On the last full day of his life, Martin Luther King Jnr flew into Memphis, Tennessee. The veteran civil rights activist had weathered many years riding for freedom in the Deep South of the United States. This time he was on a mission to lend support to striking sanitation workers. He was met by a small crowd who braved the evening's storm warning. They came to hear this pioneer of civil rights: the man who would not be moved, his shining love of justice and his proven ability to win over many an enemy.
In reviewing the long struggle for freedom through the ages, Martin Luther King spoke of his own mortality. "Like anybody," this Nobel Peace laureate told the gathering, "I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now."
Martin Luther King Jnr recalled that years before, he and his wife had been in Jerusalem driving down to Jericho. Only a 20 minute drive to the east, the road goes via a steep drop that produces a "winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing." In Caesar's time, the same road was known as the "Way of Blood", as robbers would lie in wait to assail travellers. Out of this same "dangerous curve in the road", the road to Jericho, the old parable of the Good Samaritan came alive.
Samaritans were hated and shunned by the Temple goers. And yet in the story it was a despised Samaritan on the road to Jericho who did not hurry by; he alone stopped to help a half dead traveller left by the side of the road by robbers. Already two men of high moral standing had quickly "passed by on the other side", perhaps fearing a trick or ambush, or that by touching a dead body they would be defiled. But the lowly Samaritan stops, administers care and then takes this man to an innkeeper and provides the equivalent of two days' wages for his care, promising to give more if needed.
For Martin Luther King Jnr, the two men crossing to the other side lived by the question: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" MLK said the Samaritan asked the reverse question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
Last month, I went along to a conference where many people shared their work for social justice and the environment. David Atwood, former director of the United Nations Quaker Office in Geneva, spoke of how this small agency spots opportunities for disarmament, such the insidious small arms trade, and fosters peace, through providing off-the-record opportunities for warring diplomats to quietly meet and find peaceful ways forward.
Maggie White, Donald Groom Fellow for 2011, reported on her work with Aboriginal leaders in the Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley. They are finding ways to achieve the necessary pathways to a good life well lived, with significant success in addressing the traumas of colonisation, such as alcohol and community violence.
Nadine Hoover has worked with Peace Brigades International in the troubled Indonesian province of Aceh. The deep need for connection is more powerful than might be expected; after the terrible 2004 tsunami in Aceh, many survivors were more interested in learning how to live peacefully together than in building houses or bathrooms.
What makes the altruistic person tick? I asked Robert Howell, the new Earthcare and Peaceworker for Quakers in Canberra, about his past work with Indonesian police. Robert told me how he had been inspired by Adam Curle, who mediated between conflicting parties during the Nigerian-Biafran and Rhodesian/Zimbabwe civil wars. So Robert, feeling he might have something to offer, started to explore how he might do similar work. He took his time to evaluate the way forward. As he did so, the way opened. An old school friend, who just happened to have been a one-time New Zealand ambassador to the UN, recommended Robert consider doing something in Indonesia, still under Suharto's military rule. And when he listened to more experts, they pinpointed Indonesian police playing a pivotal role. "Police would just go in and shoot people or hit them over their heads." This led to Robert securing funding for training.
The program produced results: ethnic conflict between Madurese and Malays in West Kalimantan was mediated by police and a non-aggression pact was signed; in Lombok, ways were found to protect traditional festivals from frequent interference from drunk, unemployed youth; and riot police decided to speak to a community after they had intervened, to learn the experience. A demonstration at a tyre factory in South Kalimantan led to the police calling meetings between workers and management, and pay increases followed; again in South Kalimantan, frequent disputes between local people and mining companies were addressed through police again calling a meeting between the parties, which led to fees for the local community being increased. In South Sumatra, a deputy police officer had to deal with illegal logging in a state government forest. When the police team entered a village, over 10 police vehicles were set on fire - and this caused surrounding trees to also catch on fire. The police persuaded the villagers to sit down, and income alternatives to illegal logging were found - the villagers are now farming cassava, corn and other produce. In Ambon, the Muslim and Christian police held their morning meetings in the Governors Square, making it safe again for citizens to mix together there.
While police violence and corruption in Indonesia are still rampant, this program shows there are ways forward, if governments and donors create the opportunities for them to happen. What is remarkable is that the police (often playing the role of the robbers on the way to Jericho!) can be emancipated from their oppressive role and find ways to serve the community and the natural world - and it makes their job safer!
Robert Howell could not guess at these positive results, but he did trust in the process, which was one of patient discernment. Like all discernment processes, there were moments of doubt, when motives are challenged, doubted, or misunderstood. At one stage, Robert felt stung by a throwaway remark and he became very angry. "I went to an elderly Quaker lady and asked her, 'How can I know if I have a calling to go to Indonesia, when actually I want to spike this fellow's nose! Doesn't a calling involve pure and holy thoughts?'" She assured him he'd tested his direction in a number of ways, and had the support of Friends, and so to go ahead. The altruist is not perfect!
We are human, after all; ego is part of the human condition and we will bump into ourselves again and again. If we are to save the whales from extinction, or pointless slaughter, the Shonan Maru 2 might need to be boarded by Forest Rescue activists. If we are in a state of climate emergency, with national governments helplessly pretending they have decades to discuss action, non-violent actions against coalmines can be expected. If brutal dictatorships resist democracy, expect non-violent protests. The impulse to bring benefit to others can still hold true through this; but we are wise to hold ourselves accountable to people we trust, so that our means reflect our ends.
Giving them the benefit of doubt, Martin Luther King Jnr wondered about those two ecclesiastic men on the road to Jericho, if they mightn't have been on that road to organise a "Jericho Road Improvement Association". That's a possibility: "Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect."
If we are to stop genocide and torture and the proliferation of nukes and the loss of biodiversity, we will need international conventions and ways to enforce them; we will need national laws to make it more likely that light rail networks will be built than freeways crashing through rare wetlands. That is a kind of structural altruism, perhaps, requiring the same thought, imagination, courage and perseverance that is so much needed via individual compassionate action at the person-to-person level.
Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated the next evening. He left a legacy of hope, dignity, and firm resolve to resist violence in ethical ways, a message to bring to environmental emancipation, as well as human rights.