British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks visited with Pope Benedict XVI last month in Rome and defended Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage, including the “religious roots of the market economy and of democratic capitalism.” In a speech there, he urged that Jews and Christians to work together to “help Europe recover its soul.”
Separately, in a speech to the British House of Lords, Sacks denounced increasing persecution of Christians by radical Islam, warning that the “fate of Christians in the Middle East today is the litmus test of the Arab Spring.” In Rome and in London, he was more outspoken than are many of Europe’s often muted church officials, who typically fear to defend their faith, their culture, or their persecuted brethren.
“If Europe loses the Judeo-Christian heritage that gave it its historic identity and its greatest achievements in literature, art, music, education, politics, and economics, it will lose its identity and its greatness,” Sacks warned during his Rome speech. “When a civilization loses its faith, it loses its future. When it recovers its faith, it recovers its future. For the sake of our children … we – Jews and Christians, side-by-side – must renew our faith and its prophetic voice.”
Sacks admired and was encouraged by the warm response the Pope received during his 2010 visit to mostly non-religious Britain, when “everyone was amazed that the interest was so acute and so widespread.” The Chief Rabbi’s visit to Rome clearly was an attempt to strengthen Jewish and Christian voices in defense of historic Western cultural, political and economic principles.
Unlike left-leaning church officials in the West who simplistically equate free markets with sterile materialism, Sacks offered a more balanced perspective. He critiqued Europe’s secularism and materialism while pointing out that biblical religion created the foundations of prosperous market economies. “When Europe recovers its soul, it will recover its wealth-creating energies,” he said. “But first it must remember: humanity was not created to serve markets. Markets were created to serve humankind.“ In contrast, the Religious Left, both in Europe and America, prefers to believe that markets are innately wicked and must be usurped by coercive national and international regulation.
Of course, much of the Religious Left is itself deeply materialist, preoccupied by the redistribution of wealth but unconcerned about the transcendence and timeless principles that facilitate justice and prosperity. But appropriately for a spiritual leader, Sacks pointed to the primacy of the “soul” of Europe.
“We are very concerned obviously with the soul of Europe, I mean Europe was built on Judeo-Christian foundations, even the market was built on Judeo-Christian foundations,” Sacks told Vatican Radio. In his Rome speech, he described the West’s democracy and prosperity relying on biblical understandings of “dignity of the human individual,” respect for property rights and labor, job creation over charity, and creation of wealth so as to become “partners with God in the work of creation.” He noted that ancient rabbis “favored markets and competition because they generate wealth, lower prices, increase choice, reduced absolute levels of poverty, and extend humanity’s control over the environment, narrowing the extent to which we are the passive victims of circumstance and fate.”
Why do more church officials not similarly recall this legacy of Jewish and Christian teaching? Sacks quoted a Chinese scholar who realized why the West had surpassed once wealthier and technologically superior China centuries ago: “The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.” The Chief Rabbi noted that Europe’s religious values had facilitated “hard work, industry, frugality, diligence, patience, discipline, and a sense of duty and obligation.” They created capitalism as a “moral enterprise” that “generated wealth, softened manners, tamed unruly passions, and diminished the threat of war.” Capitalism “enhanced human dignity, leaving us with more choices and a longer life expectancy than any generation of those who came before us.”
Sacks lamented that Europe is today “more secular than it has been since the last days of pre-Christian Rome” thanks to “aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith.” He suggested Jews and Catholics serve together as “creative minorities” to restore morals, culture and civic life. And he concluded: “The Judeo-Christian heritage is the only system known to me capable of defeating the law of entropy that says all systems lose energy over time.”
As people of faith work to restore Europe’s culture, Sacks also has urged defending international religious liberty. “It is important that Jews, the British Jews, the European Jewish community stand in solidarity with Christians where they face persecution,” he told Vatican radio. In his speech to the British House of Lords, Sacks’ declared that “as a Jew in Christian Britain,” he was grateful to “this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear.” And he asked: “Shall we not, therefore, as Jews, stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?” The Chief Rabbi quoted Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
As left-leaning church prelates in Europe and America are frequently and shamefully silent, at least Britain’s Chief Rabbi will be a friend to both persecuted Christians and to Judeo-Christian culture.
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