02 December 2008

Politics and Change

With the presidency of Barack Obama, being hailed by many as a kind of savior, it is time again to revisit the Baha'i teachings on politics and social change. About every four years in the United States, society gets ripped apart, hundreds of millions of dollars get poured into a bottomless pit, everyone rediscovers that our electoral college was made for horse and buggy days, and Baha'is revisit Shoghi Effendi's letters compiled in World Order of Baha'u'llah.


In a letter to Thornton Chase Abdu'l-Baha clearly obliged Baha'is to vote and "take part in the affairs of the republic" of the United States, and encouraged to be obedient to the laws and administration of the republic. Shoghi Effendi later mentioned that voting is a right but not obligatory in cases where the voter feels that they cannot "exercise that right intelligently and with understanding."


Shoghi Effendi further wrote that such voting and participation should never endorse partisan politics, and becoming involved in partisanship is strictly prohibited, to such an extent that if the act of voting requires registration or endorsement of a political party, it should be avoided. Within the Baha'i election process campaigns, debates, nominations, and parties are all strictly avoided and anyone participating in such actions would be disqualified from voting or holding office.

That Baha'is entirely reject these bastions of Western democracy -- the campaign, the candidate, etc. -- is the subject of some confusion from the general public. How could a system work without the soul-grinding competition of adversaries? Our current politics are based on opposition and the only alternative seems to be dictatorship. Within that question lies the key: the Baha'i system is fundamentally different, based on cooperation. The forces current in the world are disintegrating, while the Baha'i system is integrating.

Today, the democratic process by which we elect our government is entrenched in fallacies regarding the hypothetical need for nominations, candidates, electioneering, and solicitation. Without a dramatic and fundamental change it is impossible to imagine how the democratic culture will rid itself of the cynicism, apathy, division, and corruption that have become prevalent in party politics.

The Baha'i International Community published the following in a 1995 statement to the UN,
"The standard of truth seeking that the consultative process demands is far beyond the patterns of negotiation and compromise that tend to characterize the present-day discussion of human affairs. It cannot be achieved--indeed, its attainment is severely handicapped--by the culture of protest that is another widely prevailing feature of contemporary society. Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment."
The System

If anyone doubts that elections can work without nominations, they should see the Baha'i model. Several million Baha'is in the world elect their representatives yearly at the local and national levels. Each Baha'i may vote in two elections annually; in one election every individual in the locality over the age of 21 votes for 9 names, and the 9 members with the most votes are elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly, in the other election a few localities are grouped into an electoral unit, everyone casts a single vote, and the person with the most votes goes on to a national convention, which elects the 9-member National Spiritual Assembly in a similar manner that the local assembly is elected. Every 5 years each member of every National Spiritual Assembly around the world casts 9 votes for members of the Universal House of Justice, an international body and the highest institution of the Faith. In large countries, such as the US, there are 9-member regional councils elected with the members of all Local Spiritual Assemblies in the region casting votes.

The Universal House of Justice appoints individuals to the position of Continental Counselor, a role that has about 80 appointees in the world. Each Counselor then appoints Auxiliaries with smaller jurisdictions, who in turn appoint assistants to work in the localities. There is thus an entire elected and appointed order. The elected hold authority only as a body, not individually, and the appointed hold no authority at all. At each level of election, the voter is potentially personally familiar with the elected, and nowhere in the process are there any nominations, parties, candidates, or debates.

New World Order

The Baha'i system, however, is not merely the mechanisms of election. The system is divine in origin, it is through authority stemming from Baha'u'llah as a Manifestation of God that humanity will unite and the system will flourish. Shoghi Effendi powerfully confirmed the impotency of statesmanship and the uniquely divine character of the Baha'i system in the following extract from a letter of 1931,
"Humanity, whether viewed in the light of man's individual conduct or in the existing relationships between organized communities and nations, has, alas, strayed too far and suffered too great a decline to be redeemed through the unaided efforts of the best among its recognized rulers and statesmen -- however disinterested their motives, however concerted their action, however unsparing in their zeal and devotion to its cause. No scheme which the calculations of the highest statesmanship may yet devise; no doctrine which the most distinguished exponents of economic theory may hope to advance; no principle which the most ardent of moralists may strive to inculcate, can provide, in the last resort, adequate foundations upon which the future of a distracted world can be built. No appeal for mutual tolerance which the worldly-wise might raise, however compelling and insistent, can calm its passions or help restore its vigor. Nor would any general scheme of mere organized international cooperation, in whatever sphere of human activity, however ingenious in conception, or extensive in scope, succeed in removing the root cause of the evil that has so rudely upset the equilibrium of present-day society. Not even, I venture to assert, would the very act of devising the machinery required for the political and economic unification of the world -- a principle that has been increasingly advocated in recent times -- provide in itself the antidote against the poison that is steadily undermining the vigor of organized peoples and nations. What else, might we not confidently affirm, but the unreserved acceptance of the Divine Program enunciated, with such simplicity and force as far back as sixty years ago, by Baha'u'llah, embodying in its essentials God's divinely appointed scheme for the unification of mankind in this age, coupled with an indomitable conviction in the unfailing efficacy of each and all of its provisions, is eventually capable of withstanding the forces of internal disintegration which, if unchecked, must needs continue to eat into the vitals of a despairing society. It is towards this goal -- the goal of a new World Order, Divine in origin, all-embracing in scope, equitable in principle, challenging in its features -- that a harassed humanity must strive."
The Plan

With this knowledge and understanding of our current system, do not be fooled into putting an ounce of energy into the current debates. Do not pick sides, criticize, or put your backing behind a candidate. Regardless of the speech, intentions, or ideas of any candidate for office, they must work in a crumbling system. The noblest, most experienced captain, if put on a rotting ship will still sink at sea. Meanwhile, Baha'is are building a new ship. Baha'u'llah describes a period of lesser peace that will come from pragmatism, in which wars are restrained out of self interest. We have already entered that period. The "Most Great Peace", the "Dawn of Knowledge", will come through the penetration of the teachings of Baha'u'llah into society. It is towards that goal that Baha'is devote their energy, under the direction of multi-year plans set out by the Universal House of Justice.