A respectful critique of the Day of Service


Today is Martin Luther King Day.

In the evening as I write this, thousands of volunteers are trooping home in the arctic air, after a day of volunteering their time to help paint murals, build playgrounds, offer health screenings and a host of other useful deeds.

It was the 22nd annual Day of Service in the city where the idea of observing the holiday in this fashion was born.

I don’t want to disrespect the good will of the thousands who did something generous today, instead of shopping, skiing or just sleeping in late.

And I want to confess that on this King Day, at least, I did no volunteering. I worked on my usual stuff.

Despite all that, let me say this: For all its good intentions, the King Day of Service has always bugged the heck out of me.


Because it turns Dr. King’s fierce, uncompromising, prophetic message to his nation into something safe, narrow, domesticated. Something to pull off the shelf one day a year, bow to, then feel free to disregard the rest of the year.

Dr. King didn’t say, “Go ye forth and build a playground on one cold day a year.”

He called us to build the “beloved community,” to build it with the tools of love, justice and self-examination upon the ashes of hate, selfishness and our own blinding self-regard.

By the time he died, Dr. King was not fighting just to give the African-American the vote, or the right to sit where she wanted on a bus or at a diner. He was calling into question the habitual violence and structural injustices perpetuated by our national creed of militaristic capitalism. He never stopped finding uncomfortable truths to speak to power.

(What, oh what, might he have said about the dangerous racist fool now sitting in the Oval Office?)

This is one vital part of Dr. King’s prophetic voice that we mute when we tidy up his memory so that it can fit inside the well-meaning but narrow straitjacket of the Day of Service.

There is another piece that I would hope that even our fiercely woke and intersectional justice warriors of today might keep in mind.

Dr. King wanted not only to free his own people from the bonds of injustice, contempt and poverty in which white society tried to keep them shackled.

He also wanted, fervently, to free white people from the prison of their hate.

He knew that the mountaintop would never be reached until that happened.
And he understood, having grappled long and hard with the difficult demands of Jesus’ good news, that he was called to love even the whites who spat and jeered and called out the dogs upon him and his fellow protesters. He knew those white folks were, most of them, trapped inside their own hurts of class, wealth, education and status.

They were in pain, authentic pain, but took that out on others in a toxically wrong way. They were in pain, and those who called the tune of militaristic capitalism were endlessly adept at getting them to blame people of color for their woes, not the people in power who were really in charge of the arrangements.

The same is true today. I know it’s a wildly unfashionable, retro view — but I don’t think it accomplishes anything to blast Trump supporters for their alleged ignorance, meanness or racism.

Well, it does accomplish something. It drives them deeper into Trump’s arms.

Better to ask them what hurts and needs led them to rally to the false flag of this grotesque messiah. Listen to what they tell you then, in search of the beloved community, gently suggest a better path.

Some will scorn the effort, and redouble their contempt and anger.

But not all. Not all. And in their change of heart we would glimpse the nation’s salvation.

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