Thursday, February 24, 2011

An emergent community spirit

The term community has been used for many different groupings of people. For most of the history the vast majority of the people of the world lived in villages. With limitations on both transportation and communication there were no other possibilities. Villages then were the only community in which individuals could take part. Even today much of the people of the world still live in villages. But as population grew and people from rural areas increasingly migrated to urban areas cities grew. Most cities however are too large to be considered as a community, since no one individual has ever met a significant portion of the people in a city. What we have then are neighborhoods.

Some of these neighborhoods are ridden with crime and violence, and yet others, particularly those in the suburbia in western countries are utterly sterile, cold, and non-interacting. For many people then the community to which they could belong and within which they could grow and become fulfilled has disintegrated. The fundamental cause of such a disintegration is a steady decline of spirituality and a gradual adoption of a materialistic view of reality.

Baha'u'llah wrote "Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness, of justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine." [The first Ishraq, Tablets of Baha'u'llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, page 128]

Many people living in urban areas then adopt other groupings as our community.  Examples of these are scientific community, religious community, community of those interested in a particular sport or hobby. FaceBook is a technology tool for creating a community of friends and interacting with them using electronic tools. But even the most avid user has to admit that none of these groupings are an adequate substitute for having a community that is physically located in a compact physical and social space, such as a neighborhood, a locality, or at most a cluster.

In the letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 28 December 2010, paragraph 6, speaks about an emergent community spirit. Perhaps initially there are only a small group of people who are engaged in systematically building a new civilization. But as their numbers increase, as the core activities multiply in a neighborhood, as a greater number of people participate in these gatherings aimed at increasing the love and unity within a few streets, then gradually a community is created. The members of this community are bound together by their shared understanding about the true nature of reality, and their desire to take ownership of their own destiny. This is the nucleus of life, and the basis of a process of integration, that is growing within the welter of a society that has lost its bearing.

The following 4 questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph:

1.     Where a band of believers are engaged in implementing the provisions of the Plan according to the framework for action, their love and support for one another increases. In your own service how have you felt this “emergent community spirit”? 

2.     The geography in each cluster can be divided into two spaces: one or more neighborhoods where receptive populations live, and the rest of the cluster. How can we build a stronger “sense of common purpose” among the friends whose work is “scattered across the cluster” and those whose work is  “concentrated in a neighbourhood”? 

3.     What is the “organizational structure” for the “systematic multiplication of core activities”?

4.     What determines when a cluster should have a coordinator dedicated to the multiplication of junior youth groups?

Writing of religion as a social force, Bahá’u’lláh said: “Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein.”  And again: "When the Day-Star of Wisdom rose above the horizon of God’s Holy Dispensation it voiced this all-glorious utterance: They that are possessed of wealth and invested with authority and power must show the profoundest regard for religion. In truth, religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world, for the fear of God impelleth man to hold fast to that which is good, and shun all evil."

When we are able to read the above words with a new eye, see religion as a positive social force that builds harmony and move away from interpreting religion as a set of rigid dogmas intent on competing for membership, then the discourse on religion becomes the same as a discourse on community building. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

An unfamiliar element in social organization

We are familiar with several forms of governance that have been devised and practiced by various societies. But there is at least one element in the way the Baha'i community organizes itself that sets it apart from all other systems, and that is the work of the institution of the Counsellors. In particular the Auxiliary Board members have a unique role to play in releasing the power resident in individuals to accomplish the necessary transformation in the life of the society in each neighborhood.

In the words of its Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, "The Bahá’í Commonwealth of the future, of which this vast Administrative Order is the sole framework, is, both in theory and practice, not only unique in the entire history of political institutions, but can find no parallel in the annals of any of the world’s recognized religious systems." [World Order of Baha'u'llah, page 152]

The Universal House of Justice has further explained that "The existence of the institution of the Hands of the Cause, and subsequently of the Counsellors, comprising individuals who play such a vital role in advancing the interests of the Faith, but who have no legislative, executive or judicial authority, and are entirely devoid of priestly functions or the right to make authoritative interpretations, is a feature of Bahá’í administration unparalleled in the religions of the past." [January 2001, Institution of the Counsellors, p. 3]

The Auxiliary Board members are members of a continental institution, but they work at the level of the individuals, communities and institutions in a cluster. Their task is to encourage disciplined action within the framework, and to empower - which is another word for releasing the inherent power of the individual. They also influence the thinking of individuals and institutions to help them discover the principles that lie at the foundation of the program for action.

