Service, But to Whom?

By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog

mlk marchesHappy Martin Luther King Day, Save Jerseyans.

MLK Day began when President Ronald Reagan (yes, a Republican) signed legislation formalizing the holiday in 1983 and it was intended to commemorate the life and mission of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest leader.

Then our culture intervened. In 2014 MLK Day is a day off for approximately 1/3 of Americans and a day of earning income (and paying taxes) for those of us in the small business community. For the rest? It’s a “day on” of “service” activities.

My question: to whom? The answer is  more complicated (and distressing) than you might imagine at first blush…

The Civil War generation struggled to save the Union for future generations. My grandparents’ generation fought to make the world safe for democracy. Millennials (my generation)? Service!

Picking up litter. Reading to kids. Painting over graffiti. Planting evergreen trees. Visiting senior citizens.

Great stuff. Unobjectionable. Laudable. But in my humble opinion, Save Jerseyans, it’s relatively easy stuff, and service without a clear idea of who/what/why you’re serving is tantamount to gift-giving on Christmas absent any notion of the significance of Christ’s virgin birth. You’re just going through the motions at that point.

If we’re being honest, most millenials labor at soup kitchens and clothing drives to pad their resumes for college. It’s what you’re supposed to do. Once you’re through grad school and reach the stage where you’re auditioning for employers (who care a lot less about service than admissions counselors), service goes by the wayside. Craft beer and mud runs fill the gap.

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t have time for either even if such leisure pursuits had existed back then. A flawed man to be sure, but one with principles who once said “[t]here comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

King had high hopes. He envisioned an American future where young people would “go back and rediscover those precious values – that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.” He probably could’ve never imagined what to do with a generation that could only communicate via twitter, espoused to be “spiritual, but not religious,” and even if they occasionally did feel a fleeting attachment to some value strongly enough to share with others, they don’t know nearly enough about civics or history to make a meaningful contribution to the national discourse.

I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. Get out there and do good today (if you’re not working a very full day like yours truly). Don’t let me dissuade you. Charity is as therapeutic for the performer as the recipient. But at the end of the day, friends, Martin Luther King’s birthday should be about ideas, too. Equality. Justice. Freedom. For every last one of us.

Which ideologies empower human beings? And which leave them functionally indentured?

Are we serving our communities and our principles? Or our resumes and a failed conventional wisdom?

Addressing the symptoms of poverty and injustice is no substitute for tackling the disease itself.

And what are those malignant elements? Start your education by reading Save Jersey on a daily basis. Think of it as another form of service to your community.