Film and Book Reviews

Why 'children of Abraham' must stand together

BOOKSJonathan Sacks contends that religion does not cause conflict; it is used to justify it. His latest book is worth reflecting on, writes Alan Nichols.

Anyone who has read Rabbi Sacks' The Dignity of Difference (12 editions from 2002 to 2011) will rush to buy and read this. That was about the clash of civilisations. This book is about confronting religious violence.

For a long time Chief Rabbi in Britain, Jonathan Sacks has been a leading scholar in the West for dialogue between religions, and for understanding the complexities of civil wars in the Middle East. One of his basic contentions has always been that religion does not cause conflict; it is used to justify it.

He brings together the “children of Abraham” – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He examines the scriptural text from each point of view, keeping to the text rather than relying on theological interpretations by teachers in the three faiths. “It takes wisdom,” he writes, “to know how to translate the word of God into the world of human beings.” Each human being has a place in God’s universe.

To work through his arguments, you virtually have to admit that “the children of Abraham” have the same God, that this means we accept each other, and that we will all agree that violence is not God’s way of working. Human conflict comes from basic myths of sibling rivalry (Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers), and it is hard not to agree with him.

By now, a Christian brought up knowing the Scriptures from “our” point of view will be struggling. My struggle was about how often he went back to the original Aramaic text of the Old Testament, finding alternative meanings in the text to the obvious ones. Wouldn’t I expect God to speak plainly, so that we might all understand?

It is also curious that he quotes St Paul, and even occasionally Jesus, without ever mentioning the claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews. But then, I have to remember that Jesus is a prophet, and can be quoted by Jews. Then he argues that Moses offers “a more liveable solution” than the Sermon on the Mount. What?

His thesis, which I found fascinating, was that fundamentalists and atheists share the same approach to texts – the plain words, without any consideration of the cultural, political and social context of the time. For Jonathan Sacks, this is a terrible mistake in interpretation.

The West is losing its values. It now promotes maximum of choice, minimum of meaning. It needs to recover “the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at its best.” In the meantime, now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say we are all children of Abraham.

This book is unique, worth buying and reflecting on.

Not in God’s Name, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Schocken Books, New York 2015, $29).

Archdeacon Alan Nichols, AM, maintains an interest in world politics, refugee work and the application of Christian faith in the modern world. He is Hon. assistant priest at St Margaret’s Eltham.