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Subtle lessons from scripture

23 October 2015

Richard Harries finds rabbinic insights into strife illuminating

Not in God’s name: Confronting religious violence
Jonathan Sacks
Hodder & Stoughton £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT470)


The Jihad of Jesus: The sacred nonviolent struggle for justice
Dave Andrews
Wipf & Stock £15
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT470)


IN HIS new book, Lord Sacks is determined to confront the connection between religion and violence head on.

The opening section describes aspects of all religions which lend themselves to violence, such as scapegoating, a tendency to dualism, and a failure to recognise how closely good and evil are bound up in us all. Similarly, the last section details some of the snares that religions should avoid, such as too close a connection with power.

All this is done with his characteristic scholarship and capacity to communicate in vivid prose. It is the middle section of the book, however, which is most interesting and brilliant. Here he takes the familiar stories of Genesis and shows how, properly read, they have an inbuilt lesson in the way the tendency to violence can be overcome. While they all have an obvious story line, they also offer a counter-narrative in which we are invited to see the other person very differently.

For example, although Isaac is the favoured younger son, the emotional tone of the story shows how both Abraham and God are deeply affected by the plight of Ishmael, who is offered his own particular blessing. His descendants, like those of Isaac, will be numerous. In the story of Jacob and Esau, again, although it is the younger son, Jacob, who comes out on top, in the end, Jacob, after wrestling with himself before God, comes to exercise his favoured status in humility, offering obeisance to his brother, who in turn has his own blessing.

Then there is the story of Joseph and the brothers who tried to kill him but who in the end are saved from famine by his success in Egypt. The story does not just end there, however. There is the strange business of Joseph’s sending them away to get Benjamin and putting silver vessels in their saddle packs so that they are accused of theft. All this, Sacks argues, is at the basis of a Jewish view of repentance, when those who have done wrong have the chance to enter into the plight of those who have suffered, with the opportunity to choose differently this time.

Furthermore, imaginative sympathy is always asked of us. We are to enter into the plight of the stranger, as the people of Israel never allowed themselves to forget that they were once strangers in Egypt. So, although the narrative often seems to be about one who is chosen and others who are rejected, the counter-narrative is about the rejection of rejection.

It is, quite properly, a very Jewish view of the world, Judaism at its best, according to which a religion may be conscious of a special vocation as a servant of the Lord, but every person and people will have their own special blessing and destiny. This means that we have to recognise both the universality of justice and the particularity of love.

Sacks emphasises that this counter-narrative is not something that he has imposed on the text, but is really there, and supported by rabbinic commentators. Christian preachers will find much of real interest and help in these chapters. They move us way beyond jejune Sunday-school retelling, or tribal history justifying religious bigotry, to reveal the stories that are both fascinating and important.

The Jihad of Jesus is a very different book. It takes the Islamic term “jihad” and rightly shows that at its heart this means spiritual struggle. Then it argues that the true practical expression of this is not the religious violence currently associated with the term but the non-violence that Jesus practised, which has sometimes been acknowledged and admired by Muslims.

The arguments in favour of a total rejection of any resort to force are the familiar ones. The strength of the book lies in the author’s having clearly been in the forefront of reconciliation work in different parts of the world, and in the interesting examples that he chooses of Muslims practising this kind of jihad. He tells us about such figures as Gaffar Kahn, the leader of a non-violent movement for independence among the Pathan people before the Second World War, and Muhammad Ashafa, an active peacemaker in Nigeria.

You do not have to be persuaded by all the author’s theoretical arguments to recognise the desperate need for more examples of this kind of jihad by people in all religions.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is an Honorary Professor at King’s College, London.

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