LA Study Class Newsletter [#19]

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My Notes:

This newsletter delves into some pretty controversial topics. To me, what’s interesting is not as much the controversy that surrounds the ideas that follow, as much as they were ‘controversial’ and being talked about back then. I guess I always thought that the recent tensions and developments in the Faith (of which 99% of Baha’is are wholly unaware of) were just that, recent. But in reality, these ideas and critiques have been around probably even before the advent of the LA study class group. But they were usually ignored, belittled and never dealt with appropriately. Perhaps that’s why it has become such a fault line today within the worldwide Baha’i community. Maybe that’s why you have people leaving the Faith, not joining and some raising some very loud, angry and frustrated voices. As I mentioned in a previous post, maybe its ‘blowback’.

The only other comment I have is regarding a comment that a class member makes below defending the policy of pre-publication review. They say that “when most people see the word “Baha’i” in an article, they assume the story carries with it the sanction of the Faith and represents the Baha’i point of view.” This oft cited defense of review is one of the weakest, if not the weakest I keep hearing. What normal sentient being would read an article and seeing the word ‘Baha’i’ think BOING!

This has the sanction of the official governing body of the Baha’i Faith and represents the official Baha’i point of view!

When was the last time you read an article which contained the view of a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or whatever and thought the same? Or did you perhaps, using sound judgement, recognize it as the personal and individual opinion or commentary of one human being? Gimme a break.

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 . . .

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[Ed. although the date and serial numbers don't appear, they are:
August 14, 1977 -- Vol. II, No. 14]
Where the entire town is on
the wrong side of the tracks.
Baha’i Administration is, in current practices, a dictatorship under which dissent is suppressed and individual Baha’is are cowed into silence. That controversial view was taken by Bob Ballenger in our study class and summarizes the theme of the paper he presented on “Roles in Conflict: Baha’i Administration Versus the Individual.”
Here is what he argued:

The Baha’i Faith faces a confrontation between its group-oriented nature and the individual impulse of the human race. This conflict is particularly aggravated in the United States because its national heritage of and homage for the notion of individual sanctity. America takes the concept of individual independence seriously adn that idea occupies a hallowed shrine in the national mythology of the country. It is true, and has been well documented that America is a land of conformists, despite all the prattling about the virtues of “rugged individualism.” Personal eccentricity is neither treated lightly nor tolerated openly. But despite this contradiction, the ethic of the individual has made itslef felt. While the phrase “do your own thing” has faded from thh popular consciousness, its message remains in full force and effect. The central authority most Americans adhere to is themselves, following their own perceptions, acting on their own judgements.

Baha’u’llah took on this devotion to personal liberty, which He saw as a universal human characteristic when He wrote: “Liberty causeth man to overstep the boudns of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme depravity and wickedness. Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for their protection. This, verily, is the truth, the certain truth.” That sort of talk, however shrewd and insightful, will not enhance the popularity of the Baha’i Faith in America, not even among the Baha’is. But it helps bring into focus a problem we face in dealing with the Faith as individuals. The Baha’i Faith is a group-oriented religion and one in which the individualistic urge is to be kept in check and suppressed.

This governing principle is confirmed by Abdu’l-Baha who writes: “It is incumbent upon everyone not to take any step without consulting the Spiritual Assembly, and they must assuredly obey with heart and soul its bidding and be submissive unto it, that things may be properly ordered and well arranged. Otherwise, every person will act independently, after his own judgement, will follow his own desire, and do harm to the Cause.” The virtue in this approach is that it prevents the flowering of any “cult of personality”. The domination of the Administrative Order by any strong-willed person cannot occur under the Baha’i principle fo collective leadership.

But for all the advantage gained by preventing the Faith from becoming the personal vehicle for some ruthless individual, there exists, on the other hand, a danger of dictatorship of the institution. Baha’i Assemblies, local and national, have enormous powers at their command. They enroll new declarants, determine Baha’i status, suspend the administrative rights of miscreants, supervise marriages, oversee divorces, enforce Baha’i laws, exercise full jurisdiction over all Baha’i activities including meetings and feasts, collect and disburse funds and review and approve all Baha’i literature.

This authority is wielded in an administrative structure that is not at all democratic in nature. The Baha’i Faith makes no provisions for initiative, referendum or recall, three standard democratic tools. Additionally, there is no allowance for a free press, no guarantee of freedom from self-incrimination and no right to a trial by jury of one’s peers – all fundamental American principles, all wholly lacking in Baha’i Administration.

While Baha’is as individuals are not totally stripped of rights, they are very much on the short end of privileges. Each has the right to teach the Faith in his own way in his own home. Each has the right to self-expression. Individual Baha’is also have the right to criticize Assembly actions and ask for reconsideration if not repeal of some decision. And each Baha’i has the right to interpret Baha’i Scriptures in his own way as long as he does not attempt to set up his own views as official dogma.

