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Seniors in the North Carolina Field Minister Program at Nash Correctional Institution are taking an ethics class titled “Social Justice and Race Relations.” The College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary describes the course as a “study of the ethics of social justice and race relations in light of biblical principles, theological doctrines, and historical expressions with special attention given to the church’s task in promoting social justice and confronting prejudice and discrimination.”

These goals present a daunting challenge for a lifetime, but in a semester, students can choose the path of justice and learn principles by which to navigate. One key principle has emerged from the material and through class discussion: listening is the first step toward social justice and equality.

Society’s failure to listen has been on full display as protesters across the nation have demonstrated their frustration. Martin Luther King Jr. once described rioting as “the language of the unheard.” King was not encouraging people to riot if they felt unheard. He was encouraging people to listen to those crying out for justice. Listening validates the oppressed deserving of justice, enables people to understand the causes of social justice, and empowers people to develop actionable solutions.

Some criticize the “Black Lives Matter” slogan because they misunderstand the goal of the movement: The phrase intends to draw attention to social injustices that relegate Black lives to the status of second-class citizens, not claim that Black lives are more important than other lives.

The cry for justice is more than a slogan. Before discounting the movement or the people involved, people should listen to the persons pleading for justice. Listen to the injustice suffered. Listen to how the injustice makes them feel as individuals.

Listening leads to the development and display of compassion for all people, including people protesting for justice.

The first step to social justice is listening in order to understand. Listening makes it possible to address the causes of oppression. Listening facilitates engagement on first a personal and then a broader level. When it comes to injustice, listening should be the least that can be done, but listening must be done before any other activity can succeed.

Every person in prison understands the need to be heard, the desire for someone, anyone, to listen. Incarcerated persons may not have the power to institute justice and equality at the systemic or societal level, but we do have the capacity to pursue social justice and equality on the personal level. This pursuit begins with listening, listening in order to understand, listening in order to learn, listening in order to respond.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Timothy Johnson is the assistant editor for The Nash News, a newspaper published out of Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina, where he is incarcerated. He holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry with a minor in counseling from Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary. He also works as a graduate assistant and is the editor of the journal Ambassadors in Exile for The College at Southeastern’s North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP), which provides theological training to long-term incarcerated people.