British Religious leaders of every stripe have weighed in on the devastation caused by London rioting. Some, like Rabbi Anna Gerrard of the United Kingdom’s Liberal Jewish movement, took a moment to offer words of comfort. Others, like the Church of England, provided liturgical supplements praying for a stop to the violence.
In the case of Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi to most of the UK’s Orthodox Jewish population, it was an opportunity to remind everyone that perhaps this could all have been avoided. It is time, Sacks proclaimed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, to realign with our world’s faith traditions and let them show us the way to civility. Because, after all, religion and violence are as far apart as the east is from the west.
Sacks writes, “In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came: whatever works for you.” Following this logic, Sacks touches on everything from single parent households to the reimagining of the Ten Commandments as the “Ten Creative Suggestions.” The problem, he concludes, is that we as a people need the ethics and community provided by our great religious institutions.
What’s so distinctly amusing about Sacks’ argument is that it comes on the heels of news about violent Orthodox protests in Israel. Given the tensions between the various faith communities worldwide, and the violence that springs from them, it would be just as easy to argue against religious belief. Even Sacks’ argument that traditional religion has pragmatic usefulness is a modern one.
For centuries, belief in Torah or Quran or the New Testament wasn’t about being pro-social or useful to a wider community—it was about tribalism and obedience. It hinged on the belief that observance was an end in itself. That traditional faith leaders must appeal to a wider social context is evidence aplenty that modernity has also colored them as much as it has seculars. To dismiss the complexity of subsequent modern periods—like the 60s—with off-handed references to free love and the Beatles is laziness.
Modern violence won’t be quelled by forgetting the last 75 years ever happened. And given Sacks’ own struggle to reconcile tensions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox segments of the U.K. Jewish community, pretending that those of us who are religiously observant are more amiable than our counterparts is a condescending fantasy.
People are people, and religion is a medium for expressing the human experience. That the last century has seen both an influx of fundamentalism and a widening disillusionment with religious practice is a testament to the complex issues at the heart of being a religious person in the modern age. Sacks ignores the issues and parlays them into a weak lecture about how this all could be prevented with a little more religion. Swing and a miss.
John Wofford is a junior at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the current editor of an upcoming interfaith arts hub, a Neo-Hasidic nerd and music journalist of five years. His column, The Godblogger, appears here on alternating Thursdays.