Dr. King understood one of Christianity’s most obvious and challenging convictions: the call to serve. In a world where greatness is usually marked by power, influence, and money, Dr. King knew greatness comes from serving others. In fact, one who really takes the call to serve seriously, doesn’t get concerned with greatness at all.
On February 4, 1968, two months to the day before he would be assassinated, Dr. King said these words at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta:
But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.
That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it:
by giving that definition of greatness,
it means that everybody can be great,
because everybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
And you can be that servant.
The radical nature of this wisdom is neck-snapping. It flips the world’s typical belief in power on its head. It is, simply put, a revolution, a new definition, a completely radical re-orientation. This is hard for most of us because it invites us to remove ego from how we work and live in the world. We need not be concerned with how others see us, with how much we can move, with acquiring influence. We need only be concerned with what we do for others.
Here in the United States, we are living through some very ugly times. We are watching the end of a presidency that has been marked by selfishness, self-assertion, and personal grievance. We have seen violence used against one of our most important institutions. We have listened to an hourly drumbeat of lies that, in the end, are all about gathering and holding on to power. It’s almost unbelievable that many people who call themselves Christians have been dedicated followers of this movement. But if Martin Luther King Day 2021 calls us to anything, it asks us to reconsider Dr. King’s words about what makes one great. It is not the ability to make others do things. It is not the ability to constantly assert one’s own desire. It is about the need to kneel before the world and serve.
Around the world, suffering abounds. From Yemen to Congo, from inner city Washington, D.C. to rural Brazil, everywhere people suffer. We don’t have to look far. We only need to ask ourselves how we can help. As a teacher, I have to ask myself, how does my teaching American Literature and poetry help people who suffer in Yemen? How does my own poetry and writing make life better for street children in Senegal?
Obviously, service can take many forms. From helping in a soup kitchen, to assisting an elderly neighbor with work around her house; from sharing one’s financial resources to listening to a lonely friend. We don’t need to be on a board of directors or on a fancy faculty to serve. All we need to do is to see the people around us, note their reality, and ask if we can help. It doesn’t take money, education, or position. It only takes, as Dr. King notes, “…a soul generated by love.”
Imagine a world marked by that kind of greatness. Imagine a family, city, country, world in which we look to one another for how we can give, not for how we can get. That would be a revolution. Dr. King invites us to that every time we read his words. What will we do with that invitation?
Photograph above is from the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. and was taken by the author.