Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Understanding our deep political differencesUnderstanding our deep political differences

Understanding our deep political differences

Peter Stockland
3 minute read
To find out more about Cardus’ event with Lord Jonathan Rabbi Sacks and to purchase tickets, please visit: Eventbrite.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks roots today’s religious violence in the soil of very old heresies. By doing so, he also gives us fresh understanding of the spiritual sources of our deep political divides. Rabbi Sacks, who will deliver Cardus’ Hill Family Lecture in Toronto on Tuesday, contends in his latest book that contemporary murder and persecution in God’s name arises in large part from distortion of the true religious sense. Such confounding grows from the evolutionary need for Homo sapiens to go beyond the search for meaning and draw bright lines between perfect “us” and irredeemable “them.” Theologically, he writes in Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, the drive humans feel to re-order creation finds expression in heresies such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, which split early Christianity by dividing all things into unbridgeable spheres of good and evil, light and dark, pure and impure, in and out. All things in this dualistic structure, Rabbi Sacks notes, include God, who is held apart from the world of human existence and is accessible “only if we have the knowledge, the gnosis, the secret key that unlocks the door.” Projected globally – and cosmically – dualism becomes, in Rabbi Sacks’ word, pathological. It justifies elitism and insularity, yes, but much worse scapegoating and vilification, and the most brutal violence against those deemed outside the circle. Sacks is careful to point out that heresies such as Manichaeism and Gnosticism per se are not pathological dualisms. Both are about God, or at least gods, not the mere earthly order. “But,” he writes, “it is not difficult to see how the one could lead to the other because our views of the natural are shaped by our ideas of the supernatural.” There follows in Not In God’s Name frightful historical examples of human beings deforming not only religious dogma but also our natural religiosity in order to satisfy our craving for belonging and our addiction to ostracism. With his words in mind, if we open our eyes, we can see around us the living out of this human impulse to project images of pure perfection, and then ascribe such perfection to the particulars that we love. If it’s abundant in our spiritual lives, it seems indistinguishable from our political responses. Of course politics, by definition, requires choosing. Choosing necessarily involves excluding. But we have gone much further. We have aligned ourselves into a binary politics so intractably purist, so detached from the reality of all things containing something of everything, that it would make the most hidebound Manichaean heretic hold up a cautionary hand and say: “Hold on. Nothing is that black and white.” Engage in almost any political discussion on current issues and Nuance, sitting in the corner having a quiet drink, quickly slips out the door and walks the streets wondering why no one cares for it anymore. For Canadians, this is particularly anomalous since our Westminster parliamentary system is built on containing the contradiction of a loyal Opposition. We habitually forget or ignore the importance of such a tradition. Yet it is a brilliant example in human history of the whole containing contending parts without the need to negate, exclude, reject or punish. We have politicians, as part of our governing structure, whose very purpose is to oppose without being deemed disloyal to the Sovereign who, in turn, comprises all gradients of peaceful opinion with preference for none. If such an institution seems impossibly archaic in this political season of the “Trumpeteer” to our south, it may have to do with our own Manichaean reflexes to look down our snoots at the perceived impurities of our neighbors. In a wonderful recent piece in The Guardian, Thomas Frank unpacks Donald Trump as a mystifying amalgam of conservative businessman, right-wing nativist, and left-wing foe of job-destroying, community eviscerating neo-liberal trade pacts. Frank holds no quarter with Trump’s boorish race baiting. Yet he quotes approving union leaders whose constituencies care not one whit about white supremacist fantasies: they want policies to help working class Americans recover from the devastation of 30 years of neo-liberalism. The “executive” and “creative” classes have ignored such suffering for far too long, Frank says, and Trump is the response that scares the pants off them. “We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for (Trump’s) emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiralling lives,” he writes. “So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.” What he’s pinpointing, of course, is the first heresy at the heart of those Rabbi Sacks identifies. Its credo is “I’m all right, Jack; you’re on your own.” Experts have dated it at least as far back as Cain.

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