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Mohamed Bouazizi

Hair Trigger
We should not underestimate the difference one person may unwittingly make in changing world affairs

There has been lots of lively disagreement over the causes of the First World War but no-one doubts its trigger: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. Recent history has a growing list of micro-incidents that have sparked huge events which no-one could have anticipated at the time.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955 may have been the simple act of a tired but defiant worker, but it now symbolises the US Civil Rights Movement. The unremarkable death of reformist Hu Yaobang led to the Chinese student protests of 1989 so cruelly extinguished in Tiananmen Square. The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, frustrated beyond despair by the harassment and corruption of local officials, initiated the so-called Arab Spring which has changed the face of the Middle East.

Taken in isolation each event was of little or no significance to the wider world, but the context was all-important. American racism, Chinese repression and Arab authoritarianism had provoked ordinary people beyond measure; only a catalyst was needed to precipitate collective action. Neither Hu Yaobang nor Mohamed Bouazizi could have imagined their deaths would inspire millions, perhaps especially Bouazizi.

We tend to assume the world will continue on its current course every day we wake up and project this path into the future even when warning signs clutter the way. It is hard for us to imagine different scenarios and even paid advisors and commentators struggle to see what lies around the corner, most memorably shown in the inability of any western official to predict the precipitous collapse of Soviet communism. Today we assess intractable problems like the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, immovable objects like the Chinese Communist Party and absurd regimes like North Korea’s as parts of the international furniture which cannot be moved. To this may be added the careless assumption that nuclear weapons will never be used again.

These issues, and many others, will not remain in their current form for ever, in some cases not even for long. The consequences of such change will take us greatly by surprise, but should not. The re-configuring of the Holy Land, the end of Communist Party rule in China, the collapse of North Korea and the use of nuclear weapons somewhere in the world may one day lead to the unleashing of extraordinary forces, some for good, too many for bad.

In all likelihood, something else will probably take us by storm before any of these saturate the news cycle.

Huge global events are sometimes only a hair-trigger away and they are often precipitated by individual people who may, but often do not, have a sense of their power. Perhaps this should not surprise us. The defining act in world history was performed by one man who alone of those around him knew the consequences of his death on a cross in the fringes of Jerusalem. The history of his people had led inexorably to that point, but none of them were capable of seeing the significance of this death as it happened.

When we pray for the welfare of this world and especially where strongholds must be demolished in order to achieve it, perhaps we should give more attention to God’s use of the one person whose life – or death – might make the difference. The chances are it won’t be the politicians we spend most of our public intercessions on.



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