’ AND when have you felt the opposite? (p.146)
Two major shifts come to my mind in response to this question: first, when I graduated from high school in Aruba and went off to college in California 3,500 miles away; and the second, when I graduated from college and left for Officer Candidate School in the Marine Corps (that was a 2,850-mile trip from California to Quantico, Virginia). In both instances I went from a feeling of “living securely in the land” to one of almost total insecurity and in a place I not only did not know, but which felt alien – in the Marine Corps it was even dangerous. I certainly would’ve liked to have had the same thing that apparently Jacob wanted and neither Abraham nor Isaac had: “tranquility.” But both of my circumstances, above, were far from tranquil; indeed, I felt like “a stranger in a strange land.”
2. What do you think about ‘perfect repentance’? (p.155)
On the surface, it sounds like a redundancy to me – i.e., there’s no such thing as “imperfect” repentance; you either will come to embody repentance or you won’t.
As Sacks correctly points out, repentance is an extremely important concept in scripture. It’s not just that you must see the error of your ways, but it means going the other way – it has to involve “moral change and growth” (p.153). So, yes, it “is an attitude to the past and a resolve for the future” (p.154), but it absolutely must be a resolve to change.
It’s my guess, though, that the rabbis differentiate between “normal” repentance and “perfect repentance” in that what makes it “perfect” is “when you find yourself in the same situation but this time you act differently. That is proof in action of a change in heart” (p.154). In that way, “perfect repentance” sounds a bit like the Buddhist or Hindu concept of karma.
3. How does the idea that God created humanity with freedom of choice fit into your concept of God? (p.156)
We do have “freedom of choice.” But, did God put it there? I’m much less certain about that assumption. I think that our way of being in this world has been more a product of millennia after millennia of evolution than any single act of specific intentionality in our ancient history made by a deity. God is a far, far more mysterious concept for me than that.
Still, one of my favorite (and, so, oft-quoted) lines in scripture comes from Deuteronomy 30: 19. Taking quite some license with that verse, here’s an expanded paraphrase:
“You have been given a choice. You have set before you – this day
and every day – life and death, blessings and curses. So, choose life –
and all of the blessings that it brings – that, not only you, but your
descendants, as well, might live.”
Deuteronomy may not be part of any farewell address by the Hebrew patriarch, Moses, to his people – as the tradition claims – even if, in the end, it was. But, then, where did he get the idea – from God? Did he make it up, himself (After all, it’s not a bad message.)? Who knows?
4. Compare repentance with moral growth. (p.156)
I’d say the former is, quite naturally, part of the latter – which is, itself, a lifelong process. As Sacks rightly points out, “if we can change ourselves, together we can change the world” (p.157). So, I do agree with him when he concludes:
“We can change, repent and grow.” … In a real sense, then,
freedom extends to more than our ability to choose between
alternative futures. It includes the freedom to reshape our
understanding of the past, healing some of its legacy of pain” (Ibid.).
5. Where does your world view fit on a scale from completely free to completely determined? (p.157)
None of us is “completely free” nor are our lives “completely determined.” Given the circumstances of their lives, some, however, begin closer to one end of the spectrum than the other. For instance, due to my unique status as a white male having grown up in a privileged society and within a healthy family, I’d say that my world view has always leaned more toward the “free” than it has the “determined.” Beyond my own decision-making, very little else has determined the outcome of my life. So, the only things that might’ve held me back were of my own making. I do regret, as a young adult, not pursuing a Ph.D. in medical ethics; and while economics might have had something to do with that (I was married, a young parent with three small children, and my wife “worked outside the home.”), in the end I was “free” to make such decisions about my future on my own.
6. ‘The way we learn not to commit evil is to experience an event from the perspective of the victim.’ Comments? (p.158)
I don’t think that I actually need to “experience” becoming a victim to learn that lesson – i.e., that only in that way would I be able to avoid perpetrating the evil that led to such victimization. I think that if I’m able to experience and demonstrate true empathy, I could learn never to commit evil in the first place without becoming yet another victim myself. There is a way to learn compassion for and rapport with those less fortunate than ourselves without having to endure the same suffering as they have.
The famous chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, is introduced by these less famous words: “But earnestly desire the higher gifts; and I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12: 31). For those willing to try, it not only is a “more excellent way,” it works.
