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Christology and Dangerous Interreligious Questions

The invitation to contribute to the Noli Me Tangere project arrived while I was sitting in on a course taught by my colleagues Dr. Zeyneb Sayilgan and Dr. Benjamin Sax entitled “Jesus at the Borders of Islam and Judaism”[1] at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) in Baltimore, Maryland where I am currently serving as the Executive Director. The ICJS is an independent, academic non-profit that seeks to advance interreligious dialogue and understanding through educational lectures and programs for the public; fellowships for congregational leaders, civic leaders, teachers, and clergy; and rigorous scholarship. The ICJS reaches a diverse cross-section of the Baltimore-Washington area in our efforts to confront antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of religious prejudice. By constructively engaging with religious pluralism in education, outreach, and scholarship we are shaping a new relationship among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Baltimore area, and modeling a new conversation that affirms and values religious diversity in America.

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Heather Miller Rubens is Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar at ICJS. 

LESSON PLAN: White Christian Nationalism: Connecting the Past to the Present

The Tension of Religious Intolerance

I moved to Nigeria, my home country, immediately after I graduated from elementary school for my middle school years. My parents were unhappy with how quickly we were losing a sense of our Islamic language, and cultural identities.

Upon our arrival in Nigeria, my sister and I were enrolled in a prestigious, all-girls, Catholic missionary school, which is known for its high quality secular education, inclusive environment, and tolerance of other religions and Indigenous practices.

In fact, the school was run by a missionary for the sole purpose of empowering girls to think for themselves. My dad had always planned for us to attend this school for our secondary school education. The school promotes not only high academic excellence, but also it’s an enabling environment for young minds to grow and thrive as independent thinkers without the sacrifice of religious beliefs and cultural identities.

Based in the heart of the ancient city of Kano, which is a bastion of Islamic tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, St. Louis for the girls, and St. Thomas for the boys, produced brilliant young minds from northern Nigeria who grew up to become productive members of the society. However, northern Nigeria today is bedeviled by an international terrorist organization, Boko Haram, which promotes intolerance and anti-Islamic rhetoric across the Sahel. Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency and the government’s military response have killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced millions across the Lake Chad region, which straddles Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Boko Haram is responsible for the abduction of over 250 mostly Christian female students.

It’s mind boggling how a country with a nearly 50-50 distribution of Muslims and Christians has been unable to douse the tension of religious intolerance. The northern Nigeria of today, which appears to be highly intolerant of other faiths and cultures, is completely different from the one I experienced when I attended a Catholic missionary school almost 30 years ago.

ICJS Jewish scholar Ben Sax’s presentation on the dignity of work from the perspective of the Torah reminded me how similar the Torah, Bible and the Quran are, and confirmed why my educational experience in a Christian environment afforded me the mindset to approach Islam from a place of intellectual understanding and reasoning. The presentation, particularly the point made on the dignity of work, reminded me of one of the Divine principles of being a servant of Allah as mentioned in the Quran, “And that man shall have nothing but what he strives for.” (Q53:39)

My parents made a difficult decision to accept high quality education, despite coming from a preferred source, but still built on an authentic faith tradition with a proven track of producing erudite scholars and thinkers to avoid raising children who may grow up as intolerant followers of a tradition that they may not have a full understanding of. This reminds me of when we find ourselves in non-homogeneous environments and whether we make room for others or create barriers for others to benefit from the value of work.

As I reflect on the Justice Leaders Fellowship and how this relates to economic justice and equity, I wonder whether I personally wait for what I need or strive for my needs despite hidden and apparent roadblocks. I am grateful for this self-realization through the presentation.

Moreover, as a practicing Muslim, ICJS Muslim scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan’s presentation transformed my relationship with salah, the compulsory daily prayer. The illustration of salah being a key to access the Owner of everything regardless of one’s socio-economic status is a powerful reminder that Allah, the Creator, doesn’t look at what’s on the outside. Rather, it is only our deeds that matter. If the Creator doesn’t place a barrier between us and Himself, then why should I place a barrier for others to access what is required to live a dignified life? My understanding of justice and equity has been transformed through the teachings of scripture, and I am grateful for this experience.


