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Posts Tagged ‘justice’

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

‘A poet of the inner civil war.’

(A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson  – page 3)

For present purposes we are now on the brink of the last disclosure. For UK readers of Emily Dickinson the American Civil War can easily become the mastodon hidden in the attic. I think it did for me. This is no longer true for me at least, thanks to Shira Wolosky, one of the writers in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson .

As we will see, for Dickinson the Civil War had an additional stress. She wasn’t sure whether the objectives of the war were worth all the consequent loss of life. Along with all the other possibilities we have explored, this tested various dimensions of her faith – in life, in love and in immortality. And she was not alone. Dickinson crystallised the prevalent atmosphere of doubt into her poems, capturing her state of mind many times with uncanny and haunting precision.

Shira Wolosky

I’ve already mentioned the startling fact of her poetic productivity during the war years, but I’ll repeat it again here in Wolosky’s words in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 107):

[M]ore than half of her poetic production coincides with years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. The years immediately preceding the war… were also the years which Thomas Johnson identifies with “the rising flood of her talent,“ as well as with the beginning of her reclusive practices.

There was an amazing peak in 1863 alone. Betsy Erkkila describes it as follows, in a later chapter (page 158):

[O]f the 1789 poems in Franklin’s variorum edition, over half were written during the years of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865; and of these, almost 300 were written in 1863, a year of crisis and turning point in the war, when even Union victories such as Gettysburg had become scenes of horrific bloodletting and mass death on both sides.

It is not surprising that one of the main concerns of these poems is ‘theodicy’ (page 111):

Dickinson’s war poems generally attempt to make out “the anguish in this world“ and to decipher whether it has “a loving side.“ This would mean its fitting into some wider schema, some purpose that would justify suffering…

This was a testing struggle as in war death is (page 112) ‘arbitrary and recalcitrant.’ In fact (page 125):

The Civil War reached levels of carnage before unknown, made possible both by new technology and new strategies of total warfare, in combination with a profound ideological challenge to American national claims and self identity, political and religious.

There is an intriguing consequence of this (page 114), ‘it is, oddly, just where poems are most personal in terms of Dickinson’s suffering, but they are also most culturally engaged.’ The intense resonance of the poet’s mind to the climate of the times is captured in poem after poem.

Religion was a lifelong issue for Dickinson. In many ways it ‘fails her’ (page 116) and her work ‘repeatedly rehearses her reasons for both asserting and denying a divine order, in constant countertension.’ She also raises questions about (page 117) the extent to which’ art can indeed serve as figure for faith’ and ‘in text after text, she returns again to religious premises and promises; again finding them wanting; again finding them necessary.’

At exactly this point a bluebottle landed on the page at the exact paragraph I was dictating into my phone. It rubbed it forelegs together in typical fly fashion. Just as I got out of Notes on my phone and into my camera, a plane flew growling overhead and the breeze flipped my page, and the fly was gone. It felt like a typical Emily Dickinson joke.

One of the challenges war poses (page 119) is that ‘the self is called upon to place life second to, or in service of, community, in the name of a greater purpose.’ Wolosky feels that Dickinson is crushed between these pressure points (page 124):

Dickinson here situates herself at the very clash of contending impulses. Her self, on the one hand, remains independent, even defiant, of society’s claims, with a courage of judgement that is unwavering. On the other hand, she is also sceptical of selves that are invested only in themselves, without reference, or devotion, to anything beyond the self. She is critical, that is, of both social authority and also absolute selfhood.

Her poems are again often masterpieces of inner ambivalence, products of a mind torn between two opposing forces within the individual and within society.

A key passage in the Bahá’í International Community’s document The Prosperity of Humankind examines this same problem, the individual versus society, from the perspective of consultation and its correlate, justice (Section II):

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

It is not a problem that is going to be easily solved: it requires a fundamental collective shift in consciousness.

Poetry often captures the priceless values of both a human life and its sacrifice. As Wolosky puts it, referring to The Martyr Poets (page 125): ‘As in many war poems, self is at once granted enormous value, and yet a value that emerges in self-effacement – indeed, in martyrdom, as witness to others at the cost of self.’

Dickinson’s brief poem reads:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —

The Martyr Painters — never spoke —
Bequeathing — rather — to their Work —
That when their conscious fingers cease —
Some seek in Art — the Art of Peace —

It is perhaps not entirely surprising either that in addition to theodicy as a theme, her poems should also manifest disruptions to the 19thCentury standard verse forms (page 126):

Many have been struck by Dickinson’s apparent modernity; by how her strained and difficult forms – at once contained within and yet strenuously recasting hymnal metres and modes – seem to foreshadow the radical experimentation of twentieth century poetics.

She goes onto explain exactly why this might be the case (my emphases):

[This seems] rooted in the ways Dickinson’s work represents an intersection between historical, metaphysical, and aesthetic forces when these are under extraordinary pressure, and specifically, when long-standing, traditional assumptions regarding the basic frameworks for interpreting the world are challenged to the point of breakage. Dickinson‘s work is among the first directly to register the effects on poetic language of such breakdown. Articulate language depends on, even as it expresses and projects, the ability to conceive reality as coherent and meaningful. . . Such “splitting apart of the communion“ between paradigm and world, metaphysics and history, marks modern experience.

Wolosky points out the parallels with Europe’s experience of the Second World War, quoting Theodor Adorno’s words (page 127) which describe how ‘Our metaphysical faculty is paralysed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience.’ She feels Dickinson’s work ‘reveals and dramatises . . . the consequences of such paralysis and assault on the very structure and language of poetry,’ and describes her texts as ‘battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.’

This is another challenge Dickinson rises to in expressing her inscape: how to wrench her poetic forms into expressions of dislocated anguish without losing hold completely on its opposite.

As someone old enough to have lived through the traumatised aftermath of the Second World War, while too young to have consciously responded to the war itself, such poems resonate strongly with me. Why I respond more positively to her poems as against, for example, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, is I think because she holds both memories of harmony in balance with the terrifying disjunctive present through her fractured hymnal verse forms. Jarrell, and other modernists, seem to have given up the struggle to capture some hope of balance or redress. Jarrell’s poem reads:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Wolosky concludes that (ibid):

Emily Dickinson’s texts are battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.

Bodies lie in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. For source of image see link.