7. When have you experienced either ‘a brother being a stranger’ OR ‘a stranger being a sibling’? (p.160)
It’s important that I be reminded of our author’s conclusion here at the close of this chapter; he states it over-and-over again – if in slightly different ways (cf. pp.159-160):
• “The central question of Genesis is: are human beings friends or strangers, brothers or others?”
• “Genesis is about recognition and non-recognition in the deepest sense, about the willingness to accord dignity to the other rather than see the other as a threat.”
• Then, “just as a brother can be a stranger (when kept ‘at a distance’), so a stranger can turn out to be a brother.”
• And, finally, “the whole force and dramatic conflict of Genesis [is] a sustained exploration of recognition and estrangement, closeness and distance. It tells us that if only we were to listen closely to the voice of the other, we would find that beneath the skin we are brothers and sisters, members of the human family. … When others become brothers and conflict is transformed into conciliation, we have begun the journey to society-as-a-family, and the redemptive drama can begin.”
Would that it were so.
I don’t know whether or not this fits the “brother being a stranger” category, but it was in the fall of 1964 when I first learned what a DWB was. For an away-meet, I was rooming with another member of our track team – our triple-and-long-jumper, Charlie Craig. As part of getting to know each other, during the trip we’d shared bits-and-pieces of where we’d grown up. One glaring difference between us, Charlie pointed out, was that, while driving a car, I’d never been pulled over by a cop for a DWB. Of course, I knew what a DUI was (Thankfully, I’d never had to face that one!), but a DWB? It had happened to Charlie, however, numerous times. Charlie, you see, was a black man and while driving he, and others like him, had often been harassed by law enforcement and ordered to pull over to the side of the road solely because they were “driving while black” – a DWB. Maybe they were just “out-of-place” in the neighborhood. Maybe it was late at night. Maybe it was because they had a nicer car than the cops thought a black man “should” have. But, then again, maybe they were “guilty” of some minor traffic violation (overloading the vehicle, not signaling properly, not coming to a complete stop behind the limit line at a stop sign, etc.) – things that many of the rest of us do all of the time. I suddenly felt like a stranger who’d grown up and lived in a completely different world than Charlie did. In fact, I had.
Another example of dramatic estrangement may be those childhood friends of mine that I’d spent twelve years of my life with who, later in life, I learned were (or had become) blatant racists and white supremacists – several of them now virulent Trump supporters. What had happened between us? Growing up in the same neighborhood as children and teenagers, we now lived in two vastly different worlds. What had happened to separate us?
On the other hand – on a positive note – in my vocations as teacher, counselor and finally as pastor, I’ve discovered countless friends and colleagues who at first were strangers, and yet now our bond is as intimate and strong as if we were members of the same family. In a very real and profound sense, we have become siblings. I hesitate to simply then say, “Thank God.” But the journey that we all have in common, in fact, has been a deeply spiritual and religious one – for every single one of us. Who should I thank for that? You tell me.
Week 7 Questions
1 – In modern times, what corresponds to a father’s blessing? 127
2 – What is Rebekah’s motivation? 129
3 – Did Jacob and Esau ‘just grow up’? Or is there more specific change before the ‘choreography of self-abasement’? 132
4 – We are all out of land and the earth is badly overpopulated. Where does this leave us for a covenantal blessing? 135
5 – What is the purpose of the blessings? 137
6 - ‘...we need no one else’s blessings, only our own.’ Does this say the same thing as ‘Meaning is Homemade’? 138
7 – Has modern Israel succumbed to the temptation of wealth and power? Is that temptation simply too great to be overcome by humanity? 142
8 – Extra Credit: How often have I asked the wrong question? 143
Responses to Week 7 Questions
1. In modern times, what corresponds to a father’s blessing? (p.127)
It would still be the same: giving all of his wealth and power to one son – while excluding all of his other children (probably not even thinking of those who were his daughters). Such a “mixed blessing” may have nothing to do with that son’s birth order. It might simply be about loyalty. An example just might be one Donald J. Trump. While he was the second youngest of five children, even his older sister, Maryanne, once said that she “knew better even as a child than to compete with Donald,” who most of the family believed was their father’s favorite.
And just as Isaac’s blessing became a curse, any such signs of favoritism from an influential and powerful parent can – even inadvertently – wreak havoc upon not only the family itself, but upon the community and nation in which they live.