Jamila Fagge is Media Consultant and Communications Strategist at First SouSou, LLC, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Toward Personal and Congregational Growth

In the midst of the pandemic, my congregation, St. Matthew Catholic Church, has also experienced a transition in leadership. While the congregation has gone through the process of grieving the loss of a beloved leader, his legacy of welcoming and reaching out to communities not considered “mainstream” has remained. As a congregation we are committed to engaging in interreligious and intercultural relationships, hence our participation in the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship.

The evolution of St. Matthew in becoming a place where “all are welcome” and feel a sense of belonging was gradual. St Matthew parish was formed in 1949 in northeast Baltimore—down the hill from what is now Good Samaritan Hospital—surrounded by rowhouse neighborhoods. The first building constructed was the parish school.

When I moved to Baltimore in 1969 the parish was large and predominantly white. During the next decade or so the neighborhood demographics changed as the white residents moved out and African American families moved in. The size of the parish diminished and we joined Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) to address the challenges Baltimore was facing.

During the 80s and 90s, immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, and the Caribbean islands joined St. Matthew. As we prepared for our 50th anniversary we conducted house/listening meetings to look at who we were and who we see ourselves becoming as a parish. The Immigration Outreach Service Center (IOSC) was established out of that process to address the needs of our congregation and the surrounding community. The IOSC is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit. In recent years we have established an LGBTQ ministry and developed relationships with the Islamic Society of Baltimore and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. We are also participating in Black Lives Matter rallies and racial justice activities.

I, personally, and St. Matthew, as a congregation, have grown spiritually as a result of this evolution. We are so much richer than we were before. The participation in the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is one more step in that growth. I have come to see that there is no one religious tradition with “all the Truth;” rather, we are on this journey together and are enriched by sharing our experiences, our traditions, and our faith.


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.


Elaine Carr Crawford is a member of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Baltimore and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Different Paths, Collective Efforts

I am more spiritual than I am religious. While I am a Christian from the Baptist tradition, I have been influenced by Phillip Harris’s Jesus Taught It, Too!, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Business Secrets from the Bible. Both embrace scripture as a basis for their thought-proving analysis, one Christian and the other Jewish. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bible is always my go-to for spiritual connection!

I also walk in the Spirit of God’s law of attraction, or the belief that the universe creates and provides for you that which your thoughts are focused on. Therefore, I feel spiritually led and more focused on my direct relationship vs. more formal means, such as church. While I enjoy attending church service now and then, I prefer walking in nature as I listen to scripture through Bible reading apps, taking in the beauty of what He has created around me and listening for His voice.

The ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship (JLF) program has illuminated a similar thread in the teachings of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. I noted that each view the path to equitable economic justice and empowerment as individualized. Yet, their commonality suggests that each citizen is responsible for their part in the universal family, which affects the whole of society.

While the text of many of the teachings made me feel a little off-kilter regarding my goals of attaining personal and financial wealth, I feel this is where discernment plays a big part. Each tradition suggests theirs is the way, and individuals are left to be guided by their inner being when assessing whom they follow in the Spirit. With so many religions, one has to wonder as to which path they are to follow. So, I prefer seeking the meaning in the words of instruction vs. their literal context.

And, if I got the meaning right, I feel comfortable continuing along the chosen path of creating opportunities in underserved communities, focusing on the whole of the community and not just one segment, creating a view for folks to engage as they look to elevate their horizons. For an underserved community to experience equitable economic justice and empowerment, pathways must be created to enable anyone seeking a pathway to attain it. In this capitalistic society, I feel the struggle is between personal financial “benefit” and the God-centered deeds inherent in assisting others along the way.

It’s interesting how each of the traditions deals with human connections, even when getting there may be different. I again call upon the Spirit within where there is a divergence of perspectives to guide me through, appreciating different ideals, yet being mindful of what resonates within me. I love seeing how each faith has a heart for all while seeking obedience to its norms. However, seeking to create economic justice and empowerment where there is a lack is filled with sometimes insurmountable challenges. Everyone “working” on the solution does not always enter the mission with a clean heart.

