Epiphany is a lovely word, if seldom used. It means a realization, discovery or revelation of some kind. Around the world the Christian Church is in the season it names as Epiphany; a serendipitous coincidence given the events in Paris this week ; events in which so many people have come to suddenly see the world in quite different and unexpected ways.
Think about it: whenever before has carrying a pen or pencil become a symbol of faith and hope? Whenever before have some of the most powerful world leaders marched arm in arm, in solidarity with nearly two million protesters, to affirm an idea about what it means to be human?
In its way the geography of the event makes the point. The procession traced its way from Place de la Republique, down the Boulevarde Voltaire to conclude at Place de la Nation. You could describe this as a procession through a narrative about western civilization and the foundations of modern Europe. Extraordinary then to see Hollande in the centre, Angela Merkel, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to his left. To his right, Ibrahim Boubacar Këita, the president of Mali – where French troops intervened to push back Islamist forces in 2013 – the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the British prime minister, David Cameron.
It seems extraordinary that despite (1) the chic of neoliberal economics and inequalities of wealth and (2) the consequently deflated currency of humanist values and beliefs, we have a procession of this kind. This procession expresses an unparalleled social solidarity across Europe and beyond it. Most extraordinary of all is that underpinning it is an abstraction, a vague idea about what it means to be human that is somehow symbolised in the form of a pencil or the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’.
The horror of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices seems to have driven outrage and grief to a deeper level than we are used to seeing. We have, unfortunately, become almost inured to human tragedy; but this attack on journalists and cartoonists seems to have taken us beyond media constructs of tragedy to the question of what it means to be human; what it is to be sentient beings engaged in the life of the mind and in discourse with one another. This goes beyond all the other things that divide us from one another: it goes beyond money, beliefs, politics and the luggage of the culture wars and takes us to a numinous moment of epiphany where we affirm something we cannot quite name and yet say nonetheless, ‘Nous sommes Charlie’.
Of course the moment passes and we return to our usual ways. Economists will continue with GDP as an economic measure even though natural resources are depleted. Politicians, governments and multinationals will doubtless continue to ignore the gross financial inequalities that Thomas Piketty has identified and warned about - the sort of society such inequalities are likely to create. And yet – despite that - there has been this glorious moment, this epiphany on a winter afternoon in Paris when everyone caught a glimmer of the mystery of our shared humanity and murmured ‘Nous sommes Charlie’. Amen, to that.