Talking about a revolution

If for a moment you may have had the sense of a world that settles down and becomes calm for a moment, the news headlines of the past few weeks have surely dispelled such comfortable ideas. 

Do you recall the 1992 book “The End of History?” In it, Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War heralded the final phase of history where Western liberal democracy would be universalized. We have clearly not reached some sunny, changeless state yet – if in fact we ever will. 

In Tunisia massive street protests and – perhaps most poignantly – a young man who set himself ablaze in protest of police corruption changed what had not altered in more than two decades. President Ben Ali fled the country after 23 years in power. 

In Egypt, widespread protests have left hundreds dead and led President Hosni Mubarak to fire his entire cabinet and finally to promise not to seek another presidential term. 

In Jordan, protesters have called for the Prime Minister to step down. A few days ago, after protests involving thousands of people, the country’s king dissolved the cabinet and asked for a new government to be formed. 

In Yemen, tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets and the president has committed not to seek another term after 35 years in office. 

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it “a perfect storm.” Some call it an outbreak of freedom. Some fear an uprising of chaos, violence and terror. 

Repressive regimes are falling or at least teetering on the edge. No doubt, we must see that as a furtherance of the growth of justice in our world. 

World governments are not happy. Stability is good for the global economy – especially stability in the region of the world that produces so much essential petroleum. 

And instability is deadly. Political instability inevitably opens up opportunities for crime, for lawlessness, and for deepening instability as competing groups seek to exploit emerging power vacuums to further their own political ambitions. 

Are we seeing the birth of a new wave of democracy and freedom throughout a troubled and often oppressed part of our world or are we watching the disintegration of stability with a frightening and dangerous time to come? 

The answer can only be that we are seeing both. 

If we reach out our hearts to feel what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt and spreading to other countries in the Middle East, we recognize a long-suppressed yearning for liberty – for the fresh breezes of the freedom to say and do as we please. And we recognize the thrill of the changes around us – power seems to have moved from the hands of the mighty to the hands of the common people – our hands. 

And we recognize fear – we cannot know what will come next. The uncertainty is so strong that – despite the hope for a brighter future – we quake. Can you feel that gnawing at the pit of your stomach? The longing for moments of calm and certainty – a fond recollection of the solid, if stifling past? 

The reason I am so confident that you can feel along with the people of the Middle East in these turbulent times is that you have had times like this yourself. We all have. 

No – we have not all been through political and social revolutions – but if we have lived on earth we have all experienced wrenching change. Whether we sought that change or not, it left us feeling untethered, ungrounded, uncertain, undirected, and probably pretty darned uncomfortable. 

There are three things I’d like to say about wrenching change. 

Do you know how earthquakes happen? The Earth’s great tectonic plates are the surfaces upon which our continents float and move around. The movements are not obvious to us but they are significant. And it gets important when two tectonic plates are in contact. They tend to move in different directions, so they often scrape along each other. 

That’s a bit of a rumble, but not an earthquake. In fact, an earthquake only happens when that scraping doesn’t occur. Instead, the pressure builds up and up and up until BANG! – the whole thing shifts with a huge release of energy flattening everything nearby. 

The first thing I want to say then is to praise the scraping. The scraping – the small uncomfortable changes are what prevent the big catastrophic shift. 

Gradual increases in personal and press freedoms in the countries of the Middle East might have been awkward, but they would have prevented the buildup of pressure that we now see erupting more violently. 

And in our own lives, making small changes – just a little bit at a time prevents us from reaching the point where an explosion happens. In a relationship, we often put aside concerns and fail enter into the uncomfortable work we need to do on ourselves and our relationships. We are like stuck tectonic plates that will eventually rupture – spreading havoc through two lives. 

The second point I want to make is about when that big rupture does happen. In the now turbulent countries of the Middle East, there may be a temptation to run from the chaos and turmoil or the opposite – to get in there and fix it. In a turbulent turn of events in a friend’s life, there can be the same temptation. We hate the uncertainty and we are drawn to take one or the other course to minimize our experience of it. 

The best thing we can do is usually what I once saw summarized in the ironic statement: “don’t just do something! Stand there!” 

In times of turbulence, we – whether nations or people – need to know that we are not alone. We need to know that others stand ready – supportive – to lend the kind of help we need. We do not need – even if sometimes we ask for it – someone to come in and fix it for us. The turbulence is terrible, but we must arrive at our new safe destination by our own direction or we set ourselves up for yet another episode of the same. 

Third and finally, my friends, we have to turn to the question of what can bring oppressed people out into the streets. What could possibly inspire them to challenge dictators who had ruled over them virtually unchallenged for as long as three decades? 

The answer is something very traditional and very plain and also at times very very hard to find. Some call it perseverance or obstinacy. I’m happy to call it faith. Faith – the strength and the will to take a chance when everything is telling you that you will not succeed. The courage and the willingness to leap when you know not what lies beyond – to step into the stream aiming for a better sure whose existence you know only from a dream. 

I ask you to have faith – not because we have a dogma or a doctrine that says to, and not because of supernatural beliefs that tell us so. After all, what kind of faith would it be if we knew we could not fail? 

I ask you to have faith because – in a world of pain and doubt and cynicism – faith is the essential ingredient that makes our love come alive. It gives power to our principles. It sends us forth after our great vision and is the only hope to make it come real. 

May it be so.