Many moons ago when I was quite young and had yet not heard of any ‘heretical’ ideas… Back when the internet was just a twinkle in the eyes of DARPA nerds (I mean scientists)… back when the only way most Baha’is would hope to hear anything interesting would be to attend conferences or live in California. Back when innocence reigned…
I remember going to a particular youth conferences with a few friends. One night, we went out to socialize in a coffee shop that the conference attendees frequented. After all, that is really the main purpose of conferences from the perspective of the typical Baha’i youth. We sat down at a table which was next to another group of older Baha’i youth and with the help of one of our group who knew them, started talking to them. When we huddled together again at our own table, my friend lowered his voice and said that ‘so-and-so’ (one of the older youth we had just met) had recently resigned as a Baha’i. We were shocked because eventhough we didn’t know him personally, we knew that the person in question had impressive Baha’i ‘pedigree’. He was also quite intelligent as he was attending one of the best universities around and doing a double major to boot. Our connection to the older group then explained that he had resigned because he didn’t believe in something called theocracy. I felt sheepish but mustered the question outloud and was told, He doesn’t believe that Baha’is will or should run things, you know, like the government. Unfortunately this didn’t help because I couldn’t really wrap my mind around this novel and strange idea. Why would Baha’is want to run the government or be the government?, I thought to myself, feeling rather ignorant.
I also remember thinking, Man, that’s silly! Why would you resign just based on that? Especially when you father is… Being a teenager, my thoughts soon wandered off in other directions. No doubt, aided in part, by the arrival of a gaggle of Baha’i youth of the opposite sex.
It was many years later that I realized that, on that night, I had had my first brush with the controversial issue of theocracy and had inadvertantly, met my first unenrolled Baha’i.
Alison has published a commentary by Juan Cole, from H-Baha’i, regarding the recent unenrollment of Sen McGlinn. I look forward to reading her own thoughts as well (this is an audio – MP3 – file!). Karen has done likewise here and others, in different Baha’i forums, are discussing it as the hot topic of the day. Seeing that I’m composed enough now, below, I offer a few semi-coherent comments of my own.
The first thing I would like to comment on is the letter of the House of Justice regarding takfir.
As you’ll notice in the beginning of the letter, the UHJ cautions against using quotes out of context because doing so may ‘deliberately or inadvertantly’ ‘distort’ its meaning or intention. I agree. And I wish they had followed their own advice when they selectively quoted McGlinn out of context and disseminated to all the NSAs the baseless allegation that he is claiming ecclesiastical rank.
The UHJ brushes aside any relevance to their act of unenrolling Baha’is by explaining that declaring someone takfir is something between persons and does not involve religious authorities. This is incorrect as declarations of takfir carried no weight unless they came from a religious authority (a Mullah, a Mujtahid, a Calyph, etc.). Their explanation gives the erroneous impression that Muslims walked around the street and, pointing to each other saying ‘takfir, takfir’, engaged in a surreal sort of religious tag. But since takfir was issued by a religious authority (otherwise it had no influence or effect) it is relevant for it to be compared to the act of throwing Baha’is out of their religious community. And as Abdu’l-Baha’s clear words show, such practice is abolished in the Baha’i Faith.
Leaving aside such semantic arguments, I personally have difficulty in understanding the actions of the House in unenrolling Baha’is because I have difficulty in separating belief and membership.
When teaching a seeker, we ask them, do you believe? do you believe that Baha’u’llah is the Manifestation of God for today? do you believe that the Baha’i Faith is for you? and finally, do you want to be a Baha’i?
If they say yes, then they are a Baha’i.
But now, we are told that these two things: belief and membership, are two distinct and separate matters which are not up to the individual person but which can be determined and imposed by the House of Justice. That is, even if a person believes in Baha’u’llah and wishes to join His Faith, he can be denied by the House. Or if she already is a member in good standing and a lover of Baha’u’llah, she can be kicked out.
Furthermore, the process by which this decision is made is not clear; the method used, opaque and the justification, completely absent. It leaves me scratching my head. Why? Why is belief in Baha’u’llah not enough to choose to be a member of His community?
Why is it that while some profess belief, and voluntarily enter on that ground alone, others who profess the same belief are plucked up and thrown out?
If a person wishes to declare their belief in Baha’u’llah and not enroll as a Baha’i officially… I can understand that. After all it is their choice. But what I fail to understand is how those who do wish to be a part of the community and do declare belief, can be denied.
In the Aqdas, there are two requirements or duties outlined for every person: recognizing Baha’u’llah’s station of Prophethood, and abiding by His laws. The two are inseparable. According to Baha’u’llah: one, without the other, is meaningless.
And yet, they are not events per se but rather processes. Or if you prefer, they are not destinations but rather journeys. Just as one can never instantly abide by God’s laws but instead is continually forced to live life, day by day to face challenges; so are we also faced with the awsome opportunity of discovering Baha’u’llah’s Revelation and His station (irfan).
This has deep implications for the whole issue of takfir or ‘unenrollment’. As you know, Baha’is are not thrown out of their faith community if they fail to abide by God’s law. They are not declared to not be Baha’is by the recognized administrative authority of the Baha’i Faith if they steal, cheat, kill, defraud, etc.
If that were the case, I’m sure all Baha’is would be ‘unenrolled’ immediately (yours truly being the first to get the boot). But why, may I inquire are they not punished by being declared ‘not Baha’i’? Haven’t they all clearly shown by their actions that they did not abide by Baha’u’llah’s words? Or is there one among us now who is a perfect Baha’i in every sense?
That Baha’is are not treated so is because we recognize that people are on a journey. We all acknowledge that we may fail here or there along this journey. But that is to be expected since we are frail and imperfect beings. What truly matters is that we have set out on a course and are struggling to live better lives by trying to be Baha’is in the full sense of that word.
It is for this reason that I’m confused why the same approach is not extended to its twin requirement (as set out in the first paragraph of the Aqdas). Assuming that the UHJ has the ability to somehow peer into our very hearts and souls to determine our belief in Baha’u’llah, why are Baha’is not given the same flexibility to fail and trundle along on this journey? Why are they thrown out of their communities and considered to not be worthy of the appellation Baha’i on their first stumble? Or isn’t irfan also a journey?
Finally, an attempt is made to shut down any and all discussion of these issues by claiming that this is a personal issue between Sen and the insitutions – meaning that it is none of other Bahai’s business and we simply should close our yaps and not talk about it. First of all, McGlinn himself chose to share this with others. Second, while the intimate details of this situation are personal and Sen is due his privacy, the wider issue of unenrollment matters to all Baha’is. Especially when it is used as a tool to punish the expression of personal convictions regarding the Faith.
Message from the NSA of the Netherlands, communicating the decision of unenrollment by the House of Justice.