Posted by: gcarkner | October 17, 2017

Jonathan Sacks on Globalism and Religious Violence

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, philosopher, theologian, politician, one of the UK’s top public intellectuals, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth 1991-2013. Baron Sacks will be brought to us by video.

The Dignity of Difference: the Critical Moral Contribution of Religion in our Globalized World

Wednesday, October 25 @ 4:00 p.m. Chemistry D200, 2036 Main Mall, UBC

Online Location:


Dr. Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus Geography, UBC; Dr. Jason Byassee, Professor of Hermeneutics and Homiletics, Vancouver School of Theology.


From Dialectic to Dialogue, Conflict to Collaboration, Alienation to Engagement


Jonathan Sacks affirms that religion is indeed part of human controversy today, but he wants to emphasize that it most certainly can and should be a big part of the solution to contemporary tensions and conflicts. Especially true for him, the morality carried by religious traditions has a vital contribution with respect to the powerful forces of globalization in late capitalism. He wants us to celebrate the differences among religious traditions and use them to preserve and enlarge, not stunt, our humanity. Sacks, a man of conservative temperament, following a very orthodox version of Judaism, is a large-hearted person who has come to respect the different ways humans have expressed their search for meaning and identity. The liberating thing about this lecture, also a theme in two key books (The Dignity of Difference, and Not in God’s Name), is that he uses it to open the wisdom of the Hebrew tradition, especially the Genesis narrative. He does this because he believes it will help us find a way to heal the troubles that beset us, including terrible violence and injustice. The astonishing thing about this achievement is that his application of the Hebrew religious genius to the human condition works, whether you believe in God or not. He posits a world where all can participate on a level economic playing field, and where there can be respect for the Other. Judaism has always had a healthy attitude towards the world, it has always sought moderation in its adherents and a strong sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate. It is for this reason that Rabbi Sacks’ analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the global market economy is so compelling and hopeful. He attends to important nuances of the human condition and the variety of our motives. His genius involves a re-thinking of the narrative of the relationships between the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This posture resonates with people concerned to pursue peace and the global common good, heal fragmented relationships and end violence.

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Available for $20 from Gordon


An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world. Since stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – a position he served for 22 years between 1991 and 2013 – Rabbi Sacks has held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University and King’s College London. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Rabbi Sacks has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.

Much has been said and written in recent years about the connection between religion and violence. Three answers have emerged. The first: Religion is the major source of violence. Therefore, if we seek a more peaceful world we should abolish religion. The second: Religion is not a source of violence. People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’. Religion has nothing to do with it. It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight. The third answer is: Their religion, yes; our religion, no. We are for peace. They are for war. ~Jonathan Sacks

Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind. ~Jonathan Sacks

A humanitarian as opposed to a group ethic requires the most difficult of all imaginative exercises: role reversal – putting yourself in the place of those you despise, or pity, or simply do not understand. ~Jonathan Sacks

Responses to the Video  Dr. Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus, UBC Geography, and Dr. Jason Byassee, from Vancouver School of Theology, will respond to the lecture and take questions.

Olav Slaymaker, PhD Cambridge University, Professor Emeritus, Geography, UBC

Education: University of Cambridge, King’s College, BA Honours, Geography; Harvard University, AM, Geology; University of Cambridge, 1968, PhD, Geomorphology; 1968-2004: Assistant, Associate and Full Professor, Geography, UBC; 2004-Present: Professor Emeritus, Geography, UBC

The focus of Olav’s teaching and research has been on understanding landscape science and, particularly, on water and sediment budgets as fundamental geomorphological knowledge. His regional focus has been on mountain environments, especially in British Columbia, Scandinavia, the Austrian Alps, Japan, Ethiopia and Taiwan. His wider interest extends to global physical geography and to stewardship of mountain regions. In recent years, he has broadened his interests further to embrace the meta-problems of global environmental change and environmental sustainability. He has served the International Geographical Union as Chair and member of several Commissions and as a coopted member of its Executive Committee; he was Head of Geography (1982-1991) and an Executive Committee member of the International Association of Geomorphologists from 1989-2001 (President, 1997-2001). He was President of the Canadian Association of Geographers (1991-1992) and Associate Vice-President of UBC (1991-1995). In the wider world, he was Governor of the International Development Research Centre, a major Canadian initiative to build capacity for sustainability in less developed countries (1994-2002). Since his retirement in 2004 he has been Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna. Honours: Member of the Order of Canada; Foreign Member of the Norwegian Academy of Science; DSc honoris causa, University of Wales.

                                                           EMBRACING DIVERSITY

                               The Dignity of Difference: the Intrinsic Value of Diversity in the Light of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Call for Monotheists to Claim their Common Heritage

I have three quick points for commentary:

  1. What is the dignity of difference?
  2. Is there some intrinsic value in diversity?
  3. What does the Bible according to Sacks say about diversity?
  4. What is the dignity of difference?

The expression “Dignity of Difference” was coined by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in describing the glory of the created world in its astonishing multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit in most of which the voice of wisdom can be heard. The world is not a single machine but it is more like a complex interactive ecology in which diversity is of the essence. At the very least, that realization should make us better listeners. No civilization has the right to impose itself on others by force. This is why God asks us to respect the freedom and dignity of those who are not like us. “Do not oppress a stranger for you know what it feels like to be a stranger, for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23, v.9)


  1. Engaging the discussion: is there some intrinsic value in diversity?

In contemporary Canada there is a strong emphasis on embracing diversity, with the underlying assumption that diversity is a good thing. Intrinsic value of diversity can be argued from geodiversity, biodiversity and cultural/religious diversity, but a separate lecture would be required to do these ideas justice. The worlds of inorganic objects (GEODIVERSITY), of living organisms (BIODIVERSITY) and human traditions (CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY) exemplify the value of diversity by underlining concepts such as complexity, keystone species and resilience that relate to the sustainability of the human species. Cultural and religious diversity gives colour and a sense of security to people whereas globalization flattens the globe and leads to alienation. Cultural and religious diversity is often overwhelmed by the global market. Nevertheless, cultural and religious diversity reflects biodiversity and geodiversity and is important to preserve for its own sake because it is a part of God’s creative work..

