Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a name for himself as chief rabbi of Great Britain for nearly a quarter-century, a time of great tumult that included the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the influx of millions of Muslims into Europe, and the ongoing pressures to absorb and assimilate newcomers into a mostly secular society.
As chief rabbi, from 1991 to 2013, he stressed an appreciation and respect of all faiths, with an emphasis on interfaith work that brings people together, while allowing each faith its own particularity.
His two books, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations and Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, were well-reviewed, and last year he was awarded the Templeton Prize
This week, he visited Duke University to deliver two public lectures, and meet with scholars, students, and clergy. He also took the time to talk to Religion News Service.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What led you to take on the issue of religiously motivated violence?
A: I was shaken, like other people, by 9/11. I stood at Ground Zero among the wreckage with the archbishop of Canterbury, imams from the Middle East, and gurus from India. I said this is going to be the battle of our generation, and I resolved to write a book on it because you have to think it through. That book was called The Dignity of Difference. I began, almost immediately, a deeper book, which I rewrote four times, Not in God’s Name. So it’s a combination of 15 years of thinking about this.
Q: How have the political changes of the past year, in Europe and the U.S., informed your thinking?
A: What we’re facing here is a whole series of interlinking factors. First, there’s a wave of counterrevolutions in the Islamic world — revolutions against secular nationalism, a process set in motion in Iran in 1979.
Undergirding all of this is one of the great revolutions in world history: the revolution brought about by the internet, by instantaneous communication. This is a revolution at least as great as the invention of printing. It’s affecting Western economies. It’s behind the presidential elections in the U.S. It lies behind the Brexit vote. It lies behind the politics of anger in the West. In any movement of epoch-making change, there are winners and losers. The losers feel people are not taking them seriously, and then there’s the rise of populism. Populism is the politics of the strong leader.
And then there is a third phenomenon, and one is loath to use the phrase, which is the sense of the decline of the West. You see that, in particular, in the fraying of families and communities, which leaves whole swaths of people without the traditional networks of support. You’re dealing with three big crises. When they come together, it’s the perfect storm.
Q: How does religion play into it?
A: In the Middle East and elsewhere, political protest is taking religious form. We haven’t seen that in the West since Martin Luther. The great rows in the 16th and 17th centuries were religious rows. The cliché is right: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The West has forgotten what religious revolution looks like. Religion isn’t something you do just in the home, or in a house of worship. You can sometimes take it to the street, and we’ve forgotten how dangerous that can be.
Q: You’re meeting with clergy this week. Is there any one message you want to convey to them?
A: Yes. We all have hard texts in our sacred scriptures that have been the source of estrangement, hatred, and violence. For the past few centuries, we haven’t worried about those texts because, for the past few centuries, no one has taken religion seriously outside the home and the house of worship. But now religion has become a factor in world politics. We have not yet cleared the mines from the minefields. There are hard texts in each tradition which we must confront and ask ourselves, ‘Can we reinterpret those texts to allow us to live peaceably, and respectfully, with people of other faiths?’ That is a job only Jews can do for Judaism, only Christians can do for Christianity, and only Muslims can do for Islam. But sometimes the sight of someone in one faith wrestling with that faith can empower you to wrestle with another faith.
For me, it was reading about how the Catholic Church wrestled with itself in the 1960s. Pope John XXIII set Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions) in motion. It changed the relationship between Jews and Catholics. Today, Jews and Catholics meet as friends. If you can do that, after the longest history of hatred the world has known, that empowers you as a Jew or a Muslim to wrestle with your faith.
Q: What role can interfaith dialogue take?
A: I distinguish between two kinds of interfaith engagement: what I call "face to face" and "side by side." Face to face is interfaith dialogue. As a religious leader, I encourage even more side by side. When you’ve got Jews and Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus removing graffiti from buildings, or getting drug dealers off the street, that’s side by side. When you do that, you take it from the very elevated level of interfaith dialogue to the street level of neighbors. You get them working side by side, and they become friends. Friendship sometimes counts for more than interfaith agreement or understanding. Friendship is deeply human. Let’s say there were, God forbid, riots in Birmingham. The fact that laypeople in that community are friends can stop that from happening very fast. Local friendships are very powerful.