On Thursday, April 23, ICJS Justice Leaders Fellows convened for their monthly meeting, this time via Zoom. After much-needed check-ins (with COVID-19-related adjustments necessitating the cancellation of the March meeting), the Fellows turned to the topic at-hand.
This year’s theme for the Justice Leaders program is water justice and how interreligious perspectives can better inform and enliven our civic conversations and community work. For the first half of the cohort year, Fellows meet monthly for interreligious study and dialogue, focusing in on one of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to explore how religious texts can speak to issues of both water access and pollution, and provide rich resources for this justice work.
ICJS Protestant Scholar Matthew Taylor introduced the subject by noting the relative scarcity of texts to draw from in the Christian tradition, as opposed to what struck him from ICJS Jewish Scholar Benjamin Sax’s February session as the Jewish tradition’s “almost embarrassment of riches” in this arena. While the Christian New Testament mentions water quite often, it is generally used as a symbol or signifier of other values (life, ritual cleansing, healing, etc.).
The text Taylor chose for exploration, then, came from the Book of Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible. Part of a larger “apocalyptic” genre found in the Jewish and Christian traditions of the time, Revelation is the only such text included in the Christian New Testament. This means that most Christians—not having studied the larger body of apocalyptic works—simply do not know what to do with the book’s layered symbols and cosmic violence. Additionally, Taylor noted that, for all of this confusion about Revelation’s meaning, the book’s rich imagery has fueled Christian imaginings and artistic expressions in every generation.
Taylor provided an overview of the late-first-century, Jewish-Christian, and anti-imperial context that drives the chaotic imagery of the Book of Revelation. The Fellows then considered two contrasting urban images: (1) Revelation 15-16, a scene in which the wrath of God is poured out in liquid form on the oppressive, imperial city of Babylon (a coded symbol of the Roman Empire’s many abuses and injustices); and (2) Revelation 21-22, in which the author sees an idealized city in the New Jerusalem, a blending of heaven and earth, which is built around the “river of the water of life” (NRSV) flowing from the throne of God. To this end, Fellows were asked, among other things, to consider the following:
After studying and reflecting together over the first months of the year, Fellows will serve as facilitators for public Imagining Justice in Baltimore conversations around these same themes and texts about water justice in the fall. Imagining Justice in Baltimore is a program built around the notion that “the sacred can speak to the secular.” Anchored in our understanding that religious traditions other than our own can inspire us, we invite Baltimore to consider how an interreligious understanding of justice can enrich civic life, providing insight into our biggest questions:
Many of these questions have taken on new significance and import in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and “stay-at-home” orders. By bringing diverse religious voices together in public conversations, we can work to answer these questions together.
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice. Through the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative, ICJS contributes the perspectives of local Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the public conversation about justice in Baltimore, with a particular emphasis on water justice in 2020. 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.