Three Other Points of View

There are three other authors in this book whose insights I need to draw on now before concluding this sequence of posts – Betsy Erkkila, Cheryl Walker and Cristanne Miller.

Erkkila subscribes to the idea that these were traumatic times and seeking definitively to label any one aspect as key may well prove impossible (page 150):

‘I have a Terror…’ Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, ‘and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid –.’ Whatever the sources of Dickinson’s ‘terror’ – a personal love crisis, a failure of religious belief, the advent of the Civil War, the collapse of an older New England social order, the horrifying prospect of everlasting ‘Death,’ metaphysical angst, or all these together – her poems powerfully register the disintegrative psychic, emotional, and bodily effects of social transformation and political crisis that marked Dickinson’s years of greatest productivity during and after the Civil War.

She agrees that Dickinson’s religious faith was severely tested and in conventional terms was broken, but also without her having anything with which to replace it (pages 153-54:

[S]he expresses the pain of living in an era of unbelief… As someone who could not believe in either the saving Christian orthodoxy of the past or the progressive demographic ideology of the future, Dickinson gives voice in her poems to the spooked interiors of ante- and postbellum America, the spectres of unmeaning, abjection and death that stalked the American landscape during the Civil War . . .

In consequence, Erkkila believes, she (page 156) ‘turned to writing as a kind of aesthetic substitution, a means of suffering the inner emotional life of the war through writing.’

A complicating factor to her experience of the war concerns her attitude to the question of slavery (page 170):

[I]n a public letter about the 4th of July celebration in Belchertown in 1855, Edward Dickinson [her father] expressed hope that “by the help of Almighty God, not another inch of our soil heretoforeconsecratedto freedom, shall hereafterbe polluted by the advancing tread of slavery“… Although Dickinson opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, he also opposed the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation of Southern slaves. For him as for many in the NT Balham area, including Lincoln, antislavery zeal was under written by fear that the white American Republic would be ‘polluted’ by the ‘advancing tread’ of blacknessinto the new states. Emily Dickinson appears to have shared her father’s anxiety about the pollution of the American republic.

In a note at the end of her chapter Erkkila spells out some implications of this for her attitude to the war, in the context of the seven out of 10 poems she published during the Civil War. Her reasons for publication are unclear and may not have been to support the Union cause, as some have argued (page 172- my emphasis):

If she did contribute these poems voluntarily, and there is no evidence for this, they were more likely sent to support the sick, wounded, and dying, who were sacrificing their lives in support of a cause that was – in Dickinson’s view — at best questionable.

I think we must accept that this would have had the effect of making the war more traumatic for her, not less, even if we cannot share her alleged ambivalence about abolition in the form she saw unfolding.

Interestingly (page 163), she stopped making the fascicles in 1864, before the War closed. Erkkila feels that ‘her letters and poems served – especially during and after the war – as prayer, medicine, consolation, gift, and cure,’ and (page 164) ‘she was looking to art – to poetry writing – as a means of overcoming not only “Death” but also the lack of higher meaning, order, and value in the world.’

Cheryl Walker flags up three points of interest here.

First there is (page 178) ‘Dickinson’s infatuation with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ My earlier sequence explains why this would be of interest to me at least.

The second takes us back to Gubar and Gilbert’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (page 179):

Women poets were largely inhibited by two tenets of bourgeois ideology; one, that women violated the ‘cult of true womanhood’ . . .  by writing for a public audience; and two, that, when they did write, women poets must avoid transgressing the boundaries of their allotted sphere.

This may go some way towards explaining Dickinson’s reluctance to publish, but cannot be the whole story as her poem suggests:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

And finally, and perhaps  most importantly of all, she in her turn concludes, quoting Camille Paglia (page 181): ‘without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry…’

Cristanne Miller reinforces Dickinson’s anticipations of modernism (page 205):

[M]any critics have argued that Dickinson participated in the modernising climate of her times by creating a protomodernist lyric, a poetry that rebels against ‘patriarchal’ metres, conventions of punctuation, grammar, rhyme, or even print to construct a new kind of poem. . . . The extreme compression of Dickinson’s language and its multiple forms of disjunction – grammatical, syntactic, tonal, and logical – strikingly anticipate features of modernist verse.

And about her feminism she writes (page 225):

Dickinson’s feminism was as complex and contradictory as other aspects of her art: while the poet’s life and poetry are feminist in some respects, she was in other ways more conservative socially and politically than many of her female contemporaries, who chose to publish poems of explicit cultural and political critique – albeit in less interesting verse forms.

Her poetry does not so openly rebel either (page 227):

[S]he wrote largely in ballad form or using other fundamentally regular rhythmic and rhyming patterns, which she disrupted continuously, in sly ways. . . . Fox-like, she appeared to conform while rebelling indirectly, through omission, dissonant or slant-rhymes, irony, and wit.

So?

Where does all this leave me?

Yes, it’s clear that there could be at least four major factors influencing Dickinson’s themes and forms: the repression of women, disappointed passion, epilepsy as a stigmatising illness and the American Civil War. It is safe to conclude also, on the basis of the timing of her output, that the Civil War had perhaps the greatest impact. The following diagram attempts to capture them.

It is perhaps worth spelling out some assumptions linked to the factors. It is the timing of the Civil War and the episodes of disappointed love that are often adduced to help interpret a poem. The restrictive conventions imposed upon women are quoted as relevant to some of her references to ‘white’ as of course is faith, death and immortality. Whether her apparently chosen seclusion is to be explained by her epilepsy or by agoraphobia is still an open question. Seclusion, a quality she shares to some degree with other major writers, is generally accepted as the key to her power as a poet of the interior. The exact impact of the slave question is also  not entirely resolved in terms of the Civil War and its meaning for her.

So, I must ask, is her elliptical and slanting style the result of thwarted and socially unacceptable passion – a love ‘that dared not speak its name’ in both the case of Sue and a probably married man? Could she not speak more directly about almost anything because she was a woman, because she was epileptic or because she knows she is being ‘heretical’? Or was it the result of unbearable anguish in the face of the Civil War’s inescapable acting out of man’s inhumanity to man?

Whatever the answers to any of these questions turn out to be, I feel that it is beyond reasonable doubt that among her poems are unquestionable masterpieces that remain as relevant to us now in our age of war, uncertain faith and questionable ideologies, as they were when she wrote them. They pull me into her passionate intense interior with a power that would be hard to resist, even if I wanted to.

