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Discovering Fire

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"Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Egyptians lock arms, a dictator tumbles. Let's think about this, shall we? How could such a thing have happened? I ask this knowing the hard part is just beginning. The hard part is always just beginning.

Egypt -- brutal dictatorship now under military rule, key caretaker of Western interests in the Middle East -- has yet to transform itself institutionally into the type of society its people have indicated over an extraordinary 18 days that they want and deserve; and much could happen in the coming weeks and months, from pressures both internal and international, to thwart, co-opt and derail the January 25 Revolution.

But a force has nevertheless been summoned on a corner of this planet that too many people still refuse, or are unable, to recognize. Gandhi called it satyagraha: "seizing the truth." I think it's time to take it seriously; indeed, to take it far more seriously than we do the forces of violence and coercion around which we heedlessly assume that human society is organized.

What if -- and here I simply grab hold of one of the principles of satyagraha, as imparted in the APT Nonviolence Trainer's Manual -- "each person's opinions and beliefs represent part of the truth"? Each person's! This includes those we mock, those we shut up, those we kill. The idea implies a truth of infinite complexity, which we cannot hope to grasp so much as honor, both by speaking courageously from our own depths and by listening respectfully as others do the same.

It also implies that there is no truth to which we are not connected: no truth that is merely cold and finite, imperiously indifferent to our existence or anyone else's existence. And thus it forms the core motivation for "ahimsa" -- refusal to inflict injury on others -- because we are all part of and indispensible to the great truth we are in the process of discovering. Those who don't understand the discipline of nonviolence see it as an onerous limitation of options, rather than what it is, an extraordinary opening of possibilities.

"The story of the Tahrir Square," Olfa Tantawi, a Cairo resident, journalist and participant in Egypt's struggle, wrote recently to her former journalism professor, "is not about who is with Mubarak and who is against; it is about a truly civilized, very peaceful people who decided to regain control of their destiny."

It is about the discovery of fire, a la Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th-century scientist-priest who wrote about the untapped energy of our collective becoming. The events this month in Egypt belong to all of us and expand our hope, in many directions and in surprising ways, for a global awakening to the possibilities of peace.

For instance, "As nonviolent methods succeed, they delegitimize violence as a method of pushing grievances and creating change," said scholar Cynthia Boaz, in an interview published on Huffington Post. Thus, Egypt's overthrow of Hosni Mubarak "has the potential to seriously damage the recruitment campaigns of terrorist organizations," she said. ". . . By demonstrating that mass nonviolent action by the people can be more effective than violent insurrection, they have probably made the world a little safer for all of us."

What if repressive governments also paid attention and sought to serve an order greater than anything that could be sustained by violence and fear? While this is not something that will ever happen voluntarily, what is fascinating to note is that once "the seal of fear," as Tantawi put it, was broken, Mubarak's regime no longer had any legitimacy to govern, no matter how violent its subsequent tantrums.

Even though more than 300 unarmed demonstrators were killed -- murdered -- by Mubarak's thugs, the crowds in Tahrir Square and other cities throughout Egypt just kept swelling. Something was going on here beyond Mubarak's capacity to suppress.

"When an authoritarian regime approaches the final crisis," Slavoj Žižek, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, wrote last week, "its dissolution tends to follow two steps. Before its actual collapse, a rupture takes place: All of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy; its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction."

The principle emerging from all this keeps coming down to the humble wonder of human connectedness. Žižek spoke of Muslims and Coptic Christians "engaged in common prayer on Cairo's Tahrir Square, chanting 'We are one!'"

In such understanding, the spark jumps. This is about creating the future, and it is frightening to contemplate because we don't know where we're headed. We don't know what it means that "we are one" because we don't quite know how to live in a world without enemies.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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