19 September 2009

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

Let us take as our starting point that one task for the Baha’i world in the coming years is the systematic study of social action that resembles, to a great extent, the systematic study of expansion and consolidation that has at this point come to dominate Baha’i life. With the global establishment of the Ruhi Institute, Baha’is around the world consult upon the requirements of teaching using passages from the Baha’i Writings on topics such as the nature of living a Baha’i life, the power of Divine assistance, making new contacts, confirming new believers, educating children, etc. Similarly, new forays into social action will require intensive re-visitation of Baha’i teachings on such topics as education, the environment, health care, agriculture, power relations across racial, gender, and religious lines, and a number of other pressing matters. For so long, the vast sea of statements from the Writings on these topics has been glossed over with single expressions, buzzwords, and clichés. A deeper understanding is needed. And a conscious basis for action, let alone which passages to focus on, is not a matter of flipping a light switch.

Fortunately, there are many books and tablets that are clearly relevant to such an endeavour. Undoubtedly, Shoghi Effendi’s letters on World Order will be essential for consulting on the global and historical context of Baha’i social action. And certainly, Abdu’l-Baha’s “Secret of Divine Civilization” and his recorded utterances while travelling the West will be indispensable. But what of Baha’u’llah Himself? Certainly, His later works, those written in Adrianople and Akka, will be the most important. Focus will of course be given to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Tablet of the World, Tablet of Maqsud, and other tablets included in the compilation “Tablets of Baha’u’llah.” And then there’s Baha’u’llah’s addresses to the kings and rulers of the world, largely contained in the compilation “Summons of the Lord of Hosts.” This is where, philosophically we run into a problem. And that’s what I want to look at here. These tablets are specifically addressed to generally autocratic rulers like Nasiri’d-Din Shah, Sultan Abdu’l-Aziz, Napoleon III, and others. His commands to them are written with the assumption that the reader is a Head of State: A Just king is the shadow of God on earth. All should seek shelter under the shadow of his justice, and rest in the shade of his favor.[1] Should thou cause rivers of justice to spread their waters among thy subjects, God will surely aid thee with the hosts of the unseen and of the seen and would strengthen thee in thine affairs.[2] The poor… verily. Are thy treasures on earth. It behoveth thee, therefore, to safeguard thy treasures from the assaults of them who wish to rob thee.[3]At the moment there are no Baha’i Heads of State. And even if there were any then that wouldn’t detract from the fact that Baha’i social action is conducted by the generality of believers taken from all walks of life. The gems of wisdom Baha’u’llah encloses in these addresses must be disclosed in such a way as to guide broad-based collaborative action they undertake. I don’t think it’s enough to say that Baha’u’llah enjoins justice, and that this can be abstracted from the recipients’ legal and social status. The relation of sovereign/subject is essential to a great many of these passages. The final passage I quote above is a good example of this: The position of sovereign entails a responsibility for the affairs of the poor and downtrodden. I think what’s needed is a conceptual framework by which to translate these tablets from an autocratic context to a collaborative context. We need a way to learn how to apply what Baha’u’llah teaches them specifically to a social situation very different than that of Napoleon III or Czar Alexander II.

[1] SH 217 pp. 112
[2] SM 64 pp. 211
[3] SM 68 pp. 213

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps one way to look at these tablets is as an indication of the responsibilities inherent in authority/power itself. Then we might start seeing the power we do have (even if it seems miniscule compared to that of kings) in the context of how much responsibility we have for helping the poor and downtrodden.

    Reminds me of an interesting point in Janet Khan's book "The Advancement of Women." She mentions that one of the criticisms of the Universal House of Justice is that we cannot trust the concerns of women to be represented because the House has no female members. But the House of Justice has an impressive record of advocating for the advancement of women, and the same applies to the male Central Figures of the Faith who preceded them. Their approach to the power they had was to use it to uplift those who had much less power.