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Religion doesn’t need, and should never seek, power

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As the ripples of the Pope’s visit to Britain subside, I’m left with a strong personal impression of its ecumenical and interfaith dimension. There was real warmth when we, leaders of Britain’s non Christian traditions, met the Pope on Friday, and I sensed a similar warmth in the Pope’s encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury. We seem to take that for granted. But it couldn’t have happened at any previous period in history. Just think for example of the wars fought between Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Something’s changed. What is it?

It would be nice to think that we all grew up and instead of hating each other started loving one another. But there is a tougher truth as well. The Pope referred to it in a lecture he gave while still Cardinal Ratzinger. He used a fascinating phrase. He called the Catholic church a creative minority. That must be one of the first times European Christianity has seen itself as a minority since the conversion of Emperor Constantine, almost seventeen hundred years ago. That one act, in the year 312, transformed Christianity from a small, often persecuted sect, into the religion of an imperial power.

Religion doesn’t need, and should never seek, power. The greatest single difference between the God of Abraham and the gods of all other ancient civilizations, Mesopotamia, Egypt of the Pharaohs, Assyria, Babylon, and the rest, is that elsewhere the gods were the underwriters, the legitimaters, of power.

The God of Abraham was the God of the powerless, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the weak, the poor, the enslaved. The greatest of all religious figures, the prophets, had the courage to speak truth to power. Power isn’t holy. Truth can’t be imposed by force. Only when religions acknowledge their powerlessness do they begin to transform the human situation through acts of generosity and love. Only when they stop competing for power and start thinking of themselves as creative minorities do they cease to be rivals and instead become friends.

Our living symbol of powerlessness as Jews is the festival that begins tonight, Sukkot, Tabernacles, when we leave the comfort and security of our homes, and for seven days eat in huts with only leaves for a roof, recalling the forty year journey of our ancestors in the desert. That annual experience of vulnerability never lets us forget what religion is about: Caring for the powerless, not the pursuit of power.