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Sacks examines ‘altruistic evil’ and oppression of the ‘Other’

Review by John Arkelian

When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps. … Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion,” writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.”

The poisonous persistence of man’s inhumanity to man is inextricably rooted in our propensity, eagerness even, to see the world in terms of “Us” and “Them,” he said. In his new book, Sacks examines “altruistic evil”: “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals,” which turns “ordinary people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren.” Hatred motivated by religion, he says, may be the most pernicious:  It encourages us to demonize the other and to do monstrous things in the name of the good.

A distinguished scholar, Sacks writes about the three great monotheistic religions that claim common lineage to Abraham.  It’s an apt canvas to reflect on the psychological and sociological origins of evil — and to propose “a theology of the Other,” which posits that violence done in the name of religion is sacrilege and that we are instead called upon by our Creator to love not just our neighbor but also the stranger.

“It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many respects your neighbor is like yourself,” Sacks says.  “He or she belongs to the same nation, the same culture, the same economy, the same political dispensation, the same fate of peace or war. … What is difficult is loving the stranger.”


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