I am setting myself the task of re-reading the 294 poems that are labelled in my R. W. Franklin edition as having been written in 1863, to see what I now make of them in the light of all this recent reading about her.

It’s high time I let her speak to me herself.

Unexpected Coda

As a Bahá’í though, I can’t resist mentioning, before I close, that 1863 was the very year Bahá’u’lláh declared his Mission, His divinely ordained responsibility to convey to humanity a vision of the future that held out hope of resolving the major war-engendering and repressive tendencies of our times. This all-too-obvious connection with the peak of Dickinson’s productivity did not occur to me until after I had made my plan, probably because I was not expecting any such thing as I pursued this investigation.

Just when she, a possibly self-incarcerated prisoner in her own home in Amherst, was grappling, through her most prolific period of creativity, with the titanic and traumatic challenges her country was facing, a prisoner in exile in Baghdad, shortly to begin a deportation that would eventually consign Him and all His closest family to the disease-ridden prison city of Akka, was openly proclaiming for the first time His world-embracing, world-healing Message, one that she was never in a position to hear, even though (op. cit.: page 85) ‘Many of her contemporaries (notably Shakers, Millerites, and Adventists) awaited imminent fulfilment of revelation with Christ’s second coming.’ She was only 14 when their very public disappointment of 1844 occurred.

The essence of His message can perhaps be best summarised briefly here by quoting from The Hidden Words (Arabic No. 68 – there is more at this link):

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

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766px-Members_of_the_first_Universal_House_of_Justice,_elected_in_1963

Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963 (For source of image see link)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the second post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (8 The Universal House of Justice). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Essential Background

After the passing of the Guardian in 1957, nine Hands of the Cause selflessly steered the Faith towards the next key development in its unfolding destiny. They organised the process by which the Universal House of Justice would be elected, and then stepped back to allow that institution to lead the Bahá’í community exactly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had envisaged in His Will & Testament, though sadly, given that Shoghi Effendi had appointed no successor, with no possibility of the continuance of the Guardianship.

Century of Light describes the moment when the Universal House of Justice came into being (page 81):

On 21 April 1963, the ballots of delegates from fifty-six National Spiritual Assemblies . . . . brought into existence the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Cause conceived by Bahá’u’lláh and assured by Him unequivocally of Divine guidance in the exercise of its functions . . .

They point towards the difficult decision Shoghi Effendi had had to make (pages 82-83):

. . . . it is clear that Shoghi Effendi early accepted the implications of the fact that the Universal House of Justice could not come into existence until a lengthy process of administrative development had created the supporting structure of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies it required.

It is important we begin to understand the full significance of this election and what it presaged (page 92):

The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice . . . . . very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community’s chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence . . . . . that in any way resembles this achievement.

The House then had some significant decisions to make given that it did not have the authority to appoint new Hands of the Cause but their function needed to continue (pages 97-98):

. . . the House of Justice created, in June 1968, the Continental Boards of Counsellors. Empowered to extend into the future the functions of the Hands of the Cause for the protection and propagation of the Faith, the new institution assumed responsibility for guiding the work of the already existing Auxiliary Boards and joined National Assemblies in shouldering responsibilities for the advancement of the Faith. [In 1973 there was] another major development of the Administrative Order, the creation of the International Teaching Centre, the Body that would carry into the future certain of the responsibilities performed by the group of “Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land”, and from this point on coordinate the work of the Boards of Counsellors around the world.

The Period Since Then

There has been a twin impact in terms of the Faith (page 97):

During these crucial thirty- seven years the work proceeded rapidly forward along two parallel tracks: the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community itself and, along with it, a dramatic rise in the influence the Faith came to exercise in the life of society. While the range of Bahá’í activities greatly diversified, most such efforts tended to contribute directly to one or other of the two main developments.

A sequence of seven plans of various durations followed (page 98-99) until ‘Twelve Month Plan that ended the century.’ The strands of activity in each plan built upon those of Shoghi Effendi and the Founders of the Faith: ‘the training of Spiritual Assemblies; the translation, production and distribution of literature; the encouragement of universal participation by the friends; attention to the spiritual enrichment of Bahá’í life; efforts toward the involvement of the Bahá’í community in the life of society; the strengthening of Bahá’í family life; and the education of children and youth.’

The opportunities created were beyond the capacity of any individual to manage (page 100):

. . . it became necessary to ‘launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers.’ Teams of teachers were created and the Faith reached ‘entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands.’

As a result ‘members of Spiritual Assemblies . . . . had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.’

The role of the youth was central – not for the first time in the history of the Faith (ibid):

. . . one is reminded again and again that the great majority of the band of heroes who launched the Cause on its course in the middle years of the nineteenth century were all of them young people. The Bab Himself declared His mission when He was twenty-five years old, and Anis, who attained the imperishable glory of dying with his Lord, was only a youth. Quddus responded to the Revelation at the age of twenty-two. . . . . Tahirih was in her twenties when she embraced the Bab’s Cause.’

More challenges followed. Mass enrolments exceeded the community’s capacity to nurture those who had declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh. Also (page 101)

. . . Theological and administrative principles that might be of consuming interest to pioneers and teachers were seldom those that were central to the concern of new declarants from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Often, differences of view about even such elementary matters as the use of time or simple social conventions created gaps of understanding that made communication extremely difficult.

Though the Bahá’í World Centre emphasised that expansion, the bringing in of newly declared Bahá’ís, and consolidation, their deepening in the Faith, were ‘twin processes that must go hand in hand,’ the ‘hoped for results did not readily materialise’ and ‘a measure of discouragement frequently set in.’ Enrolment slowed ‘tempting some Bahá’í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.’

The main impact of the setbacks was to clarify that (page 102) ‘the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic.’ It became obvious that ‘the easy successes of the initial teaching activities . . . did not, by themselves, build a Bahá’í community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating.’

(End of Presentation: any questions? The video immediately below gives a sense of how the Bahá’í Faith has responded to these challenges: the original can be downloaded at this link.)

Key Questions

Pioneers and new believers faced questions previous experience offered few answers (ibid: my bullet points).

  • How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established – and once established, how were they to function – in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth?
  • How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice?
  • How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed?
  • What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions?
  • How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members?
  • What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community?
  • How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures?
  • And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
  1. How many of these questions do we feel relate to our own situation?
  2. Do we have answers? If so, what are they? If not, what might those answers be?

