LA Study Class Newsletter [#25]

My Notes:

This edition of the LA Class newsletter primarily deals with the Baha’i perspective on justice. As well it includes a discussion of a paper by Peter Smith, a British Baha’i theologian, regarding ‘motifs’ in the Babi and Baha’i Dispensation.

I only wish to make two small comments. First, the Persian word ‘Insaf’ is translated as ‘equity’ below (referenced to Shoghi Effendi) but it has much broader connotations. In some instances, it can mean virtue, justice, righteous, moral, propriety, and objectivity. To give you an idea of the complexity, it is considered a rather harsh insult to call someone in Persian: ‘bi-insaf’ or ‘without-insaf’.

Second, the class notes mention

After the death of the Manifestation — Baha’u’llah — Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice became, in turn, the central authorities.

Although this account can be argued to be, strictly speaking, factual; a study of history and the Baha’i administrative order, would show it to be overly simplistic. According to the Will and Testament of Baha’u’llah (known as the Book of the Covenant), Muhammad Ali, the older half-brother of Abdu’l-Baha was to inherit the position of Center of the Covenant. Muhammad Ali failed to do so because he was declared a Covenant-Breaker and cast out of the Baha’i community by Abdu’l-Baha. As well, it is incorrect to imply that the authority flows from Shoghi Effendi (as the person fulfilling the institution of the Guardianship) to the Universal House of Justice. Even a cursory reading of the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha will show that in the Baha’i administrative order, the two institutions were linked inseparably and created to operate together, albeit with distinct spheres of authority.

There are two diagrams depicting the ‘motifs’ discussed in Peter Smith’s paper and I will re-do them so they are easier to read. Expect them to be uploaded in a little while.

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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Hermosa Beach, California 90254
“The Last Place God Created.”
(On Saturday just before midnight)

Vol. III, No. 3 — March, 1978

“The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice,” Baha’u’llah wrote in The Hidden Words. “The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men,” He said in the Words of Paradise. The Baha’i Faith may be unique among the world’s religions in this emphasis on justice as a fundamental spiritual goal — a stand that is misunderstood, misonstrued and misapplied, even by the Baha’is. That viewpoint was expressed in our March study class by Dr. John Cornell, a dentist from the Central California town of Reedley. He has been a Baha’i for many years and has made the study of Baha’i justice — what it is and how it works — something of a pet project. Dr. Cornell’s lecture to our class was based upon a deepening course booklet, Six Lessons on Baha’i Law. The course book, of which Dr. Cornell is the co-author, is available for $2 from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the Hawaiian Islands.

Dr. Cornell told our class that the topic of justice is an uncomfortable one in Chritian America. This is partly because national attitudes equate the law and justice with oppression and a restriction on the freedoms we enjoy. Also, he suggested, there may be subconscious guilt feelings regarding justice in our predominantly Christian culture. That religion assumes sin to be the prevailing condition in human society (as witness the outmoded but still potent theological concept of Original Sin). By way of illustration, Dr. Cornell told of being on an interreligious panel, the members of which were asked what what they would most like to see accomplished on earth. When his turn came, following Baha’u’llah’s lead, he said, “Justice.” That remark produced some gasps from other panel members, who were less than happy with the prospect of justice in the world. Why would they react this way? he asked. One explanation is that, under a mental attitude in which Christians routinely consider themselves to be “guilty” of “sinning,” justice is not a state of existence which they would eagerly anticipate.

Dr. Cornell called justice a complex topic. Everyone has an idea of what it means, but these views seldom agree. Each side in a conflict, whether it be in court or on the battlefield, claims to have justice on its side. Turning to history, Dr. Cornell said justice is an ancient concept. The word itself comes from a Latin root, meaning duty or obligation, somthing that is praiseworthy but, at the same time, obligatory. Humans may have no birthright to charity, but it is widely recognized that they have a right to justice.

