LA Study Class Newsletter [#9]

My notes:

This edition of the LA study class newsletter deals with a very interesting and controversial topic: politics. Some Baha´is believe that it is to be avoided like the plague, not discussed, not contemplated and certainly not engaged in. Others take a more nuanced approach from a different understanding of the Writings of the Faith. Of course, the corollary (of whichever argument you prefer) is the shape of the future world commonwealth: will it be a theocracy, with the institutions acting as the government? or will there be separation of church and state, the way it is in many countries today? or maybe it will be somewhere in between perhaps?

In a fascinating way, this presents a paradox. Almost always, the same misinformed Baha’is who interpret the Writings to mean avoiding any and all political activities, are the same who believe in theocracy (that the Baha’i administration will one day supplant the local (LSA), national (NSA) and worldwide (UHJ) governments. I´m not really sure how they ever untie their noodle after doing that sort of mental gymnastics

And surprising (or simply forgotten) to most Baha´is is that Abdu´l-Baha actually encouraged Baha´is during His time to run for and hold political office. I believe it was for the Iranian parliament at that time (or a similar body if not that exactly). Basically, Abdu´l-Baha gave guidance and advice to individual Baha´is to represent the well being of their society while not engaging in partisan political games. And many did in fact run for and hold political office.

Of course, this topic has been a very touchy one even from the beginning of the Babi Faith. At that time, early Babis would sometimes declare, while travel teaching in new cities and territories, that all the wealth, properties and governing authority there now belonged to the Bab. Not surprisingly, some mistook this as a politically subversive agenda rather than a spiritual message. The misunderstandings continued with Baha´u´llah and Abdu´l-Baha. They were maligned by their enemies with the false charges that they were interested in ¨taking over¨. They each painstakingly repeated over and over again that this was not ever their wish, but rather that their goal was the betterment of mankind through God´s message for today.

And indeed, today it would be false to say that the Baha´i Faith is not active politically. We have had a very active and successful UN office in NY for many years. Mainly they have been drawing the world´s attention to the atrocious manner in which the IRI treats Baha´is. There have also been some isolated incidents of more explicit involvement. For example the case of an NSA who has lobbied, along with other religious groups of their country, against proposed same sex legislation. Is this not involvement in politics?

Finally, the newsletter discusses the nature of deepening in the Baha´i Faith. This is a very important matter as most, if not all of these little misunderstandings and erroneously held beliefs, are a result of ignorance and apathy. Most Baha´is don´t really bother to deepen in the Writings, to ask difficult questions, or to try to then answer them. Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs has gotten much worse with the systematic and regimented Ruhi training course which is nothing more than colour by number deepening.

Before proceeding, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70´s show . . .

[Ed. personal home address]
February 10, 1977
Dear Baha’i Friends:

The class met again on Saturday, Feb 5th in the lavishly furnished apartments of Dinny and Mandy Gronich of Studio City. The presentation was given by Tony Lee, and as advertised, covered the Baha’i attitude towards politics. Tony passed around purple dittoed copies of a four page compilation on the subject for the dozen or so who attended. (A copy of this compilation should be enclosed in this mailing.) He emphasized that the compilation was not complete, that the quotes were not properly checked, that it had lots of typos, etc. So use it only as a study guide, not as a true source.

Tony began by noting that the Baha’i teachings on politics are largely misunderstood. Again, “fireside information” came under attack. A great many believers apply the well-known prohibition against non-interference in “politics” to virtually any organization standing outside of our own Administrative Order. It is common to hear the catch all phrase “non-participation in politics” used as a justification for not reading newspapers, not voting in national elections, being grossly ignorant of current events, being indifferent to the welfare of the nation, or even being openly contemptuous of those who aren’t. The prevailing view (at least in this area) is that since Baha’is must not have anything to do with politics, they may not be politically concerned or take any part in the affairs of the state. Tony maintained that this is a gross distortion of the correct Baha’i view. The Writings repeatedly urge the believers to remain politically concerned and to actively work for the betterment of their respective governments – without becoming entangled in partisan politics or in struggles for political power.

