The Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid The Clash of Civilizations

 

by Jonathan Sacks
(New York: Continuum, 2002 with four reprints; ISBN 0 8264 6850 0)

 

If you are concerned about the world, and wonder if there is any hope for the crises and complexities of our times, and if you care about faith and relationships around the globe, this is a book for you.

The year: 2020. Jonathan Sacks, philosopher and theologian, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (UK), paints two different pictures of how the world could be.

In one wonderful vision, the year 2020 brings the dawning of "a world of global prosperity and peace." Information technology and high-speed communication have doubled real incomes in the space of 20 years. The dangers of overpopulation have been removed. Genetically modified crops have made starvation a thing of the past. The latest in education curricula reach the most remote African villages via the Internet. Low-cost medical treatments have brought AIDS, TB and malaria under control. International agreements have put an end to the injustices and tensions, the inequity and exploitation that characterized the first years of the 21st century.

by Jonathan Sacks
(New York: Continuum, 2002 with four reprints; ISBN 0 8264 6850 0)

 

If you are concerned about the world, and wonder if there is any hope for the crises and complexities of our times, and if you care about faith and relationships around the globe, this is a book for you.

The year: 2020. Jonathan Sacks, philosopher and theologian, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (UK), paints two different pictures of how the world could be.

In one wonderful vision, the year 2020 brings the dawning of “a world of global prosperity and peace.” Information technology and high-speed communication have doubled real incomes in the space of 20 years. The dangers of overpopulation have been removed. Genetically modified crops have made starvation a thing of the past. The latest in education curricula reach the most remote African villages via the Internet. Low-cost medical treatments have brought AIDS, TB and malaria under control. International agreements have put an end to the injustices and tensions, the inequity and exploitation that characterized the first years of the 21st century.

And then there is another, frightening vision that could emerge by 2020: ” … the world has just been rocked by the latest terrorist attack on New York. A so-called ‘dirty bomb’ has spread nuclear waste over a wide area centered on Manhattan. … in a coordinated attack on the subway systems of London, Paris, Munich and Rome, canisters containing deadly chemicals have been released in crowded stations. … The global economy is in a state of collapse; unemployment is at a record high. Throughout the West, city centers have become ‘no-go zones’ with vagabond populations of drug addicts, the homeless and violent.” Freak weather kills thousands — the result of global warming. Pollution is unimaginable. It is a depiction of the world “in the midst of a new dark age.” (p. 24)

With these two possible worlds hanging in the balance, Sacks makes a passionate plea that humanity, and the religious community in particular, get serious about current problems and crises so that we can avoid “the new dark age.” In our interconnected world, the author argues, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference. With amazing data and quotes from economists, educators, social scientists, and scholars around the globe, with engaging insights from the biblical story, Sacks appeals to the very best within humanity to strive for a world of prosperity and peace. It all depends on how different faiths and cultures make space for ‘the other’ — the one different from us. He writes with a clarity and conviction that inspires. Each chapter addresses a major problem and how we, especially the descendents of Abraham and Sarah, might work for a better world.

Sacks sees “resurgent tribalism” as the “great danger of our fragmenting world.” There is the pervasive sense that those who do not share my faith – or my race or ideology – do not share my humanity; and this has long been the source of violence and destruction across the centuries. Unless we work “for a major paradigm shift in our understanding of our commonalities and differences,” we are in for a dark future.

Sacks speaks about the market economy and the need for responsibility: “our aim must be nothing less than an economic system that maximizes human dignity” (p.86); “Americans spend more on cosmetics, and Europeans on ice cream, than it would cost to provide schooling and sanitation for the two billion people who currently go without both” (p.106). He speaks about the central insight of “monotheism — that if God is the parent of humanity, then we are all members of a single extended family, which has become more real in its implications than ever before” (p. 112). Sacks appeals for more conversations within the human family. He advocates for cooperation and compassion. Sacks speaks consistently about respect, relationships, responsibility, and reverence — which are all prominent components in the great faiths. And Sacks’ enduring point is that our faith, and our connection to God and to one another, can inspire a collective vision that will build bridges, strengthen community, increase care, bring virtue and promote peace, even when so much of the world’s energy is devoted to profits, power, and personal gain.

Many of us, pastors and parishioners alike, despair about the complexities and crises of the world in these days. Are we doomed to ‘a new dark age’? But if we pay attention to his powerful words we may all find new ways toward peace and prosperity. And Sacks’ descriptions and prescriptions might not only apply to the world, but to our PC(USA) and even to our local churches. Respect and cooperation, reverence and the emphasis on relationships, responsibility and compassion will make space for dignity and difference, and just might renew all and bring glory to God. It is nothing short of a major paradigm shift, but it is one that just might give hope to our whole, hurting world.

ALEX EVANS is pastor of Blacksburg Church, Blacksburg, Va.

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