by Lisa Firnberg, ICJS Justice Leader Fellow
Our ingrained sense of justice is hard to change. Even when we’re trying to broaden our perspectives, we hold fast to what is familiar and what we think we know to be true.
That is where I found myself as we read the “Justice and Sacred Texts” passages provided during our first Justice Leader Fellows session. Rather than challenged or broadened, my preconceived notions about justice in each of the three traditions was reinforced. Yet the world has changed dramatically since this fellowship began, and I find myself struggling with how I am now internalizing how each of the texts instructs us to live our lives.
The excerpt from Deuteronomy (16:19-20) is one with which I’ve been very familiar since childhood. “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” has been a refrain in my Jewish education for as long as I can remember. It inspires agency—to take action, to seek out and create justice where it is missing. I am proud that this is a part of my tradition, of the way I was raised.
The Qur’anic passage (Surah An-Nisa 4:135) we read felt warm and familiar to me, a close cousin to the Hebrew Bible text, which I would expect from a tradition so closely related. “Stand firm for justice as witnesses for Allah … if you distort the testimony or refuse to give it, then know that Allah is certainly All-Aware of what you do.” I see agency here, too. “Stand firm for justice” is akin to “justice shall you pursue.” It implies that justice is not a given. It is something that requires protection, action, and often a fight. One must stand up, bear witness, and pursue a course of action to bring about justice in our world. To “refuse to give” your testimony—to stand idly by—is not fulfilling one's obligation to Allah, nor to one another. The Jewish and Islamic texts are aligned in this concept of a proactive approach to justice.
In stark contrast, then, is the Christian text (Roman 12:16-19), which emphasizes a passive perspective on the concept of justice. The passage implores us to “live in harmony with one another,” to “not repay anyone evil for evil,” and to “live peaceably with all.” These are noble pursuits to be sure, yet they lack the proactive agency found in the prior two texts. To simply “be nice” to those around you does not acknowledge that there is injustice to undo. Followers of this text, of this tradition, may tell themselves, “I’m not racist, I’m not causing harm, so that’s good enough.” But those who commit themselves to justice in our modern world know that this simply is not true.
I am reluctant to make a sweeping judgment about the concept of justice in the Christian faith based on a single passage. I imagine there are other texts that bring other ideas about what it means to live a life that brings justice to the world. And certainly I look around the world and can see people whose Christian faith drives them to pursue justice. Furthermore, I am cognizant of my own bias to “assume the worst” from the religious tradition that has a history of justifying slavery and persecuting other religions. If I am honest with myself, I find it “easy” to criticize Christian text, while I’m more inclined to look for “the good” in Jewish and Muslim text. But looking at this trio of texts side by side, I can’t help but find my preconceived notions reinforced.
Yet, in this time of coronavirus, I find myself behaving as a follower of the Christian text. I have retreated into the four walls of my house. I am not pursuing anything. I am not standing up. I am not lending my voice to anything. I am looking inward, and I am telling myself, “I’m not causing harm, I am living peaceably, I am living in harmony, I’m donating to the ‘right’ places, I’m voting for the ‘right’ people, that’s good enough.” But I know it’s not, and it’s eating me up inside.
So, when asked how my understanding of justice in these traditions informs my work as a “person using their agency to establish justice,” I recoil at what the underlying assumption of this question makes me face. I am not, in fact, using my agency for justice right now, at least not in the way I could be, should be. I’m in a bubble of my peaceful, beautiful, largely white North Baltimore neighborhood. I feel numb to social media, and I am removed from the people in my life who have so often inspired me to action. What does it mean for my genuine commitment to racial and economic justice work if I can’t bring myself to seek out and take meaningful action right now?
In this unique time of relative isolation, yet still inundated with the all too-familiar refrains of the calls to stand up, be present, be heard, I am struggling. Yet I am even struggling to know why I am struggling. I sit in a place of immense privilege, and I have the gall to claim the word “struggle” as my own? Perhaps this reflection, this confession, really, will lift my haze, break down my walls, and reawaken the refrain of my childhood—tzedek, tzedek, tirdof (justice, justice, shall you pursue).
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore, ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the public conversation about (in)justice in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions.