In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights the re-emergence of religion as a global force. “What the secularists forgot,” he writes, “is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal.” Science and technology have taken us to unprecedented heights but they cannot answer the most basic questions of life. The twenty-first century has left us with “a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”
Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, explores the connection between religion and violence. He notes that “what is best in us and what is worst both come from the same source: our tendency to form ourselves into groups [and] to think highly of our own and negatively of others.” Religion becomes destructive when it is used to divide humanity into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad, the innocent and the guilty.
“Group identity need not lead to violence, but there is a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two – our side, the children of light, and the other side, the children of darkness. If there is evil in the world it is because of Them, not US. This mode of thinking leads to some of the worst crimes in the history because it causes people to demonize their opponents, see themselves as victims and convince themselves that evil committed in a good or sacred cause is justifiable, even noble.” This is altruistic evil.
Although Sack’s book focuses on the emergence of extremist religious groups such as ISIS, I am struck by its relevance for America at this time. The use of religion as a battering ram in an increasingly polarized political environment contributes to the fracturing of our civic life. A sign outside an Iowa church exhorted its members to “vote biblically.” What are we to make of this? There is little information in the bible about democracy and voting.
The constant assertions of piety and devotion to God’s will by so many political candidates bring to mind Jesus’ admonishment, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times column, “I’m less interested in whether a president kneels down than in whether he or she stands up for the important values that many religions teach — altruism, mercy, sacrifice — along with the religious pluralism that this country rightly cherishes.”
In today’s toxic political climate we risk labeling those on the other side as totally evil: liberals, conservatives, socialists, Wall Street, unions, immigrants, pro-life, pro-choice, government, or corporations.
A few months ago I sat with some 15 people from different religious traditions discussing the role of faith in public life. Among the insights that I jotted down were the following: 1) We need to rediscover the adventure of listening to people who are different. 2) Ideological differences are greater than religious differences. 3) We should focus on faith not as dogma but as lived out experience. 4) Conservatives need to talk more about social justice and liberals need to be more forthright about moral values and spiritual values.
Talk of following God’s guidance becomes dangerous when it is detached from clear moral codes defined in all the world’s great religions. Sacks reminds us that some of history’s worst tyrants claimed God’s authority. Unspeakable crimes have been perpetrated in the name of religion. ISIS is just the latest example.
The movement of Initiatives of Change, which engages people of all faiths as well as no formal religion, has always advocated a search for inner wisdom, or the voice of God or conscience, tempered by universal moral benchmarks. As I write in Trustbuilders, this approach includes honesty about our failures, purity in our motives, unselfishness in our support of others, and love in our readiness to forgive and accept forgiveness.
Friends can support us by having the courage to tell us the truth, however uncomfortable. Shining the spotlight on our own faults keeps us humble and helps to avoid the worst excesses.
More important than public expressions of religion is what Sacks calls “the quiet inner drama of choice and will, restraint and responsibility.”