At sunrise on April 19, 1775, on Lexington Green, the first shot rang out – ʻthe shot heard around the world,ʼ to begin the Revolutionary War.
We were reminded of that shot last week in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. The revolution in Egypt was characterized by non-violence on the part of Egyptʼs Minutemen who filled the Square for eighteen days. I wondered how many of them had read Civil Disobedience,Thoreauʼs famous essay in which he said:
“All men (sic) recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”
Gandhi read it, and said that he carried a copy with him, a guide for his non-violent civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King, Jr. read it, and said, “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.”
As events unfolded in Egypt, influenced by events in Tunisia a week before, we knew the whole world was watching, and millions in Egypt were in direct communication via the new social media, the internet and cell phone.
Democracy cannot be exported – thatʼs a lesson weʼve learned the hard way. But democracy is contagious. Thereʼs something in us that longs for freedom and wants to participate in a democratic process. An individual may have freedom alone, but democracy happens only in a group, a collective; commitment to preserve, protect and defend it. It requires responsibility among the members of the group.
As members of the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations we ʻcovenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.ʼ
Democracy doesnʼt work from the top down – it cannot be imposed on others. It works from the bottom up, it comes from the people: the word from the Greek literally means ʻpeoplepower,ʼfrom demos, people and kratos, power.
As we watched events unfold in Tahrir Square we could not help thinking of our own country – first, because it reminded us of something precious that we might otherwise take for granted; and second because democracy depends on our vigilance; it is as fragile as each of us is fragile, individually, and it is as strong and secure as our collective commitment to freedom, justice and equality remains strong.
Our democracy is threatened today by flagrant economic inequality. We have more work to do.