The idea of public service has gotten a lot of press lately. Talk of compulsory service has circulated from Congress to the White House, and is, I think, an oxymoron. But let’s start with service itself. Public service sounds wonderful and downright patriotic, and there’s definitely something to be gained from a focus on others rather than just ourselves.
See, if we’re just serving with the foggy goal of improving the “common good”, we eventually start to wonder where our own “common good” is. If we’re just serving others because we want to be good for goodness’ sake, we’ll eventually grow weary of it and start to wonder where our benefit is in all of this service, and our many hours of attempted service are really just attempts at personal gain.
Because service doesn’t mean anything without a basis for why we serve each other. We have to believe that humans are special, created in the image of God, and that we have precious, eternal souls. We have to know that our lives are meaningful in the context of a spiritual realm–not because we’re serving our way to heaven–but because knowing that a treasure awaits tomorrow helps to put today in perspective.
Now back to compulsory service. In the state of Maryland, it’s compulsory for high school students to perform community service as a condition of graduation. While that sounds harmless, I think such forced service will prove to be an act of futility. The government cannot force young people to care about their communities and serve their neighborhoods, and it becomes nothing more than a buzzword, a waste of time and a meaningless fad. There could be the occasional inspired mentor who impacts these students as they serve, but many students may do the bare minimum and escape with no understanding of why service is important or how enriching it could be, given a volunteering spirit and faith-based perspective. (After all, doesn’t forced “volunteerism” kind of take the word “volunteer” out of the equation? At that point, no matter how valuable the work, it’s essentially forced labor.)
Faith-based volunteers make up most of the service force in the United States, and I believe it’s because we have a reason to care and a reason to serve. We also know better how to serve our neighbors than a large and faraway bureaucrat ever will. We are grounded in faith, and this belief in a higher power and a sense of our own need for redemption moves us to make a difference in the lives of those around us.
Look at the countless hospitals and universities named after saints and church leaders. Even the YMCA got its start as a service by and for young Christians. As Christians, we come from a long line of (non-compulsory) servers. We are called to love one another as Christ loves us, and we don’t need a politician or corruptible community organization to tell us to do so.
So let’s get out there, hands and feet of Christ. Let’s prove to a dying, disenchanted world that we care and we will serve them as our forefathers did. Love cannot be bought, and true, life-changing service cannot be forced.