Not in God’s Name examines ‘altruistic evil’

Published June 8, 2016

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence
By Jonathan Sacks
Schocken Books, 2015
320 pages
ISBN 978-0805243345

“When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps…Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love, and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.” The poisonous persistence of man’s inhumanity to man is inextricably rooted in our propensity, eagerness even, to see the world in terms of “us” and “them.” In Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks examines altruistic evil-that is, “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”-which turns “ordinary people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren.” Hatred motivated by religion may be the most pernicious: it encourages us to demonize the other and to do monstrous things in the name of the good.

As a Jewish rabbi and scholar, Sacks’ subject is three great monotheistic religions that claim common lineage to Abraham. It’s an apt canvas to reflect on the psychological and sociological origins of evil-and to propose “a theology of the Other,” which posits that violence done in the name of religion is sacrilege and that we are instead called upon by our creator to love not just our neighbour but also the stranger: “It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many respects your neighbor is like yourself. He or she belongs to the same nation, the same culture, the same economy, the same political dispensation, the same fate of peace or war…What is difficult is loving the stranger.”

Why are we so prone to fear and hate the stranger? Man’s loyalties originally attached to his blood kin, to his tribe, then to ever-larger units, leading up to nation state. The glue that bound such large number of peoples together was, historically, often religion. But, in the 20th century, we introduced modern substitutes: allegiance to a nation, race or political ideology-secular idols that spawned the wretched, murderous likes of Nazi Germany and Communism. Today, we try to dampen down the craving for tribalistic identity by embracing either universalism (we are all part of the family of man) or individualism (which seeks to dethrone “the group” entirely). Neither alternative provides satisfying answers to the questions “Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” But “radical, politicized religion” offers easy answers to those questions: hence its return with a vengeance, and its appeal to those who crave “identity and community.” We live in a time of rapid change; change brings disorientation and a sense of loss and fear that can easily turn into hate. And “the Internet…can make it contagious.”

Sacks’ book covers a great deal of territory, exploring topics such as “dualism” (a pathological conviction that “we” are good and “they” are bad), scapegoating and “mimetic desire,” which is “wanting what someone else has because they have it.” And the theme of sibling rivalry looms large, with lengthy digressions into Old Testament accounts (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, Cain and Abel) that seemto depict one sibling displacing another, but that actually have a profoundly deeper meaning: that we are to seek God not only in the faces of our neighbours (those who are like us), but also in the faces of strangers (those who are different from us). In this cause, Sacks says that the Jews have an advantage: they have “memory and history” to remind them “that we were once on the other side of the equation. We were once strangers: the oppressed, the victims…In the midst of freedom we have to remind ourselves of what it feels like to be a slave.” The best path to seeing God (and ourselves) in the face of the purported Other is to have been the Other- enslaved, despised and oppressed-ourselves: “for only one who knows what it feels like to be a victim can experience the change of heart…that prevents him from being a victimizer.” On this point, Sacks ignores the elephant in the room, with nary a mention of the State of Israel’s protracted armed occupation of Palestinians against their will. Despite their terrible suffering in the Holocaust, Jews are nevertheless themselves capable of oppressing the Other. And, so, the fires of mutual antagonism are fuelled.

Sacks tackles these big subjects from a scholarly, occasionally somewhat esoteric, approach. But, even in the midst of his close theological interpretation of biblical stories, he never loses our rapt attention.

This is a deeply fascinating look at a subject that’s (sadly) in the news daily. Sacks’ message is one that all people of faith should embrace: “Civilizations are judged not by power but by their concern for the powerless; not by wealth but by how they treat the poor; not when they seek to become invulnerable but when they care for the vulnerable.” And we must never forget that “we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. We each [neighbor and stranger alike] have our own blessing.”

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian.


  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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