2. What is Rebekah’s motivation? (p.129)
Who knows what ultimately motivated her to take sides. As Sacks points out, from the very beginning “Rebekah favours Jacob” (p.125). Maybe it was because he was more attached to his mother, while Esau was the rough-edged “man’s man” who only preferred male companionship over “staying in the tents” (Genesis 25: 27) – presumably with the women – as Jacob did. As Sacks admits, “nothing in the story is as it seems” (p.130). It’s left us centuries of rabbinical debate afterward which has attempted to untangle it. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are rabbis, still today, trying to unwrap the “real” meaning of the Hebrew Bible.
3. Did Jacob and Esau ‘just grow up’? Or is there more specific change before the ‘choreography of self-abasement’? (p.132)
Again, who knows? The text is mythic in its message, anyway, not a detailed historical account between apparently contentious twin boys. What seems to be clear: as an adult, Jacob feared for his life, because he knew that he’d not just deceived his father, he’d stolen both a blessing and an inheritance that was meant for his brother. As Sacks pointed out earlier, even before giving birth to these two boys, Rebekah seemed to feel them struggling with each other from within her womb (Genesis 25: 23). This does sound more like a Greek tragedy, “which makes this passage so unexpected, so unbiblical” (p.127). So, this narrative has a far more profound message than we expect. But that is the imaginative genius of its author(s). But, let’s be clear, it’s not some mysterious and Machiavellian manipulation created by God.
As Sacks notes, if there was a “specific change” that Jacob had to undergo, it was finally learning this lesson: “Let what is yours be yours” (p.133 – referencing Genesis 33: 10-11). That, then, is the simply profound – and profoundly simple – message of this otherwise complicated story. We should all learn it as children and not have to struggle to accept it only much later in life as we finally become mature adults.
4. We are all out of land and the earth is badly overpopulated. Where does this leave us for a covenantal blessing? (p.135)
Again, the covenantal blessings of “children and land” are not necessarily things intentionally given to us by God. Back when this narrative was written, they were symbols of good fortune – only later assumed to be blessings given by a magnanimous deity. I could see parents viewing such gifts and asking themselves, “What have we done to deserve all of this?” Their answer? It must come from God; we’d better be careful how we react and respond to such a god. So it was that organized and institutionalized religion came to be born.
Where does this leave us? We’d better learn the lesson that we are a far more numerous human family than we realize and our resources are limited. As Sacks points out here (and, rightly so, I would add), “Wealth and power have nothing to do with the covenant.” Either we learn to share – equally – with and among each other, or we will create the very biblical Apocalypse we fear. And, no, that does not mean only devout, evangelical Christians will survive. No one will.
5. What is the purpose of the blessings? (p.137)
I agree with Sacks’ conclusion there: to receive such blessings, first and foremost, Jacob needed to learn that “he had to be himself” – neither like his father nor like his brother nor like anyone else within his circle of reference. All too often that is a hard lesson for any of us to learn. While growing up we can, far too easily, become plagued by what I’ve come to call, “if-only” thoughts: “If only I were stronger,….” “If only I were more attractive,….” “If only I were smarter,….” “If only I had what he or she has,…” “If only I could find a way to get what I want, no matter how,….” Given our circumstances in life, becoming the best person we could ever possibly be should be the sole purpose of seeking any such blessing as the ones that these twins were looking for.
6. ‘...we need no one else’s blessings, only our own.’ Does this say the same thing as ‘Meaning is Homemade’? (p.138)
First, you’re going to have to elaborate for us just exactly what you mean by your, now famous, phrase, Peter: “Meaning is Homemade.” Is it that we create our own meaning – never mind the facts? I think not. That’s what Trump does. Is it that we find meaning where others do not? Maybe. Is finding “meaning” mean only what we all can agree upon? I hope not. Some would prefer the meaning supplied by one discipline over another – e.g., science over religion, data over intuition, practicality over principles, …the list is long. What makes any meaning homemade? Is it because it’s exclusively ours and no one else’s? You tell me.
There is some truth, however, in the premise that “we need no one else’s blessings, only our own.” And yet I have seen, with my own eyes, where people have become so destitute of care and resources that their only struggle is simply to find ways to survive. There are migrants at this very moment – thousands or more with infants and small children – coming from all over the world who, quite legitimately, have only one blessing: they’re alive. And on some days even that seems more like a curse than a blessing.
