This next installment of the LA Class deals with the aftermath of the letter written by Dr. Denis MacEoin regarding the ineffective outreach of the Faith and its flirtation with irrelevancy to an ever advancing world.
There are a wide variety of reactions so I’ll let you read them for yourself. But once again, I’m simply floored by how much time has stood still within the Baha’i community. If no one told me, I would never imagine that this discussion had taken place 30 years ago. Enjoy.
If this is your first newsletter, you can read the introduction to the LA study class, here.
On with the 70′s class . . .
[Ed. personal address removed]
Vol. IV, No. 2
Denis MacEoin’s remarkable and outspoken indictment of misplaced emphasis in the Baha’i Community which he characterized as growth fixation, socially irrelevant and politically naive received both grim agreement and some angry opposition during the lengthy January 28, meeting of our class. At this point, we suggest that you re-read the letter which appeared in the last newsletter.
As the discussion began, Tony Lee expressed the view that Baha’i Communities have two responsibilities. The first of these is to insure their own survival by bringing in new members and ordering their own community life. The second of these is to actively work to assist their fellow men. This active concern for society, however, is usually ignored or forgotten as communities concentrate on developing their own internal structure.
It is not enough, Lee argued, to say that Baha’is as individuals are free to engage in activities which are socially oriented. If this were the case, what would distinguish us from say, the Unitarian Church or the Society of Friends (Quakers), both of whose members are more socially active than the Baha’is are. In fact, these two groups have developed a reputation for social concern which is widely respected. While it is true that the Baha’i Faith should lead to a spiritual awareness which other religions do not have access to, this awareness has not automatically produced a heightened social consciousness. In fact, the Baha’i Communities in the United States generally have a lower level of involvement in society than other religious groups do. Lee argued that the essence of MacEoin’s argument is that Baha’i Communities must stand firmly and publicly for their own principles, even when (or perhaps, especially when) they are controversial, unpopular or risky. Too often the Baha’i principles are presented in a manner which is deliberately bland and non-threatening. So bland and unthreatening that they become irrelevant.
Greg Wahlstrom agreed, but added that if Baha’is wait for their administrative institutions to take the lead in social activism, they could be waiting a long, long time. Instead, individual Baha’is ought to concentrate on doing things that clearly reflect Baha’i principles in their daily lives, with the assumption that this will affect others. A bland presentation of the Faith will attract bland people, while a more active posture will bring a more activist element into the Faith.
But, David Young took exception to some of MacEoin’s argument. He felt that the English scholar’s thesis was the wrong approach to instilling life in the Baha’i Community. Young argued that what is needed is the development of spiritually mature Baha’is and that an emphasis on social action wold lead the community in the wrong direction. Social activism should be the product of social concern and not the other way around.
Amin Banani was also among those who took issue with some points of Denis’ letter. He asked that the class consider that the Baha’is represent a tiny portion of mankind, but that we are a group with high ideals and ambitions which take in the re-making of all of human society. As the Faith grows in size and influence, it must pass through various stages. He said that the principles of non-involvement in politics, which MacEoin has cited a cause for Baha’is shying away from current social concerns, should be seen as a tactic which Baha’is must use in this stage of Baha’i history, rather than a permanent policy.
Dr. Banani noted that in the early days of the Faith, the Baha’is were quite political. The fact that, in 1875, Abdu’l-Baha composed the book, The Secret of Divine Civilization, which was a highly political essay giving advice to the Shah, and the fact that in 1890, He composed the work named A Treatise on Politics, are both very significant. But it is also significant that both of these works were composed anonymously. Abdu’l-Baha often encouraged Baha’is in Iran to be politically active, especially in the early days of the Persian constitutional movement (the early 1900′s). All this changed as Abdu’l-Baha saw that the constitutional movement was being co-opted by foreign powers. At that point, He began writing strong letters to the Baha’is of Iran forbidding them to become involved in politics and ordering them to withdraw from the constitutional movement. The Baha’i doctrine of non-involvement in politics was born. Again, Dr. Banani expressed the view that this is a temporary policy which must change as the position of the Baha’i Community changes. How, for example, will we behave when 65% of the population of a country is a Baha’i?