The history of justice is influenced by three main schools of European thinking, wihch saw justice in terms of Positive Law, Social Good and Natural Right. Positive Law holds that justice and the law are the same; to conform to the law is justice. To disobey or ignore the law is injustice. Under such thinking, there can be no such thing as an unjust law. The Social Good theory states that justice and mercy are synonymous. If one does good for people, one is performing justice. Under the Natural Right concept, it is believed that we all come into this world with certain inalienable rights. It is justice to recognize and uphold these human rights. (This attitude has influenced Baha’i thinking, reflecting itself, for example, in the Baha’i bumper sticker: “Human Rights are God-given Rights”.)

The fact that people don’t agree on what justice is presents social problems. Dr. Cornell said Shoghi Effendi evidently made a distinction between justice and equity by calling them companion concepts. In the Baha’i Faith, the word “justice” is translated from the Arabic word “‘Adl.” For example, the term “Baytu’l-’Adl” means “House of Justice.” On the othrer hand, the word “Insaf” is used to mean “fairness,” which Shoghi Effendi usually translated as “equity.”

From this distinction, Dr. Cornell said, “‘Adl” is used to signify the justice that comes through law, while “Insaf” equates to how the individual perceives and applies justice (or, more properly, equity) in his or her relations with other people. Elaborating on the Baha’i concept of justice, he explained this as being a system based on the principle of reward and punishment — but not retribution. The concept of retribution or retaliation is based on the notion of striking back, getting even. Old Testament justice teaches “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (This once was a progressive concept for, in the time of Moses, it limited revenge to a strictly measure-for-measure principle. If one man blinded another man, the victim did not have the right to kill his assailant, but merely blind him. The system halted a potential escalation of violence in pursuit of justice.) Dr. Cornell said that Shoghi Effendi’s translation and use of Baha’u’llah’s words indicate that, in Baha’i justice, the concept of punishment is used in the sense of training; the miscreant is punished as a lesson to him, to train him not to disobey the law. It is through the application of Baha’i law that justice is this day will be accomplished.

This view triggered disagreement among class members. Some people argue that Baha’i law will not produce justice in all cases.

While it might lead to a just social order, it could also cause hardships to some individuals who are forced to conform to its standards. Citing the example of the marriage law, it was pointed out that the requirement of parental consent can exact a penalty on two people who want to marry. If one of the natural parents refuses to grant consent — even on frivolous or unreasonable grounds — there is absolutely no recourse. Baha’i institutions cannot compel consent, and even have no right of interference. So, while, in the long run, the concept of parental consent presumably will have beneficial efects, it can mean grief and disappointment in individual cases.

Dr. Cornell also took the position that Baha’is, as individuals, are incapable of administering justice. He said, in the Faith, Baha’i Assemblies should practice justice. That is, they should apply Baha’i laws, and not temper them with mercy. This, he pointed out, conflicts with Christian concepts of justice, which regard man as sinful and justice as an awe-inspiring, fear-invoking process. Justice, in the Christian view, would crush the spirit of man, were mercy not used to lessen its impact. Dr. Cornell, however, separated the concepts of justice and mercy. Mercy, he said, is to be applied on an individual level, on a one-to-one basis. He cited a passage from the Baha’i Writings: “If someone commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him,” Abdu’l-Baha wrote in The Promulgation of Universal Peace (p. 154). However, the Master also wrote, “If a person commits a crime against you, you have not the right to forgive him…” (Paris Talks, p. 154). The point here is that when a crime — an offense against the public — which is punishable by law — is committed, the criminal is to be punished and not forgiven. An individual may forgive a criminal act committed against him, but the Baha’i society, in its administration of justice, may not. The purpose of punishment in the Baha’i Faith is to train a person not to commit another crime.

While Dr. Cornell separated the concepts of justice and mercy, he did not define them as mutually exclusive. He cited a letter of Shoghi Effendi (printed on page 8 of Baha’i News, No. 98), to the effect that local and national Assemblies “should act tactfully, patiently and in a friendly and kindly spirit” toward Baha’is who are misbehaving. Rather than demanding instant and strict adherence to Baha’i laws, Assemblies, the Guardian wrote, “should try to gradually persuade them of the wisdom and necessity” of obeying the law, “instead of thrusting upon them” a new principle. “Too severe and immediate action in such cases is not only fruitless, but actually harmful. It alienates people instead of winning them to the Cause.”