Page 102: The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members needs to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Bahá'í House of Worship in Delhi, India

The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi, India (for source of image see link)

The Integration of Social Action

Page 103: The fact that the Bahá’í message was now penetrating the lives not merely of small groups of individuals but of whole communities also had the effect of reviving a vital feature of an earlier stage in the advancement of the Cause. For the first time in decades, the Faith found itself once more in a situation where teaching and consolidation were inseparably bound up with social and economic development.

An Office of Social and Economic Development was created at the World Centre in October 1983, and ‘Bahá’í communities throughout the world were called on to begin incorporating such efforts into their regular programmes of work.’

Page 104: The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

The successive Plans yielded the greatest harvest in India. By 1985 the growth of the Faith there had reached a level a more sharply focused attention was needed ‘than the National Spiritual Assembly alone could provide. Thus was born the new institution of the Regional Bahá’í Council, setting in motion the process of administrative decentralisation that has since proven so effective in many other lands.’

In addition (page 105) ‘India’s House of Worship has become the foremost visitors’ attraction on the subcontinent, welcoming an average of over ten thousand visitors every day, . . . [which] has given new meaning to the description by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of Bahá’í Temples as “silent teachers” of the Faith.’

Its reputation was now such that the National Spiritual Assembly of India was able to host, ‘in collaboration with the Bahá’í International Community’s newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, a symposium on the subject of “Religion, Science and Development“. More than one hundred of the most influential development organisations in the country participated.

Malaysia began to follow suit. Then Bahá’í communities in Africa (page 106) achieved remarkable spiritual victories, havingsurvived war, terror, political oppression and extreme privations.’

In 1992 (page 107) ‘the Bahá’í world celebrated its second Holy Year, this one marking the centenary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the promulgation of His Covenant. Truly remarkable was ‘the ethnic, cultural and national diversity of the 27,000 believers who gathered at the Javits Convention Centre in New York City’ together with together with the thousands present at nine auxiliary conferences acorss the world.’

At Ridván 2010, the Universal House of Justice’s message explained that ‘all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly.’ The Office of Social and Economic Statement (OSED – page 2) amplifies on this:

Most central to this vision was the question of capacity building. That activities should start on a modest scale and only grow in complexity in keeping with available human resources was a concept that gradually came to influence development thought and practice.

They continue (page 4):

Bahá’í activity in the field of social and economic development seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background. . . . Its purpose is neither to proclaim the Cause nor to serve as a vehicle for conversion.

Page 5: To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Page 6: Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.

The ‘scope and complexity’ (page 9) of such activity must be ‘commensurate with the human resources available in a community to carry it forward.’

Page 13: when an effort is participatory, in the sense that it seeks to involve the people themselves in the generation and application of knowledge, as all forge together a path of progress, dualities such as “outsider-insider” and “knowledgeable-ignorant” quickly disappear.

Capacity Building

Pages 108-09: One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially – if at all – to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.

As a result, ‘the lessons that had been learned during earlier Plans now placed the emphasis on developing the capacities of believers – wherever they might be – so that all could arise as confident protagonists of the Faith’s mission.’ The means to achieve this had been developed from the 1970s in Colombia, ‘against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.’ A ‘systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings’ had been devised and was ‘soon adopted in neighbouring countries.’

By the time the Four Year Plan ended (pages 109-110) ‘over one hundred thousand believers were involved world-wide in the programmes of the more than three hundred permanent training institutes.’ The process was moved on a stage further ‘by creating networks of “study circles” which utilise the talents of believers to replicate the work of the institute at a local level.’

  1. The word ‘modest’ effectively occurs twice in the quoted passages about social action. Why do we think that is?
  2. How does the idea of ‘capacity building’ translate into this context?
  3. How easy is it for us to step outside the assumptions we have acquired in our ‘industrialised’ (note OSED does not say ‘developed’) society? Why is it so necessary that we do so?
  4. Much of the work within the Bahá’í community has been aimed at breaking the prevalent pattern of passivity and involving an ever-greater proportion of people in its activities. Why do we think this can be so difficult to achieve? What are the influences that militate against this attempt? What are the benefits of breaking this pattern in however small a way?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes.

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan

Not Just the Bahá’ís

Page 110: The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.

Various threads intertwine here.

  1. Involvement in the UN

Pages 115-16: The birth of the United Nations opened to the Faith a far broader and more effective forum for its efforts toward exerting a spiritual influence on the life of society. [In1948] the eight National Spiritual Assemblies then in existence secured from the responsible United Nations body accreditation for “The Bahá’í International Community” as an international non-governmental organisation.

In 1980 (page 117), ‘the attempt by the Shi’ih clergy of Iran to exterminate the Cause in the land of its birth’ catapulted the Bahá’í relationship with the wider world to a new level.’

The Bahá’í response was unusual (page 119):

The persecuted community neither attacked its oppressors, nor sought political advantage from the crisis. Nor did its Bahá’í defenders in other lands call for the dismantling of the Iranian constitution, much less for revenge. All demanded only justice – the recognition of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the community of nations, ratified by the Iranian government, and many of them embodied even in clauses of the Islamic constitution.

  1. Justice.

The word ‘justice’ occurs a number of times in Century of Light. It is ‘the best beloved of all things’ in the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh writes. It entails seeing with our own eyes and not relying on the eyes of others. To get a clearer sense of how the Bahá’í community sees this principle operating at the highest level of the wider society it is perhaps worth pausing to look at a statement that has been twice presented to the UN before we continue with the issue of the human rights of the Bahá’ís in Iran.

In terms of both the individual and the legal system the Bahá’í position is as follows (from Turning Point – pages 10-11 – and from Prosperity of Humankind – pages 6-8):

In any system of governance, a strong judicial function is necessary to moderate the powers of the other branches and to enunciate, promulgate, protect and deliver justice. The drive to create just societies has been among the fundamental forces in history and without doubt no lasting world civilization can be founded unless it is firmly grounded in the principle of justice.

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected. An age that sees the people of the world increasingly gaining access to information of every kind and to a diversity of ideas will find justice asserting itself as the ruling principle of successful social organization.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or his group.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision-making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Such a conception of justice will be gradually reinforced by the realization that in an interdependent world, the interests of the individual and society are inextricably intertwined. In this context, justice is a thread that must be woven into the consideration of every interaction, whether in the family, the neighbourhood, or at the global level.

