10 May 2010

Social Action and the Love of God: 'Abdu'l-Baha at Hull House

One of the exciting features of the recorded utterances from 'Abdu'l-Baha's travels in North America and Europe is that many of the individuals and organizations he spoke before have their own distinguished history. Abdu'l-Baha met with such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bertha von Suttner, a leading peace activist who influenced Alfred Nobel in establishing the peace prize. They were engaged in vigorous conversations that continues to this day on topics of humanity's social and spiritual prosperity. But since 1921 'Abdu'l-Baha's physical voice has fallen silent. So, if Baha'is want his wisdom to be taken into account today they'll have to speak up on his behalf.

Earlier today, I was browsing through the Promulgation of Universal Peace and came across a talk given by 'Abdu'l-Baha on the 30 April 1912 at Hull House in Chicago. The location sounded familiar. I thought I had read something about it in an introductory Sociology course in undergrad. A Google search revealed that Hull House was founded in 1889 by Jane Addams to, in her words, "aid in the solutions of life in a great city, and to help our neighbors build responsible, self-sufficient lives for themelves and their families." In those early days, the organization was based in Chicago's near west side, an area with large numbers of recent immigrants from such countries as Italy, Greece, and Poland. Hull House was a place individuals could go for help. But most importantly it was a force for community building, education, the arts, and selfless service. Community members were empowered to find their way within American society, while at the same time holding onto their rich cultural heritage. Residents of Hull House lived on site. Thus, they were not outsiders. They genuinely belonged to the neighborhood they served. Not only was this a smart practical move. But by breaking down boundaries between "us" and "them," the organization's Anglo middle class residents could also adhere more fully to their principle of respecting the dignity of all people. The organization she developed continues to this day. Their website can be found at http://www.hullhouse.org/. It sounds like their doing some impressive work. And seeing as how their work has now been going on for 121 years, I can imagine its quite sustainable as well.

As a brief aside, I think its worth noting that, however problematic the American discourse on immigration can be at times, we're still far ahead of Europe on respecting the dignity and cultural heritage of recent immigrants. This is in large part because Americans have been dealing immigration for a much longer time, and thus, has a generally more mature discourse. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while European demographics remained more or less stable, the work of organizations like Hull House was redefining what it meant to be "American."

When 'Abdu'l-Baha gave an address at Hull House, he spoke on the topic of racial difference. Hull House worked mostly with European immigrants, and counteracting the prejudice they faced. But 'Abdu'l-Baha's focus seems to be on prejudice against African-Americans, which turned out to be much more intractable than that against European immigrants. The text can be found at http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/PUP/pup-28.html. He states that there between all people their are things they share in common and things in which they differ. When the things they share overcome those in which they differ, there is unity and concord. When those in which they differ overcome those they share, then their is disunity and strife. Color is one of these points of difference. And even though it is very small, many people often let it take precedence over all those other things. 'Abdu'l-Baha then goes on to offer a remedy.

But there is a need for a superior power to overcome human prejudices, a power
which nothing in the world of mankind can withstand and which will
overshadow the effect of all other forces at work in human conditions. That
irresistable power is the love of God. It is my hope and prayer that it may
destroy the prejudice of this one point of distinction between you and unite you
all permanently under its hallowed protection. (PUP 68)
Humans maintain an enormous number of relationships, must of them quite simple. Rather than going one by one and ensuring that each of those is guided by love, there is an approach that ensures all will be the recipients of love. This is to love others for the sake of God rather than for the sake of themselves. In this way, a person concentrates on that one relationship with God, getting in touch with the love the Creator feels for his creation, and kindling the love the creation feels in return. This love, then, is allowed to overflow into one's relationships with all others.

As Baha'is contribute to the prevalent discourses in society, they need to think about what gifts Baha'u'llah has to offer the world. And they need to find a niche wherein they can put Baha'u'llah's teachings to the work of regenerating society. When 'Abdu'l-Baha spoke at Hull House in 1912, he used the opportunity to speak of the power of the love of God to transform society. This may not have been a common idea among those he was addressing. But certainly, it is a teaching, humbly offered, that could have empowered his listeners in their work to address the social ills of Chicago's near west side. The Baha'i community has a wealth of experience harmonizing the aims of spirituality and social action. And it seems to me this is something the world is very curious about, and stands in need of. For these reasons, Baha'is should be prepared to use Baha'u'llah's teachings to empower others to serve humanity. And providentially, 'Abdu'l-Baha began blazing this trail long before our time.


  1. Hi,

    Are there any instructions on how to post pieces here?


  2. Hi Colin,

    We welcome you as a contributor! Please email us at bahaicoherence@gmail.com and we will send you an invitation.