Early Friday morning, hours before the horror in Paris, I was in the meditation room in Newark Airport’s Terminal C. In one corner was a Muslim man on the prayer mat there, facing Mecca. I was on my knees in the other direction, looking toward the tabernacle that held the Blessed Sacrament. I was thinking that this scene was probably the most ecumenical thing I could imagine. Regardless, it was a refuge, steps away from a TSA line.
Meeting needs is the most productive “interfaith dialogue” in the world, said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks — chief rabbi emeritus of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth — during a recent appearance at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. He was talking about all sorts of good works of charity and mercy, in the course of speaking about his new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.
To a largely Jewish crowd, he made clear, early on, that anti-Semitism has returned in Europe, and it “is a scandal. We have to stand up and protest this.” When he later talked about Christians being “massacred” in the world today, explaining that “the last Christian has been driven out of Mosul” in Iraq, women sitting near me audibly gasped, expressing both astonishment and outrage.
The warnings are as old as Genesis, Sacks said, which “shows us that, if we are not careful, religion can lead to violence.” He warns that we may be looking at the possibility of two generations of war to come in the name of religion on account of ISIS at work in the world today.
And yet, Sacks says, “it makes no sense to say God’s love is a scarcity. God doesn’t have to hate you to love me, to reject you to choose me,” he continued. “God loves us both. God blesses us both.”
“Look into the eyes of the other,” he encouraged. “Can I see the face of God in the face of a stranger? That is the monotheistic challenge.”
And in a pluralistic society, and especially on the world stage, everyone is going to benefit if the children of Abraham stand up against murder in the name of God, hate in the name of God, division in the name of God. People of every faith and people of no faith will follow the lead. “Unless we learn to live with difference, we are going to fail the challenges of the 21st century.”
The solution, he explains, to religious violence is not the elimination of religion. It is real religion: living in the name of a loving and just God.
Sacks diagnoses the West today as “the most individualistic era of all time,” “enthroning the individual.” He continues: “Its central values are in ethics, autonomy; in politics, individual rights; in culture, post-modernism; and in religion, ‘spirituality.’ Its idol is the self, its icon the ‘selfie,’ and its operating systems the free market and the post-ideological, managerial liberal democratic state. In place of national identities we have global cosmopolitanism. In place of communities we have flash-mobs. We are no longer pilgrims but tourists. We no longer know who we are or why.”
The “traumatic failure” of this deification of the self and the resulting misery have led, Sacks argues, to the return of identity: “The tribes are back and fighting more fiercely than ever. “
He notes that “the energy of the West has been sapped by the decay of the very things religion once energized: marriage, families, communities, a shared moral code, the ability to defer the gratification of instinct, the covenant that linked rich and poor in a bond of mutual responsibility, and a vision of the universe that gave rise to the social virtue of hope.”
Sacks explains: “The tendency of humans to form groups, of which religion is the most effective agent, is a source of violence and war. But the alternative — humanity without groups or identities — is impossible because unbearable.”
When Pope Francis visited the United States this fall, he prayed at Ground Zero in New York and said: “Together we are called to say ‘no’ to every attempt to impose uniformity and ‘yes’ to a diversity accepted and reconciled.
“This can only happen,” he added, “if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance, and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. . . . Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools, and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all.”
‘The moral relativism that prevails today in the secular West,’ Rabbi Sacks writes, ‘is no defense of freedom.’
Peace is not some saccharin Hallmark-card wish or utopian dream. It’s hard work, real work. Everyday work, holiday work, and halls-of-power work.
As we work, Sacks says, the West needs to engage in its recovery of ideals. “The moral relativism that prevails today in the secular West,” he writes in Not in God’s Name, “is no defense of freedom.” He warns that there will be more violence, more “barbaric crimes against humanity,” until we change this. “Every time a movement like al-Qaeda is defeated, another will arise to take its place. Young people, in search of meaning, identity, and community, will continue to be recruited to the cause.”
But while hate may breed hate, good can be contagious too, Sacks said at the Y. “Look forward, not back,” is something Sacks says he learned from Holocaust survivors. “Build a life, a family, a future, a hope. Hate makes us slaves; therefore let it go. Do not wage war on the children of darkness. Make sure instead that you and your children are sources of light.”
May that light be seen, especially in these days of darkness.