19 September 2009

Social Action and Baha’u’llah’s Addresses to the Kings: Part II

There are two concepts that I think are vital for this enquiry. The first is power. The second is decision, choice, free-will, or however else one might call it. I think, what matters most about these figures is the combination of power and decision. The way these two combine in the figure of “the kings and rulers of the world” is very rare. Baha’u’llah addresses these tablets to the most concentrated and intense instances. But the combination of power and decision is something that characterizes the lives of all people, high and low alike.

First, we must recognize the distinction between social power and the power exercised through large institutions. For example, it doesn’t make sense to say that one is “powerless.” Certainly, a person can be excluded from the decision-making processes of certain institutions. But, though that may be the case, the mere utterance of the words “I am powerless” is itself an exercise of power, however small. And in most cases, a person is capable of quite a few other things besides that. One theorist writes: “Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” The condition we casually refer to as powerlessness is not so much the absence of power, but rather the lack of will or organizational capacity to make use of what power is at hand.

Secondly, the same can be said for decision-making. Very few of us are CEOs or politicians. Some of us may supervise other workers on the job, but even then, that responsibility probably has more to do with enforcement than substantial choices. Nonetheless, each of us are endowed with choice, far more than is comfortable to think about. I don’t have to eat today. I could choose not to. I could grab a blunt object from the trash and smash someone’s head in. I could refuse the laws of the State. I could refuse the Manifestation of God. All of this is within my choice. What’s key is recognizing that the iron law of necessity, especially with regard to society, often has more to do with an unwillingness to recognize the reality that one does have choice in the matter, and that a person could do otherwise. I could dedicate my life to the spiritual and material upliftment of my community. Or I could just watch TV. Both are viable choices.

I think what defines the figure of the sovereign is the combination of power and decision. Anyone can decree that the US government will dedicate 50 billion dollars to renewable energy research, but if that is not in one’s power then it won’t happen. And someone or some group can hold the power to do exactly the same. But that money will never be allocated if no decision is ever made, if that power is left to sit idle, or is directed towards other ends. Power and decision are only combined in the sense of “kings and rulers of the world” very rarely. Baha’u’llah could list them off by name. But power and decision are combined in innumerable ways through society. The two come together to some extent with all people. Each of us is a Napoleon in our own little way; some more so than others. But the coordination of a great multiplicity of these small instances of power and decision can create enormous forces for social change. The great triumph of the Ruhi Institute is the finesse with which it does this.

I think, what is required of us when reading writings of Baha’u’llah addressed to the kings and rulers of the world is that each of us is responsible in some way for carrying out the social transformation mandated therein. Very few of us could rightly be called kings or rulers. But each of us can make a substantial difference if only we arise individually, coordinate and consult with others, develop each other’s capacity, channel our energy into sustainable endeavors, learn along they way, build momentum, and keep looking to the horizon for what possibilities we might choose to seize upon next. This is a major way in which the Baha’i Faith is democratic. The demos arises to rule, not at the expense of the State or God’s appointed authority, but rather inasmuch as the people are the animating force that decides on the structure of future society.

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