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PostWhy do Baha'is Avoid Political Involvement? (Vincent Littrell, USA, 07/22/19 7:32 am)
On 28 June John Eipper asked: "Why do Baha'is eschew direct political involvement? I understand that they are 'above' the mundane nastiness of politics, but you have to get your hands dirty to bring about any sort of change. Think of the US Civil Rights movement, which didn't happen just because it had enlightenment, goodness (or what have you) on its side."
In researching the answer to John's question, I've discovered that my own understanding of the Baha'i requirement for non-involvement in factionalized politics has evolved over the years.
First I'll address John's comment about the US Civil Rights movement and the need to "get hands dirty" to see it through. Though not directly involved in the politics of that movement in the US Deep South, throughout most of the 20th century Baha'is did publicly teach interracial unity in direct contravention of the Jim Crow system in places where that kind of teaching was physically dangerous. Such efforts may be seen as in alignment with some goals of black political mobilization, without being linked directly to it in organizational or overarchingly ideological terms. Louis Venters eloquently shows this at some depth in his two recent books No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina's Baha'i Community and A History of the Baha'i Faith in South Carolina, which I briefly discussed in a 18 June WAIS post titled Louis Gregory and the South Carolina Baha'is: http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&o=124796 .
And with regards to Baha'i teaching of interracial unity in the US Deep South, Venters points to incidents involving groups like the Ku Klux Klan and hostile whites confronting the Baha'is.
Though not factionally political, Baha'i religious teaching throughout much of the 20th century is seen by Venters to have helped provide impetus, for more than just a few, towards black political mobilization for purposes of achieving social equality. This includes at the time of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and beyond. As an example, Venters discusses Louis Gregory's energetic efforts at teaching the Baha'i vision of interracial unity in 1916 where he spoke at churches, schools, and colleges to thousands of people. Venters comments on a result of Gregory's 1916 teaching tour into the Deep South:
"One significant result of the trip was an invitation to return to Charleston, South Carolina, on January 1, 1917, to deliver the keynote address in the city's Emancipation Day celebration. Gregory's speech at Morris Street Baptist Church, part of a daylong program that included a 'grand parade' through the city, opened a year of increased activism and self-confidence among blacks across the state. A month after Gregory's speech, James Weldon Johnson, the new field secretary of the NAACP, visited South Carolina as part of his first effort to establish outposts of the organization in the South, and he found people who were ready to act." (Venters, p. 35).
Another example is Venters' discussion of the Baha'i response to the "Red Summer" of 1919, where anti-black violence erupted in US cities, mostly outside the South. Venters writes:
"In the wake of the Red Summer, Abdu'l-Baha directed the American Baha'is to bring the faith's teachings on interracial unity to the attention of leaders of thought and the general public. Beginning in early 1921 in Washington, where one of the worst riots of 1919 had taken place, the Baha'is hosted a series of high-profile conferences aimed at promoting personal contacts across racial lines and dispelling whites' prevailing misinformation about blacks and other racial minorities. Repeated from coast to coast during the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, the conferences and other smaller gatherings involved extensive collaboration with such organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League and a number of progressive intellectuals and religious leaders." (Venters, p. 36.)*
As can be seen with the above, the Baha'is do publicly get involved in social issues. They are exhorted to do this by their leadership. An example of Baha'i involvement in global social development can be seen in a recent November 2018 letter to the Baha'i world community from the Universal House of Justice:
"Thirty-five years ago, circumstances within and outside the [Baha'i] community combined to create new possibilities for greater involvement in the life of society. The Faith had developed to the stage at which the processes of social and economic development needed to be incorporated into its regular pursuits, and in October 1983 we called upon the Bahá'ís of the world to enter this new field of endeavor. The Office of Social and Economic Development was established at the Bahá'í World Centre to assist us in promoting and coordinating the activities of the friends worldwide. Bahá'í activities for social and economic development, at whatever level of complexity, were at that time counted in the hundreds. Today they number in the tens of thousands, including hundreds of sustained projects such as schools and scores of development organizations. The broad range of current activities spans efforts from villages and neighborhoods to regions and nations, addressing an array of challenges, including education from preschool to university, literacy, health, the environment, support for refugees, advancement of women, empowerment of junior youth, elimination of racial prejudice, agriculture, local economies, and village development...Beyond this, of course, countless believers, through their professional and voluntary efforts, contribute their energies and insights to projects and organizations established for the common good. (9 November 2018, Letter from The Universal House of Justice at: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20181109_001/1#557119948 ).
