Fifty years on ...
'What gonna happen now? In all of our cities? My people are rising; they're living in lies, Even if they have to die. Even if they have to die at the moment, they know what life is. Even at that one moment, that ya know what life is. If you have to die, it's all right, 'Cause you know what life is. You know what freedom is, for one moment of your life. But he had seen the mountaintop, And he knew he could not stop; Always living with the threat of death ahead. Folks you'd better stop and think. Everybody knows we're on the brink. What will happen, now that the King of love is dead?'
Listening to Nina Simone sing those words, three days after Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in Memphis, it is impossible not to be moved. His funeral was held in Atlanta, Georgia the following week - Holy Week 1968 - days after the remembrance of another riding into the city thronged with supporters.
Dying for a cause makes us squeamish today. Rational, reasonable debate, the occasional strongly-worded email, that is all we need to make sure that our cause flourishes. Martyrs are medieval and best consigned to the history books. Risking life and limb is a sign of lunacy or recklessness, not belief, in our risk-assessed age.
Yet martyrdom is the cost of any attempt to bring change to a violent world. Loss of reputation, status, or earnings, exclusion, bullying, harassment, intimidation and physical and psychological violence are the tactics deployed in order to maintain the mantra of the institutional status quo: 'this is as good as it gets!' MLK knew that the chances of a long and happy retirement were slim, or only possible if he withdrew from the fight altogether and settled for the crumbs from the Establishment's table. He knew that change was possible, but always resisted and never inevitable. Since the status quo always serves the interests of the most powerful, they will exert force to maintain it: that is the story of Holy Week.
Fifty years on, we get a chance to reflect on the legacy of a young Baptist preacher from Georgia. Despite his searing analysis of the futility of violence, martyrs continue to be made each and every day. in 2017, 445 people died as a result of homophobic violence in Brazil alone. In 2016, 5,600,000 children under five years old died from malnutrition, violence and disease, much of it preventable. 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales. In the last three months, 47 people have been murdered in London.
Each of these lives is a witness against a world that promulgates the false doctrine of 'might is right'. Every unnamed infant is a testimony against the avarice of global capital that allows the 1% to believe our status does no harm to the other 99%. The blood of each condemns any and all who are tempted to believe in the necessity or utility of violence.
Non-violence is neither a dream nor a luxury in a violent world; it is a choice made each day in the face of provocation and temptation. It is an act of love and an act of hope - a belief that what we do today makes a better tomorrow.