Imagining Justice in Baltimore: An Interreligious American Experiment

The following post was written by Heather Miller Rubens.
Rubens is the Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland.

Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. If you want peace, work for justice. We need to get tough on crime. Make America Great Again. We are Stronger Together.

The wide range of responses to Milwaukee, Dallas, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Ferguson, and Baltimore highlight a stark reality that needs to be named: each of us lives in a different America.

We are a divided country. We live in divided cities. The current cultural moment we find ourselves in is one of estrangement and isolation. We are insulated from people who do not look, think, or believe as we do, both in our virtual and real lives. For some isolation is a choice. For others, segregated reality is beyond personal control.

But what if we try to transform strangers into neighbors? What if we commit to doing the hard work of imagining a better future for America's cities with people with whom we disagree? What if we enter into the public square and welcome a meaningful exchange of ideas that draw upon the rich resources available from our experiences, including our respective ethical and religious traditions?

The public square should be noisy, loud, and full of discordant views that include religious and non-religious voices. This series aims to bring this cacophony of commitments to life by contributing diverse religious perspectives from Baltimore to the national conversation on justice, race, and community. Some have asked what religion has to do with the pursuit of justice for this generation of activists. This is a necessary question as we enter into an age of greater religious diversity in America.

At the ICJS we contend that the fight against injustice and violence requires bold and broad imaginings. For many in Baltimore and across the nation, the current conversation around justice, race, and poverty is confined to social and political terms, and dominated by pundits who only rarely, if ever, draw on religious traditions or language. The great diversity of our commitments should not be viewed as a detriment, but rather an asset to civic discourse. The public conversation requires the articulation of ethical, theological, and religious solutions. Direct engagement of our religious differences demonstrates a robust commitment to religious pluralism in the 21st century.

To transform strangers into neighbors requires people of different racial, religious, and economic circumstances to constructively engage with a diversity of experiences, ideas, and beliefs. Such transformation is only possible through sustained engagement. It requires time to study, time to reflect, and time to discuss with neighbors who see the world differently. It requires us to bring our full selves to this conversation, requiring the articulation of how our ethical beliefs and religious traditions inform our politics.

Beginning today in a series of weekly blogposts, the ICJS will bring diverse religious and ethical voices from Baltimore into the national conversation around justice, race, violence, and community. The overarching aim of this initiative is not consensus. Rather, we seek to create time and space for reading, reflection, conversation, and imagination among a diverse group of Baltimore activists. But some contend that words are not a primary need in moments of crisis.

Like Paddy Gilger and Matt Spots at America magazine wrote:

What can words do? What good are thinkers in an age of terror? What good is thought?

Thinking doesn't stop bullets. Writing will not save the world. But they open a space for the world to be otherwise. Words give us space to do something other than react out of our pain. Words, ironically, can make space for us to listen. When we stop thinking, stop writing, it can only be for one of two reasons: either the world is no longer violent or we have given up hope that it can be.

At the ICJS we have not given up hope, and we remain committed to the possibilities of words to change the world. If America wants to remain a country where people with diverse commitments, beliefs, and faiths can come together to create communities of equality and flourishing, religious and non-religious actors cannot be absent from the public square, nor can they crowd each other out of vital civic conversations. Rather diverse religious and ethical voices need to be in constant dialogue over pressing social and political questions.

On July 9th, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, shared on Facebook the following (emphasis added):

In recent years, I have come to believe that truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old. What is happening now is very, very old. We have some habits of responding to this familiar pain and trauma that are not serving us well. In many respects it's amazing that we endure at all. I am inspired again and again by so much of the beautiful, brilliant and daring activism that is unfolding all over the country. Yet I also know that more is required than purely reactive protest and politics. A profound shift in our collective consciousness must occur, a shift that makes possible a new America.

To make possible a new America, we must envision a future with people that we currently fear or do not understand, and we must dare to build that future together. We must collaborate in working toward a just society. To build an interreligious city in 21st century America, we must attend to the noise of a public square, both listening carefully and actively working to fill it with many voices.

That work begins with reading. That hard work begins by meeting. That begins with talking. That work begins with words.

The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city's history, indeed our nation's history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, 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. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.