Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Is "service" a lifestyle, a calling, an "identity", or a secular moral obligation? (Yes, it even matters for the Web); a Fairfax VA pastor weighs in

Monday, as March went out like a lamb, I was returning back from a day trip in rural Virginia along US 50, just north of the Virginia Beltway, and noticed a church sign saying “wanted: Imperfect people; Perfect people need not apply”.  Driving alone and in motion, I could not snap a picture. What's above is from earlier in the day. 
When I got home, I checked the website for the Fairfax Circle Baptist Church and found a most interesting and provocative sermon by Lead Pastor David Magnet as an audio file, running about 25 minutes, here.  

The title was “Essentials: Serving – from Obligation to Lifestyle”.

He did not present the topic of altruistic service as a moral issue.  Instead, he said that it should become a lifestyle, “something that flows out of you”, something that becomes “who you are”.  Former president Jimmy Carter had talked about this idea at the Washington National Cathedral back around 1995, but did not emphasize the "identity" aspect as much, from what I recall.  
Of course, the Fairfax pastor is relating the spiritual world of the New Testament, where “the greatest will be the least”.  He said that one will gladly “serve others’ agendas”.  So much for the idea that “unbalanced personalities” (in the Rosenfels polarity system) insist on being true to their own self-defined purposes.

The pastor also indicated that service is done without expectation of anything in return, if it is part of “who you are”.  I certainly agree that most service should be done without financial compensation.  But what about visibility.  Most people expect to see good deeds be noticed – and the pastor questions this expectation.  One problem that I find with organizations that recruit volunteers – even the very best and most reputable ones – is that they still become bureaucratic.  And they expect their volunteers to be “with it” and loyal as to organizational, rather than personal, aims.  They send emails like “can we count on you this time?”

He also described service as something that comes out of “obedience”, which it may be “inconvenient” for the volunteer.  Now I get the idea of obedience coming from faith.  But it’s awfully easy for a religious or political leader to abuse the concept.  There’s even the idea of upward affiliation or hero worship, now misplaced.  If I saw a young man asking me to give up everything and follow him now, even after seeing him demonstrated “Clark Kent” powers (as in the “Smallville” series) I would be appropriately cautious about my inclinations and perceptions. 

But in a “real world”, just looking at ethics from a mainstream, “secular” viewpoint, it seems that the way individuals balance following their own goals with meeting the “real needs of others” in a short term sense especially, is a moral issue, because in the long run it affects the future and sustainability.  It’s easy to see how the climate change debate figures in.  This is particularly troubling for people, especially males, who may be less socially competitive in meeting the normal needs of their communities, and can easily go off on their own.  When someone becomes prominent and visible without “paying his dues”, others who are intrinsically disadvantaged (especially because of inherited economic inequality) may get the idea that the “rules” of society (the law) are meaningless. The visibility issue plays out particularly with the Internet (and social media), where the “freedom” to self-broadcast by those without families can complicate things for those who have taken on raising children or who have more responsibility for others.  Society can become less stable, and actual crime and bullying can be difficult to contain. With all the progress in gay rights (especially in military and now marriage issues) in the West, we also find that this topic is particularly distracting to people with fewer economic opportunities (especially in less democratic or developed countries) for whom the “meaning” of having and raising  children and of building family units from biological lineage is all they have. 

Therefore, it’s useful to view “service” in secular moral terms, even if we don’t intend to solve all our problems just with political processes and policies, which can invite abuse by leadership. A “natural market” will eventually see some misuse of freedom as evidence of “bad faith” and may clamp down on some of these freedoms. 

One issue that the pastor did not specify is risk.  In fact, the sharing of exposure to hardship can become an important social issue, and has fed ideological debates in the past (such as with the way the Chinese in particular implemented communism with the "Cultural Revolution" in the 1960s).  I personally weigh risk very carefully and deliberately.  If I help someone, I may sometimes have some responsibility to intercede to protect the person.  The buck could stop with me and I could take the hit.  And, no, it's not completely OK just to assume that the social "reward" in Heaven would take care of that risk, although that's another discussion.  One needs to be more socially connected to "enjoy" that "reward" than I am or ever have been.    

What seems clear is that the impulse for “service” isn’t really just about “choice” and personal responsibility for what follows choice, or about what libertarians call “freedom to contract”.  It isn’t something that waits for the decision to marry and have children.  (Few of today’s young adults grasp how the Vietnam-era military draft and then student deferments played out as a moral issue in the 1960s; I lived that issue.)  It seems that things are the other way around. Service, carried out in good faith, tends to lead to long term and stable relationships and marriages.   

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