Little Known Fact: Baha’i Age of Consent

If you asked your average friendly neighborhood Baha’i about the age of consent in the Baha’i Faith, they would most probably say 15 years of age.

And that is true… for the most part. The Kitab-i-Aqdas and Some Answered Questions both mention the fifteenth year.

But if that was all there was to it, this wouldn’t be another installment of “it’s a little known fact”!

A recent article written by Sen McGlinn delves into the topic and explains why the age of consent for Baha’is is actually, 15, 14 and unknown (not yet set by the UHJ). Yes, all three.

“The End Is Nigh” – May 21, 2011

In case you were otherwise engaged and were not made aware of this peculiar phenomena, for the past few months, a very small Christian group, lead by Harold Camping has been making a great hue and cry about the impending arrival of judgement day or the rapture on May 21st 2011.

You may not be surprised to learn that this is not Camping’s second prophecy. He made a similar claim in 1994. He said he wasn’t embarrassed about the previous failure because it was “premature” and regarding the current prophecy he again and again said that it was “guaranteed” and there was no way it wouldn’t happen.

The website of the group is now offline but here’s a screenshot of their homepage from Google cache:

While Family Radio, the group behind this prophecy is small, their message and the effect they’ve had has reverberated around the United States and the world. There have been hundreds of articles and news mentions of the group and its followers. Some of which made arrangements for the end of the world that would mean their lives going forward will be extremely difficult. Many euthanized their pets, used all of their savings to put up print and billboard advertisements to “blow the trumpet” and “warn people”.

Most other people are having fun with this. Here’s a satirical response from a university professor to his students Others organized to have unused clothes placed around town to simulate people being “raptured” out of them and some even asked the believers if they will gift their personal possessions to them (since they won’t be needing them in heaven).

Of course, this is the latest in a very long series of such prophecies.

The most famous one is known as the “Great Disappointment” within the Millerite movement who expected the return of Jesus to earth. That lead to the creation of two other Christian denominations: Latter Day Adventists and Jehova’s Witnesses.

Baha’is of course believe that Miller was off by only a few months and by a literal rather than figurative interpretation of the Bible. Instead of October 1844, the Bab declared a few months earlier on May 23rd 1844 (in Shiraz, Persia instead of the US).

There has been no news officially from Harold Camping so we don’t know what his reaction is. But at 89 years of age, I don’t think he’ll have much more opportunities to make further prophecies and the small group around him will dissolve into obscurity and this event will melt away into the annals of history.

Here’s a clip from Six Feet Under (mature content) which I thought was apropos:

UHJ on Priority for Elimination of Racial Prejudice

A recent letter from the Universal House of Justice (via the Secretariat) responding to a question from an individual Baha’i addresses the question of racial prejudice and the priority that the Baha’i community should place upon its elimination in the US.

We don’t have the actual question but from the reply we can infer that it juxtaposed the prominence that Shoghi Effendi placed upon it with the more recent exhortations from the UHJ and ITC on the “framework for growth”:

You indicate that some friends wonder whether the Guardian’s statement characterizing racial prejudice as â€?the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bah??’?­ community at the present stage of its evolutionâ€? still applies to the racial situation in the United States, since it was written so long ago. The House of Justice has determined that it is not productive to approach the issue in this manner, as it gives rise to an implicit and false dichotomy that, either what the Guardian said is no longer important, or it is so important that it must be addressed before or apart from all other concerns

Ultimately the House sides with themselves on the issue, writing that the framework for growth takes precedence:

Only if the efforts to eradicate the bane of prejudice are coherent with the full range of the community’s affairs, only if they arise naturally within the systematic pattern of expansion, community building, and involvement with society, will the American believers expand their capacity, year after year and decade after decade, to make their mark on their community and society and contribute to the high aim set for the Bah??’?­s by â€?Abdu’l-Bah?? to eliminate racial prejudice from the face of the earth.

I’m a bit puzzled by their claim that:

Even if such a community were to focus the entirety of its resources on the problem of racial prejudice, even if it were able to heal itself to some extent of that cancerous affliction, in the face of such a monumental social challenge the impact would be inconsequential.

Because one of the most famous quotes from Shoghi Effendi on teaching is this:

Not by the force of numbers, not by the mere exposition of a set of new and noble principles, not by an organized campaign of teaching – no matter how world-wide and elaborate in its character – not even by the staunchness of our faith or the exaltation of our enthusiasm, can we ultimately hope to vindicate in the eyes of a critical and skeptical age the supreme claim of the Abha Revelation. One thing, and only one thing, will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Bah??’u’ll??h.
The Bah??’?­ Magazine – Star of the West, September 1925, Vol. 16 No. 6, page 538

Doesn’t that explicitly contradict the UHJ? Especially since Shoghi Effendi excludes “an organized campaign of teaching – no matter how world-wide and elaborate in its character” and posits that the extent to which we live the Baha’i principles in our lives is the key? wouldn’t a community that “mirrors forth” the principle of the unity of mankind, with no racial prejudice, ultimately “secure the undoubted triumph” of the Cause?

