Archive for May, 2008

wendi

The Silk Road


How good would it be were there any possibility of a commission composed of men and women, to travel together through China . . . so that this bond of love may become strengthened, and through this going and coming they may establish the oneness of the world of humanity . . . `Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i writings

At different times in history, a series of trade routes connected Asia to the Mediterranean Sea. Along this series of routes, known as the `Silk Road’ or `Silk Route’, commodities passed. Perhaps more importantly, however, as traders, explorers, pilgrims, soldiers and travellers crossed the continents, a cultural exchange developed as news, inventions and ideas travelled with them, enriching whole communities.

Such was the pilgrim road today, as Bahá’ís from every continent made their way to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh in Bahjí. More than a man with good ideas, Bahá’u’lláh is the divinely appointed teacher of all humanity for this age. His teachings for enhancing one’s spiritual life through the development of qualities such as love, justice, patience and detachment are directly connected to His social blueprint for a united, just, peaceful and prosperous world, as these same spiritual qualities are to be reflected in one’s social life and in the life of the wider community at all levels.

Fascinating, then, to meet people from so many different cultures who all have this same focus. And this caused me to reflect that in the Bahá’í writings many cultures and traditions are mentioned by name or picked out for special honour – and that some of these are perhaps not considered worthy of honour by the generality of humanity. For example, the Bahá’í texts mention the `talented’ Roma, and the indigenous people of Africa whom Bahá’u’lláh compared with the pupil of the eye through which the light of spirit shines forth, and the native American peoples who `will become so enlightened as in turn to shed light to all regions’.

As well as the pilgrims, there are many people visiting the Bahá’í World Centre at the moment, not all of them Bahá’ís. I was particularly glad to meet two PhD students from China who have been sent by their university to research the Bahá’í Faith. They fit perfectly the description of Chinese students found in the Bahá’í writings: they have `fresh and receptive minds’. I might add that they are absolutely delightful!

Of all the cultures and peoples mentioned in the Bahá’í writings, the Chinese are held in extremely high esteem. Called the `great Chinese race’ and the `talented Chinese race’, they are `most simple hearted and truth seeking’, ` peace loving’, `free from any deceit and hypocrisies and are prompted with ideal motives’; their country is `the country of the future’. Talking with these students, drinking China tea, learning about them and their culture, I felt I was taking the first steps on the Silk Road between their civilization and the civilization envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh.

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wendi

Pilgrim’s Progress

. . . although pilgrims upon earth we should travel the road of the heavenly kingdom’ `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í writings

One hundred and ten years ago, in the summer of 1898, Phoebe Apperson Hearst – philanthropist, promoter of women’s education and founder of the National Congress of Mothers (a forerunner of the Parent Teacher Association) – became a Baha’i.

Phoebe Hearst

A few weeks later, on 22 September, a small group of Baha’is, invited by Mrs Hearst, set out on the first Bahá’í pilgrimage to be undertaken by westerners. Travelling via New York and Paris, the group of 15 arrived in the holy land on 10 December. They split themselves into three parties, using Cairo as a staging post, with each small party visiting the holy land for a few days.

It was a period of `firsts’ for the new religion. Not only was it the first pilgrimage of western Bahá’ís, but included in the first party was Robert Turner, Mrs Hearst’s butler and the first black person to become a Bahá’í anywhere in the world. On 31 January 1899, before the third party could make its pilgrimage, the remains of the Bab, forerunner to Bahá’u’lláh, arrived in the holy land for burial. Shortly afterwards the foundation stone for the Shrine of the Bab was laid by`Abdu’l-Bahá. And in the spring of 1899, on return home from her pilgrimage and inspired by what she learned there, May Bolles established the first Bahá’í group on the European continent, in Paris.

Today, following in the footsteps of Phoebe Hearst and her friends and co-workers, Bahá’í pilgrims converged on Haifa, across the bay from `Akka, to begin their pilgrimage. But this time there are more than 30 times the number there were 110 years ago. This time people come from every background imaginable – many from Iran and the United States, but also large numbers from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas. There are tiny children, including a newborn infant, and very elderly people. The pilgrim groups are divided on language lines – Persian, English, German, Russian. A Portuguese pilgrim wonders whether he should go with the English or the Persian group; the Mongolians go with the Russians. The Australians and Pacific Islanders are exhausted after their 24 hours of travelling but of course they came by air, not by sea as Mrs Hearst’s party did.

