by Dave Pantzer, ICJS Justice Leaders Fellow

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Is. 55:1 (NIV)

Humans can interfere with water’s necessary role in human life in at least three ways: poisoning the water; hoarding the water; and wasting the water. Flint’s was a story of poison. In Baltimore, the great water issue of our time is availability – a problem that hints at hoarding and wasting.

Availability problems spring from the ownership and control of water, and from the costs of the work, infrastructure, and supplies that go into moving the water to where it’s needed and making it safe to drink.

Baltimore recently passed path-breaking legislation to cap the cost of tap water at a percentage of income for low-income residents. Hailed as a victory for water affordability and “water justice,” the bill takes a significant step toward making water available. But why water, specifically? What is it about water that causes its unavailability to be counted an injustice?

In a spring 2020 program, ICJS explored the intersection of water and justice through the lenses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

How special is water?

Our first lecturer was ICJS Jewish Scholar Benjamin Sax. While all three religions represented in the ICJS curriculum respect the Genesis story, the translation Sax provided for the first sentence of Genesis was different from the one I was familiar with. It immediately provided a new question for my understanding of water – of the substance itself.

“When God began to create the heaven(s) and the earth, and the earth was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath was hovering over the water(s), God said, ‘Let there be light.’” We discussed the appearance that water in some way preceded God’s famous first recorded act of creation. I had understood that God created everything from nothing – but what does this early appearance of water signify? Is water in a different category from other elements of creation?

Once you start looking, the Christian New Testament keeps the question alive, asserting that “the ancient heavens and earth were formed out of water and through water, by God’s word – and it was by flooding the world of that time with water that it was destroyed” (2 Peter 3: 5b-6, trans. N.T. Wright).[1]

How might water relate to God? Could water in some way represent (or be?) the energy of God – could water be an intermediate step between God’s energy and the final matter of the creation?

So far, the point is not that my views were deeply changed but that, because I had heard a new perspective, my eyes were opened to see even my old resources in a new light – and perhaps to search them for answers to new questions.

Our Muslim scholar, Fatimah Fanusie, suggested another connection between God and water. She taught that Islam sees “the material world [as] a metaphor for the spiritual world” (thus creation serves as instructive sign, or ayaat), and suggested such a connection between water and God’s revelation.

For example, in the Noah story, when people will not receive God’s revelation as intended, they find they have too much of a good thing. Water – necessary for life – becomes a crushing and unmanageable weight for those who have not submitted to instruction.

Returning to our responsibility for justice, Fanusie suggested that people have “been given powers to utilize the resources of nature in order to take care of the earth and humanity.”

As they seek to positively engage with the world, people of my own [Christian] faith have sometimes been categorized by either a primary focus on bringing God’s propositional truth to the world, or a primary focus on meeting the physical needs of the world. Certainly, some have sought to do both. In polarized times, however, there is too often a tendency to seek one at the expense of the other.

Islam’s call to metaphor, to exploring physical creation with the senses and the mind for truth about God – with hints of a connection between water (concern for physical well-being) and revelation (concern for truth) – serves as a call to a more integrated faithfulness.

These understandings (or questions) about water do not, perhaps, very directly change the nature of my work. However, they hint at perspectival diversity as a (counterintuitive) resource for truth-finding, even among those committed to a specific faith.

“I can’t breathe.” Injustice, truth, and the role of perspective

The recent killing of George Floyd has renewed in the consciousness of many the unjust inconsistency between the American experience of a white citizen and a citizen of color. For others, his killing served not as a renewal but as one more confirmation of the consciousness they carry always.

Water is a clear medium, something easily taken for granted unless it is stained or absent. Like the air that George Floyd could no longer breathe, it is unconsciously presumed upon by those who are not denied it.

I am a white, middle-class U.S. citizen, and for me the voices I’ve heard in the past weeks have increased that consciousness. I cannot see truth as fully without being informed by the perspectives of others, and I cannot access those perspectives without dialogue and shared experience built on an infrastructure of trust [at some level].

I see parallels with interreligious dialogue. In both cases, people of different backgrounds carry different understandings. In both cases, dialogue around common issues can help calibrate and clarify the understandings of all. We receive help in the perspectives of others to challenge the layers of our assumptions – even the particularities of true lived experience – the accretions of “our own understanding”[2] that cling to the words and the truth of God.

Truth claims are demanding – they cannot all be reconciled. Some contradict others, and some, I believe, are wrong. However, I need the perspectives of others, and perhaps they need mine, to more fully see that which is. And only as we are granted sight of that which is, can we find the truth.

Perhaps I am staring toward an idol and your gaze is aimed toward God. Even so, learning how I see the idol may help you recognize and correct a cloudy filter that affects your own view of God. No simple acceptance of your understanding, nor simple insistence on mine will guarantee the truth – only a more messy engagement.

Justice, in the end, requires attention to the needs of my neighbor and myself. These include needs of the mind and spirit as well as needs of the body. Cooperation among people of good will is clearly useful in providing physical needs. But even in the less obvious and more contested realm of truth and spirituality, cooperative dialogue across very real divisions provides important resources.

[1] What exactly is creation “through water, by God’s word”? Later I was struck by words from another source familiar to my tradition, the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard: “Often when you hear people talking about God creating the world they say God created it ‘out of nothing.’ That is actually not what the Bible teaches. The biblical doctrine is that all creation came ‘out of’ the person of God himself, that he spoke and created matter. God speaking is a form of energy that become matter. While it is true that there was no preexisting matter involved in creation, there was energy. And matter is energy in a certain form…. When we make contact with God a flow of energy comes to us” (Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23, Dallas Willard, 2019).

[2] See, Proverbs 3:5-6.

Dave Pantzer is Director of Education, Outreach, and Technology at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, and a  member of the 2020 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.