The dignity of difference
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Date: October 2002


The Dignity of Difference

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"Stuffed full of startling insights, this is a book to read, reflect on, take issue with and, above all, discuss."

The Dignity of Difference
Jonathan Sacks
Continuum Books, £10.99

Reviewed by Christopher Nield


Post-September 11, religion has had a bad rep. Without God, the immortal soul and the rest, wouldn't the world be a much safer place? Not according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In 'The Dignity of Difference' he argues that neither fundamentalism nor relativism offer a solution to the clash of civilisations so vividly illustrated by the fall of the twin towers. We need to reclaim spiritual conviction back from the hijackers – but cherish the gift of human diversity. Our celebration as Jew, Christian or Muslim must learn to welcome the stranger.

Globalisation and tribalism, as Sacks sees it, go hand in hand. The more we're pushed together, the more we're pulled apart. The juggernaut of global sameness only breeds the violent desire to be different. McWorld or Jihad? He turns to the book of Genesis to find a biblical guide to this dilemma.

Genesis and globalisation
For Sacks, Genesis offers our first account of a global culture in the Tower of Babel. The original universal enterprise, in which everyone babbles the same language, it is 'the attempt to impose a man-made unity on divinely created diversity.' The template for all totalitarian regimes, from Plato's Republic to Stalinist Russia, its collapse is a call from God to remember the spiritual gift of difference.

Genesis thus progresses from the universal to the particular. The archetypal figures of Adam and Eve yield to the recognisably frail Abraham and Sarah. God makes an everlasting covenant with the whole of humanity after the flood - yet confusing our speech, expects us to find diverging paths to his presence. God is one, religions many.

Self-identity or self-interest?
Surprisingly, Sacks fails to mention the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Their destruction, however, forms a telling coda to God's dispensation of individuality. According to Ezekiel 16:49, God punishes the cities for their pride; they had 'excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not help the poor and needy.' (Think of today: obesity in the West; famine in southern Africa.)

Sodom's pleasure-seekers are, to pursue Sacks' interpretation of Genesis, the first to pervert God's gift of self-identity into venal self-interest. Abraham's covenant with God is, conversely, the foundation of a society that values the collective good.

Seven Cs to a global covenant
Sacks divides his book into seven simple moral principles necessary for this ancient dream of human solidarity to become a modern reality. The first is control - free will. When Peter Mandelson says: 'Globalisation punishes hard any country that tries to run its economy by ignoring the realities of the market,' we must remind him that markets were made to serve, not subjugate people.

Our own contribution to the economy through work is vital. But let's put morality back into me-me-me and money-making. At the moment, the market creates enormous wealth - for the wealthy. The richest 358 billionaires are together worth more than almost a half of the earth's inhabitants.

A capitalism of compassion would be founded on social justice. Crucial to this is education. Information technology is radically democratising access to knowledge. The creativity unleashed by this, and honed by the ethos of competition, needs to be balanced by co-operation. The ideal of covenantal relationships between countries is one of partnership, not dominance or submission.

Finally, conservation and conciliation are essential to save unborn generations from environmental devastation and war. Sacks tells a moving story of an Israeli mother who manages to forgive a Palestinian for shooting, and wounding, her husband.

In the beginning
Monotheism doesn't mean there's only one way to God, argues Sacks. Rather, it's the belief that the unity of God creates diversity. Bubble-wrapped in a gormless consumer culture punctured by religious extremism, we must defend the sanctity of human life and the freedoms of a just civilisation. Sacks says: 'The duty I owe my ancestors who died because of their faith is to build a world in which people no longer die because of their faith.'

This is a book to read, re-read, reflect on, take issue with and, above all, discuss. It's stuffed full of startling insights. Intellectually incisive, if occasionally glib, it doesn't pretend to be the final word, but the beginning of conversation. It's when the talking stops that the violence starts. Let's hope that the leaders of other faiths take heart - and more than a hint - from Sacks' spiritual maturity, humane perspective and sheer daring.

Interview with Jonathan Sacks