What this imbalance of rights has led to – however unofficial and unintended – is a situation where there now exists a sometimes subtle but ever-present atmosphere of the suppression of dissent. Individualism, partly by design, partly by practice, has been muted to the point that, whenever it manifests itself, a personal outburst is viewed as an almost shocking breach of conduct – if not borderline treasonous behavior. People who exercise individual initiative in the Baha’i Faith are suspect and their efforts are usually squelched. The result is that the body of believers perceive a lack of any sense of co-partnership with their insititutions and many, confronted with a reality of an Assembly ignorant of and uncaring about their views, simply lapse into inactivity and have little, if anything, to do with their Baha’i community.

The imbalance of rights between Assemblies and individuals creates special problems in relationships between them. Shoghi Effendi was aware of this, and of the need to bring these potentially antagonistic elements together, when he wrote: “Let us also bear in mind that the keynote to the Cause of God is not dictatorial authority, but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of a frank and loving consultation. Nothing short of the spirit of a true Baha’i can hope to reconcile the principles of mercy and justice, of freedom and submission, of the sanctity of the right of the individual and of self-surrender, of vigilence, discretion and prudence on the one hand, and fellowship, candor and courage on the other.”

[Ed. unfortunately, it seems that the third page is missing...so here's the fourth page:]

[...]spiritual in nature. The system assumes their corruption and makes provisions for it, he said. So, for example, we have the concepts of a “balance of powers” and “checks and balances” between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of American government. Since corruptibility is assumed, things have been arranged to minimize the damage of corruption. The system is inefficient, but that is the price that is paid for keeping it relatively uncorrupt and operating. In the Baha’i Faith, on the other hand, Lee said, the basic spiritual nature of man is assumed, and the administrative system arranged accordingly. But, for the Baha’i system to work properly, those in power must operate on a high level of spiritual awareness, creating an atmosphere of cooperation and fellowship with the body of the believers. Without that awareness, the Baha’i system will break down and the community suffers the consequences.

This view led some class members to suggest that Local Assemblies ought to be approached wih the relevant writings of Shoghi Effendi and Abdu’l-Baha in an effort to persuade those bodies to take the believers into their confidence and explain what they are doing and why. While everyone agreed that would be a good idea, there were some warnings voiced that Baha’is who approach their assemblies in this fashion ought to prepare to be rebuffed or have their suggesion accepted and eventually forgotten.

Tony Lee noted that individual Baha’i responsability does not extend to making sure Local Assemblies are functioning properly. Baha’is, as individuals, may be doing everything right, but sill would be unable to make a difference if their institutions is not performing properly. Class members were unable to agree on the best way of making sure their Assemblies are creating an atmosphere of fellowship, shared responsability and candor with the believers.

One other topic sparked considerable – although unresolved – discussion was the whole issue of administrative control over the writing of Baha’is, which some see as thinly disguised censorship. Shoghi Effendi wrote that the “present restrictions imposed on the publicaton of Baha’i literature will be definitely abolished.” That was in 1929, but no end for such restrictions is yet in sight. Currently, the Administrative Order has and uses total control over what Baha’is write about their religion. There is no free press.

That power of review was defended by some class members. Gene Hendershot, on vacation from his pioneering post in the Central African Empire [Ed. now known as
the Central African Repulic] pointed out that when most people see the word “Baha’i” in an article, they assume the story carries with it the sanction of the Faith and represents the Baha’i point of view. Beyond this, he said, Baha’is have ideas about the Faith that are wrong and these need to be caught and corrected before they are disseminated to the public where they become accepted as valid.

But other class members argued this power of review too often is used as a form of subtle censorship to block publication books that are innovative or unusual. One example cited was the adamant refusal of the American Publishing Trust a couple of years back to distribute Hand of the Cause Bill Sears’ book Thief in the Night. Some said this kind of censorship extends beyond just Baha’i books, with Baha’is being told they may not read books by enemies of the Cause nor by Covenant-Breakers. This is simply not true. Baha’is are not forbidden to read such books, although the Community as a whole is discouraged from doing so.

Another touchy topic arose, with some class members arguing that Baha’i scholarship has stagnated since the 1930′s and 1940′s and others claiming that the Writings of the Central Figures of our Faith are what we Baha’is should concentrate our energies on. These books alone provide the wherewithal for keeping ourselves on a spiritually even keel and are the wellsprings of progress and development for mankind. Others said the Baha’i Writings alone are not enough, nor is the desire to relax the current restraints an effort to replace those works. We need Baha’i scholars to relate the basic principles of the Faith to current social problems. Baha’i scholarship is essentially to help explain the Writings – which too few Baha’is read anyhow since the prevailing atmosphere is one in which the Baha’i books are to be revered, but not necessarily read.