The challenges are significant, but in the short time I have participated in the JLF program, I have been encouraged by how many people have the heart for change. As these teachings we’ve reviewed for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic perspectives on economic justice and empowerment get to the same place while traveling different roads, so too is the journey for those of us working to create empowered communities. We may each have a different path to take while our collective efforts are designed to accomplish one goal: uplifting our fellow beings.

Learning how other traditions look at personal responsibility to this elusive equitable economic justice and empowerment does make you wonder why and how there is so much lack. Where did we go off-center, and why has it gone on for so long? With so many traditions that have these same conversations, why aren’t conditions better? Or are we still just talking about it instead of being about it?


Lorette Farris is COO and Fund Manager at WE.Global, LLC, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Discovering Common Ground with the Bible in One Hand and the Newspaper in the Other

When I have searched for inspiration to help my preaching preparation, I often turned to the phrase “a good preacher has the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” which I’ve always attributed to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. I recently learned that this phrase was attributed to the noted Swiss Protestant Theologian Karl Barth. Since Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and Karl Barth (1886-1968) were contemporaries, I don’t know which one came up with the phrase first, but it is notable to me that this Ecumenical Duo would use similar phraseology to inspire preachers of their day. Whether they actually ever met, or collaborated is irrelevant to me; it is sufficient that they both were seemingly in sync with this approach to a preacher’s preparation for his or her sermon.

My involvement with ICJS’s Congregational Leader Fellowship has helped me build bridges across inter/intra-religious differences. I have used a four-step approach to make this happen.

1. I use the newspaper to see the reality of life when different denominations are at odds with each other.

2. I use the dialogue that happens at ICJS to help me understand the differences, and where we have historically united or separated.

3. I then look at my denomination’s Sunday lectionary to provide opportunities to preach about this story.

4. I make plans for myself and my parishioners to go visit the other church, mosque, or synagogue so that we might have the practical experience of another tradition, and through sharing dialogue grow in understanding and acceptance of “the other.” This happens by spending time with “the other” and listening.

The challenge in this process is facing the prejudices that some people already have, and were taught to have, about “the other.” The growth opportunity is to overcome the prejudice, face the bigotry, and find ways to pray, eat, meet, and work together. Discovering common ground amidst our historical, emotional, and spiritual differences is a wonderful realization of understanding life and faith.

When we had our Catholic elementary school students meet with Muslim elementary school students, there was much apprehension on both sides at first. After two group meetings, two of the girls (one Muslim and one Catholic) were delighted to discover that they both liked basketball and listened to the same rap artists. The religious differences were not in the way any longer, and there was no apprehension at this point. Spending time together, engaging in dialogue, and listening breaks open the possibilities for connection, conversation, and community. This can lead to relationship-building on a larger scale in the congregations, and even friendship.

 


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.


Father Joe Muth is Pastor Emeritus at St. Matthew Catholic Church and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Adding Heartbeats to the Beloved Community Through Interreligious Engagement

It is almost impossible to describe how the ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship has helped me better understand the Abrahamic faith traditions and see each of our religions as expressions of our belief systems. While there are differences in beliefs and practices it seems that the essence of the God we honor is love. As an interreligious leader it is this love demonstrated through empathy, and the ability to seek to understand rather than be understood, that is at the heart of connecting with someone no matter what religion they adhere to.

Through this fellowship I have learned that developing interreligious relationships requires a sacrifice of time, talents, and treasures because true fellowship is about intentionally getting to know someone. As a pastor who has multiple roles and responsibilities it can be a challenge finding time to build new relationships. However, I have found having initial one-on-one conversations with a person of another faith—where you are actively listening in order to find shared interests in ministry and community—is very helpful. During the conversation, if there are shared interests and a mutual desire to learn and grow with each other, you can plan to set aside two to three hours a month to get to know each other. Prioritizing getting to know each other over a sustained period of time is important because, as the adage says, “no one cares what you know until they know how much you care.”