The first visit is to the environs of the Shrine of the Báb. When the first western pilgrims visited, there was no shrine – the remains of the Báb were yet to arrive. Not so long ago all the pilgrims were able to enter the Shrine together to say prayers – now there are so many pilgrims that the best that can be achieved is a circumambulation of the Shrine, with people squeezing into the Shrine afterwards to say their individual prayers.

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Already one can see how inspired people are – the buzz at the lunch tables about the direct teaching of the Faith and the new Baha’is who have recently entered as a result is surely born of the same excitement and love of Bahá’u’lláh that prompted May Bolles to create a Bahá’í community in Paris.

Tomorrow we are off on the next leg of the journey – to Bahjí, where Bahá’u’lláh Himself is buried – and we meet the newly elected Universal House of Justice – something that was only a dream in 1898.

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O my Lord, remove the veil, scatter this dense cloud on the horizon, extinguish these fires, subdue this flood, in order to stanch the bloodshed as compassion to the widows and mercy to the orphans, that these hurricanes may cease, the thunderbolts be extinguished, the torrents quelled, the land become visible, the souls find composure and the breasts be dilated. And we will thank Thee for Thy abundant favour, O Thou dear! O Thou forgiver! `Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i prayer

This has not been a good year for the planet or the people on it. There has been just one disaster after another. Some problem with home loans in America which most of us knew nothing about has begun a downward spiral for the world’s economy. House prices in Britain, which had risen so sharply that most people were unable to buy houses, have now dropped but the same people who were unable to buy houses at the high price cannot buy them at the lower price because banks won’t lend them the money that last year they were giving away and which drove up housing costs in the first place.

Fuel prices have shot up alarmingly. The cost of fuel has pushed up the cost of food, which has to be driven or flown long distances to reach markets. To solve the problem of an unmet demand for fuel, land for food has been turned over to producing fuel from what we used to eat but now can’t because we are filling our cars with it. Rice crops have failed but the demand has increased because people who used to have no money to buy food now have the money and are, not surprisingly, using it to feed themselves. But this has driven the cost of rice up out of their reach, so before long they will be hungry again.

And if there is no farmland that can be used, we can just cut down a few million acres of tropical forest to plant more fuel crops. The carbon locked in the forest will just disappear into the air, won’t it?

Democracy has fared no better. Elections are no guarantee of a smooth transition of government. If you are already in power and you lose an election you can just hang on by beating up all the people who voted for the other guy.

Alternatively, if you can’t influence people to your point of view any other way, you can always terrorize them by blowing yourself up in a market and taking quite of few of them with you.

Here in Britain, just going to the bakery can be lethal if the people passing by decide it would be fun to stick a knife into you because, really, there is nothing else to do – life is soooo boring. Unless they want to watch a football match on a giant TV screen in the middle of a large city and the screen goes blank just before the kick off. Then they do have something to do – they can run around the host city and smash it up, fight with each other and throw bottles and bricks at the police and at victims already on the ground. For fun.

We who have warm, comfortable homes, electricity, water and TVs feel completely helpless as we watch earth, wind and fire completely overwhelming whole towns and villages, killing hundreds of thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands more with nothing. We don’t know how to respond appropriately. We send money to help the relief effort. Then we discover that the leaders of the people devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes don’t want our help – better to let people die than to feed them with foreign food or shelter them in tents provided by strangers! And they certainly don’t want us or our expertise.

These dramatic events are all over our TVs and news services. Thank goodness! It will be a really terrible day when such disasters are so commonplace, so acceptable that they cease to be news.

But there are disasters most of us never hear about. Such a one is beginning in Iran – again.

Yesterday, in Iran, six Baha’is in leadership roles were arrested in dawn raids. A seventh has been detained since March. Their crime? Being Baha’is. Compared to the massive loss of life in Burma and China, compared to the collapse of an entire economy in Zimbabwe, the arrest of a few Bahá’ís in Iran seems unremarkable, certainly not newsworthy.

But consider. An indicator that a famine is approaching is when settled agrarian people become nomadic. At that point there is no famine, nothing to see. Yet the famine is coming. If action is not taken, it will be devastating. An indicator that the persecution of the Bahá’ís is escalating towards devastation is when children are denied education, when senior Baha’is are detained. There may not be much to remark upon now but there will be – and soon – unless such persecution is stopped.