It was also pointed out that the question of non-involvement in politics is a flexible one even now. Obedience to government also has its limits. For instance, at one point the Gestapo in Nazi Germany informed the National Spiritual Assembly there that it would be permitted to continue its activities and maintain its legal status only if it provided the names of Baha’is of Jewish extraction to the police so that they could be detained. At the instruction of the Guardian, the National Assembly flatly refused. As a result, the institution was dissolved by the government and the Faith and its literature banned. Even so, the Baha’is hid their literature and went underground, again in violation of the law.
Flor Geola of Manhattan Beach suggested that he nub of the problem is the lack of any clear cut definition in the Faith of what is political and what is not. Most Baha’is are not sure and a lot of energy is dissipated on sorting out what constitutes political activity. Most Assemblies are devoting whatever limited resources they have to community problems and can spare no energy for taking on social issues, Dr. Geola said.
Tony Lee pointed out that when Abdu’l-Baha came to this country in 1912, He was not afraid to speak out on controversial political issues. He made radical statements on such topics as women’s suffrage, labor-management disputes, the American electoral system, the rights of soldiers, national sovereignty, etc. Now, ironically, American Baha’is would be reluctant to make these same statements for fear of violating their religious principles. This leaves the community with an inward-looking stance, concentrating all of its attention on Feasts and children’s classes and ignoring all outside issues. This misses one of the major points of the Faith which is intended to transform all of society, not just be indifferent to it.
Mehrdad Amanat of Santa Monica also spoke for the need for the Baha’i Community to take a more active role in society. He asked, if the Baha’i Community is not actively opposing injustice and oppression around the world, then what are we doing? Has the administrative machinery of the Faith become and end in itself, rather than a means to an end?
Dr. Banani acknowledged that the Baha’i Community has become introspective, but said that the answer to this is not to adopt a trend toward latching on to current social issues. He said the essence of MacEoin’s letter is that the Baha’i Community will feel the pressure of events and take stands and feel the pull of conflicting opinions. This is a healthy process, and as the community is drawn into it, as a result of its growing influence in the world, we will see some of the present introspection dissolve.
Mr. Lee suggested that the issue is one of degree rather than of kind. It is clear that the Baha’i Community should not allow itself to be sucked into every controversy which hits the headlines. But, the community must remain deeply concerned and highly aware of the society around it, and remain sophisticated enough to define major issues for which their should be a clear Baha’i position and speak out on them. He added that the goal of making the Faith a world religion has been largely accomplished. We must now turn to the role of the community in soceity at large. The mindless multiplication of Assemblies and localities is a meaningless goal unless those Assemblies and centers are involved in transforming those societies in which they find themselves.
The discussion continued with the class touching such topics as the price which any believer must pay for espousing views such as those which Mr. MacEoin has bravely put forward. A high price in misunderstanding, suspicions and accusations seem inevitable. On the other hand, some objected,we cannot afford to see ourselves as “beleaguered, victimized martyrs” or we will defeat our own purpose and hamper our effectiveness.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS DEPARTMENT
During the course of our discussion, it was suggested that we mount a Baha’i studies conference or seminar in the Southern California area. Although most of the resulting tak was tentative in nature, it was proposed that Baha’i scholars from overseas be invited to attend, and that the session (perhaps to be held on a weekend) be sponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, which would be asked to ante up the money to pay for its costs. If successful, the conference could be the launching pad for the formation of an American groups similar to the Canadian Association for Studies on the Baha’i Faith. After chewing over this matter for a while, we decided that Tony Lee would write up a proposal and submit it to the NSA for consideration.
