Reflecting on the Politics of Service

“This is an election year, and it seems appropriate therefore to talk politics. But politics in its full sense goes far beyond primaries or even general elections. The root of the word politics if polis — the Greek word for the City, or City State. A politician in ancient times was supposed to serve the City...That is the kind of politics we need now — the politics of service.”
Sargent Shriver |New York, NY| June 10, 1964

Our Quote of the Week describes a service-oriented notion of politics. It is a notion that involves every citizen, and that Sargent Shriver embraced with enthusiasm and energy for the people he served throughout his life.

In his speech to the New York University Class of 1964, Sargent Shriver remarks on the political lives of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and the many Peace Corps Volunteers who had served around the world to that point. What is notable, Shriver says, is the way in which their values were expressed. Their political actions were always in service to others. For example, of the Peace Corps, he says:

“[Service] is also the politics of the Peace Corps. Sixty-two men and women from this university have become Peace Corps Volunteers. They are often tired. But they have been ‘voting’ for peace with their feet, their hands, their heads, and their hearts, standing in the classrooms, assisting in hospitals, working in village action programs in forty-six countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

Shriver also speaks about poverty as an area where people must be called to serve. At the time of the speech, President Johnson had appointed him to lead the War on Poverty, but the infrastructure for the “war”, the Office of Economic Opportunity, was still in the process of being created. Still, he makes a direct appeal to the audience to join the fight:

“I call upon the faculty and student body of New York University to practice the politics of service here at home in your own neighborhood. Not by more courses in responsibility or in American social problems. Not by lectures. Not by commencement talks. But by political action in this true sense of politics, in service of your city.”

Note that for Shriver, the politics of service a) involve repeated action, or practice; and b) pertain to all of us, not just to those who hold elected office.

As we head to the ballot box in November, let’s remember this model of the politics of service, and let’s support leaders who embrace and encourage the practice of service. But let us not leave it up to our political leaders to engage in this practice. For our society to thrive, we must all find ways to use our unique skills to serve others, so that we may engender a culture of giving and, at the same time, create a more engaged, and hopefully more stable and peaceful world.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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