But do we have the will to stop it? One of the worst features of the disasters that have encompassed our world is that they have been compounded by our collective inability to act collectively. We are still divided by country, race, religion, skin colour, class and gender. We fail to deal with each other with justice and humanity. People die in hurricanes but many more die because leaders do not trust the aid workers who could assist those injured or lacking food and water. Earthquakes in poor areas kill thousands because badly constructed buildings fall down on top of them. Marginalized people, whether in New Orleans, Burma, China, Manchester or Iran, are permitted to suffer because the rest of us will not get our act together and work in unity to eliminate hatred, ignorance, poverty, petty-mindedness and prejudice. We can conquer racism, empower women to advance, live more gently, enable good governance to thrive, work with each other rather than against each other – but we don’t. We are concerned, we are frustrated, we send money, we pray – but we don’t unite and use our collective power to deal with these issues.

`All that is necessary’, Edmund Burke said, `for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ The nothing that we do best is not working in unity.

The Baha’i Faith – that religion whose followers in Iran are locked up because of their beliefs – teaches that while it looks like we are on the road to hell, there is hope for humanity. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh tell us how to live in justice in the 21st century. Using His teachings, applying the spiritual and social guidance He has provided, Baha’is are learning to work together, to eliminate prejudices, to combat hate, to fight poverty, to build communities of love where no one is marginalized and all individuals are important. Right now, the Baha’is are saying `Join us’. You can do so here.

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O ye beloved of God! When the winds blow severely, rains fall fiercely, the lightning flashes, the thunder roars, the bolt descends and storms of trial become severe, grieve not; for after this storm, verily, the divine spring will arrive, the hills and fields will become verdant, the expanses of grain will joyfully wave, the earth will become covered with blossoms, the trees will be clothed with green garments and adorned with blossoms and fruits. Thus blessings become manifest in all countries. `Abdu’l-Baha

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wendi

The Election Trail

Now must those elected representatives arise to serve with spirituality and joy, with purity of intent, with strong attraction to the fragrances of the Almighty, and well supported by the Holy Spirit. Let them raise up the banner of guidance, and as soldiers of the Company on high, let them exalt God’s Word, spread abroad His sweet savours, educate the souls of men, and promote the Most Great Peace. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i writings

There have been elections on – or campaigns preceding elections – in many parts of the world in the last few weeks. Since January there have been presidential elections in Georgia, Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago, Czech Republic, Armenia, Cyprus, Russia, Lebanon, Taiwan, Montenegro, Paraguay and, of course, Zimbabwe. And who could have failed to notice that the United States presidential election is later this year? Between now and then there will be a further five presidential elections – in Dominican Republic, Iceland, Azerbaijan, Dominica and Palau. There are parliamentary elections in heaps of places over the next few weeks s and local government elections in some parts of England on 1st May – including the election for the Mayor of London.

An election junkie – I am absolutely fascinated by elections and love the buzz of whole exercise (I know, I know – not everyone will agree with me!) – I find the idea of people voting for their own government very exciting. I try to follow as many elections as possible – OK, I will probably not follow the Palau election – but I am interested in the process. If you are too, have a look at Elections and Electoral Systems Around the World and Election Guide

But of all the elections taking place, the one that really interested me was the one that is probably even less well known internationally than the Palau election – and is very different from all of them: the election of the international governing body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice.

That election took place on 29 April and the results were announced today. There were no nominations, no electioneering, no campaigns, no canvassing for votes. There were no political parties, no party platforms – in fact, none of the things that we have come to associate with elections.

And no one `won’ the election.

What happened was that, some time ago, all the Baha’is in each electoral unit elected, from among themselves, a delegate to the Baha’i national convention. They did this by writing down the name of the person they thought should be the delegate. The person whose name appeared most frequently on the voting papers was elected. Those delegates, last year, voted for the nine Baha’is in their country they thought should serve on their national governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly. And it is these elected individuals – and their counterparts around the world – who elected the Universal House of Justice by simply writing down the names of the nine men they each thought should serve for the next five years.

At no time was there any discussion about who should be elected, either by the electors or the wider Baha’i community. The electors kept their opinions to themselves and votes only as their conscience – and prayerful consideration of all possibilities – dictates. Voting was conducted in a prayerful, thoughtful atmosphere.

As it was for this election – the tenth to be held to elect members to the Universal House of Justice – so it is of all Baha’i elections at all levels – local (local elections take place all over the world every year on 21st April), regional and national, as well as international: the voters simply write the names of the nine individuals they wish to vote for.

And here are some other differences worthy of note:

* Candidates: individual voters are responsible for creating their own `list’ of candidates based on their observation of the personal qualities of other Baha’is (as evidenced by their personal life and service), their ability to correlate the teachings of the Baha’i Faith to society and their efforts to further the advancement of civilization

* Eligibility: there is no professional path a person must follow or political roles he or she must take before being considered worthy of election — ordinary Baha’is are eligible for election.

