Recently a few of us from Devon United Church gathered over a couple of weeks to talk about this very question. To aid us in this discussion we watched three different TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks. Each speaker has a grounding in
a different world religion and vastly differing life experience yet express strikingly
parallel, hopeful messages for our day. One of those was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
The very name Rabbi Lord suggests something about the next speaker we heard. The “Lord” part reflects how Jonathan Sacks has been given an honor reserved for British citizens for a life time of important, constructive lifetime contributions. He was, indeed, born in London shortly after World War Two and as the first part reveals, he has spent much of his life as a Jewish teacher and leader. From 1991 to 2013, he was Chief Rabbi of England and the Commonwealth for a coalition of different Jewish “denominations.”
In his TED talk, Rabbi Lord Sacks observes how our day and age is characterized by growing anxiety, certainty and fear that leads to increasing political and religious extremism. Underlying the mood of our time, Sacks notes that the objects of worship that shaped the twentieth century included nationalism, racial superiority, economic and political systems. Today, he suggests, the object of worship has increasingly become the “self.” Self help, self realization, self esteem have such a high profile that the most important religious ritual of our time has become the “selfie.”
This religion of the self is furthered by the so-called “social” media which, contrary to bringing people together are instead isolating us. This isolation makes us vulnerable to those offering apparently easy, ultimately destructive “answers” to our concerns for ourselves. Instead, Sacks proposes that “self” be replaced by an increasing emphasis on “us” with three different dimensions: relationship, identity and responsibility.
With the “us of relationship” Sacks suggests that we resist the self-feeding trend to be in communication and relationship with only those who think and act exactly like us. Developing a relationship with those whom we believe to be not like us helps us discover that they are, in fact, like us. This type of relationship building is best (and perhaps only) done personally and face to face.
To introduce the “us of identity” Sacks recalls the power of the very beginning of the American Declaration of Independence which begins with, “We the people” . This powerful story of the shared work of different people from different places for and with each other for the sake of all, which became the United States. Many western countries came to define themselves by these same values. That “we” are called to work together, challenging though it is, has been lost and needs to be rekindled.
Finally, in having entered into relationship with others and having an identity that works for the shared good of all as the center of who we are, we are able to take on the next practical step of the “us of responsibility.” That is, we are not to turn to or fall for anyone who promises easy answers to complex issues that help some to the detriment of others.
Sacks summarizes that we are truly strong when we care for the weak, truly rich when we care for the poor and truly invulnerable when we care the vulnerable. This can only be done if in our minds and hearts we “search and replace” the term “self” with “other” so that self-help becomes other-help and self-esteem becomes other-esteem.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks quotes Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” He concludes by saying, “We can face any future without fear as long as we know we will not face it alone.”
- Rev. Dirk
Next time: How to make a practical difference in our world based on our Christian faith.