At this point, it would be a good idea to stop reading this letter and spend some time looking over the quotations.

You’ll notice that the various quotations seem to be confusing, even contradictory. Tony explained that he had deliberately chosen the quotes to set up a kind of ‘debate’ within Writings themselves – some quotes urging Baha’is to withdraw from the world and its affairs, others urging us to work in the world for the betterment of our nation, and of mankind. Tony proposed an interesting explanation for the apparent contradictions, one which was not accepted by everyone however. He claimed that the word “politics” is used in two different ways in the Writings. That is, that it has two different definitions. One definition is: The affairs of government. Baha’is are not forbidden to become involved in the affairs of the governments, indeed they are urged to do so. The other definition is: The struggle for power within the state or government. This is the politics (the partisan, factionalized, and destructive politics) from which Baha’is must strictly refrain.

Tony drew particular attention to the quotation from Shoghi Effendi (through his secretary) which made it clear that Baha’is may participate in demonstrations, and seemed to imply that they are morally obligated to do so when some basic principle is at stake (p.3) . He also emphasized the quotations of the Guardian and the House of Justice which say that Baha’is should demonstrate their love of country by working through “the administrative channels” of government. This is the politics of “the right type” mentioned by Abdu’l-Baha. Terry noted, however, that though Baha’is are not forbidden to become involved in this type of “politics”, it may not always be wise for them to do so (especially when a highly controversial issue is involved). In such cases as this, the Institutions of the Faith may ask Baha’is to withdraw, for the protection of the Cause.

Taking this bifurcated approach, Tony argued that individual Baha’is may not take part in politics when it involves the partisan, factionalized struggle for power in a state (Democrat vs. Republican, Labor vs. Conservative, Socialist vs. Fascist, etc.). But, the believers are encouraged to take an active role in the affairs of the state. So, that side of politics dealing with the legislative decision-making process is permissible. It is under this heading that, for example, Baha’is vote in elections. Voting is, in itself, a political act.

Tony also drew a distinction between what individual Baha’is may do and what the administrative institutions of the Faith may do. While Baha’is are encouraged to take a role in political affairs, the institutions are strictly forbidden from doing so, he asserted. Administrative institutions are not to discuss politics nor become in any way [Ed. involved] in the questions of the day. Institutions, such as local assemblies, are concerned with the welfare of mankind, but not with the various political schemes designed to affect that welfare.

There was some disagreement to this. It was argued that individual Baha’is are as much forbidden to enter the area of governmental concern and controversial questions as the administrative bodies are. However, just where this approach would leave the Baha’i Faith and an issue such as , civil rights, was not made clear.

Some of the quotations, especially those cited from Promulgation of Universal Peace, touched off an uproar among class members and the summary above is a good deal more lucid than our discussion was. We got sidetracked several times and the confusion indicates this question is not nearly so simple as had been imagined. Clearly, it is not a cut and dried issue. When does a social issue become a partisan political one? It all depends on circumstances. Although our discussion was lively, we reached no definite conclusions and wound up unreconciled on this difficult topic.

Identity Crisit Dept.: Almost from the beginning of these classes there has existed a difference of opinion over what and why they ought to be about. That division surfaced on the last session and we spent almost as much time bashing away at it as we did in discussion the day’s topic. Here, in summary, is the root of the problem. A few class members want our sessions to be geared more toward productive activity, viz., producing what might be called work papers, or even articles destined for “World Order” [Ed. a Baha'i magazine] on various aspects of the Faith. Others argue that the classes are not non-productive if nothing concrete comes out of them; they are productive if those who attend (and presumably read these summaries) learn something.