In addition to the learning and growth that takes place through these interreligious relationships, these connections also have a societal benefit. In my work with BRIDGE Maryland, Inc.—which is a multicultural interfaith coalition of religious and lay leaders dedicated to training and developing leaders to create the Beloved Community of peace, justice and equity the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to establish—I find it is important to know about the religious traditions of others and invite them into this work of social justice. As people of faith we have a responsibility to bring about equity within communities in Maryland who are in desperate need of restorative justice.

Participating in the fellowship reminded me that although there is a sacrifice of time, the price of forfeiting that time is even more costly. In other words, not spending the time to develop interreligious relationships and learning about the religious traditions of others is a detriment to all of God’s children because we are in an inescapable network of mutuality, as Rev. Dr. King, Jr. so eloquently shared in his writings and oratory presentations. Therefore, I would encourage anyone who wants to see a better tomorrow for their children and grandchildren and all generations to consider participating in opportunities like this fellowship in order to enhance your spiritual development and learn how to become a more effective interreligious leader.

 


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.


Rev. Marlon B. Tilghman is the Pastor at AMES United Methodist Church and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

An Interreligious Opening

Faith has almost always been a comfort to me. Even when circumstances don’t turn out the way I think they would, and when it feels like I don’t understand God, I find myself turning to God over and over again.

Christianity has been the religion on which I have hung my hat; not out of choice, but by birth. For many years I have found myself comforted and known by the God revealed in Christian Scriptures. At the same time, I was fascinated by Judaism as a teenager, in part because of my Jewish friend who went on to be a Hillel rabbi. And, later on, when a certain interpretation of Christianity had failed me, and when I learned about Islam as a young adult, a light bulb went off. In Christianity we talk about submission to one another constantly, but Islam speaks of submission to God. The idea of letting go, of accepting what has happened and what will be, seems liberating.

Several years back when my book club read the widely popular God is Not One, we asked each other: which religions were we drawn to? I was the only one who answered Islam. It goes without saying that some people in the West are often afraid of Islam and Muslims. Television, wars, and the internet have too often made them the enemy. One cannot escape the anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. “Don’t they oppress women?,” is often the refrain.

The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship (CLF) cohort has encouraged me to acknowledge this bias, work to address it, and foster a sense of what I will call “an opening,” which is an acknowledgement that truth is not contained in one religion. This acknowledgement transforms my thinking and understanding and allows me to seek truth that may be communicated in a different way. The people in the cohort, by virtue of their presence, have already taken on a sort of “opening,” and because of this our lives are enhanced when we become students of each other’s belief system and the kind of life it encourages and produces.

An “opening” can be a scary thing, however. We can begin to question why we believe what we believe or wonder if we ever really believed it at all. The scholars at ICJS are excellent in helping model belief in one’s own system while investigating the religion of another. They make it look less scary—perhaps because they find it more exciting than scary, that there are similarities amidst the great differences.

It might also be the case, as they model interreligious dialogue for us, that they’ve already acknowledged the “elephant in the room,” the fear that one would lose salvation or their faith while listening to the truths found in another religion. As my time in the cohort progresses, I find my own sense of identity shifting slightly. Because of the sustained conversation over the course of this year, and working together on a project with three congregations representing the Abrahamic faith traditions, I am repeatedly reminded that I have dedicated a small part of my life to interreligious dialogue this year. There have also been many opportunities outside of the cohort that have only bolstered my dedication to this dialogue.

As we turn to the fall, however, and I begin to engage my own congregation with questions and ideas of interreligious dialogue, I realize that it would be wrong for me to keep my learning to myself. As a leader, and even more as a human, I have a responsibility to encourage respectful conversation about differing religious beliefs.

It is indeed a wonderful coincidence that in the last year, as minister of outreach at our church, I have begun working more with the Muslim charity in North College Park. We have figured out how to partner in various ways and I have learned so much. For years, I heard stories about the Muslim community doing outreach to homeless neighbors on Christmas or other Christian holidays, but this was the first time I saw in person the compassion that the Muslim community extends to the wider community as its practice and act of worship. One of the results of this relationship with the Muslim charity was an invitation to the house of a family that is very involved with the charity work. During my visit to their home, Imam Azad said, “Everything we do is worship.” It was a beautiful statement, representing what I want my faith to be.

