I feel annoyed every time I see a reference to “service” in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Why? Certainly not because King himself was not a servant of justice. Indeed, just like the figure King followed, it was a service of ultimate sacrifice, service unto death.
But King’s variety of service was a type that challenged an unjust society at the level of its core institutions and practices, that named evil and demanded action to end it. It was surely not volunteer service to clean up the litter on an untended corner lot or a few hours of helping out at the local animal shelter. It was in no way “feel good” service, as his speech at New York’s Riverside Church, one year before he was murdered in Memphis, made abundantly clear.
With the horrors of the Vietnam War in mind, King’s version of service was to call out the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” castigating in crystal clear terms “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” King insisted on nothing less than “a radical revolution of values” to create a “person-oriented society.” In a searing statement that could have been made yesterday, King prophesied that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
We’re still dying, and no amount of milk-toast service will save us. Only sustained civil protest for justice is likely to yield the kind of “uplift” the martyred Dr. King envisioned for a deeply scarred America.