What We Mean When We Say 'Justice': Joerg Rieger - Vanderbilt Divinity School

Joerg Rieger, founding director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice, spoke about the term “justice,” and what it means within the context of this program at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The following are a portion of his edited remarks at the opening of the inaugural event for the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice on April 10, 2019:

When we say justice–and this is the important thing–what we're really talking about is building the community. Justice is more than a lot of things we often connect with this term. It is building relationships. It is getting involved. It's taking a stand. It's transforming the status quo. All these terms you get from the Abrahamic traditions. This is what we think about justice.

There's another tradition that comes from the Roman Empire that talks about justice and neutrality. Neutrality is always better than not being neutral and being unjust in that way. But the Abrahamic notion of justice goes a little bit further. It's actually talking about communities–building community together. In this, again, we're in conversation with various religious traditions: Christianity, but also Judaism, Islam and our engaged Buddhist friends.

Let me also say to those of you who are activists, we believe that justice is more than speaking truth to power. Of course it's that. But sometimes when you speak truth to power what happens is that you have the truth, and they still have the power. And so, what we're doing in a way is we're also building power. We're not just protesting, we're not just looking at injustices, we’re really supporting projects and helping them flourish and thereby again, building the community.

Sometimes when you speak truth to power what happens is that you have the truth, and they still have the power. And so, what we're doing in a way is we're also building power.

The program in itself brings together various things: You have economic and ecological justice, but we do these things in relation to other forms of oppression. So we're addressing economic and ecological justice in relation to oppression along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and all of the other forms of oppression that not only affect us in the society but that so many of our colleagues here at Vanderbilt Divinity School are dealing with. We're not a new program that's trying to do something different, but we're in so many ways working together with everybody.

We have three main concerns. If you look at our website, we talk about investigating, educating and organizing, which we think are actually closely related. And we do that investigating and educating using the tools of the academy. As we move forward together, we're figuring out: How do we better analyze educate and organize?

The academy here is important, but popular movements are equally important. This is not just a couple of nerdy academics talking to each other; it's developing and sharpening our tools in relationship with the community, in relationship to what people on the ground are doing. The key to what we are trying to do is the wisdom of the people who are most affected by the various injustices of our time.

We have to do this out there rooted in the community, rooted more broadly–not just in the local community but in the community of this region, the country, and also internationally. We're doing a lot of work that goes beyond the country. There's great inspiration in various places.

Now, finally, we're doing this in the South. When students decide where should they go for progressive theological education, they think New York, Chicago, the Northeast. When we say Nashville, Nashville is in the South. Well, that's of course part of the beauty of it. We have strong religious traditions, but there's a resistance in the South that's not very well known outside of it. And that’s not well known internationally, either.

This is the other thing: we're doing what we’re doing self-consciously. At some point, we are saying to ourselves: If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere. Nietzsche said what doesn't kill us makes us tough, and I think we're pretty tough already in the South. But we're building muscle, we're building community, and we cannot do this by ourselves. We need all of you, so thank you so much for coming here.

Click here to read a recap of the event and see photos.