* Electability: the qualities of those eligible for election are not political capacities but qualities of the spirit reflected in the day to day actions of that individual; Baha’is believe that a person’s personal qualities – such as loyalty, a well-trained mind, the ability to translate spiritual values into practical activity, mature experience , selflessness, and devoted service to the community – are his or her most important electable characteristics.

* Campaigning: all Baha’is are campaigning constantly – not for themselves to be elected, but for a new world system that is just and creates unity rather than divisions. One of the features of that new world will be a more equitable and honest electoral process.

* Platform: there is only one platform – the teachings of Baha’u’llah, as interpreted by
`Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi and rolled out by the Universal House of Justice

* Voter participation: it is the responsibility of the elector to be fully informed about the character and qualities of those to be elected; it is not the role of individuals to trumpet their wonderful qualities – doing do usually disqualifies a person from being elected, in the mind of most voters.

* Voter awareness: the evidence that the voter will have about whether another person has the spiritual capacity, well-trained mind and mature experience necessary for election comes from his personal observation of others, against a background of what the Baha’i Faith teaches about the advancement of civilization, how people should behave in their personal and public lives (their rectitude of conduct) and how people relate to each other (community development, family life, etc.). This is not a question of prying into the private lives of individuals or their families – it is about getting to know people in their ordinary lives by associating with them in activities and in the usual range of human relationships.

* Voter education: training oneself to be a voter is the responsibility of every Baha’i. The voter becomes the most important person in the process, not a political party or campaign manager, because the voter, alone and without discussion with any other person, makes choices from those he or she has observed in action all through the year.

* Issues vrs. personalities: Baha’i elections are not `fought’ on issues or on personalities (they are, as you can see, not actually `fought’ at all). It is the voter’s responsibility to be actively involved in Baha’i activities, to participate in all the events and processes that make up Baha’i community life and thereby to come into contact with a large number of people. Because Baha’is consult with each other about a wide range of issues, the individual voter can, over time, become aware of the ideas of other Baha’is and can weigh up not only what another thinks about an issue but also how they may deal with it – that is, whether the person is consultative, a team player, has energy to accomplish things, etc. and the voter also will no doubt form an opinion as to whether a person is egocentric, personally ambitious, etc. – qualities that disbar someone from election.

* Issues: the `issues’ that are relevant in a Baha’i context are not defined by a political agenda but by an understanding of how the principles enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh are being worked out in the social setting globally and what the roles of the individual, the Baha’i community and the Baha’i institutions are in forwarding this., e.g. correlation of the Baha’i teachings to the current issues of the day, e.g. climate change, human rights, racism, local issues.

* Freedom of Choice: the freedom of the individual voter is not compromised at all in Baha’i elections – he or she can choose freely from all the adult Baha’is in the geographic area being served by the institution for which the elections are being held. So it is very democratic.

* Voter apathy: voters are apathetic when they cannot see the relationship between their vote and making things happen, when they do not think they will make a difference. For Baha’is, the relationship is clear. As all Baha’is, as a tenet of their faith, are engaged in service to humanity, and as voting is one form of service and election to office only but another, voter turn-out at Bahá’í elections tends to be high.

* Democracy: Most popular discussions about democracy centre on voting and the election process as whereas Baha’is see the education of the electorate as the most important part of democracy. People who are uneducated in the issues of the day, in the governance system of their country or community, in the processes and infrastructures necessary for complex governance make very poor choices, are easily misled, cannot `see with their own eyes’ and can easily be manipulated. Most countries of the world struggle with this issue.

Having said all this, I was very interested indeed to learn who, among all the Baha’i men in the world, would be elected to serve the Baha’i community in the capacity of `member of the Universal House of Justice’ for the next five years – and here are their names, in the order of votes, from highest to lowest number (I was overwhelmed and delighted to see my nephew’s name in the eighth position):

UHJ 2008

Farzam Arbab, Kiser Barnes, Peter Khan, Hooper Dunbar, Firaydoun Javaheri, Paul Lample, Payman Mohajer, Shahriar Razavi, Gustavo Correa

Truly, blessed souls have been elected. The moment I read their names, I felt a thrill of spiritual joy to know that, praised be God, persons have been raised up . . . who are servants of the Kingdom, and ready to lay down their lives for Him Who hath neither likeness nor peer. `Abdu’l-Baha

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