It is undoubtedly true that the immense power of globalization has positive  aspects, including notably the defeat of fascism and communism and globalization is also thought to be a good thing as it enables a sense of the global community. On the face of it, the global and the national priorities cannot be resolved and lie at the root of many civil unrests and protests surrounding, for example, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs.

Books of substance have been written on this topic but relatively little to my knowledge has been written by the religious community


  1. What does the Bible have to say about the national versus the global according to Sacks?

In my view, though I am open to correction, Rabbi Sacks is the first heavy weight religious person to take aim at the end of history (Fukuyama, 1992) and end of geography (Friedman, 2005) arguments. Significantly, he points out that in each case, God is left out of the discussion. He proposes that Judaism uniquely among the monotheisms has seriously grappled with the tension between the global and the national.  Specifically, he directs attention to the first eleven chapters of Genesis as a trial run for globalism that failed. The rest of Genesis emphasizes family, tribe and nation (Genesis 15). Judaism, he says, is strictly national. It is an explicitly Judaic interpretation of diversity that, he says, has relevance to humanity, secular or religious and creates a new paradigm of mutual acceptance instead of factionalism. He argues from Genesis that God has created difference, through the creation of many cultures, the diversity of faiths and individual civilizations, all with only one place to live, our blue planet Earth. Can we make space for difference? There need to be two theologies Sacks argues: a theology of commonality and a theology of difference (p.21 of the Dignity of Difference) and that is exactly what Judaism has done by contrast with Islam and Christianity. “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians and Islam to Muslims – no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth. “The God of Abraham is the God of all mankind but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all mankind” (p.53).  He also suggests that Christianity and Islam have failed to resolve this tension because of their emphasis on globalism and their disrespect for difference. But the thoughtful reader will ask whether the details of Sacks’ argument can ever sit comfortably with the reality of God’s activity in the unique history of Judaism and the reality of the incarnation.

Rabbi Sacks proceeds to recommend a deeper exegesis of the book of Genesis, a book that is common to all three monotheisms. His argument, that difference is always good, is endorsed by the uniqueness of the history of Judaism.  He asks why our common book (Genesis) emphasizes story-telling and not philosophy (in the way that classical Western thinking has evolved)? The central point of his discussion is that we have all misread the book of Genesis by focusing on superficial exegesis. Sacks recommends reading Genesis at five levels. This is a more intricate argument that looks at the stories of the main characters from five vantage points:

  • Superficial reading: primogeniture overturned: Ishmael and Esau deprived of birthrights: this is the standard reading
  • From the vantage point of fathers: Abraham loved Ishmael and Isaac loved Esau
  • Where are your sympathies drawn? Hagar and Ishmael; Isaac and Esau.
  • What is the final scene in each story? Isaac and Ishmael standing side by side at their Dad’s funeral; Jacob and Esau reconciled; Joseph and his brothers reconciled
  • How do Jews read? How do Christians read? How do Muslims read?


The sustainability of humanity probably depends on the understanding of difference through compassion, conservation, resilience and eventual reconciliation. We could think of these as being keystone principles without which humanity is unlikely to survive.  Systemic discrimination has arisen through undue emphasis on the differences between monotheisms. The recommendation to read more carefully and at many levels of interpretation to discover the commonalities in monotheism’s traditions is a profound and hope-filled theme. The call for a conversation that recognizes the common heritage of Judaism, Islam and Christianity is timely and well made. Apart from the obvious and central difficulty around the fact of the Incarnation, much wisdom could be gained from reading our common book (in this case specifically Genesis) together. At the very least, such a proposal would inform monotheists of the importance of hermeneutics and potentially reduce violence between religious fundamentalists.


Olav Slaymaker’s presentation at the Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum on Wednesday, October 25, 2017.



Jason Byassee is the inaugural holder of the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology. His primary vocation is to reinvigorate today’s church with the best of ancient and contemporary wisdom for creatively faithful living. He was previously senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, North Carolina. There he directed eight other pastoral staff members and pastored a congregation of 1500 from five worshiping communities.

He studied at Davidson College and Duke University, where he earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology in 2005. He is also a contributing editor to Christian Century magazine, where he served as an assistant editor from 2004-2008. He is a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. He has served previously as a Research Fellow in the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author or editor of nine books, most recently Trinity: The God We Don’t Know (Abingdon, 2015). He is at work co-editing or co-authoring books on clergy health in North Carolina, mentoring as a Christian practice, and growing United Methodist church plants. Future solo volumes include a commentary on the last third of the Psalter and a book on reading the bible with the church fathers. His work has also appeared in Christianity Today, Theology Today, Books & Culture, Sojourners, and First Things.

At Vancouver School of Theology he teaches subjects as various as preaching, biblical interpretation, leadership, church history, and writing. He has previously taught as an adjunct at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Northern Seminary, and Wheaton College.

See also the dialogue between Jonathan Sacks and Charles Taylor on  the Future of Religion

Other Top Social Justice Writers/Advocates from a Faith Position

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace.

Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good.

Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

Abraham Heschel, The Prophets.

Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom.

Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution.

Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency.

Gordon Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism

Miraslov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace; Flourishing: why we need religion in a globalized world.

Rowan Williams, The Truce of God.

Check out great selections at Regent Bookstore

Miraslov Volf & Jonathan Sacks


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