On some days, I weep with empathy, anger and frustration at our inability or unwillingness to help such people. For them, meaning was not “homemade.” Their very existence was imposed upon them and now they must search for another way to find meaning.
In the end, just as we’ve got to find ways that all people can experience the blessings of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we should allow them to decide what that means for themselves – and not impose our own colonial views upon them. If that’s what you mean by homemade meaning, Peter, then you are on to something. Say more of what you mean.
I do want to say a few more things about this section, however – the most delightful one yet for me. In referring to Genesis 33: 18 of this story, Sacks notes that “the passage ends with the words, ‘And Jacob emerged complete’” (p.138). As he points out, a literal version of that sentence in Hebrew, however (somewhat awkwardly), reads this way: “And Jacob arrived shalem city Shechem.” The Hebrew word shalem is ambiguous here because it can be translated either as "safely" or as the name of a city. So, as a noun, some translations do read this way: “And Jacob arrived in Shalem, a city in Shechem.” In keeping with Jacob’s remarkable conversion, however, many others (our author included) understood shalem not as a noun, but as an adverb – i.e. in what frame of mind Jacob arrived [i.e., “entire,” “complete,” “intact,” “perfect” – or as most of the contemporary versions still show it – “safely” or “unharmed”].
To my surprise and delight, though, I’ve since discovered that the word can also be read as shalom. Personally, I like that one most of all because it might be rendered, yes, as being “at peace,” but also as “whole” or “complete,” “balanced,” “harmonious,” “fulfilled,” or with a sense of “well-being.” It could even mean, I maintain (in the framework of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”), “self-actualized.” After his wrestling match in the night, I think that’s what actually happened to Jacob – he finally “came to himself.” We should all be so blessed.
7. Has modern Israel succumbed to the temptation of wealth and power? Is that temptation simply too great to be overcome by humanity (p.142)
Yes, it has. While the people of Israel may be justified in feeling a bit paranoid about their relatively “new” nation/state being under attack, no temptation toward such dominance is “simply too great to be overcome” – by anyone or any nation. If our author – along with other contemporary Jewish scholars – can see the sacredness of righting a wrong done to someone like Esau, surely they can do the same for the Palestinians whose land was arbitrarily proposed to be taken from them by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In effect, it was that flawed declaration that instigated the homeland of the Palestinian people – just decades later – to be referred to as “a national home for the Jewish people.” It led to just such a proclamation in 1948 when that land was then identified as the Jewish State of Israel. The Zionist movement at that time helped move it along. It should be noted, however, that that area of the world has been home to tens, if not hundreds, of different tribal cultures – long before the Jews arrived on the scene in the 2nd millennium BCE and effectively wiped out the Canaanite civilization.
So, unfortunately, there have been a whole lot of others who’ve called that area of the world – now known as both Palestine and Israel – as their homeland. While the history of our own “United States” may not be as ancient, its beginnings have been just as problematic as the ones now faced by the current State of Israel. When, you may well ask, will we ever learn?
8. Extra Credit: How often have I asked the wrong question? (p.143)
I’d say that this one is the first, Peter. They’re your questions; and because they are, they’re never “wrong.” If any of us have further questions or comments to make, it’s up to us to make them.
So, what’s the “extra credit” that I now get? On the other hand, if you did give it to me, it would seem like a blessing that I neither earned nor deserved.
Week 6 Questions
1 - “Identity is based on narrative.” How is your identity based on narrative? 108
X – I spent some time reading about Abraham and family in Genesis 11 – 25. It’s long, but you may want the whole story.
2 – Do you think your position (by birth) in your family made a(ny) difference in your life? 109
3 – Genesis was written before Christianity and Islam. Why does the myth work? Or do we simply mine the stories for bits that fit and ignore the rest? 111
4 – On pgs. 112 and 113 we have ‘No reader can fail to sense...’ and ‘At this point the test is deliberately ambiguous...’ Do you feel that the Bible is written this way, or that we are reading it thus from our 20/21st century viewpoint?
Y – While my degree from Willamette University says: Bachelor of Arts (not Science), I was able to avoid a few required courses, including Literature and Religion. I’ve obviously made up for one, but I know almost nothing about literature. Pg. 116, 117 may as well be Greek, but if you have any comments, I’m glad to hear and listen to a discussion.