One point made by Dr. Cornell is that individuals, including Baha’is lack the capacities to administer justice to other people.

Not everyone could agree with this view. Some class members argued that a parent can act in a just manner in resolving a dispute between her children. Likewise, a teacher who settles an argument between students also has the authority and the capacity to act justly.

Another topic that generated class discussion and disagreement was the concept of limitations of power in the Baha’i Faith. Some Baha’is, Dr. Cornell said, are under the impression that Baha’i Assemblies have virtually unlimited power and can do anything they please. He called this a misstamtement of fact and, using a quotation from Shoghi Effendi, took the view that even the Manifestation of God faces limits in what He or She may do or decree. “So great and transcendental is this principle of Divine justice… that Baha’u’llah Himself subordinates His personal inclination and wish to the all-compelling force of its demands and implications. ‘God is My witness:’ He thus explains, ‘were it not contrary to the Law of God, I would have kissed the hand of My would-be murderer, and would cause him to inherit My earthly goods. I am restrained, however, by the binding Law laid down in the Book…’” ( Advent of Divine Justice, p. 22-23)

If Baha’u’llah Himself was limited in His powers, then local and national Assemblies are likewise restricted in what they can do, despite individual opinions to the contrary, Dr. Cornell said. Class members had little difficulty with this viewpoint. It is a fairly well-known fact that, if an individual disagrees with an action of his local Assembly, he can appeal that ruling to the national Assembly and even to the Universal House of Justice, for a final decision. But one class member raised a tantalizing hypothesis. In a sense, he argued, the House of Justice can do whatever it wants to. If the House makes a decision that an individual feels to be in error, the person is in no position to do anything about the situation. There is no appeal from that ruling, no higher authority to invoke. Since the House not only legislates matters not explicitely revealed in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, but also rules when and how these Writings apply, it has virtually limitless power. A Baha’i may be sincerely convinced that the House of Justice is wrong with regard to some particular decision, but that opinion is of no avail. The House is the supreme authority, and that’s it, folks. Therefore, the class member argued, the House has unlimited discretion within its sphere of jurisdiction — and that sphere is the entire world.

UPDATE: Last month, our class spent some time discussing a paper written by Peter Smith, an English Baha’i who teaches at the University of Lancaster in Great Britain. That paper, entitled “The Routinization of Charisma: Some Comments on Peter L. Berger’s ‘Motif Messianique et Processus Social Dans Le Bahaisme’” received a quick once over and some brief comments during our February session. We had to hold up our report on that discussion while Tony Lee sought Mr. Smith’s permission to include portions of his paper in our newsletter. That consent has arrived and here is a summary of our discussion.

In his study on the “The Routinization of Charisma,” Smith analyzes Berger’s work on the transplantation of the Baha’i Faith from East to West and, more importantly, the transformation of the Faith from the charismatic religious experience as shaped by the living Prophet to how this aura of authority is made into everyday routine in Baha’i practice, hence the title “The Routinization of Charisma”.

Smith divides Baha’i history into eleven time periods, and charts themes (or “motifs” as they are called) which underlie Baha’i history in each of these periods (see chart ). Each motif represents a theme within a religious movement that characterizes a view of the world and molds the religious practice.

Smith identifies four “motifs” or basic themes within the Babi-Baha’i Dispensation. These are “Polar,” which he asserts is distinctive to ISlam and the Baha’i Faith, and presents a central authority (the person of the Prophet — Arabic: Gutb) as a commanding figure who must be obeyed under all circumstances. (After the death of the Manifestation — Baha’u’llah — Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice became, in turn, the central authorities.)

Smith’s second theme is “Messianic,” that is, the expectation among the body of the religious faithful of the coming of a Messiah. In the Baha’i Faith, this played directly off Shi’ah Islamic beliefs of a religious fulfillment and, later, in the Babi movement, the arrival of “Him Whom God Would Make Manifest,” which if one of the major themes of the Bayan. After the arrival of Baha’u’llah, the messianic theme faded in importance and influence as a force in the Baha’i Faith.

