This week, Martin Luther King Jr was remembered with great love and affection not only in the US but all around the world. His legacy continues to inspire and leads us to believe that we human beings can aspire to and achieve higher moral values and practice them in our societies to better the world.
Every generation needs its prophetic voices to reflect back to itself where it goes astray and what it needs to do to regain what makes us different from animals only guided by their evolutionary instincts to sustain their lives. In other words, being human is a process and cannot be taken for granted. We have to fight to remain human in the face of strong impulses to dominate, exclude, consume and posses. Thus, remembering the prophets of old days is integral for our present as well as the future.
However, something more sinister might be at play in our memorialization of long dead prophets and the issues they fought to change. We know from the experiences of truth and reconciliation commissions and mundane politics that every new regime will seek to hang out all of the dirty laundry of the previous ones to establish their own legitimacy. By dwelling on how the previous governments and generations got it wrong, political and social actors are able to tame the past and seize a powerful moral tool that can be used as a shield against anyone suggesting that the same problems old prophets fought against still continue.
Take the issues Martin Luther King Jr fought against. It is true that the African American community is not facing blatant racism it faced when he was alive. Yet, even the fact that Barack Obama received more death threats than any other previous US President as soon as he took office signals to the deep undercurrents that still exist.
The core element of racism - exclusion of a particular group on assumed reasons of difference - always remains within all of us and our societies. It only changes its properties and objects, but mechanisms of exclusion are very much alive and kicking. Today, it shows itself not so much on biological qualities of skin colour, but in properties of belonging. You are either with 'us' or with 'them'. You are either 'in' or 'out'. 'Your' life and rights can be overridden if it is not in 'our' interest. 'You' can be denied to live among 'us', who have unlimited access to roam around the world including 'your' country.
In other words, the reason why the prophets of Old Testament protested by walking around naked, covering themselves in ashes, preaching a message of repentance from injustice and exclusion of the weak and vulnerable is still valid today as it was then.
It is easy to love the long dead prophets and seek to affirm moral decency based up on social ills we think to be long gone. But, it is extremely hard to love today's prophets who speak up for today's ills. They disturb, shame and challenge us by their mere presence.
That is why we prefer hearing stories of abusive priests, corrupt politicians, incompetent NGOs and selfish celebrities, rather than saints and selfless people out there who are not part of the rat race we find ourselves in. They make us feel dirty and judged, even though the last thing on their minds are us but the suffering, excluded and needy. Thus, we remain cynical of anyone with any claim of morality, but not because we do not believe in morality. In fact, we demand people to treat us morally. Yet, the moral truth that we see in the lives of prophetic voices of today disrupt our self image. That is why we only wholeheartedly and en masse celebrate the dead, not the living.
Voices such as Martin Luther King Jr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela or many others who stood boldly when their countries were being carried away with poisonous currents are not and cannot be reduced to history lessons, cold stone memorials, school trips and quick quotes to remove our own guilt and responsibility. They are messages of repentance, reminding all of us to look deep into our own hearts, not some distant future. They demand action, change and courage from us, today, here and now.