The above notwithstanding, Baha'is are forbidden to be involved in factional politics. The Universal House of Justice emphasizes this point to Baha'is in the lengthy but informative passage below:
"In political controversies, they [Baha'is-VL] 'should assign no blame, take no side, further no design, and identify themselves with no system prejudicial to the best interests' of their 'world-wide Fellowship.' They are called to 'avoid the entanglements and bickerings inseparable from the pursuits of the politician.' And they are to '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 not for a Bahá'í, in offering social commentary, to vilify specific individuals, organizations, or governments or to make attacks on them. Indeed, the Guardian specifically cautioned the friends against referring to political figures in their public remarks, whether in criticism or support."**
Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá enjoined Bahá'ís to be obedient to the government of their land. Unity, order, and cooperation are the basis for sound and lasting change. Even civil disobedience, in the form of a conscious decision to violate the law to effect social change, is not acceptable for Bahá'ís--whatever merit it appears to have had in particular political settings.
The principles of non-involvement in politics and obedience to government, far from being obstacles to social change, are aspects of an approach set forth in the Bahá'í writings to implement effective remedies for and address the root causes of the ills afflicting society. This approach includes active involvement in the life of society, as well as the possibility of influencing and contributing to the social policies of government by all lawful means. Indeed, service to others and to society is a hallmark of the Bahá'í life.
There can be no question then that Bahá'ís are committed to efforts toward social transformation. Shoghi Effendi cautioned, "they [Baha'is] must also guard against the other extreme of never taking part, with other progressive groups, in conferences or committees designed to promote some activity in entire accord with our [Baha'i] teachings-such as, for instance, better race relations." (27 April 2017 Letter from The Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha'i at: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20170427_001/1#362945323 )
So, to come full circle back to John's question, Baha'is eschew factional politics because:
"To enter into the quixotic tournament of demolishing one by one the evils in the world is, to a Bahá'í, a vain waste of time and effort. His whole life is directed towards proclaiming the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, reviving the spiritual life of his fellowmen, uniting them in a divinely created World Order, and then, as the Order grows in strength and influence, he will see the power of that Message transforming the whole human society and progressively solving the problems and removing the injustices which have so long bedeviled the world.
"There are many well-meaning people who are striving to improve society by fighting its evils, which usually means contending against individuals, groups, or institutions who are seen as oppressive, unjust, or corrupt. Yet no matter how high-minded a particular cause might be, if it is advanced through contention and confrontation, it merely provokes and intensifies the flame of a countermovement initiated by others who act on what they consider to be their own high-minded beliefs. Real solutions remain elusive. The cycle of contention continues without end, with one group after the other seizing enough power to implement its views before becoming overcome by those in opposition." (19 November 1974 letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Italy at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/19741119_001/1#278403488 and a 10 August 2018 letter of the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha'i at https://www.divinegemsvirtues.com/uploads/6/1/4/8/61489781/20180810_uhj_to_indiv_re_double_crusade__redacted_english_.pdf )
I hope this helps answer John's question about Baha'is and politics.
*Abdu'l-Baha was then residing in Haifa, Palestine. He was the son of and successor to the prophetic founder of the Baha'i Faith Baha'u'llah. Through the Will and Testament of Baha'u'llah was appointed the leader of the Baha'i religion. He served in that capacity from 1892-1921.
**Shoghi Effendi is titled "the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith," and was the authoritative leader of the Baha'i Faith from 1921-1957 having been appointed in Abdu'l-Baha's Will and Testament as leader.
JE comments: You've answered my question to a T, Vince. Avoid "entanglements and bickerings"--I would love a world like that. The problem as I see it, is this: those who entangle and bicker are the ones who get their way (a corollary to the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" maxim).