Social workers often get accused of being bleeding-heart liberals who hug trees and sing “kum-ba-yah.” Like most stereotypes, there is a reason why this image emerged. Maybe it comes from our genetic predisposition, or a lived experience that environmentally propels us to be the kind of change we want to see in the world. Maybe it has to do with the way a lot of us dress, or how we tend to vote, or the fact that camping vacations are more suited to our budget than all encompassing resort destinations. The social workers I know and respect may wear their Birkenstocks with pride, but they also know how to speak truth to power. They understand that without an embrace of conflicts, a break-down in dualistic thinking, or a true and active empathy for the “other,” there is no amount of real change that is going to take place.
The truth is, as we start up this particular academic year, most social work faculty are about to break that stereotype for the students who file on to campus, ready to change the world. We are about to inflict upon them conflicting points of view, data that doesn’t support their assertions, and clients who have no interest in following the carefully constructed treatment plans written for class assignments. We are going to break down their sense of safety and force multiple points of view to emerge in the classroom, and ask them to be empathetically present with people they would rather avoid talking to at all. We are going to attempt to model social justice, critical thinking, and an embrace of diversity as ideals. And at the core of all this, there is conflict.
I am writing about embracing conflict and division this week, spurred on by my weekly Who is My Neighbor blog for my faith community. This week, a challenging bit of the weekly Gospel reading suggests that Jesus came not to bring peace, but to bring division. Now, it is as easy to talk about Jesus as a “peace on earth” guru, just like its easy to tag my professional peers as bleeding hearts. So, it occurred to me this week as I sat with this lesson that there is something in common between the stories of this historical person called Jesus and the stories I tell my students about what led to the major changes that have happened in society: civil rights, policy reform, organizing for change. Someone (or some group) must speak truth to power. Conflict must emerge. An unsettling and uneasy period of division must be navigated. In that context, fertile ground emerges on which change can begin to emerge, and grow. Theory, practice, and experience tell us that human beings don’t change without some prompting or activation…whether genetic or motivational or familial or environmental or cultural. Or all of the above. Change is difficult. Division is inevitable. Conflict cannot be avoided.
Not exactly kum-ba-yah. Or maybe it is.
When I consider even my own little journey in this vast world, my most transformative experiences have been the most painful. I needed to be written up by a supervisor to transform my career path. I needed to be made painfully aware of my ignorance and privilege so that I could really understand the experience of the other. I still need to take the risk and authentically speak truth to power whether in my workplace, or my community, or even in cyber space. But that doesn’t mean I disadvantage or knock down the people on the other side of the divide. Speaking in terms of my faith tradition, I am keenly aware that the same Jesus that came to bring division also says that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. It seems like a conundrum, but actually there is an important truth inside the paradox. Conflict is a system issue necessary to propel change. Love is an individual act of radical grace, a choice to see the person inside the conflict.
And it isn’t just Jesus saying this: many of our leaders across faith traditions and spiritual movements speak this same message. It is necessary…but not sufficient…to speak truth to power. We also have to create genuine empathy and be willing to approach the other with divine love. That, my friends, is where it gets really difficult. And potentially, really powerful. For me, it is where I have to look to something larger than I am right now to guide me, instead of relying on the current limits of my humanness. I am appreciative of this week’s On Being interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah which speaks so well to the embrace of the “mess” which forms in our divisions, allowing us to connect as humans even in the midst of our greatest divides. Take a listen, post your thoughts.
Here in my little corner of the world, I have seen the power of this approach this very week, in our faculty retreat of all places. I seem to be finding the divine illustrated in the most unlikely places lately…like my workplace…but that is for another day. I literally watched a conflicted bunch of academics (myself included) rise to the occasion this week and begin to mutually create change out of what has felt like a division pulling us apart at the seams. This is division with a small “d” but workplace policy still affects our lives, and our students. We are far from done with all the dialogues we need to have, but there is growth emerging amid divisions, and because we were finally willing to embrace them. We have started to give voice to our divisions, instead of avoiding them either due to a sense of protection, or apathy, or hopelessness. We have proposed some “getting to know you” activities to move us from our silos. We are embracing intentionality and attempting to do some things differently. I personally left a full day retreat with a different spirit than when I entered it. We didn’t link arms and sing, but maybe that is for the best. We can learn from division, and grow within it.
Speak truth to power. Love your neighbor. Embrace the mess.