Mr. Jeol Suffens has kindly shared with us a letter which he wrote to Mr. Denis MacEoin after our last class:
We took up your letter of January 7th in our class of January 28th, which will be reported in our next newsletter. Unfortunately, we did not decide beforehand how to structure the discussion so that, for example, we barely touched on a question of which “non-political” movements, if any (!), we should be associated with. We talked for hours about how Baha’is might take a stand, collectively, on the leading issues of the day, but made little progress on this score since we were unable to resolve the question of even whether we should take stands on such issues at all. The results were disappointing to me and I’ve talked with Tony since, and hope that you might perhaps be interested in some of my own thoughts.
As to the question of Baha’is associating with suitable, like-minded non-Baha’i movements, it seems to me that the statements of the Guardian are quite clear. On the institutional level, such association is a positive duty: the National Spiritual Assembly should, where they can and following the example of Abdu’l-Baha, use it as an “indirect” teaching method for the spiritually less receptive, “gradually” inducing in them an awareness of the full “obligations” of the NSAs and of “organized Baha’i communities” to collaborate with such movements in order to “imbue (them) with the spirit of power and strength.” Moreover, such an undertaking is not extraneous but “should be regarded as… fulfilling… a vital and necessary function.” (Baha’i Administration, pp.124-6) It is a “vital task”, too, for Local Spiritual Assemblies to demonstrate “through association with all liberal and humanitarian movements, the universality and comprehensiveness of their Faith.” (Principles of Baha’i Administration, p.45)
No doubt, you are aware of other such statements, whether directed at our institutions or individual Baha’is. In connection with the latter, I can’t help but mention a tribute paid by the Guardian to Martha Root. Among those of her activities which “constitute a compelling evidence of what the power of Baha’u’llah can achieve,” he cites her international travels, her contacts with royalty and so forth, and also “her close affiliation with international organizations, peace societies, humanitarian movements and Esperantists circles.” (Baha’i Administration, p.174) Naturally, statements of Baha’i policy in such matters, such as those I’ve quoted, are almost always found with others warning against associating with organizations which are sectarian, partisan or “political” — and with the proviso that Baha’is not extend assistance to such organizations at the expense of their obligation to support their own institutions. Otherwise, Baha’is are even encouraged to support their own institutions. Otherwise, Baha’is are even encouraged to initiate undertakings “not specifically designated as Baha’i” (Baha’i Administration, p.126)
But what directions do these words suggest for us today? As you point out in a striking example, the peoples of the world are unlikely to rally to our Cause because they have witnessed a tree-planting ceremony; and such self-serving publicity as you’ve written about is already being detected by then and, quite properly, will be held against us. On the other hand, the ideas behind World Peace Day and World Religion Day, though valid, appear old-hat to people searching for “relevant” answers to global problems. In fact, so abstract do they seem that even — or, should I say, especially — the Baha’is are frequently unable to see how they tie in with concrete social concerns. Yet, as you point out, we Baha’is cannot afford to be so “out of touch,” for not only does that impede our teaching efforts, but it contributes heavily to apathy within the Baha’i community as well.
So then, where do Baha’is stand with respect to contemporary “hot” issues? During our class discussion it was pointed out that in the US (and, no doubt, the UK), certain very specific, highly controversial issues, such as court-ordered busing of students to achieve racially-integrated schools as required by current interpretations of law (Maybe Britain’s parallel is the immigration issue.), are drawn in such an antagonistic fashion that it would be a mistake for Baha’is publicly to take sides. Yet, at the other extreme, it is simply not sufficient to deal with the race issue only in its most generalized form, piously mouthing slogans like “the oneness of mankind” and “abolition of prejudice.” I tried to suggest a middle course to the class, taking as my example the manner in which Abdu’l-Baha dealt with the question of strikes: He sided with neither labor nor management (managing, in fact, to find fault with both), but instead on dealing with the problem on a more fundamental level — in this case, the level of present laws and economic arrangements. In doing so, He invoked not only generally recognized principles of justice and equity, but also called forth a specifically Baha’i teaching in proposing that “rules and laws should be established to regulate the excessive fortunes of certain masses.” He went on, however, to warn against the consequences of absolute equality, summoning here the principle of moderation. He asserted the right of the courts and the government to intervene in labor disputes, making the point that such difficulties “produce a general detriment” beyond their effects on the parties involved; thus did He carefully distinguish affairs of public concern from entirely private matters, “with which the government should not occupy itself.” Finally, along the way He offered schemes for profit-sharing, pensions and the like. Might not this be our paradigm?
