Sunday, September 13, 2009

What does it mean to commemorate disasters with service?

The United States now commemorates historical crises with days of service. For the past decade or so the default celebration of Martin Luther King Day has been to carry out service. And this year for the first time September 11th was officially dubbed a "National Day of Service." Why is this? What does it mean that when faced with historic events that refer to a major crisis and its response (racism and the civil rights movement in one case, terrorism and the heroism of first responders in the other) the official apparatus of the state calls for service?

These questions interest me for two reasons. First, this is a relatively new trend. Dating back to the 17th century one common response to crisis has been calling on God. The Puritans did it in response to war, storms, disease, and political crisis. Their religious/political leaders deemed disaster as a sign of God's anger. And so the proper response was a period of fasting, mourning, and re-dedication to God. The trend continues until at least the late 19th century. Lincoln, for example, declared a national day of prayer in response to the crises of the Civil War.

More recently commemorations of crises have sparked marches, vigils, etc. This was the first tendency after MLK's assassination. Each year starting in 1969 and lasting until at least the mid-1980s the anniversary of King's birth brought about marches in DC and Atlanta, and prayer vigils in churches throughout the south. It was only when King's birthday became a national holiday that it also became a day of service. This was a political decision taken by the commission that oversees the King holiday and puts out a list of "official" MLK Day activities. (For an academic study of King commemorations, check out my book, Making Villains, Making Heroes. I say "check it out" because the only place you can get it is a very large library filled with very dull first books by academics. Still, it is a pretty good history.)

Now, only 8 years after 9/11, it too is officially commemorated by service.

The second reason I'm interested is that schools have taken up these calls for service and they are coming to shape the way colleges and universities do their community service and service-learning activities.

I understand the pull of joining a national day of service. But it seems like the sorts of service done on a single day lead far from the sort of reflection and action that would accurately mark events like the civil rights movement and modern terrorism. How can the very useful acts of service--clean-ups, house painting, tutoring, food drives, etc. get us anywhere towards understanding race and/or terror?

I've argued elsewhere that acts of menial service like those that fit in days of service can have substantial meaning. (If you want to read my draft essay, "Finding Meaning in Menial Service" where I try to put such acts into a religious/civic context send me an email to and I'll email you a copy). But it seems like the way that we do it today gets us further, not closer, to understanding the crises of our time.

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

I'd say that you probably have it right when you say that these commemorations rarely bring us closer to understanding-- and I've been disappointed for a while with the ways in which MLK, Jr. Day is usually celebrated-- but I'd contest your suggestion that service takes us further from understanding. I think you need to provide some evidence for that claim, if you're going to make it.