 


The ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship is a year long fellowship designed to connect local congregations from within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith communities and expand their capacity for interreligious engagement and leadership. Throughout the year cohort members will offer reflections on interreligious leadership. Each contributor represents their own views and opinions. We welcome this diversity of perspectives and seek to foster dialogue around the topics presented.


Amy Caruso is the pastor at College Park United Methodist Church (College Park) and a member of the 2021 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about our Congregational Leaders programs…

Better Together

I grew up in church. The Church on Sunday from 8am-8pm, Monday night prayer group, Wednesday night youth group, Friday worship rehearsal kind of church. I grew up memorizing Bible verses, singing Sunday School songs, and learning what it means to be a “good Christian.” There was a lot of learning about sacrifice, community, and giving of yourself to ensure that your sibling in Christ is taken care of.

Also, as an immigrant, born in a developing nation and coming to the United States, the “American Dream” had been ingrained in me as a young person. What blew my mind is that this ambition to do well so that I will have a “good life”—which is usually evidenced by material comfort including a family with 2.5 kids and a big house and white picket fence—seemed to also be tied to the blessings of God. Often, I heard sermons that used Scripture as reference to link obedience to God to material blessings. That if I do all the right things, read my Bible, attend Bible Study, serve in ministry, tell others about God, then God will bless me with the American Dream.

Yet, today when I read the Scripture, I encounter over and over again the notion (and sometimes, warning), that the expectation for Christian life is not one of upward mobility as an individual, but one of humble service to others. It is a life that recognizes its dependence on other people, working together as one body.

In addition, linking obedience to God to access to material wealth and comfort left me feeling uncomfortable. What does that mean for those who live in poverty? That they do not have enough faith and have not done the “right things” for God to bless them in this way? What does that mean for enslaved people who sang Spirituals that spoke of their faith in God? Was that not enough for God to bless them? It seems silly when asked in this way, yet this is how it always came across to me whenever these kinds of sermons were taught.

I will be the first to admit that I had only the very basic, if any, understanding about other faiths outside of my own. For the most part, I only knew of other religions based on how they were different from Christianity, and not the similarities we shared. My time so far in the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship (JLF) program has helped illuminate how Christian, Jewish, and Islamic beliefs and principles have a shared calling to practice economic empowerment, especially to underserved communities and individuals. It emphasizes a turning away from the traditional American Dream of individually climbing the mountain of success, and instead, lifting up communities as a whole. The shared notion of empowering the flourishing of others instead of focusing on individual increase was refreshing and encouraging. All three religious traditions view wealth as something we steward as a resource from God, not meant to be hoarded for personal gain.

I will be honest and share that there were moments in our sessions, as we explored how deeply unequal our communities are, that I felt overwhelmed, feeling that we have dug the trench so deep in capitalism, how do we get ourselves out? Yet, I was encouraged by other fellows who offered novel solutions that were so different from how society currently operates. Ultimately, that’s what I now continue to come back to: that we need to imagine a world and way of doing things that is so different from how we currently operate because our current systems were built on purposely creating divisions and gaps in wealth and advancement.

In my work at Marian House, the gaps in opportunities for advancement for the people we serve is evident. Individuals who have experienced homelessness, addiction, incarceration, and other trauma are at a disadvantage when it comes to building and sustaining an independent life that allows them access to education, employment, healthcare, and more. As an ICJS Fellow, I am becoming emboldened to view individuals as having innate human dignity inherently deserving of opportunity, wealth, and advancement, not because of their own merit but simply because they are human. Having this as a foundational understanding takes the blame off of the individual and recognizes that there are systems in place that prevent individuals from flourishing. Therefore, empowering individuals is not just about pointing out all the things they could be doing better, but actually directly addressing the barriers in place that hinder their advancement.