5 – Is Keturah and her family the story that would have been well understood if history had been different? 119
6 – ‘God may choose, but God does not reject.’ Comments? 124
Responses to Week 6 Questions
1. “Identity is based on narrative.” How is your identity based on narrative? (p.108)
X – I spent some time reading about Abraham and family in Genesis 11 – 25. It’s long, but you may want the whole story.
It is quite a creative narrative – to be sure. As Sacks later points out, Isaac (Yishaq) literally means “he laughs/will laugh” in Hebrew, while Ishmael (Yishma’el) literally means “God will hear.” So, who’s laughing; and who’s listening? What’s more, Sacks later concludes that “Abraham seems caught helplessly in the tension between the two women” (p.112). Really? So, now it’s both Sarah’s and Hagar’s fault? Like I said, it’s quite a creative narrative.
The closest thing to my own identity being connected to some other narrative is that I might have been named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States – my full name is Douglas James Monroe. Naming male progeny in our family after presidents seems to be “a thing.” For example, Victor Garfield Monroe was my paternal grandfather; and his father’s name was William Henry Harrison Monroe. Go figure.
We do have a rich patrilineal heritage in our family. With our ancestry in Lexington, Roxbury, and Concord, Massachusetts, we are direct descendants of William Munro (1625-1718) who was a Scottish prisoner of war taken by Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651. Sold as an indentured servant, he was then exiled to the Colonies. This William Munro was able to work his way out of that period of involuntary servitude to become a settler on his own in Lexington, Massachusetts. The Munro Tavern of his stands, to this day, as a museum there. His great grandson, Daniel, was one among several dozen minutemen in Lexington who fired some of the first shots against the British on the second day of the American Revolutionary War. The date was April 19, 1775 (Boston being the first the day before). The effect was to rally hundreds, if not thousands, of colonists to the rebellion. When the Second Continental Congress met three weeks later, it agreed to support Massachusetts in this growing conflict. Over the next year, bungling British policymakers tried to recruit Native Americans, slaves and foreign mercenaries; they blockaded colonial ports and rejected all efforts at conciliation. These actions by the British probably were responsible for pushing more and more colonists to favor independence who then joined the revolution.
The rest, as they say, is history. But this is my narrative; and my family and I have the genealogical records to prove it.
2. Do you think your position (by birth) in your family made a(ny) difference in your life? (p.109)
Again, I was the middle child of five boys, so that position did seem to make some difference in my life. As I noted earlier, if there were sibling rivalries among us boys, it was between the two older and the two younger – and, oddly enough, didn’t involve me. For the most part, I stayed out of them and went somewhere else. I felt neither privileged nor at a disadvantage because of my position in the family. While for the first decade or more of my life much of my clothes were “hand-me-downs” (first worn by one or the other of my two elder brothers), at age 13 I was the first brother to get his very own brand-new Dutch bicycle (Up to then all of my bikes were those first owned and ridden by one of my older brothers.). Curiously enough, the reason that I received that gift wasn’t because I’d earned it in some way. The town tough guy had taken my bike (this one originally owned by my older brother, Rich) and ridden it off of the high dive into the depths of the lagoon near the beach where we all used to hang out. By then, though, Dad had decided that bike had been sandblasted and repainted enough times to no longer be worth renovating yet again. Besides, my birthday was only a few weeks away! I do admit, however, to feeling very special that I was the first Monroe boy – among the five of us – to have his very own new bicycle. And, no, I never did share it with either one of my two older brothers. The next brother in line wasn’t yet big enough for it either; so I kept it for myself. Thank you very much.
3. Genesis was written before Christianity and Islam. Why does the myth work? Or do we simply mine the stories for bits that fit and ignore the rest? (p.111)
I think Sacks gets to an answer to this question a few pages later when he sums up the narrative this way:
“We identify with Hagar and Ishmael; we are awed by Abraham
and Isaac. The latter is a religious drama, the former a human
one, and its very humanity gives it power” (p.115).
4. On pgs. 112 and 113 we have ‘No reader can fail to sense...’ and ‘At this point the test is deliberately ambiguous...’ Do you feel that the Bible is written this way, or that we are reading it thus from our 20/21st century viewpoint?
Y – While my degree from Willamette University says: Bachelor of Arts (not Science), I was able to avoid a few required courses, including Literature and Religion. I’ve obviously made up for one, but I know almost nothing about literature. Pgs. 116-117 may as well be Greek, but if you have any comments, I’m glad to hear and listen to a discussion.
