Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained the rise of religious conflict and what can be done to stop it as part of the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Series.

The audience filled the commons of the Sanford School of Public Policy, with overflow seating spilling onto the second and third floors of the building. President Richard Brodhead introduced Sacks by recalling Sacks' last visit to campus ten years ago—on the heels of the Duke lacrosse scandal. The last time Sacks visited Duke, his speech focused on the role of interfaith dialogue and empathy in preventing unnecessary terrorist conflict. 

“The early months of the year 2007 were a time when this campus was engulfed in an athletics-related controversy that had gasoline poured on it by a reckless district attorney,” he said. "This was a time at which many people who had membership in this community had extraordinarily strong feelings about other people in this community—I need to include, extraordinarily strong negative feelings. And in the middle of that conflict-ridden situation, came Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.”

Brodhead called Sacks—who currently serves in the United Kingdom's House of Lords—“a voice for thoughtful moral reflection.” 

Sacks explained that he believes the West's prior assumptions about world progress—including secularization and globalization—have not turned out to be true. In a world without these assumptions, he said there was "insecurity about the future on the part of young people." He cited the unexpected Brexit vote and President Donald Trump's election as examples, as well as the rise of the far-right in Europe.

“It was assumed that people would gradually lose their narrow prejudices, their nationalisms,” he said. “We would stop being parochial and would become cosmopolitan. We would stop being pilgrims and become tourists. [But] what we have seen in the past year is a reaction against globalization, in Brexit, in part of the rhetoric of the United States elections and in Europe. And we are seeing a new populism.”

Despite the problems he described, however, Sacks said his study of Judaism empowered him to spread encouragement to others. The Jewish story  is "one of hope," he said, adding that right now the world needs hope. 

"We do not see the world through rose-tinted glasses. We recognize that there is evil and injustice," he said. "We begin with the bad news, but that is the beginning of the story and not the end of the story. We end with the good news."

The timeline of history is not linear, he noted. There are always ups-and-downs, and the problem is how to recover. To answer that question, Sacks took the audience back to the 17th century. Philosophers John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Baruch Spinoza attempted to solve the problem of religious violence that had ravaged Europe by studying religious texts. This was despite Hobbes and Spinoza being atheists, he noted. 

All four used religious texts and came up with five principles to create modern freedom, Sacks said. Those included the social contract, the limits of government power, a doctrine of toleration, the liberty of conscience and human rights. 

The world needs to recreate a similar intellectual rebirth today, Sacks said. He cited some of the lessons from his own Jewish faith. Number one, he said, is to go back to the Bible and read Genesis. In his interpretation, it says that "the covenant of universality" takes precedence instead of any one religion. 

Sacks also advocated for the Sabbath—a day of religious observance and rest—that he said has been essentially destroyed. Reinstating it, he said, is a cure for an increasingly tense and consumerist world by celebrating those things with value but not price. 

"People have worth, regardless of what they earn, what they own and what they can buy," he said. "And we're losing this, and no culture that has abolished the Sabbath has survived."

Third, referring to Exodus, he advocated for education as the last defense of democracy.  

"It's easy to win freedom, but its very hard to keep it," he said. "To defend a country, you need an army. To defend freedom, you need education. You need the handing down of memory across the generations." 

And ultimately, he recognized that those from other religions will have other contributions. Listening to those, he noted, is a positive step forward. 

"A Christian and a Muslim will have new and different things to say, equally valuable from their traditions," Sacks said.