A few weeks ago, as I was talking about civil political discourse at a church here in Minnesota, I experienced my first heckler. A middle aged man in coat and tie, he loudly yelled, "no, no!" and then stalked out of the room. It was thrilling, and confusing. I have certainly had my critics, but never a heckler.
Then, a few days ago, one of my students asked me a question that was just as thrilling and confusing: "When you say you are pursuing social justice, what does that mean?"
The two encounters are twined together and important for me. I am lucky enough to work at a school where seeking social justice is an express part of our mission, and in doing so I am sure I will run into others who strongly disagree with what I am saying. Given that, what is it, exactly, to seek social justice?
The easy, and wrong, answer is that social justice is a defined set of political beliefs. If we decide that the project of seeking social justice only includes professing our own beliefs, liberal or conservative, that project immediately becomes one of castigation and even hate, as we confront and reject those who disagree at a deeply personal level -- they are "wrong" and seeking injustice. Too often, it is this view that has prevailed in our national discourse.
What I told my student, and what I believe, is that social justice work is engaging in a dialogue on a social/political issue that does lead to justice. In other words, seeking social justice isn't a position, it's a process, a process of discussion and debate. Within that debate, those engaged in the discussion (however heated) share a very important common belief that defines the project more than anything -- that the issue is important, and worth discussing with intensity as we move towards a societal consensus.
In my own work, this definition of social justice allows me to do something remarkable: It lets me love those who oppose me, including my heckler. Yes, I disagree with him, but I can see both myself and those who oppose my view as engaging in social justice work, even admirable social justice work. Similarly, when I talk to death penalty advocates, those people who are advocates for the death penalty have something in common with me -- we both care about this issue, think it is important and are participating in a process that will help define what happens next. We are opponents, yet partners in creating something new.
Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and certainly that means we should love those who merely oppose us on political issues. Part of that love must be that we ascribe the best motives to them, rather than the worst; that we see them as our collaborators in a journey to truth rather than a roadblock; and that we see them as very much the children of God, each as they were created.
I love the ability I have as a professor to wade into these ideas of social justice. In these few months I will teach in my classrooms, debate a worthy opponent (at St. Thomas), lobby a governor (in Illinois), preach a sermon (in Richmond), lecture to a crowd (in Chicago), present a paper (in Washington, D.C.) and even stage the trial of Christ in a church under Virginia rules as way to critique the death penalty (in Richmond). It's a lot to do, but in each role I am the same person, and that person is one who is very glad to be on the journey and to meet the people who are also choosing to walk along that crooked and unmapped road.