As my professor of biblical languages at Duke University (the lovable and irrepressible Dr. Mickey Efird) always said: “Every translation is an interpretation.” It’s one of the reasons why rabbinic Judaism has flourished for so many centuries. They debated the texts over-and-over again. Let me take a shot at explaining how all of this has functioned over the millennia since the Bible, first, was spoken and only then, much later, written down.
Often referred to as the Mishnah, the “Oral Torah” consists of explanations and commentaries on the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. However, it’s also referred to as the Tanakh (a Hebrew acronym which describes how the book’s content is split into three categories: Ta = Torah, or Law; Na = Nevi’im, or Prophets; Kh = Ketuvim, or Writings). Are you still with me? While the Torah is the law that governs the lives of the Jews, the Nevi’im and Ketuvim were further written so that the readers, supposedly then, could better understand the nature of God.
Midrash came along as a form of rabbinic debate and consists of explanations and commentaries on the Tanakh which attempted to clarify ambiguities in the original text or, at least, make the words applicable to current times. Like so much of scripture itself, these commentaries are often metaphorical or allegorical in nature.
Then came the Gemara where in the following centuries the rabbinical discussions and debates led to further explanations and commentaries on the Mishnah.
Finally, you may have heard about the Talmud. That’s the name given to the complete compiled and edited record (happening between the 3rd through the 6th centuries) of the Mishnah and the Gemara debates that held even further explanations and commentaries on them both. Got it? You might want to read through that again (as well as check out the "Notes" on pp. 275ff. about this chapter of the book).
So, regrettably, if people don’t understand the complete history of its collection, the Bible can be misinterpreted or completely misunderstood – as (we’ve learned) it so often is. It’s why, when I’ve given 3rd graders their first Bible as a gift from their church, I’ve always told them, “This is a dangerous book. You won’t be able to understand it reading it just by yourself. You’re going to need our help.” As educated adults, now, each of us in this book group has discovered (hopefully) that we continue to need help understanding the Bible, ourselves.
5. Is Keturah and her family the story that would have been well understood if history had been different? (p.119)
Careful. As Sacks points out here, “It is not ‘history’ in the conventional sense.” He calls it, oddly enough, “covenantal history, the working out of truth through time.” How convenient is that? It’s just “disclosing a pattern,” as he says. Maybe, if those tribes of hers figured more prominently in the theological narrative, Keturah would’ve held a more prominent role. It’s the narrator’s way within this story of recognizing that there were many other nations around the known world at that time. So, calling Abraham “the father of many nations” (p.120) was one more way of elevating his stature as part of the ancient “history” of the Hebrew nation. Oddly enough, as Sacks points out, some rabbis later claimed that Keturah was “Hagar herself!” (p.121) which would elevate her stature, in the bargain, as well.
To listen to how Sacks explains it, all of this simply was “a rabbinic tradition remarkable both for its psychological insight and for its astonishing interfaith implications” (p.121). However, I wonder how this secondary conclusion would’ve affected Sarah’s role – if at all? If you accept our author’s conclusion:
“At the core of the Bible’s value system is that cultures, like individuals,
are judged by their willingness to extend care beyond the boundary
of family, tribe, ethnicity and nation” (p.123).
If that’s true, the Torah truly is an inspiring and heroic narrative meant to extend way beyond Judaism itself – even to embrace and include Christianity and Islam. Tribes of different races, ethnicities, and faiths can learn to live together in peace.
May it be so … some day.
6. ‘God may choose, but God does not reject.’ Comments? (p.124)
As throughout all of this book, I remain uncomfortable with Sacks’ anthropomorphizing imagery of God – as if “He” is that Big Daddy in the third tier of the universe pulling strings like some kind of divine puppeteer. Never mind that “choosing” one over another will always be a “rejection” of that other one. It still sounds just a bit like George Orwell’s fairy tale, Animal Farm – and that didn’t end well either, did it?
Week 5 Questions
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
Responses to Week 5 Questions
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.
Week 4 Questions
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
Responses to Week 4 Questions
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.
Week 3 Questions
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)
Responses to Week 3 Questions
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.
Week 2 Qeustions
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
Responses to Week 2 Questions
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.
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? 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
Response to Week 1 Questions
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.