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Liberty? Equality? Fraternity?
It is with a sense of fanfare and rejoicing that the whole of France celebrates today - 14 July 2000 - the 211th anniversary of the recapture of the much-dreaded Bastille prison in Paris...

July   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... There will be an unmistakable outpouring of joy in many regions of France, as the older and younger generations join hands together to recall the French revolutionary history which heralded a new era of emancipation, human rights and democracy. The proclamation of the first Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, followed by the second one in 1793, set out new rights and new demands. Shortly thereafter, the Manifesto of Equals during year IV of the revolution, constituted an appeal to the future. The privilege of the present and the future over the past, strongly affirmed in 1793, opens the way to all forms of renewal and allows us to believe in the truly international mission of human rights.

Indeed, although quite modest in its own right, Bastille Day has provoked a powerful and lasting impact on the history of France. It inaugurated the French revolution, rid France of a corrupt monarchy, limited the influence of a nepotistic Church and led to the implementation of a republican sense of governance. The ambitious motto of the revolution - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - reverberated as loudly in 1789 as it does again this year. But its impact transcends its own borders and finds a home in many parts of the world. As he was leaving Vietnam for France, Ho Chi Minh said, “I am finally going to get to know the land of freedom and equality.”

But how valid are those three small words today as we stand at the cusp of a new millennium and celebrate the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000? Did the liberation of the Bastille prison in 1789 and the ideals of the Enlightenment signify the transmutation of the values of our world from oppression and suppression into freedom and democracy? Is it possible that this epic moment in our history – alongside the English Bill of Rights of 1689 – altered the value system of human beings and weaned them away from perversion, cruelty and injustice?

Liberty in 2000? So many vile crimes are still committed in its name across the world! And so much power is being usurped, exercised and abused by petty despots under the guise of liberty! Equality in 2000? How can there be equality when the combined fortune of the three richest men in the world surpasses the gross national product of the 35 poorest nations of the world - or roughly 600 million inhabitants of this earth? How can we talk about equality when the debt-relief campaign that is being waged the world over by church-related and ecumenical organisations such as the England-based Christian Aid is falling on half-deaf ears? Fraternity in 2000? With instances of ethnic cleansing across all continents, it becomes rather difficult to take this concept seriously! And with the suffering of so many men and women - from Iraq to Haiti and from Rwanda to Chechneya - can we truly relate to fraternity with any true reverence? Can we speak of a philosophy of natural rights today?

The Christian Bible teaches us that the finality of the world is not only to be found in eternal beatitude. It should also be discovered in equality, fraternity, tenderness and peace. It is only by struggling for equality and dignity for all humankind that we can hope to move toward a sense of fraternity. As we face the expectations and challenges of the year 2000, it might be helpful to remember that Jesus’ message throughout his earthly ministry was based on achieving equality for all peoples born in the likeness and image of God - thereby underscoring the senses of worth, dignity and respect. In the Book of Genesis, this likeness of all human beings is affirmed, “God created human beings, making them to be like himself” (Gn 1:27). Would it not be wonderful if the Holy Land also became a welcoming home for everyone where Jews, Christians and Muslims would feel equally at home?

The message of the French revolution has suffered many excesses and abuses over the years. But its inherent ethos, universal ambitions and lofty principles can best be found in the words of Thomas Paine: “No force can stop it!” Indeed .?!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   July


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