It may be that not every public question requires that we come out with a Baha’i “position paper”; probably some issues are clear-cut enough to call us tinto the streets (or at least into a newspaper’s columns) in protest. But these “fighting issues” have yet to be precisely defined. The situation demands a thorough examination, by means of a wide-ranging airing-out of all pressing social questions from a Baha’i perspective. This won’t happen unless the Baha’is recognize the need for it.
PS Also apropos is the reason given by Shoghi Effendi for writing one of his general letters (for quote, see The Priceless Pearl, pp. 212-213). We do “stand for” something, after all.
AND STILL MORE LETTERS!!!!!!!!
Mr. Robert Parry (Department of Religious Studies, Furness College, Lancaster University, Bailrigg, Lancaster, UK) writes:
I have been receiving the bulletin ever since I picked up a copy at Dinny and Mandy Gronich’s place some month’s back. It is refreshing to know that somewhere in the Baha’i Community at large there is a printed platform for expressing and discussing views about the Faith, other than the usual safe discussions so common at fire-sides.
The content and level of discussion broached in your paper is, I am sure, seen by many as time-wasting, perhaps heretical and spiritually dangerous. It raises issues deriving from man’s arrogant and ungrateful nature — ungrateful for the revelation graciously given by God.
I believe this attitude is, in itself, dangerous and is nowhere endorsed by the Faith, as a whole. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be the ethos of the community at large. Where expansion of numbers is primary, merely believing the revelation is a sufficient condition and clarification of issues becomes a side-issue, perhaps not even that. Thus the ethos of “no questions” arises from internal policy rather than any serious dialogue with the Revelation.
Another point is the notion of believing. In forced expansion and concentration on growth, the emphasis is on acceptance — a whole-hearted, yet restricted “yes” to the Revelation. This restricted “yes” may well constitute the initial step in the act of faith, yet the danger arises when the community demands a constant repetition of this restricted “yes.”
I agree with Lee’s notion of dialogue, though I prefer to see it in two terms, that is, the believer and history. And on another level as an interaction between questions implicit in the human situation and the answers given in the Revelation. This does not imply that the Writings are some Divine Text-Book, as some of the contributors to your last bulletin feared they were being seen. The work of the Baha’is is, I feel, that of correlation, the correlation between questions and answers. This means we must be familiar with the human situation historically manifested in various systematic disciplines such as history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, etc., etc., and, of course, familiar with the Revelation. An excessive preoccupation with the Revelation loses touch with the “world” and on the other hand, an excessive preoccupation with the “world” loses touch with what may be decisive for the interpretation of our life.
I suppose that the question that has to be asked is about the weight attributed to each of the terms of the correlative relationship. Is it sufficient to have a theoretical grasp of the human situation in its manifestations alongside the required existential involvement with the revelation? I don’t think we could accept the opposite, that is, an existential involvement with the human situation along side a theoretical grasp of the Faith.
Anyway, I think your bulletin goes a long way in attempting to answer the former qustion, and in attempting to answer a further question, namely the status and extent of the human situation, with its questions. You enter the time-honored Revelation/Reason, Faith/Knowledge, Grace/Nature controversy. I hope that the bulletin has many birthdays.
THE NEXT CLASS…
The next deepening class will be held on Sunday, February 18th at 2:30 PM at the luxurious apartment of Ms. Sherna Hough and Ms. Lisa Janti, [Ed. private address]. The class will be in two sections: First, Mr. Richard Kownacki will present a paper on “The Political Dimensions of the Babi Movement”, and this will be followed by another discussion of Denis MacEoin’s now famous letter of January 7, 1979. Dr. David Young will lead the latter discussion.
The original scanned documents can be found here.