Proximate justice, one more time.

I walked into a familiar classroom this morning, one where I spent many hours over many years. And as I prepared to begin, I saw an essay I had written some years ago, “Making Peace with Proximate Justice” on the desks in the room filled with students from all over America.

For the next two hours I lectured to the American Studies Program, welcoming them to live and learn in Washington DC, setting before them the challenge of doing so in an increasingly pluralizing, secularizing, and globalizing world— but before the time was over working with them on the question, “How do we develop and deepen a vocation in the public world that can be sustained?” To put it another way: in the face of Lord Bismarck’s hard-won wisdom— “If you want to respect sausage or law, then you cannot watch either being made” — how do we keep at it? Can we know the political world, and still care about it?

Poking their political preferences, I offered them Saturday Night Live’s “Bubble” skit from the weekend following the election in November (yes, you need to see it), then an essay from this week in the Federalist, “Donald Trump Is The First President To Turn Postmodernism Against Itself” (yes, you need to read it). Everyone’s ox was gored. But then I pressed in with a vision for vocation in the public squares of the world that is born of a deeper quest for a justice and mercy that cuts deeper than the partisan divide, that sometimes sounds more “liberal’ and sometimes more “conservative,” because its home is neither in the ideology of the left nor the right, but in fact born of the very heart of God. In the fiercely-divided moment we are in right now, that seems almost impossible, and yet there is no long-term good for all, no common good, no commonwealth, if we only imagine politics to be a zero-sum-game where the winner takes all. Most of the time, in recent memory, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans seem to see beyond this, and in the end, everyone suffers, all over the America and the world, everyone suffers.

And of course I told stories of former students I have known who once shared the same seats, coming from colleges and universities across the country into the capitol city to learn about their place in the world. In many different ways they made good use of their months here, some staying for life and some going back home, but each one more fully prepared to take up vocations marked by being and becoming common grace for the common good.

When it was all done, I made my way to the Dubliner, an Irish pub on Capitol Hill, to see a long friend, a former ASP student himself. After graduating, he came back to the city to do a PhD in politics, then went to California for theological study, pastored a church for a while, began to write books, and is now a college president. Over fish-and-chips, we talked about the world several times over, about the good and the not-so-good, about good work, about the loves and longings that mark his life and mine.

Students don’t stay students forever…. which is some of what I said to the students this morning. “You are on the cusp of the rest of your lives, making choices about who you are and what you believe, about what matters to you and what doesn’t, that in profound ways will shape you for your life. This semester matters, for now but even more for the rest of your life.”

And sometimes students grow up, becoming friends that keep on keeping on with us, in their own unique way part of the fabric of life that becomes life, the tapestry we weave over the years bringing together our hopes and our fears, what we long for with the way that we live. And when that happens, it is a gift.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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