  1. Persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran

While progress was slow and complete reversal of the persecution was not achieved (page 121), ‘In time, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, however slow and relatively cumbersome its operations may appear to some outside observers, succeeded in compelling the Iranian regime to bring the worst of the persecution to a halt. . .’

As a result of the persecution the Bahá’í community (ibid) has learnt ‘how to use the United Nations’ human rights system in the manner intended by that system’s creators, without having recourse to involvement in political partisanship of any kind, much less violence.’

  1. Promoting Peace

In 1985 (page 122), as the Iranian crisis was unfolding, the Universal House of Justice issued through National Spiritual Assemblies the statement The Promise of World Peace, addressed to the generality of humankind. In ‘unprovocative but uncompromising terms’ the document expressed ‘Bahá’í confidence in the advent of international peace as the next stage in the evolution of society.’

  1. The Bahá’í International Community

The Bahá’í International Community (pages 122-23) ‘became, in only a few short years, one of the most influential of the non-governmental organisations . . . Because it is, and is seen to be, entirely non-partisan, it has increasingly been trusted as a mediating voice in complex, and often stressful, discussions in international circles on major issues of social progress. This reputation has been strengthened by appreciation of the fact that the Community refrains, on principle, from taking advantage of such trust to press partisan agendas of its own.’

  1. Publications

Page 140: This process [of spiritual empowerment] was immeasurably strengthened in 1992 through the long-awaited publication of a fully-annotated translation into English of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, a repository of Divine guidance for the age of humanity’s collective maturity.

  1. The Unity of the Bahá’í Spiritual and Administrative Centres

Page 142: In contrast to the circumstances of other world religions, the spiritual and administrative centres of the Cause are inseparably bound together in this same spot on earth, its guiding institutions centred on the Shrine of its martyred Prophet. For many visitors, even the harmony that has been achieved in the variegated flowers, trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens seems to proclaim the ideal of unity in diversity that they find attractive in the Faith’s teachings.

Final Questions (hopefully 30 minutes!)

It is clear that on the world’s stage the Bahá’í community has achieved increasing prominence over the years, first through the travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then through the campaigns launched by Shoghi Effendi, later by our involvement at the UN and finally by increasingly effective programmes of expansion, consolidation and social action.

  1. Where does that leave us now – whether as members of the Bahá’í community or of the wider society?
  2. What are our respective roles?

3. How do we play our different parts in the context of what we have learnt about the world right now?

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

As the workshop entered its last day our attempts to close in on the exact power of consultation were reaching a kind of climax.

Beyond a Culture of Contest

We examined more of the explanation started the day before from by the Bahá’í International Community’s document Prosperity of Human Kind (Section III this time – page 7-8). That described consultation as central to ‘the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships.’ They argue that consultation demands far more of us than ‘the patterns of negotiation and compromise that tend to characterize the present-day discussion of human affairs.’

In much the same way as Michael Karlberg discusses in his book Beyond the Culture of Contest, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) confront us with the reality that:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

They cover much the same ground as we had already explored but in possibly simpler terms, for example the need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of an ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

This is so different from the way that the word consultation is used all too often in our society where a ‘consultation’ document is issued, opinions are canvassed, responses remain unpublished and an opaque decision is arrived at that satisfies no one.

Any link with justice is conspicuous by its absence. Not so in Bahá’í terms according to the BIC.

. . . consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. . . . Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project.

Lample sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as the BIC, emphasising the way consultation rises above petty self-interest (Revelation and Social Reality – Page 199):

Consultation is the method of Baha’i discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.

Unsurprisingly justice comes into the mix again (page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

I end up, after reading such passages as these, feeling that consultation is the Bahá’í yoga. It is equally central to Bahá’í spiritual development as yoga is to its tradition; it is equally effortful and demanding as well as leading to an at least equivalent level of skill.

I think it is fair to say that the workshop group ended up of basically the same mind.

Hopefully the development of this central skill will make the Bahá’í community capable of following the advice of its central body, the Universal House of Justice, when it reminds us (Ridván Message 2008) of the words of Shoghi Effendi that we neither “overstress” nor “whittle down” the truth which [we] champion’ neither must we be “fanatical” nor “excessively liberal”.

More examples perhaps of the ‘moderation’ we have already explored as a necessary quality of our speech. Lample expresses a similar idea when he writes (page 45) ‘[C]aution must be exercised to avoid the extremes of absolute certainty or relativism.’

The Universal House of Justice also emphasise (ibid) that ‘Only if you perceive honour and nobility in every human being – this independent of wealth or poverty – will you be able to champion the cause of justice. And to the extent that administrative processes of your institutions are governed by the principles of Bahá’í consultation will the great masses of humanity be able to take refuge in the Bahá’í community.’

The Importance and Nature of Action

This whole process depends not just on studying our Scripture. Lample explains (page 23):

Study of the Word of God must be complemented by the effort to put the teachings into effect through a simultaneous process of action and reflection.

He quotes Shoghi Effendi’s analogy (From a letter of 2 November 1933 to an individual believer) of the Bahá’í community as a laboratory.

The Bahá’í community life provides you with an indispensable laboratory, where you can translate into living and constructive action the principles which you imbibe from the Teachings. . . . . To study the principles, and to try to live according to them, are, therefore, the two essential mediums through which you can ensure the development and progress of your inner spiritual life and of your outer existence as well.

Lample makes it clear that belief without action upon that belief is not enough (page 47):

The purpose of religion, however, is not simply to describe reality but to change human conduct and create a new social reality. Interpretation does not stand on its own. To test the soundness of our understanding we have to strive to apply it in action.

This will not be a quick fix nor will it depend only upon the Bahá’ís. The Universal House of Justice describes it as the work of centuries. Lample writes (page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

He amplifies the second point later (page 109):

. . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

In fact (page 210) ‘Spiritual progress and moral behaviour are won by degrees, in incrementally better actions day by day, in an incrementally better world generation after generation.’

Nor will it be achieved by merely materialistic motivation nor by self-interest no matter how enlightened (pages 147-48):

The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation required to reorient the world towards an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and people to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole.

Progress in turn results from the mutually reinforcing interaction of individual and society (page 58): ‘Living a Bahá’í life involves the twofold purpose of individual and social transformation.’ He quotes the Guardian’s insight (Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, 17 February 1933) that ‘We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.’