But there remains an air of tension between the “academic” faction and those who favor a more social, personal and experience-oriented approach. The emergence of this conflict led to a discussion of the nature of deepening classes and why they are so universally dreary and boring. Many Baha’is who attend classes approach the topic of discussion equally ignorant. Let us suppose the class in on the Kitab-i-Iqan. Chances are those in attendance have not read the book or not very thoroughly, at any rate. (They would argue that is what they come to class to do, but that’s another story.) With everyone equally disadvantaged, the only real option is to pass the book around and read aloud from it by turns. We’ve all been through that and regard it with all the affection of the Hong Kong flu. Once book passing is the order of the day, people become afraid to comment overmuch of what is being read. We Baha’is have it drummed into us that no individual is an authority nor has interpretive rights. That’s all true, but it works against discussion about what Baha’u’llah meant by a certain allusion or what a bit of symbolism might stand for. Without a teacher who has a lot of knowledge about a topic, “study classes” quickly bog down into oral elocution sessions.

There are other problems with deepening. One class member said the more deepened he became in the Faith, the less able he felt he could write or talk about it. It’s a kind of quirky religious state of being spiritually muscle bound. Some Baha’is deepen more and teach less. The problem is, the more they know, the more they feel they must explain. Soon, a fireside has evolved into a semi-academic discussion and not a summary of Baha’i beliefs designed to encourage Baha’i non-Baha’is to begin their own independent investigation of Baha’u’llah.

By this point, we were fully immersed in verbalizing our concerns and frustrations about being Baha’is. One class member said we ought to study the relation between belief and scientific inquiry, arguing these ought to be complimentary, not contradictory. Another person asserted the basic trouble with Baha’is is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and demanding, and therefore never really tried. And so it went. We finally patched over our differences with a compromise solution.

As Tony suggested, we agreed to ask Mr. Kazem Kazemzadeh to talk to the class about the Baha’i community of Ishqabad [Ed. alternate spelling: Ashkhabad] . In brief, this community was established in pre-revolutionary Russia and flourished. Ishqabad is the site of the first Baha’i House of Worship anywhere in the world. In a step-by-step approach, the Soviet authorities clamped down on Baha’i activities, ultimately, seizing the temple and outlawing Baha’i religious activities.

Mr. Kazemzadeh, we understand, served on the local assembly of Ishqabad and so is what historians would droll over as a “primary source”. Our plan is to invite him to address the class at least once, and maybe two or three times, if he is willing, about the Baha’i community of Ishqabad. That community had a number of unique qualities. For example, it was probably the only major Baha’i community to exist in relative freedom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Baha’i communities existed elsewhere, of course. But, for the most part, their roots where in Muslim countries (Iran, predominantly) where the Baha’i Faith suffered under various states of repression. Ishqabad also underwent the unhappy fate of drawing the focus of Communist persecution. How that worked, what the local assembly did in response to it and just what happened in Ishqabad are all questions which we hope to have Mr. Kazemzadeh answer.

The class on Ishqabad is set for 3 pm, Sunday, March 6, at Tony’s apartment [Ed. private home address]. Mr. Kazemzadeh will discuss his personal recollections of the Baha’i community of Ishqabad. All class members planning to attend are urged to read about the city and the House of Worship there by consulting back volumes of “Baha’i World”. The success of this class will, in large measure, depend on the information elicited from Mr. Kazemzadeh. If you plan to attend, please prepare questions to ask him. In line with this special event, Bonnie Barnes’ class on “A Baha’i Theory of Personality” will be postponed to a future class meeting.

Gentle Reminder Dept.: For those of you on our mailing list who have not already done so, please send Tony $1 per month to offset the photocopying and mailing costs of this effuvia. We’re not using the money to set up a slush fund. Honest. We regret to write this, but those who do not send in their money will be dropped from the list. HOWEVER, this reminder does NOT apply to anyone on the list who resides outside the United States. Overseas readers will continue to receive these paltry offerings free. No, no, don’t grovel in gratitude, it’s just part of the service.

Hart Times Dept.: Okay, gang, we need volunteers to make presentations to the class. The success of the classes depends on the willingness of its participants to undertake research and present topics near and dear to our heaving bosoms. Without that, ain’t no classes. Don’t just sit there reading this, volunteer, dagnabit.

NEXT CLASS: Will be at 12:30 pm on Saturday, February 19th. Location: the seaside retreat of Jon and Chris Hendershot [Ed. personal phone and address follows]. Greg Wahlstrom will usher in the calamity for us (would you believe germ warfare? No? How about squirt guns at point-blank range?)