As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts. For your consideration, here’s the full letter:

Canadian NSA Election – 2011

The delegates at the National Convention in Canada re-elected every single previous member of their National Spiritual Assembly. These included the two new members that were the result of the 20 December 2010 by-election (Simon Grandy and Dr. Mehran Anvari).

Canada NSA members 2011

The members of the Canadian NSA are:

Karen McKye
Deloria Bighorn
Enayat Rawhani
Simon Grandy
Judy Filson
Elizabeth Wright
Mehran Anvari
Gordon Naylor
Susanne Tamas

So once again, yet another confirmation of the death-grip that incumbency has on Baha’i elections. The longest continuous members are: Judy Filson (+16 years), Enayat Rohani (+16 years), Karen McKye (+14 years) and Susanne Tamas (+14 years). The average consecutive years in office is 9 – meaning that the average member of the NSA of Canada has been a member for 9 years non-stop.

A few weeks before the National Convention and the Canadian federal elections, the Canadian Baha’i News agency (a body of the Canadian NSA) featured a commentary comparing the Baha’i elections and the upcoming secular ones in Canada titled “Innovative electoral model employed by Baha’is“.

The article contrasted the Baha’i election process (devoid of campaigning) with the partisan nature of the political election taking place with its usual mud-slinging. But the article also had an unmistakeable whiff of self-aggrandizement:

Although the Canadian political system reflects well fundamental democratic reforms that have served to advance humanity’s ability to govern itself, it is not without its challenges. Cynicism and apathy about the Canadian electoral system seem to have reached a new high, especially among younger voters. Some political scientists have attributed this apathy to a general decline in interest in institutional democracy.

What happened to humility being the watchword?

Of course, there are very real differences between Baha’i elections and the federal elections. Each one is different in nature and for a different purpose. This does not mean that one is inherently “better” than the other or that one method or process should be adopted in lieu of the other.

The difference that I see between the two goes beyond the superficial ones that the Canadian Baha’i News article mentioned. Whereas Baha’is never discuss or question their own election process or how to improve it, the federal election process is very much discussed. Especially since the recent one resulted in a majority government that did not gain the popular vote. Many Canadians are rightfully asking if they need electoral reform to align the democratic will of the citizenry more precisely with the outcome of elections.

This is open engagement and willingness to both acknowledge shortcomings and to address them is completely lacking in the Baha’i community right now. Instead we are complacent and unwilling to acknowledge the real challenges and deficiencies of Baha’i elections.

The problem of incumbency is probably the most glaring. The very thing which Baha’is are proud of is in fact a cause of this weakness. Because Baha’i elections do not allow campaigning, the current members of the NSA gain a defacto advantage because they are known to the community and their names are often marked with an asterisk or other identifier on the document sent along with ballots that lists the community members eligible for election. The result of the phenomena is evident at all levels of Baha’i election, from the local to the international.

So before we start throwing stones around, let’s first be cognizant that our own dwelling is primarily built out of glass. And let’s start to have a serious and intelligent discussion about how we can improve Baha’i elections. Exhortations of the kind that we’ve seen from the Universal House of Justice simply are not enough to solve deep structural deficiencies. One idea is both simple and effective: term limits. There are others of course. The important thing is to engage in an open and honest dialogue.

Did someone mention cynicism and apathy?

The other challenge facing Baha’i elections is extremely low participation rates. Baha’is may be surprised to learn that the participation rates at this federal election far outnumber the participation rates of Baha’i elections. This has also been the case historically. Talk about cynicism and apathy! Baha’is are not engaged with the election process because they do not believe that their vote counts. The same people are re-elected year in and year out.

So again, before you throw stones…

A brilliant example of the dichotomy between the two approaches is that today, UK voters are going to the polls to vote on a referendum about their voting system. Say what you will about “partisan politics”. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the fact that it was held shows an admirable willingness to be flexible and attempt to change and improve. As a Baha’i, I wish these were characteristics that were evident from Baha’i communities with regards to elections (and other community matters).

It is also important to note that the Baha’i election, in contrast to the myth believed by most Baha’is, is not “set in stone” but can be adapted and improved upon. The current election process that we employ at Baha’i communities around the world is markedly different from that first put in practice at the time of Baha’u’lah or Abdu’l-Baha. They of course share certain principles, such as secret ballot and no campaigning, but many other things are different.

So it is not true to argue that we are unable to make modifications (such as term limits or changes like the UK proposed AV+ voting system). Personally, I don’t have a single solution that I’m advocating per se. The more important idea is that we should consider these ideas seriously and once informing ourselves, begin to engage in a meaningful conversation about it in true Baha’i consultation.

In case you’re curious, there are literally dozens of method we can use for elections. Here is a simple list and description, each with advantages and disadvantages. For more information on the proposed AV+ system being voted on today in the UK, see this.

Here’s a video that explains it quite concisely: