My Notes:This edition of the study class is about what might be called “women´s issues”; contraception, abortion, etc. All very controversial topics under any circumstances but even more charged in a religious context where there is really no explicit treatment of these issues.
It also touches on a topic of some concern for many Baha’is: internal and unnecessary bureaucracy. The example mentioned below is about the strange mechanistic notion adopted by the Guardian that Baha’i communities should be organized according the legal limits of counties, municipalities and cities. Most of the time this serves the community well, but as the example below shows, there are some times which is appears to be simply idiotic. Of course, there is no reason why a more flexible approach can not be adopted where it is applied in larger communities and then done away with in small communities to adapt to their reality. Unfortunately, this sort of flexibility is lost because the guidelines of the Guardian are upheld rigidly 50 years after his passing in a mistaken belief that this is piety or “strength in the Covenant”.
If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.
On with the 70′s class . . .
[Ed. personal address]
February 28, 1977
Dear Baha’i Friends:
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The class met last on February 19th. Unfortunately, there was a last minute change in schedule which caused Greg Wahlstrom’s presentation on the Calamity to be postponed yet another time. Since our next class or maybe two (maybe three) will be devoted to Mr. Kazemzadeh and the history of the Baha’i community Ishqabad, the calamity has been pushed back to some future date.
The last class had no formal presentation last time. We had a visitor from Wyoming, Larry Lipshin. He started things off by giving us a short report on the state of the Baha’i community of Wyoming. The state has a population of 300,000; 65,000 of whom live in the capital of Cheyenne. There are only 122 Baha’is in the state however, and 55 of them are isolated believers. The largest Baha’i community in the state, Cheyenne has a grand total of 14 Baha’is. It seems that teaching in the state is slow. Even in the best of times the success rate in teaching is frustratingly low. People do become Baha’is in Wyoming, but not very many and not very often. It is easy for the Baha’i community to experience long lapses in activities, too. Baha’i administrative red tape is also a hindrance. Although Ft. Collins, Colorado is only 50 miles south of Cheyenne, getting a speaker to come in from there involves going through two local assemblies and two district teaching committees. Larry explained that state boundaries present quite a mental barrier to Baha’is.
Next the class took up the subject of birth control and other related topics. It seems that it has become common recently to hear Baha’is at firesides presenting “the Baha’i view” of birth control or abortion or contraception. These statements are usually dogmatic and inflexible. . . and usually wrong. The class read quotations from a compilation on Birth Control put out by the National Spiritual Assembly [of the Baha'is of the United States] which is available upon request (write to: 112 Linden Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois 60091).
There were three quotations on the subject of contraception. The first was a letter from Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer written through his secretary [on] October 14, 1935. In it Shoghi Effendi states that neither Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha ever revealed anything about birth control. (So much for the idea that the Writings contain answer to every possible question.) This is an important statement because it means that Baha’is may be guided by their own consciences in this matter. However, the Guardian warns that the idea of birth control has certain dangers to the foundation of social life, namely, marriage. For the Writings clearly teach that procreation of children and their education in the teachings of God is the primary purpose of marriage. So, the Guardian went on to say, “Birth Control,except in exceptional cases, is therefore not permissible.”
The next quotation was also from the Guardian through his secretary to an individual believer (the same one?) dated February 4, 1947. In it Shoghi Effendi again states that there is no reference whatsoever in the Writings on this subject (which, of course, makes it impossible for him to give any interpretation on this subject). “We, as Baha’is, are not therefore in a position either to condemn the practice of birth control or to confirm it.” However, there are teachings on the subject of marriage which the Guardian interpreted to mean that the use of contraceptives to prevent having any children at all within a marriage is contrary to the spirit of the Faith, and therefore, forbidden to the believers. But, he added that the House of Justice would have to legislate on this issue in the future.
The final quotation was from the Universal House of Justice (July 13, 1967) saying simply that the time was not right for it to make any decision on this matter, and that, in the meantime, the Baha’is could be guided by the above quotations.
The quotations taken together (and any one of them would be difficult to understand in isolation) seemed to set a moderate course, which balances two principles against one another. The first, that there are no Baha’i teachings on this subject and therefore the Baha’is may do as they please. The second, that the primary purpose of marriage is to raise up children to worship God. (We noted that this is not the only purpose of marriage, as the Writings clearly state.)
Next, abortion. From a letter dated August 25, 1939 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer we read simply that “abortion is forbidden in the Cause”. However, the Universal House of Justice wrote to a National Spiritual Assembly on May 5, 1971 [explaining] that while abortion merely for the purpose of getting rid of an unwanted child is absolutely forbidden, there are some circumstances in which an abortion could be justified. Again, we have an issue which is not dealt with in the Sacred Text and upon which the House of Justice does not wish to legislate at this time. So, the believers, it is stated must be guided by the above principle, the best professional advice they can get (medical, psychological, possibly legal?) and their own consciences.
The class noted that the House of Justice does not mention the Institutions of the Faith as a source of guidance here. Presumably, a woman considering an abortion could seek advice from a local Assembly, let’s say. But, the Assembly would clearly have no binding authority in the matter. They could not forbid her to have an abortion or direct her to do so. Ultimately, it is her decision and hers alone. . . at least at this point in Baha’i history.
Again contradictory principles find an uneasy reconciliation. And, again the quotations would be very difficult to interpret alone.
And sterilization. A letter from the House of Justice dated August 14, 1967 states that Shoghi Effendi stated that sterilization is not permissible and that one who commits it is responsible before God, the sterilizer or the sterilizee. Presumably both. But, there is only one quotation in the National Assembly’s compilation in this subject and it is next to impossible to understand alone. The class decided that we could draw no conclusions without other quotations or references.
The class continued a free discussion through the afternoon and kicked around such topics as chastity and sex, dating behavior among Baha’is, the Merida Conference, etc. We got into one real donnybrook about whether or not Baha’is should maintain their ethnic identities within the Baha’i community or shed it as a vestige of the old world order. Specifically, the problem is Jews who become Baha’is. At least in this area, they tend to shed as much of their Jewish identity as possibly as soon as they sign their declaration cards. Some objected that this was a gross misunderstanding of the Faith, while others argued that it was the proper thing to do. We were 180 degrees apart on this one. The subject will, no doubt, come up again.
THE NEXT CLASS will be held on Sunday, March 6 at 3 pm. It is during the Fast, so eat a big breakfast. We will have a kind of living history lesson since the class will be given over to Mr. Kazem Kazemzadeh , a Persian Baha’i who was born in Ishqabad, Russia under the Czarist regime. He will talk to us about his recollections of the early Baha’i communities in Russia. (We understand that he served on the local spiritual assembly of Moscow for a time.) The class will be held at the home of Anthony Lee [Ed. home address and directions follow]. Dinner will be served when the sun goes down and we will socialize and talk into the night.
THOSE WHO ATTEND THIS CLASS are asked to prepare for it by reading up on the Baha’i community of Ishqabad in God Passes By and in the Baha’i World Volumes IV, VIII and XIX. Please come prepared to ask intelligent questions.
The original scanned documents can be found here.