[Ed. the compilation prepared for the above class re politics follows]

THE PUZZLE OF POLITICS: Where do ya stand?

From the Writings of Baha’u’llah:

That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. In another passage He hath proclaimed: It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.

Gleanings p.250

The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.

Baha’i World Faith p.36
[Ed. also Gleanings p.213]

. . . Forbear ye from concerning yourselves with the affairs of this world and all that pertaineth unto it, or from meddling with the activities of those who are its outward leaders. The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath bestowed the government of the earth upon the kings. To none is given the right to act in any manner that would run counter to the considered views of them who are in authority. That which He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts; and of these the loved ones of Him Who is the Sovereign Truth are, in this Day, as the keys. . .

Gleanings p.241

From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha:

You can best serve your country, if you strive, in your capacity as a citizen of the world, to assist in the eventual application of the principle of federalism underlying the government of your own country to the relationships now existing between the peoples and nations of the world.

quoted in World Order of Baha’u’llah p.37

The Bah??’?s must not engage in political movements which lead to sedition. They must interest themselves in movements which conduce to law and order. In Persia at the present time the Bah??’?s have no part in the revolutionary upheavals which have terminated in lawlessness and rebellion. Nevertheless, a Bah??’? may hold a political office and be interested in politics of the right type. Ministers, state officials and governor-generals in Persia are Bah??’?s, and there are many other Bah??’?s holding governmental positions; but nowhere throughout the world should the followers of Bah??’u’ll??h be engaged in seditious movements. For example, if there should be an uprising here in America having for its purpose the establishment of a despotic government, the Bah??’?s should not be connected with it.

Promulgation of Universal Peace, Vol. II p.233
[Ed. in recent editions, p.238]

O ye beloved of the Lord! It is incumbent upon you to be submissive to all monarchs that are just and to show your fidelity to every righteous king. Serve ye the sovereigns of the world with utmost truthfulness and loyalty. Show obedience unto them and be their well-wishers. Without their leave and permission do not meddle with political affairs, for disloyalty to the just sovereign is disloyalty to God Himself.

The Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha, p.15

IX.—The ninth principle of Bah??’u’ll??h is: That Religion should not concern itself with Political Questions. Religion is concerned with things of the spirit, politics with things of the world. Religion has to work with the world of thought, whilst the field of politics lies with the world of external conditions.

Paris Talks, p.132-133

He has ordained and established the House of Justice which is endowed with a political as well as a religious function, the consummate union and blending of church and state. . .

Promulgation of Universal Peace, Vol. II p.452
[Ed. in recent publications, p.455]

. . . also the irrefutable command that the Blessed Perfection hath given in Tablets that the believers must obey the kings with the utmost sincerity and fidelity, and He hath forbidden them to interfere at all with political problems. He hath even prohibited the believers from discussing political affairs.

Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, p.498

O thou servant of Baha’! Thou hast asked regarding the political affairs. In the United States it is necessary that the citizens shall take part in elections. This is a necessary matter and no excuse from it is possible. My object in telling the believers that they should not interfere in the affairs of government is this: That they should not make any trouble and that they should not move against the opinion of the government, but obedience to the laws and the administration of the commonwealth is necessary. Now, as the government of America is a republican form of government, it is necessary that all the citizens shall take part in the elections of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic.

Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, p.342-3

From the works of Shoghi Effendi:

Let him also attempt to devise such methods as association with clubs, exhibitions, and societies, lectures on subjects akin to the teachings and ideals of his Cause such as temperance, morality, social welfare, religious and racial tolerance, economic cooperation, Isl??m, and Comparative Religion, or participation in social, cultural, humanitarian, charitable, and educational organizations and enterprises which, while safeguarding the integrity of his Faith, will open up to him a multitude of ways and means whereby he can enlist successively the sympathy, the support, and ultimately the allegiance of those with whom he comes in contact.

