01/14/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2012

Martin Luther King Day: Let King Be King

The electrifying oratory has long been silenced: the fearless personal passion ended. But Dr. Martin Luther King's message still resonates. Nearly 60 years after King climbed the white steps outside Dexter Avenue Baptist to begin ministry there, 50 years after the Freedom Riders boarded buses to challenge a fundamentally immoral transport system, and 20 years after President George W. Bush strengthened civil rights laws around employment discrimination, a diverse generation of activists has arisen to claim his legacy.

But what is the legacy? For many, if it is more than merely a day off rather than a day on, the legacy has become a time to do voluntary service, remembering Dr. King's injunction that 'Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.'

It's a noble and wonderful aspiration. Service to others is as universal as the golden rule and as old as the Torah. The co-authors of the federal Service Day, former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, had a vibrant and far-reaching aim in mind. They sought to challenge Americans to transform the day into a national participatory moment of civic action. Civil Rights ll.

But incorporating the day into the federal calendar may have inadvertently softened the master's message and diminished the Dream. Many of the activities that Martin Luther King stood for are, simply, still too hot to touch. He railed against the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. He supported garbage workers in their struggle. Materialism was an abomination. He called for "a radical revolution of values."

And so, it all became too much. For many, the King Day of Service has become a moment to paint walls, plant flowers and beautify a neighborhood.

These are positive and worthy activities. But King's death is about so much more than picking up trash in a park. To borrow a sentiment from C.S. Lewis, we must embrace all of King, or none of King. Choosing only parts of him gives us nothing more than a day off work and feel good nostalgia.

Dr. King was a threat to an entire existing order and he died for it.

We must reclaim Martin Luther King Day as a day of civic action. We can keep the positive activities that service days provide. But we only deserve them if we also remember why Dr. King lived and died among us: as a champion of civil and human rights, as a threat to a perceived order, as a claimant on the promissory note of American equality, first for African-Americans and later as a reminder, to the comfortable, of all those against whom the deck has been stacked.

And there is something more. We only deserve his legacy if we move even beyond these demands to something even greater -- the ultimate destination that King stood for: a Beloved Community. Dr. King recognized that it was not enough to march, that it was not enough to sit-in, or enjoy equal access. This was merely the absence of negatives. King called us to a community that has moved past demands, to true brotherhood and sisterhood. The Beloved Community is a stunning vision of total relatedness. In this society, the divides that we currently live by, are subsumed into a community of love. It is a vision, as he saw it, of black and white together. Today we would have to expand those boundaries to many other ethnicities and lives.
But knowing this also explains why Dr. King strove unrelentingly to bring white Americans along with him, rather than excluding them, as some in his movement desired. It was not because he was soft, as some claimed, but the opposite, because he was hardened, possessed of a transcendent vision.

Politically, this vision is so extreme it is almost nonsensical. It cannot be achieved without the kind of openness that "transcends class and nation." In our politics, it calls us to give up the delicious, terrible divisions that offer a way for us to understand what we are -- by knowing what we are not. It challenges us to heal the divides that arise in a thriving democracy. In this election year, more than ever, that seems a tall order. Nonetheless, this is the Kingian destination. Good luck with that voting.