On sobering thoughts of that kind we closed the workshop with a sense of all the challenges that lay ahead, the anxiety tempered by an equally strong sense that not one of was alone in that endeavour: we have each other and we can draw upon the Power of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Journey Home

When we boarded the train in Dundee to return home, it was virtually empty. Great! I could start my sequence of blog posts about the summer school. My wife and I had the table to ourselves. With my laptop in front of me I started pulling the first post together. I’d probably done over 700 words by the time we pulled into Kirkaldy.

Then everything changed.

The carriage flooded with people. The table opposite filled with a party of ladies pouring champagne. A man almost as grey as me quietly asked if he could take the window seat beside me. Fortunately I’d anticipated the influx and put most of my stuff on the luggage rack and was just finding a place for my laptop cover as I stood up to let him in. My wife on the opposite side of the table moved over to the window to make space for a mother with two young daughters.

At the far end of the now crowded carriage, where our luggage was stashed, a party of six was settling in with their beer and wine, one of them perched on the top ledge of the rack.

‘It’s always like this on a Saturday,’ the man in the window seat confided. ‘Especially now with the Edinburgh Festival and a football match.’

I couldn’t catch the name of the team.

‘Which are you going to?’

‘The football of course. I’ve been supporting them for years and never miss a match. Where are you heading?’

‘Hereford.’ As I said that I remembered the sticker on the inside of a toilet door: ‘Horrorford: the graveyard of all ambition.’ I decided not to share the joke.

As I looked out of the window at the green fields speeding by, I added, ‘It’s a bit like this. Lots of farms and lovely countryside. You sound as if you come from somewhere else as well.’

‘You’re right. Bournemouth. But I’ve lived here for over twenty years.’

I could see very clearly I was not going to do any more blogging. I closed the lid of my laptop. At each of the succeeding stations the carriage became even fuller.

Somehow the conversation moved onto the state of the world. I’m not sure which of us started it. We covered all the usual complaints – politics, housing, the NHS, terrorism, Brexit, Grenfell Tower etc.

Finally I turned to him and said, ‘So, what’s the solution?’

‘I haven’t a clue. What do you think?’

‘Well, my first thought is education. That’s a good focus of attention to start creating a better future – encourage our children to become more caring of other people, of animals, and of the planet as well.’

‘I agree, but that’ll never happen. Those in charge will be too threatened.’

‘But we’ve got to start somewhere. I know it’ll take generations, centuries even. But we have to learn that we can’t solve any of our problems by competing and arguing all the time. We have to learn to work together, to stop magnifying our differences, to start recognising we’re all human beings and need to care about each other. We’ve got to get beyond this culture of contest and create a culture of cooperation.’

I hadn’t consciously been thinking of the mother and her children across the table. So, I was surprised when she spoke up.

‘I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying. I completely agree. And I think there should be no more political parties. Everyone should be working together in parliament to create solutions to all the problems that we have.’

Maybe I had picked up subliminally that a mother would respond to the idea of education.

The man in the window nodded vigorously in agreement with what she said.

‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘There must be so many people, far more than I ever thought, beginning to think in the same way in the face of these challenges.’

I edged towards the spiritual dimensions of the remedy and said a little about the Bahá’í Faith. The conversation faded at that point and returned to the safe ground of small talk. Even so it was encouraging.

As we left Edinburgh Gateway it seemed a good idea to retrieve our luggage from the racks at the end of the carriage. There was no exit there. We’d have to get off the train at the door just behind us. I was a bit apprehensive about negotiating two heavy bags down the crowded carriage. As it worked out I threaded my way easily to the partying group at the baggage rack.

They saw me coming. I explained that I was there for my bags and immediately the two men nearest the rack began getting them out for me.

A woman next to me lent over and confided, ‘We’ve sold them on Ebay.’

‘That was a quick sale,’ I quipped.

She grinned.

I rolled the bags back to our table, people taking pains to clear the way for me.

I put the smaller case on our seat and apologised to the father of the two daughters for getting in his way.

‘No problem,’ he smiled.

I got our other stuff down from the rack, packed my laptop into my backpack, put my jacket on and handed my wife her cardigan.

‘Can you manage the bag on the seat?’ I asked her.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ the father said. ‘I’ll get it onto the platform for you. We’re getting off here anyway.’

I was touched by how warmly everyone I had approached in the carriage had helped me solve my luggage problem. In a small way it showed how most people are really only too happy to help others. All the doom and gloom in the media is only part of the picture and sadly helps hide from us our full potential. To be fair, though, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower inferno demonstrated this kindness on an even larger scale. Hundreds, if not thousands of people showered with help those suffering from the trauma of it all.

As we waited for our train at Haymarket there was a warm feeling in my heart. Maybe a sense of oneness was not all that far away. The ache of the wrench of leaving the summer school and its uplifting atmosphere was easing.

I spent the rest of the journey without a table, noting in my small brown notebook the pages of Lample’s book which contained key quotes to pull into the blog posts on the summer school.

When I was too tired to do any more, I pulled out my copy of The Munich Girl and began to read: ‘Panic ignited a fuse in Anna when the 747’s hatch door sealed shut.’

The last hour of the journey sped by.

Home at last after ten hours on speeding trains and sitting on stations!

‘What was going to happen next?’ I wondered.

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766px-Members_of_the_first_Universal_House_of_Justice,_elected_in_1963

Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963 (For source of image see link)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the last post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (8 The Universal House of Justice). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Essential Background

After the passing of the Guardian in 1957, nine Hands of the Cause selflessly steered the Faith towards the next key development in its unfolding destiny. They organised the process by which the Universal House of Justice would be elected, and then stepped back to allow that institution to lead the Bahá’í community exactly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had envisaged in His Will & Testament, though sadly, given that Shoghi Effendi had appointed no successor, with no possibility of the continuance of the Guardianship.

Century of Light describes the moment when the Universal House of Justice came into being (page 81):

On 21 April 1963, the ballots of delegates from fifty-six National Spiritual Assemblies . . . . brought into existence the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Cause conceived by Bahá’u’lláh and assured by Him unequivocally of Divine guidance in the exercise of its functions . . .

They point towards the difficult decision Shoghi Effendi had had to make (pages 82-83):

. . . . it is clear that Shoghi Effendi early accepted the implications of the fact that the Universal House of Justice could not come into existence until a lengthy process of administrative development had created the supporting structure of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies it required.

