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Martin Luther King III on Faith, Service, and the UN Millennium Development Goals
Martin Luther King III
New York, United States
September 23, 2007

Address at UPF's Assembly 2007

The twentieth century will be remembered as the most violent century throughout all of civilization. One researcher reports that nearly 100 million war-related deaths occurred in the last century, leaving in its wake a constellation of wounded and maimed, fatherless and motherless, homeless and helpless refugees. But the twentieth century will not only be mourned for the magnitude of its violence. It will also be marked by the magnanimous women and men who made the ultimate sacrifice for truth and justice, peace and nonviolence, conflict resolution and community reconciliation. They were the peace ambassadors of the people-powered revolution of the Philippines, the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the modern civil rights movement of the United States of America, the freedom movement of South Africa, and the satyagraha of India. They were found in Poland, Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

And what was the secret of their success? I submit that it was their unwavering commitment to faith and service. During the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century in the United States, many people of conscience and good will worked tirelessly toward a dream of equality. The hard-fought battles of the movement then were waged with the sword of service and the shield of faith.

Arguably, as the movement's most ardent and articulate champion, my father believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all and encouraged this nation to live up to the true meaning of its creed. His faith was summed up in this statement: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice." Even more, his dedication to service was exemplified in the ultimate sacrifice he made serving garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Equally important, and too often overlooked, he encouraged all peoples to live up to their purpose and potential by uniting and taking action to make this world a better place in which to live. That action, he believed, would be a living manifestation of their faith.

He further expressed that faith and its magnificence in action as he framed it in the context of service. Now listen just a moment as I paraphrase what he said. He said that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. He said you don't have to have a college degree to serve, you don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve, you only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. Their collective faith that the arc of the universe is long but that it bends towards justice energized and gave direction to service. The twentieth century's victories were not so much those of politicians or presidents, kings or queens, but ordinary people energized by faith and galvanized in service, and because of their faith and service they are seen today as yesterday's champions of peace through non-violence.

But what about us today? Today, according to UNICEF, there are more then a billion children living in poverty in the world. About 150 million children are suffering from malnutrition, and it is estimated that 11 million children will die of preventable illnesses this year. Clearly we must work with increasing dedication to invest our resources in saving our children, because it seems to me that our world will be gauged by how it treats its most precious resource, and certainly our children are our most precious resource. To do this, our world cries out for a new generation, one whose line of vision extends beyond the endless chain of revenge, retribution and retaliation to one of faith and service. As in the twentieth century, through faith we can command the moral authority to act in service to our brothers and sisters, whether locally or globally. Just as service and faith-based humanitarian action spawned the victories of the last century's movements, so can they kindle a fire that wins victories in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals in this century.

With all of our technical know how, the issue is not whether we can eradicate poverty, preserve our environment, or eliminate epidemics and diseases of destruction, but whether we have the faith and the will to act. This is very, very important, because I believe we can do almost anything. We have the ability to do almost anything, but we have to look deep, deep inside to the depths of our souls to find the will. So that when ability and will meet, results are yielded.

It was the service of a few good women and men that challenged and changed the world. It won victories in the United States, such as civil, voting, and fair housing rights legislation. That same faith and service won freedom and democracy in nations around the globe. And it will be the same faith and commitment to service in this century that can win victories in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals. Finally, it has become popular to characterize service as a toggle switch—a day on not a day off—where picking up trash or painting swings in a park or marching in a convenient afternoon rally become convenient demonstrations of caring for others. But the challenges and opportunities of this century demand that we rethink our faith and service.

My father declared that the ultimate measure of a man or woman is not where they stand in times of comfort and convenience but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy. He went on to say that cowardice asks the question: is a position safe? Expediency asks the question: is a position politic? And vanity asks the question: is a position popular? But something inside called conscience asks the question: is a position right? He went on to say that sometimes we must take positions that are neither safe nor popular nor politic, but we must take those positions because our consciences tell us they are right.

I'd like to paraphrase the portion of that statement. Cowardice asks the question: Is service safe? Expediency asks the question: Is service politic? Vanity asks the question: Is service popular? But faith asks the question: Is service right? And there comes a time where one must serve not because it is safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must serve because one's conscience, one's faith compels him or her to know that it is right.

I challenge all of us to think confidently and creatively about ways our faith and service can be regenerative in spawning a new movement of hope in young people who boldly demonstrate their faith in service to meet the challenges and opportunities found in the Millennium Development Goals.

Thank you and God bless you all.

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