We also took time in our class to review our last topic. Tony Lee’s presentation on the collaborative nature of the Baha’i Revelation. Lee recapitulated his theory that Baha’i dogma often was formed in a dialogue between the Central Figures of the Faith and various believers at various times. (For details of how this works, see our July 30, 1977, newsletter, Vol. II, No.13.) There was at least one objection to his “dialogue” concept. That, Sheila Banani said, implies an exchange between equals. Individual Baha’is asking Abdu’l-Baha or Baha’u’llah questions about the nature of the Faith is not a dialogue to shape the revelation, she added. Lee responded that unequal partners can participate in a dialogue, even though conversations between a Prophet and His followers is not a dialogue between equals. His central point, that the Baha’is, from the earliest days until faily recently, have themselves introduced concepts which the authority figure has accepted as part of the religion, seemed to be well accepted by class members, with no major upheavals.

BARE CUPBOARD DEPT: Okay, gang, once again we find ourselves faced with a situation that has bedeviled us since our early days. Too few class members are volunteering to take on topics and prepare papers for presentation. Although several people have promised to churn out something for us, we face an untimely end to papers ready for discussion. Those of you who are working on papers, please agree to accept an early deadline on them. Those of you who have not chosen topics, please do so and prepare your papers. The class won’t work if you don’t.

NEXT CLASS: “A Baha’i Theory of Personality.” Bonnie Barne’ long-awaited paper, will be presented on Saturday, Sept 24, (not August 27, as originally slated) at 2 pm in the home of Greg and Paula Wahlstrom [Ed. personal address and phone number follows]. And, while we’re on the subject of Maywood, let us note that is where Paula, our treasurer, lives. If you have yet to pay the annual dues to remain on our mailing list, please do so now. Past copies of papers presented to our class as well as back issues of the class notes are available from Paula for $1 each (that’s cheap, gang). When ordering, please do so by title of paper or volume and number of the summary you want.

ENDGAME DEPT: We’ve received a steady stream of
demands for an English translation of the Hermosa Beach city motto, “Nihil Movetur Et Curat Nemo,” that appeared atop our last newsletter. One person telephoned long distance from the Most Gorious, Heroic, Exalted and Fun People’s Republic of Drindle to say he had taken the entire nation hostage and would nto release it until the translation was printed. Okay, so here goes. “Nihil Movetur Et Curat Nemo” is Latin for “Nothing Works and Nobody Cares.” That is a state of affairs too apparent for comment among those who live in Hermosa.

[Ed. the following is attached to this newsletter but there is no indication that it is related to it - by topic - or page number. I've decided to include it anyway.]

Extract from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer on 22 August 1977:

“The Universal House of Justice received your letter of 26 June seeking clarification on the infallibility of the Guardian and of the Universal House of Justice. We have been asked to convey the following to you.

“As the three questions you have raised are interrelated, it will be conducive to a clearer understanding of the issues involved if these questions are considered together.

“Shoghi Effendi was asked several times during his ministry to define the sphere of his operation and his infallibility. The replies he gave and which were written on his behalf are most illuminating. He explains that he is not an infallible authority on subjects such as economics and science, nor does he go into technical matters since his infallibility is confined to ‘matters which are related strictly to the Cause.’ He further points out that ‘he is not, like the Prophet, omniscient at will’, that his ‘infallibility covers interpretation of the revealed word and its application’, and that he is also ‘infallible in the protection of the Faith’. Furthermore, in one of the letters, the following guideline is set forth:

‘…It is not for the individual believers to limit the sphere of the Guardian’s authority, or to judge when they have to obey the Guardian and when they are free to reject his judgement. Such an attitude would evidently lead to confusion and to schism. The Guardian being the appointed interpreter of the Teachings, it is his responsability to state what matters which, affecting the interests of the Faith, demand on the part of the believers complete and unqualified obedience to his instructions.’

“It must always be remembered that authoritative interpretation of the Teachings, was after Abdu’l-Baha, the exclusive right of the Guardian, and fell within the ‘sacred and prescribed domain’ of the Guardianship, and therefore the Universal House of Justice cannot and will not infringe upon that domain. The exclusive sphere of the Universal House of Justice is to ‘pronounce upon and deliver the final judgement on such laws and ordinances as Baha’u’llah has not expressly revealed.’ Apart from this fundamental difference in the functions of the twin pillars of the Order of Baha’u’llah, insofar as the other duties of the Head of the Faith are concerned, the Universal House of Justice shares with the Guardian the responsability for the application of the revealed word, the protection of the Faith, as well as the duty ‘to insure the continuity of that divinely-appointed authority which flows from the Source of our Faith, to safeguard the unity of its followers, and to maintain the integrity and flexibility of its Teachings.’ However, the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge.”

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Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.