It is important we begin to understand the full significance of this election and what it presaged (page 92):

The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice . . . . . very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community’s chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence . . . . . that in any way resembles this achievement.

The House then had some significant decisions to make given that it did not have the authority to appoint new Hands of the Cause but their function needed to continue (pages 97-98):

. . . the House of Justice created, in June 1968, the Continental Boards of Counsellors. Empowered to extend into the future the functions of the Hands of the Cause for the protection and propagation of the Faith, the new institution assumed responsibility for guiding the work of the already existing Auxiliary Boards and joined National Assemblies in shouldering responsibilities for the advancement of the Faith. [In 1973 there was] another major development of the Administrative Order, the creation of the International Teaching Centre, the Body that would carry into the future certain of the responsibilities performed by the group of “Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land”, and from this point on coordinate the work of the Boards of Counsellors around the world.

The Period Since Then

There has been a twin impact in terms of the Faith (page 97):

During these crucial thirty- seven years the work proceeded rapidly forward along two parallel tracks: the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community itself and, along with it, a dramatic rise in the influence the Faith came to exercise in the life of society. While the range of Bahá’í activities greatly diversified, most such efforts tended to contribute directly to one or other of the two main developments.

A sequence of seven plans of various durations followed (page 98-99) until ‘Twelve Month Plan that ended the century.’ The strands of activity in each plan built upon those of Shoghi Effendi and the Founders of the Faith: ‘the training of Spiritual Assemblies; the translation, production and distribution of literature; the encouragement of universal participation by the friends; attention to the spiritual enrichment of Bahá’í life; efforts toward the involvement of the Bahá’í community in the life of society; the strengthening of Bahá’í family life; and the education of children and youth.’

The opportunities created were beyond the capacity of any individual to manage (page 100):

. . . it became necessary to ‘launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers.’ Teams of teachers were created and the Faith reached ‘entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands.’

As a result ‘members of Spiritual Assemblies . . . . had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.’

The role of the youth was central – not for the first time in the history of the Faith (ibid):

. . . one is reminded again and again that the great majority of the band of heroes who launched the Cause on its course in the middle years of the nineteenth century were all of them young people. The Bab Himself declared His mission when He was twenty-five years old, and Anis, who attained the imperishable glory of dying with his Lord, was only a youth. Quddus responded to the Revelation at the age of twenty-two. . . . . Tahirih was in her twenties when she embraced the Bab’s Cause.’

More challenges followed. Mass enrolments exceeded the community’s capacity to nurture those who had declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh. Also (page 101)

. . . Theological and administrative principles that might be of consuming interest to pioneers and teachers were seldom those that were central to the concern of new declarants from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Often, differences of view about even such elementary matters as the use of time or simple social conventions created gaps of understanding that made communication extremely difficult.

Though the Bahá’í World Centre emphasised that expansion, the bringing in of newly declared Bahá’ís, and consolidation, their deepening in the Faith, were ‘twin processes that must go hand in hand,’ the ‘hoped for results did not readily materialise’ and ‘a measure of discouragement frequently set in.’ Enrolment slowed ‘tempting some Bahá’í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.’

The main impact of the setbacks was to clarify that (page 102) ‘the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic.’ It became obvious that ‘the easy successes of the initial teaching activities . . . did not, by themselves, build a Bahá’í community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating.’

(End of Presentation: any questions? The video immediately below gives a sense of how the Bahá’í Faith has responded to these challenges: the original can be downloaded at this link.)

Key Questions

Pioneers and new believers faced questions previous experience offered few answers (ibid: my bullet points).

  • How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established – and once established, how were they to function – in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth?
  • How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice?
  • How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed?
  • What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions?
  • How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members?
  • What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community?
  • How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures?
  • And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
  1. How many of these questions do we feel relate to our own situation?
  2. Do we have answers? If so, what are they? If not, what might those answers be?

Page 102: The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members needs to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Bahá'í House of Worship in Delhi, India

The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi, India (for source of image see link)

The Integration of Social Action

Page 103: The fact that the Bahá’í message was now penetrating the lives not merely of small groups of individuals but of whole communities also had the effect of reviving a vital feature of an earlier stage in the advancement of the Cause. For the first time in decades, the Faith found itself once more in a situation where teaching and consolidation were inseparably bound up with social and economic development.

An Office of Social and Economic Development was created at the World Centre in October 1983, and ‘Bahá’í communities throughout the world were called on to begin incorporating such efforts into their regular programmes of work.’

Page 104: The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

The successive Plans yielded the greatest harvest in India. By 1985 the growth of the Faith there had reached a level a more sharply focused attention was needed ‘than the National Spiritual Assembly alone could provide. Thus was born the new institution of the Regional Bahá’í Council, setting in motion the process of administrative decentralisation that has since proven so effective in many other lands.’

In addition (page 105) ‘India’s House of Worship has become the foremost visitors’ attraction on the subcontinent, welcoming an average of over ten thousand visitors every day, . . . [which] has given new meaning to the description by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of Bahá’í Temples as “silent teachers” of the Faith.’

Its reputation was now such that the National Spiritual Assembly of India was able to host, ‘in collaboration with the Bahá’í International Community’s newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, a symposium on the subject of “Religion, Science and Development“. More than one hundred of the most influential development organisations in the country participated.

Malaysia began to follow suit. Then Bahá’í communities in Africa (page 106) achieved remarkable spiritual victories, havingsurvived war, terror, political oppression and extreme privations.’

In 1992 (page 107) ‘the Bahá’í world celebrated its second Holy Year, this one marking the centenary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the promulgation of His Covenant. Truly remarkable was ‘the ethnic, cultural and national diversity of the 27,000 believers who gathered at the Javits Convention Centre in New York City’ together with together with the thousands present at nine auxiliary conferences acorss the world.’

At Ridván 2010, the Universal House of Justice’s message explained that ‘all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly.’ The Office of Social and Economic Statement (OSED – page 2) amplifies on this:

Most central to this vision was the question of capacity building. That activities should start on a modest scale and only grow in complexity in keeping with available human resources was a concept that gradually came to influence development thought and practice.

They continue (page 4):

Bahá’í activity in the field of social and economic development seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background. . . . Its purpose is neither to proclaim the Cause nor to serve as a vehicle for conversion.