The third theme is “Legalistic” or relating to the authority of the Prophet. This began in the years immediately preceding the Babi-Baha’i Dispensation as an acceptance of the Islamic Shar’ah (or Muslim code of laws derived from the Qur’an), but was dominated by a messianic expectation. The Islamic Shar’ah was replaced by a Babi Shari’ah and, later, by anarchistic tendencies among some of the early Babis when they revolved against the poer of the government of 19th century Persia. With the advent of the Baha’i Revelation, and the development of Baha’i law and administration, these became the mainstays of the legalistic theme Smith writes of.

His final “motif” is “Esoteric-Gnostic.” This referst to the concept of secret knowledge, possessed only by a few religious insiders. This phenomenon was quite strong during the pre-Babi period, but gradually faded with the advent of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Curiously, it enjoyed a brief resurgence during the 20th century. As the Faith began to spread in the West, it did so as a semi-secret movement, passing along on a one-to-one “insider’s” basis. With the rise of the Baha’i administrative order, this “esoteric-gnostic” motif waned and now has almost completely disappeared.

The fact that two of the four themes Smith identified — Messianic and Esoteric-Gnostic — have all but faded from the picture, and that there has been no change in the other two since period #6, led some class members to wonder if they hav not been replaced by other “motifs” which may have been missed in his analysis of Baha’i history. Smith’s analysis is more suggestive for Babi history than it is for Baha’i history.

It also was noted that the concept of a “Polar” motif (which gives rise to the Covenant) is wholly absent from Christian theology and perhaps even alien to that religious experience. This concept is even difficult to exlain to Christians. It was useful to have it recognized in Smith’s paper.

WHO’S WHO: (a short course, limited to persons under 5’2″ of 1.75 meters, whichever comes first). From time to time, we receive mail, cryptically addressed to “study class notes” or some othe innocuous cover name at the Hermosa Beach address which appears atop these newsletters. For the record (fi anyone out there cares), although we are casually organized, here’s a rundown on who does what for our class. ANTHONY LEE of Los Angeles is our ringleader and enfant terrible. He lines up our speakers, occasionally filling in himself when there is a gap in the list and more or less (more more than less) runs the show. He also whips up one heck of a fine Quiche Lorraine (but don’t bother asking for the recipe, its a family secret). CHRIS HENDERSHOT of Manhattan Beach types up these newsletters without complaint… or pay or praise… or anything else, either. She and her husband will soon be off to pioneer in Venezuela, no doubt as the best way to escape the chose of trying to puzzle out the tortured prose of BOB BALLANGER of Hermosa Beach, who writes (or, as irate guest speakers might phrase it, “distorts, misrepresents and trashes”) the class sessions. Ballenger also is responsible for the series of lame puns and other outrageous asides herein contained. And, it is his address which appears on the heading of these newsletters. So, when writing with commments, threats or reactions, please address the envelopes to him. And, finally, there is PAULA WAHLSTROM of Maywood, our treasurer, bookkeeper and secret witness. She’s the lady to whom you pay your dues, which are probably, even as you read this, now due. Pay up. It’s only 12 bucks a year. Cheap at twice the price, gang. Re-new now. We need the dinero. (Send to Paula at [Ed. personal address withheld])

NEXT CLASS: For our next act, we are hoping to recruit one of the three National Spiritual Assembly members (Dr. Dorothy Nelson, Judge James Nelson or Richard Betts) who live in Southern California to come and discuss “The Crisis in the Five Year Plan.” As most of you probably know, the American Baha’i community is poised on the brink of disaster with regard to winning the goals of the Plan. If we can’t get an NSA member, we’ll dredge up some other topic for discussion. The next class will be held on SUNDAY, APRIL 16, at 2 pm in the home of Richard Bruce, [Ed. personal address withheld]. See you there!

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Related Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.