MLK Worked for Transformation – Not for Service

January 16, 2019

On MLK Day, Americans will be encouraged to volunteer in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inevitably, one sentence from King’s final sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” will be shared: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” Many volunteers will complete the day believing the quote refers to annual volunteering. But the sermon was about a much larger challenge: finding one’s role within organizations and movements dedicated to the long struggle for justice.

King challenged America to imagine what it would look like to infuse our nation’s promise – all people are created equal – with a divine love. That love is muscular. It breaks unjust laws, resists oppressive institutions, and rewires our souls with enough grace to embrace one another across difference.

His 1958 essay, “An Experiment in Love,” identifies love of all persons as the foundational commitment in nonviolent strategy. King writes, “It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24)… It is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding concern for others,’ which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets.”

This love is a transformational love. It is a love that calls all of us to ask whether our schools, faith institutions, and government entities embody neighbor-regarding concern for others. King modeled such questioning – and that led him to thoughtfully break the law. In 1963, following one of his 29 arrests, King drew on St. Augustine in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, recognizing, “An unjust law is no law at all.” He continued, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly … and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

The thirty-two clergy members and citizens arrested in December at the US-Mexico border, along with the hundreds of activists arrested in a protest against child detention and family separation at the Hart Senate Office Building in June, are following in King’s footsteps. Yet King’s embrace of love was more than a simple permission to act in accord with the biblical love of the migrant and the stranger. King also challenged himself and his fellow activists to love all enemies.

This is a central commitment of democratic life: caring for others in community, regardless of political affiliation or ideology. King understood this. Writing again in “An Experiment in Love,” he said, “Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person- his need for belonging to the best in the human family.” In today’s discourse, this side of King’s legacy would be critiqued across the political spectrum as overly accommodating. But King somehow managed to combine love of the enemy, graciousness in conflict, and unmistakable unwillingness to compromise where core commitments were at odds with broader cultural and legal practices.

Honoring King through acts of volunteer service presents a paradox. Because of restrictions imposed by Congress, the Corporation for National and Community Service prohibits members of its primary program, AmeriCorps, from engaging in the very activities that occupied most of King’s time. AmeriCorps has been the most important contributor to the expansion of MLK Day as a day of national service. Yet during AmeriCorps service time, volunteers are forbidden from participating in protests, petitions, boycotts, or strikes. They are mandated to refrain from any attempts to influence legislation.

These prohibitions are in place in an attempt to avoid partisanship, but King was not some simple partisan policy activist. He stood for values far more important than any individual party. In 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, he delivered a roundly critiqued anti-war speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” In a manner that is political but nonpartisan in its broad, withering critique of American Culture, King called for, “a radical revolution of values.” We must, he insisted, “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” Only through such a shift could we possibly address “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

It is not only a review of King’s work that demonstrates he would have given us a different sort of challenge than voluntary service alone. We have an opportunity to examine what he encouraged in others. Appearing at the YMCA at UC-Berkeley in 1957, King said, “there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination… I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and tragic militarism.”

In the United States today, we worship militarism. We face an epidemic of gun violence. We still have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We separate families and jail children. As a country, we do not enact equal respect and dignity across sex, race, or class. We do not embody neighbor-regarding concern for others.

If you wish to honor MLK this year, nurture the beloved community and intentional maladjustment. Love your every neighbor near and far, radically, inclusively. If this comes partly through acts of service, wonderful. Connect with your local AmeriCorps MLK Day of Service project. But also study King’s works. Listen to his speeches. Share his vision. Refuse to adjust to our reality of segregation, incarceration, consumerism, rampant militarism, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny. Figure out how you can resist these things in your life and community. Boycott unjust corporations and openly, lovingly break unjust laws. Resist hating your political and ideological enemies. Live and lead from love. Construct better communities and therefore a better world.

Repeat and advance King’s prayer, “God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

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Eric Hartman is lead author of Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroad, Executive Director of the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, and co-founder of The Globalsl Network, a coalition advancing community-campus partnerships for just, inclusive, and sustainable communities.   

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