At the National Prayer Breakfast
On Religious Violence
In February 2017, Rabbi Sacks delivered two keynote addresses as part of The National Prayer Breakfast gathering in Washington D.C. The gathering included representatives from all faiths, and from across America and over 100 other countries.
This keynote address, his second speech of the event, focused on Rabbi Sacks’ latest book, Not in God’s Name, and examined at how we can confront the phenomenon of religious violence and what it means for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to recognise that we are all children of Abraham. Go to the second speech, on Religious Violence.
Bob, thank you so much. Friends, Bob has sent me a very simple challenge, which is, “Could I please summarise Not in God’s Name in not more than seven minutes?”
I really thank you, Bob, because I’ve waited for this moment all my life. It is what allows me to tell the famous story about George Bernard Shaw, who was asked to give a lecture on English Literature. He asked the organiser, “How long do I have?” The organiser replied, “Seven minutes.” George Bernard Shaw said, “How am I supposed to say everything I know about English literature in seven minutes?” And the man replied, “Speak very slowly.”
So speaking very slowly, here is why I wrote Not in God’s Name, in religious protest against religious violence. The reason is very personal. People have often asked me, did I ever have a crisis of faith? And the answer is yes, often. When I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a million and a quarter people, one quarter of a million of them children, were gassed, burned, and turned to ash. When we learned about the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica. When we have witnessed the persecution of Christians in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. When we saw Rwanda, when we saw Darfur. Many times, I almost lost my faith. But the faith I almost lost wasn’t faith in God. It was faith in man. That is the faith I had shaken.
If you look through the pages of history, and you look at the news in the 21st century, you will see the unbelievable happening day after day after day. People hating in the name of the God of love. Killing in the name of the God of life. Practising cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. And waging war, in the name of the God of peace.
Friends, it is human beings doing that. It is not God. It took human beings to take something holy and turn it into something profane. When we do evil in the name of God, that is not sanctifying the name of God, it is desecrating the name of God.
And that is why, in Not in God’s Name, I’ve tried to do three simple things. Trace the connexion between religion and violence, then between monotheism and violence, and lastly, and most troublingly, the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to violence. And it is this third thing that bothers me most. Because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religions of love and compassion and justice and mercy. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, gave the world some of the most powerful, surprising, and counterintuitive truths human beings have ever learned. That what makes a nation strong is how it cares for the weak. That what makes a nation rich is how it cares for the poor. That what makes a nation invulnerable is how it cares for the vulnerable.
So how did we ever get to this place? Of Christians persecuted in the Middle East. Of Muslims dying in the thousands and hundreds of thousands. And other Muslims living in fear. And how did we ever get, for Jews, the return of antisemitism to Europe, within living memory of the Holocaust. Don’t blame God for this. This is us. And therefore, we have reached the stage in history, about which Jonathon Swift once memorably said, “We have just enough faith to make us hate one another, and not enough faith to make us love one another.”
Friends, I want to give my simple and dramatic answer to this. It comes from the greatest Jew who ever lived, Moses. I love Moses. Because we have one thing in common. You see, if you look to the Book of Exodus, you remember, as a young man, he goes out and he sees his people enslaved and persecuted by the Egyptians. He intervenes to save an Israelite from an Egyptian task-master. The next day, he goes and stops two Jews quarrelling, and they turn to him, and said, “Who appointed you as the leader of the Jewish people?” He hadn’t even thought of being a leader, and already, they were criticising his leadership. Something that happened ever since. We say, the Lord is my shepherd, but no Jew was ever a sheep.
What Moses said is, at the end of his life – Listen to this – You’ll find it in the seventh verse of chapter 23 of Deuteronomy. He is 120 years old. He’s about to die. He’s speaking to the next generation. They’re gonna cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. And this is what he says to them, “Don’t hate an Egyptian, for you are strangers in his land.”
Go figure. There were strangers in their land. Did they put them up in the Cairo Hilton? For Heaven’s sake, they persecuted Jews. They enslaved them. They were being killed, every male child. So why did Moses say, “Don’t hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land?” And the answer is so deep. Because if they had continued to hate the Egyptians, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would’ve failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still be slaves, if not in body, then in mind. They would be slaves to the resentments of the past.
And listen to the consequence of that. In one sentence, that can change the world. What Moses was saying is: If you want to go free, you have to let go of hate. Otherwise you cannot be free.
Friends, the problems of the world are real. There’s poverty, there is disease, there is oppression, there is injustice. But we will not solve those problems by hating one another. They will not be solved by war, or violence, or terror, or anger, or intimidation.
Today, the world is awash with hate more so than any time in my lifetime. And if religion is part of the problem, for Heaven’s sake, let religion be part of the solution. Let every religion and every religious leader get up and say, “We need to teach the children of the world not to hate the people with whom they will one day have to live.” I tell you, all the problems in the world could be solved if enough of us said, to those with whom we disagree, “Yesterday we were enemies, today, let us be friends, because even if we don’t agree, even if we don’t like each other very much, there are problems that none of us can solve on our own, but we can solve them together.”
Let us do just that. Let us teach all of us to work together to solve the problems of the world. For the sake of our children, for the sake of our future, and for the sake of God.
You can also watch (or read a transcript of) the first speech, which focused on the concept of the dignity of difference and how we, as people of all faiths and of none, can come together to recognise that our common humanity precedes our religious differences.