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Confronting Religious Violence, edited by Richard A. Burridge and Jonathan Sacks

29 March 2019

Philip Lewis recognises a challenge to policy based on flawed ideas

THIS volume is a fitting tribute to Rabbi Lord Sacks, winner of the 2016 Templeton Prize. After its presentation, the Templeton Foundation organised a three-day symposium in January 2017 at King’s College, London, at which distinguished thinkers and peace activists contributed papers illuminating and developing key themes drawn from Sacks’s seminal 2015 work, Not in God’s Name: Confronting religious violence.

These reworked papers constitute the work under review. They reflect a wide variety of disciplines, including conflict resolution, theology, anthropology, journalism, evolutionary science, terrorist studies, and jurisprudence. Those attending the symposium included observers from Clarence House, Lambeth Palace, and 10 Downing Street, a measure of the urgency of the topic addressed.

The book opens with a chapter — “The stories we tell” — setting the scene and written by Sacks himself. Part I contains two chapters addressing and interrogating the theme of interreligious “sibling rivalry” in the New Testament and early church history. Part 2 has three contributions — “Reflections from the front line” — where conflicts in Africa, Pakistan, and the UK, as well as Islamic State, are explored.

Part 3 includes three sustained reflections — moral, philosophical, and scientific — arguing, respectively, for the importance of religious freedom, “compassionate reason”, and a deep understanding of the pro-social and co-operative aspects of evolution, if religious violence is to be addressed.

Part 4 draws on theology to illuminate critical dimensions of violence and how to combat them: the conflation of monotheism and nationalism; hate-preaching; and the contribution that theological educators might make. The volume closes with a short reflection by Lord Sacks.

The work is full of insights, at once fascinating and disturbing. In a short review, it is impossible to do justice to the range and depth of the scholarship on display. Two chapters, however, should be singled out, since they suggest the categories of readers who would most benefit from this compilation, namely, policy-makers, (theological) educators, and journalists.

The first is an incisive contribution by Scott Atran, anthropologist and, inter alia, founding fellow of the Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict in Oxford. Atran has researched the character of revolutionary violence, past and present, including field work among pro- and anti-IS fighters in the Middle East. His piece is entitled: “Devoted actors in an age of rage: social sciences on the ISIS Front Line and elsewhere”.

This makes uncomfortable reading for policy-makers. His research identified three interrelated factors that appear to be critical to the willingness to kill and sacrifice: “(1) commitment to nonnegotiable sacred values with which the group’s actors are wholly fused, (2) readiness to forsake commitment to kin for those values, and (3) perceived spiritual strength of one’s own group versus foes”.

Policy-makers, however, he insists, too often operate with an inadequate conceptual framework, whereby terrorists are reduced to “rational actors” driven by material, self-interested motivations.

This then translates into the assumption that “offering jobs or education or spouses to volunteers for value-driven militant groups would be the best way to reduce violence and counter the jihadi pull”. Alas, he points out that World Bank analyses have found no reliable correlation between job creation and violence reduction. Atran argues that a better focus would be “on personalized counter engagement, addressing and harnessing the fellowship, passion, and purpose of particular people within their specific social contexts, as ISIS often does”. In short, for Atran, “the key existential issue for our futures” is the recovery of the social vitality of our transcendental values and cultural ideals.

The second chapter that illustrates many of the concerns of the book is “Between urgency and understanding: practical imperatives in theological education”. Its author, William Storrar, is Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton. Storrar for three decades has engaged in public theology and interdisciplinary dialogue between theology, the sciences, and the humanities on questions of common concern. His contribution sets out the insights garnered from a three-year project at CTI undertaken by 16 Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars on whether their respective scriptures united or divided them.

The title of his chapter points to an inescapable tension between the moral urgency of the task — how to address religious violence — and the need for patient and scholarly understanding of the issues. The chapter explores how the practical imperatives of hospitality, honesty, humility, and hope informed their dialogical approach to interreligious theological inquiry. This could well provide a model for interreligious theological inquiry, an inescapable and urgent dimension for any credible theological formation today.

While this is an excellent volume, there are gaps. Anyone who has worked in the field of conflict resolution will know that women are increasingly a critical agent of change. As only two of the 12 contributors here are women, this dimension is, at best, muted. Finally, Islam remains the elephant in the room, and yet, disappointingly, there is only one Muslim contribution.

Dr Philip Lewis is Consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations to the Bishop of Leeds.

Confronting Religious Violence: A counternarrative
Richard A. Burridge and Jonathan Sacks, editors
SCM Press £25
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