To serve or not to serve — That is the question

As a lawyer, I belong to a profession that is supposed to be dedicated to service — to justice, to my clients, to due process, to the rule of law. It’s really not fundamentally about me. 

Of course, like everyone else, I need to earn my living as well — which I do personally by teaching law, mainly constitutional law, at the law school at UMass Dartmouth. And so I should also be of service to my students, who are my ultimate employer. Occasionally, I also handle cases and causes I believe in pro bono, on a volunteer basis for the sake of the good I might accomplish. In some ways my regular salary gives me the freedom, which many others do not have, to try to be helpful in that way.

The temptation, though, is to view my profession as law professor as some kind of self-justifying status or end in itself, as if our legal justice system and university structure of legal education were meant to serve me and my kind, rather than the other way around. A calling to serve others risks becoming, sadly in that eventuality, a form of self-service. I think we need to be reminded of the importance of service and of the serving professions, since our natural tendency is to always think of Number One; what’s in it for me?

And so we professionals, and I don’t think this is a problem restricted to lawyers or professors, need to be reminded of the salutary teaching and example of Jesus, Who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). He also said, “A new Commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). The old Commandment, of course, was to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms that but also goes beyond it. How did Jesus love us? “Greater love than this no one has: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Jesus lived and died what He preached.

Jesus served by dying for us on the cross, but He also served in smaller ways by washing His Apostles’ feet and selflessly instructing them in the ways of justice and healing them in their infirmities. We professionals, lawyers, doctors, educators, business people, clergy, etc., would do well to do likewise and always try to serve others, and not just ourselves. This goes for all professionals, and for that matter everyone, since it is an implication of the golden rule, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 

We’ve seen health professionals and doctors recently risk their lives to help people stricken with the Ebola epidemic. Lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston, who pioneered the civil rights movement long before Thurgood Marshall and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came on the scene, sacrificed themselves to see that blacks were treated with respect and equality before the law during the long struggle over civil rights. But what are we doing now to assure access to justice and respect for human freedom and equality? What am I doing? In that regard, I do not think it is enough to rest on what we’ve done in the past. There is still so much to do. Others, and indeed God Himself, can rightly ask us, “What have you done for Me lately?” 

Jesus says in the Gospels: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for Me” (Mt. 25:40). Pope Francis is constantly reminding us to go to the peripheries and outskirts and serve the poor and marginalized. That, in any case, is what Jesus did and taught.

Anchor columnist Dwight Duncan is a professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in civil and canon law.

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