The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

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Topics: Social & Environmental Ministry. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

  1. Review

    This remarkable book is a bold theological statement that could set the 21st century agenda of the religious communities throughout the world. The author is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth, who holds visiting professorships at Kings College, London and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

    The primary challenge which the world faces in the 21st century is globalization, "the inter connectedness of the world through new systems of communication," which is one of the great transformation in the history of the world. The author writes, "On the one hand, globalization is bringing us closer together than ever before, interweaving our lives, nationally and internationally, in complex and inextricable ways. On the other hand, a new tribalism – a regression to older and more fractious loyalties – is driving us ever more angrily apart."

    The process of globalization has resulted in a rise of living standards and greater freedom for many nations and people. But it has also resulted in greater inequalities within and between countries. The effect, Sacks points out, is that globalization is "profoundly destabilizing" to economies, governments, religious and educational institutions, families and individuals. All of these areas have an inescapable moral dimension, which points to the responsibility of the world’s religious communities to engage the issues of war and peace, poverty, hunger, disease, oppression and lack of freedom. Sacks writes of the urgency, "I believe that globalization is summoning the world’s great faiths to a supreme challenge, one that we have been able to avoid in the past but can do so no longer."

    If the world’s faith communities are to respond to the challenge, they must deal creatively with their own differences. Usually, when religions are in conversation with each other, the task is to recognize differences, find some common ground, and plead for tolerance of one another. But Sacks proposes a different "model and metaphor" which he calls the "dignity of difference." He points to the need for adherents of religions to recognize, appreciate, cherish and celebrate our differences.

    Using the first twelve chapters of the Book of Genesis as his biblical base, Sacks argues that "Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore "one faith, one truth, one way of life." This interpretation of monotheism is the foundation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism which leads to the attempt to impose a single truth on the whole world which often results in tragedy. On the contrary, the truth of monotheism, as understood by Judaism, is that God is One but created diversity. Sacks writes, "that the truth at the beating heart of monotheism is that God is greater than religion." God is the God of all humanity in all its diversity and is only partially comprehended by any faith. There is "the dignity of difference." He also is emphatic that the Biblical witness is that since God creates difference, therefore "it is in-one-who-is-different that we meet God."

    Sacks offers seven moral principles, devoting a chapter to each, which can provide us with a vision for living with the uncertainties and insecurities of globalization, and give us "compass bearings" which we can use to judge whether or not we are moving in the right direction. (1) We must recognize that economic and political development is in our hands and take responsibility for shaping the future. (2) It is important to recognize that there are moral dimensions to economics (3) The idea of compassion can provide a "broad moral template for what constitutes a fair and decent world." (4) Universal education is an imperative if people are to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by globalization. (5) We must recognize that economic markets must be seen in the context of society and its institutions, as means not ends. (6) Conservation for environmental sustainability, "reminds us of our duties to nature and the future." (7) We can change the world only if we choose to approach the future with the word of forgiveness, which is the "ability to live with the past without being captive by the past."

    Sacks concludes with "A Covenant of Hope." He believes that "the opportunities posed by global capitalism and the power of technology are vast and potentially benign." However, the opportunities are accompanied with immense risks, posed by the concentration of wealth, our habits of consumption, the despoliation of the environment, and the rise of envy, anger, and violence at perceived injustice. He also reminds us that the "world faiths embody truths unavailable to economics and politics, and they remain salient when everything else changes." He writes, "They remind us that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless."

    What adherents of the faith communities of the world need is a "covenant of hope." Sacks defines a covenant as a relationship of two individuals or groups, "each acknowledging the integrity and sovereignty of the other, and pledging themselves in mutual loyalty to achieve together what neither can achieve alone." He makes a distinction between optimism, which is the belief that "things will get better" and hope, which is the "faith that together, we can make things better."

    He states that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam bound by a covenant of hope, are "summoned by God to do His work of love and justice and compassion and peace." That covenant of hope is "the faith of Abraham and Sarah, from whom the great faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, trace their spiritual or actual ancestry."

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