Page 5: To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Page 6: Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.

The ‘scope and complexity’ (page 9) of such activity must be ‘commensurate with the human resources available in a community to carry it forward.’

Page 13: when an effort is participatory, in the sense that it seeks to involve the people themselves in the generation and application of knowledge, as all forge together a path of progress, dualities such as “outsider-insider” and “knowledgeable-ignorant” quickly disappear.

Capacity Building

Pages 108-09: One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially – if at all – to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.

As a result, ‘the lessons that had been learned during earlier Plans now placed the emphasis on developing the capacities of believers – wherever they might be – so that all could arise as confident protagonists of the Faith’s mission.’ The means to achieve this had been developed from the 1970s in Colombia, ‘against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.’ A ‘systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings’ had been devised and was ‘soon adopted in neighbouring countries.’

By the time the Four Year Plan ended (pages 109-110) ‘over one hundred thousand believers were involved world-wide in the programmes of the more than three hundred permanent training institutes.’ The process was moved on a stage further ‘by creating networks of “study circles” which utilise the talents of believers to replicate the work of the institute at a local level.’

  1. The word ‘modest’ effectively occurs twice in the quoted passages about social action. Why do we think that is?
  2. How does the idea of ‘capacity building’ translate into this context?
  3. How easy is it for us to step outside the assumptions we have acquired in our ‘industrialised’ (note OSED does not say ‘developed’) society? Why is it so necessary that we do so?
  4. Much of the work within the Bahá’í community has been aimed at breaking the prevalent pattern of passivity and involving an ever-greater proportion of people in its activities. Why do we think this can be so difficult to achieve? What are the influences that militate against this attempt? What are the benefits of breaking this pattern in however small a way?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes.

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan

Not Just the Bahá’ís

Page 110: The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.

Various threads intertwine here.

  1. Involvement in the UN

Pages 115-16: The birth of the United Nations opened to the Faith a far broader and more effective forum for its efforts toward exerting a spiritual influence on the life of society. [In1948] the eight National Spiritual Assemblies then in existence secured from the responsible United Nations body accreditation for “The Bahá’í International Community” as an international non-governmental organisation.

In 1980 (page 117), ‘the attempt by the Shi’ih clergy of Iran to exterminate the Cause in the land of its birth’ catapulted the Bahá’í relationship with the wider world to a new level.’

The Bahá’í response was unusual (page 119):

The persecuted community neither attacked its oppressors, nor sought political advantage from the crisis. Nor did its Bahá’í defenders in other lands call for the dismantling of the Iranian constitution, much less for revenge. All demanded only justice – the recognition of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the community of nations, ratified by the Iranian government, and many of them embodied even in clauses of the Islamic constitution.

  1. Justice.

The word ‘justice’ occurs a number of times in Century of Light. It is ‘the best beloved of all things’ in the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh writes. It entails seeing with our own eyes and not relying on the eyes of others. To get a clearer sense of how the Bahá’í community sees this principle operating at the highest level of the wider society it is perhaps worth pausing to look at a statement that has been twice presented to the UN before we continue with the issue of the human rights of the Bahá’ís in Iran.

In terms of both the individual and the legal system the Bahá’í position is as follows (from Turning Point – pages 10-11 – and from Prosperity of Humankind – pages 6-8):

In any system of governance, a strong judicial function is necessary to moderate the powers of the other branches and to enunciate, promulgate, protect and deliver justice. The drive to create just societies has been among the fundamental forces in history and without doubt no lasting world civilization can be founded unless it is firmly grounded in the principle of justice.

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected. An age that sees the people of the world increasingly gaining access to information of every kind and to a diversity of ideas will find justice asserting itself as the ruling principle of successful social organization.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or his group.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision-making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Such a conception of justice will be gradually reinforced by the realization that in an interdependent world, the interests of the individual and society are inextricably intertwined. In this context, justice is a thread that must be woven into the consideration of every interaction, whether in the family, the neighbourhood, or at the global level.

  1. Persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran

While progress was slow and complete reversal of the persecution was not achieved (page 121), ‘In time, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, however slow and relatively cumbersome its operations may appear to some outside observers, succeeded in compelling the Iranian regime to bring the worst of the persecution to a halt. . .’

As a result of the persecution the Bahá’í community (ibid) has learnt ‘how to use the United Nations’ human rights system in the manner intended by that system’s creators, without having recourse to involvement in political partisanship of any kind, much less violence.’

  1. Promoting Peace

In 1985 (page 122), as the Iranian crisis was unfolding, the Universal House of Justice issued through National Spiritual Assemblies the statement The Promise of World Peace, addressed to the generality of humankind. In ‘unprovocative but uncompromising terms’ the document expressed ‘Bahá’í confidence in the advent of international peace as the next stage in the evolution of society.’

  1. The Bahá’í International Community

The Bahá’í International Community (pages 122-23) ‘became, in only a few short years, one of the most influential of the non-governmental organisations . . . Because it is, and is seen to be, entirely non-partisan, it has increasingly been trusted as a mediating voice in complex, and often stressful, discussions in international circles on major issues of social progress. This reputation has been strengthened by appreciation of the fact that the Community refrains, on principle, from taking advantage of such trust to press partisan agendas of its own.’

  1. Publications

Page 140: This process [of spiritual empowerment] was immeasurably strengthened in 1992 through the long-awaited publication of a fully-annotated translation into English of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, a repository of Divine guidance for the age of humanity’s collective maturity.

  1. The Unity of the Bahá’í Spiritual and Administrative Centres

Page 142: In contrast to the circumstances of other world religions, the spiritual and administrative centres of the Cause are inseparably bound together in this same spot on earth, its guiding institutions centred on the Shrine of its martyred Prophet. For many visitors, even the harmony that has been achieved in the variegated flowers, trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens seems to proclaim the ideal of unity in diversity that they find attractive in the Faith’s teachings.

Final Questions (hopefully 30 minutes!)

It is clear that on the world’s stage the Bahá’í community has achieved increasing prominence over the years, first through the travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then through the campaigns launched by Shoghi Effendi, later by our involvement at the UN and finally by increasingly effective programmes of expansion, consolidation and social action.

  1. Where does that leave us now – whether as members of the Bahá’í community or of the wider society?
  2. What are our respective roles?

3. How do we play our different parts in the context of what we have learnt about the world right now?

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