Has a “supreme power” ever intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless?

Jonathan Sachs in his new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, says that the single God of Abraham did just that, and as much as he may be right about the coming of a single God to the Jews in the time of Abraham, he is not right that this God’s coming, assuming it did happen, meant the liberation of the powerless.

In fact we would ask have the powerless ever been liberated? From my minimal knowledge of man’s history I would say no, with the possible exception in modern times, in particular our own time, with the advent of science. For science, and its first born, technology, much more than any single God, has liberated, and continues to liberate, hundreds of millions of the powerless. For science by its gift to us of knowledge of our world and a resulting material plenty has permitted large numbers of us to multiply, grow, and prosper.

Sachs attributes to the coming Abrahamic monotheism the traits that most of all make us human, traits or beliefs such as, —all lives are sacred, —murder is not only a crime but a sin, —we are or will be judged by the way we treat our weakest and most vulnerable members, —and we are, or ought to be joined to one another by a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. In other words the very best of our human qualities, our humanity if you will, are not of our own making but come to us from the acceptance into our lives of the God of Abraham.

And here is Sach’s description of the coming of the single God of Abraham: “Though in its early books the Hebrew Bible commanded war, within centuries its prophets, Isaiah and Micah, became the first voices to speak of peace as an ideal. A day would come, they said, when the peoples of the earth would turn their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and wage war no more…. Abrahamic monotheism entered the world as a rejection of imperialism and the use of force to make some men masters and others slaves. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies.”

And he continues, “though Abraham may have lived differently from his neighbour, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God – ‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18: 25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of the Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world.”

But this is a single moment in time, the coming of the single God of Abraham. Whether of not it was true that monotheism meant huge changes in how we lived with, how we treated our fellows, whether it did mean a huge growth in our humanity, it was still only a single moment.

And subsequent history has shown over and over again that man was not changed in any lasting or permanent way by the coming of Abraham’s God. Not even are the Jewish inhabitants of present day Israel, the direct descendants of Abraham, changed, who while perhaps true to their own faith, certainly do not try to be “a blessing to others regardless of their faith.” (And in that sense the present day rulers of Israel are not true to their own faith.)

Now the interesting question for me is from whence comes the new man of Abraham’s God, the man who would now judge society by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members? Because, in as much as there is historical evidence in support of my own conclusion, the best of men have always believed this. For the idea is there and well established that both individuals and societies, not to mention nations and empires, should be judged by the way they treat their weakest and most vulnerable members.

How do I know this? Because this characteristic is an inherent virtue, something within me, not something that I was, or as Plato tells us, could have been taught. And in fact, in many of us it may or may not even be there. For as any reading of history will tell us it’s only apparent, visible in some of us, not all of us. And when we speak of progress it’s most of all this that we mean, that more of us now believe just how important it is that we treat the weakest and most vulnerable members much as we treat our own children, brothers, and loved ones. That we not profit from their powerlessness.

Apparently  (for I haven’t yet read the whole book), apparently Sachs and all those on the side of religion would attribute the very best that is within us, our virtues (our courage, compassion, and all the rest) to an external source, to, for example, the Abrahamic monotheism of Jonathan Sachs. But this attribution is without proof, purely arbitrary.

Indeed, the Old Testament itself recounts innumerable atrocities and horrors brought about by just one God. And in regard to our humanity (let alone for now our lack of humanity), there are any number of more convincing explanations. One might be global warming, bringing abundance, or enough food for everyone. Another might be global cooling, the next ice age long awaited, bringing the need for us to work together, to join with one another by “a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love,” if we would survive.


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