Advent of Divine Justice, p.43
[Ed. in recent editions, p.51]

That Baha’is may take part in demonstrations was made clear by Shoghi Effendi when a number of Baha’i students at the University of Chicago joined a protest against racial prejudice and carried a placard with the word “Baha’i” on it. Mr. Ellsworth Blackwell asked the Guardian: Is there anything wrong with the protesting of Baha’i student groups against racial prejudice along with other student organizations? The beloved Guardian replied through his secretary (January 1948) : He does not see any objection to Baha’i students taking part as Baha’is in a protest such as that mentioned in the clipping. On the contrary, he does not see how they could remain indifferent when fellow students were voicing our own Baha’i attitude on such a vital issue and one we feel so strongly about.

Human Rights and the Baha’i Faith (The NSA of the USA) Baha’i World insert 6/64
[Ed. I haven't found this - either in electronic or hardcopy format - but find it fascinating]

Let them refrain from associating themselves, whether by word or by deed, with the political pursuits of their respective nations, with the policies of their governments and the schemes and programs of parties and factions. In such controversies they should assign no blame, take no side, further no design, and identify themselves with no system prejudicial to the best interests of that world-wide Fellowship which it is their aim to guard and foster. Let them beware lest they allow themselves to become the tools of unscrupulous politicians, or to be entrapped by the treacherous devices of the plotters and the perfidious among their countrymen. Let them so shape their lives and regulate their conduct that no charge of secrecy, of fraud, of bribery or of intimidation may, however ill-founded, be brought against them. Let them rise above all particularism and partisanship, above the vain disputes, the petty calculations, the transient passions that agitate the face, and engage the attention, of a changing world. It is their duty to strive to distinguish, 65 as clearly as they possibly can, and if needed with the aid of their elected representatives, such posts and functions as are either diplomatic or political from those that are purely administrative in character, and which under no circumstances are affected by the changes and chances that political activities and party government, in every land, must necessarily involve. Let them affirm their unyielding determination to stand, firmly and unreservedly, for the way of Bah??’u’ll??h, to avoid the entanglements and bickerings inseparable from the pursuits of the politician, and to become worthy agencies of that Divine Polity which incarnates God’s immutable Purpose for all men.
It should be made unmistakably clear that such an attitude implies neither the slightest indifference to the cause and interests of their own country, nor involves any insubordination on their part to the authority of recognized and established governments. Nor does it constitute a repudiation of their sacred obligation to promote, in the most effective manner, the best interests of their government and people.

World Order of Baha’u’llah, p.64-5

We should—every one of us—remain aloof, in heart and in mind, in words and in deeds, from the political affairs and disputes of the Nations and of Governments. We should keep ourselves away from such thoughts. We should have no political connection with any of the parties and should join no faction of these different and warring sects. Absolute impartiality in the matter of political parties should be shown by words and by deeds, and the love of the whole humanity, whether a Government or a nation, which is the basic teaching of Bah??’u’ll??h, should also be shown by words and by deeds…

Directives from the Guardian, p.56-7

The cardinal principle which we must follow … is obedience to the government prevailing in any land in which we reside…. We see therefore that we must do two things—Shun politics like the plague, and be obedient to the Government in power in the place where we reside… We must obey in all cases except where a spiritual principle is involved, such as denying our Faith. For these spiritual principles we must be willing to die.

Such a rectitude of conduct must . . . characterize the attitude of every loyal believer towards nonacceptance of political posts, nonidentification with political parties, nonparticipation in political controversies, and nonmembership in political organizations and ecclesiastical institutions.

Advent of Divine Justice, p. 22
[Ed. in recent editions, p.26]

Letters of the Universal House of Justice:

Because love for our fellowmen and anguish at their plight are essential parts of a true Baha’i’s life, we are continually drawn to do what we can to help them. It is vitally important that we do so whenever the occasion presents itself, for our actions must say the same thing as our words — but this compassion for our fellows must not be allowed to divert our energies into channels which are ultimately doomed to failure, causing us to neglect the most important and fundamental work of all.

UHJ Messages 1963-1986, p.126
[Ed. in the 1982 edition see pp. 24, 29-33]



The original scanned documents can be found here.