This experience has kept one of my favorite passages in the Christian New Testament, 1 Corinthians 12:12-30, at the forefront of my mind when thinking about economic justice. This passage points out our need for each other; that no one can say to another “I don’t need you” because just as in our human bodies, we need all the parts of our community body. Whatever our role is in the world, we are equal. When one suffers, every part suffers, and when one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (v.26). This fellowship has exemplified that passage for me, that, no matter what background or faith tradition we come from, we need each other.


Psalms Rojas is Chief Administrative Officer at Marian House, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.

Embracing Economies of Justice

During the first half of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship, I have gained new insight into perspectives of economic justice from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. As a white American raised in a mainline Christian Protestant tradition, in a middle- and upper-middle-class congregation, I grew up hearing messages that sought to offer charity, but not necessarily justice. We were not challenging the capitalist system in which we lived, and which created the need for charity.

I grew up with the understanding that I have a responsibility to house the homeless and feed the hungry, but I don’t recall any conversations about why people don’t have a place to live or food to eat. When I was in high school and first encountered theological teaching that seriously challenged the status quo, this teaching was considered very radical, even though it called for redistribution of wealth still within the bounds of capitalism.

Outside of the church, at my secular university, I learned about various streams of social justice that challenged systems, and ultimately, I have found theological voices that embrace economies of justice in making sure that everyone has enough.

Participating in ICJS’s Justice Leaders Fellowship, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn more about economic justice from Jewish and Islamic perspectives. Hearing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah through an economic justice perspective was particularly eye-opening. I’ve studied this story before, through a Christian theological lens. Often it is a story used to condemn homosexual activity.

However, ICJS Jewish scholar Ben Sax taught that there is an economic policy interpretation of this text, citing Ezekiel 16:49-50 that names arrogance and resource hoarding as the sin of Sodom.

It was startling to see that the biblical text so clearly names what the sin of Sodom is when, for most of my life, those two verses from Ezekiel were conveniently forgotten from my community’s collective memory in favor of demonizing gay men in particular, and queer people more broadly.

Of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam is the one I’m least familiar with. It has been wonderful to learn from my colleagues in our discussion times and to hear teaching from ICJS Muslim scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan. Although I was aware that charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, I didn’t know before that excessive wealth and economic disparity are prohibited in the Qur’an.

Sayilgan taught us that balance and harmony in all the created order are central to Islamic teaching. This echoes what we discussed in our Jewish study session; if work is a spiritual practice, then all people should have access to meaningful work as part of their freedom to worship.

I am very privileged that I have always had enough–in fact, much, much more than enough. I come from an upper-middle-class family and although I often feel that I am just getting by on my personal income, I have a strong safety net in my parents, should the need arise. And although I am frustrated with the Christian congregation in which I grew up for not seriously challenging why we have such economic disparity in our country, I am grateful that they at least exposed me to the existence of disparity.

Most of my life, I have been aware that things are not right in the way that wealth is distributed. As an adult, I have become aware of why not only wealth, but opportunity, is not distributed justly. As a newcomer to Baltimore, I’m so grateful to be in conversation with my ICJS colleagues about their experiences serving this city, the theological meaning-making they bring to their ministries, and to be able to learn from their experiences.

I’m currently serving as a group facilitator in House of Ruth Maryland’s abuse intervention program, working with men and women who have used violence against their intimate partners. Our participants are overwhelmingly low-income, un- or underemployed, Black men. Unemployment is a significant contributing factor to violent crime, and economic injustice impacts a disproportionate number of BIPOC people. Addressing economic injustice makes a huge difference in the lives of the people I serve, their partners, and their children both in terms of access to wealth and opportunity as well as physical, emotional, and social safety.

I hope that by engaging in conversations with my ICJS colleagues I can better understand life in Baltimore, the solutions that community organizations are already bringing to the forefront and incorporate that knowledge into my work at House of Ruth Maryland and better serve my community.


Annie Mesaros is a Hospital Chaplain and Political Theologian, and a  member of the 2021 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.