The letter of 28 December 2010 from the Universal House of Justice in its 5th paragraph comments on the significant role played by the the Auxiliary Board members. It says that "To help the friends visualize this first important milestone, and the multiplicity of ways in which it can be reached, is central to the functioning of every Auxiliary Board member and an increasing number of his or her assistants."

In the work that is done by other organizations of civil society, by non-profits, or by governmental agencies, I can not point out to a similar feature. In fact those who are in authority, governmental institutions at any level, do not have a formal structure to provide dis-interested guidance and advice. There is of course plenty of people and organizations that seek to influence the thinking of a government. These often come in the form of lobbyists, and they represent not a dispassionate effort, but rather the promotion of the self interest of one group or another. To the extent that these groups can finance their efforts at lobbying the legislators or executors of policies, to that extent we see effective movement in the direction of their interests. In many societies this represents a corruption of the democratic process. Resources are then allocated to projects in proportion not of their priority for development, but of the extent of influence that could be exerted.

How vast is the difference between this and the scheme of consultative search for principles that is the foundation of the work of the institutions of the Baha'i Faith. 

The following 7 questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph.

1.     The Auxiliary Board members “are to elicit from the believers wholehearted participation in the Plan”. What other institutions are charged with this same task? 

2.     In many clusters “a dynamic process” is to be born. For this to happen the institutions should exercise what? How does this agility manifest itself? 

3.     What is the role of the assistants to the Auxiliary Board members?

4.     Can “this first important milestone” be reached in only one way? Enumerate a few ways to reach this milestone.

5.     Mention 4 qualities that are required of each Board member and his or her assistants?

6.     How is encouragement to be offered?

7.     What are the effects of “faith in the capacity”, “unqualified love”, “calm determination”, and “readiness to listen”?

Perhaps you can identify within your own cluster, or those that you may be familiar with, instances of hesitation where the friends would "step forward more tentatively" and you can trace the source of such hesitation and then see how each of the four methods that are mentioned in question 7 above can resolve the hesitation and lead to a more robust and enthusiastic service in the arena of action.

A study of the life of Baha'u'llah himself shows that He also used this very method, this tool for encouragement, upliftment and empowerment. He chose a few individuals, designated them as Hands of His Cause and sent them to work, along side a steady stream of visitors and teachers, to build a community that could progress in both material accomplishments and spiritual qualities.

Baha'u'llah wrote: "My object is none other than the betterment of the world and the tranquillity of its peoples. The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. This unity can never be achieved so long as the counsels which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed are suffered to pass unheeded" [Gleanings, page 287]

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The impact of one single person

During the past 15 years the Baha'i community has been learning how to systematize the process of transformation. In a healthy society all individuals will strive to continually better themselves, and the community as whole also strives to reach higher levels of development. In this dual process we have learned how to lift a community to engage in purposeful action towards its own development. In its letter of 28 December 2010 the Universal House of Justice provides a summary review of the various stages involved. Paragraph 4 of this document then starts at the very beginning of this "program of growth". Subsequent paragraphs up to paragraph 16 describe the intensification and new frontiers for this learning process.

Consider the case of a cluster, or indeed a village or an urban neighborhood, at the very start of the process of development. While there are many people living here and each is engaged in some activity or another, initially there will not be any collective consciousness of a movement towards anything. Like a patch in a meadow, while some things are growing, there is not that sense of orderliness and purpose that characterizes a garden, a farm, or any cultivated land.

Now introduce one person into this village. Let us say that due to his or her previous experience and exposure, this "single homefront pioneer" begins to have conversations with local inhabitants creating "opportunities afforded by the personal circumstances of the [persons] initially involved". Let us say that a group of friends then decide to start a regular gathering to study the human condition in the light of Revelation. Through their study they will better understand the nature of themselves and their relations to one another, as well as their relationship to all the inhabitants of the village. They will grasp a more true understanding of social reality. Then under the edifying influence of their study of the Word of God they will begin to act. This act may be as simple an enterprise as a weekly gathering of a few families intent on educating their children, befriending and animating their young members, or just raising their voices in unison in songs of praise and devotional thankfulness.

Of course the cluster can have say hundreds of thousands of residents. So what can a few families in one neighborhood do to impact or to alter the social reality of these communities? The answer to this question requires a vision into the future that spans decades or even centuries.

One person can plant a seed, and if she is well aware of the potential of that seed - what kind of a tree, how tall, how fruitful, with what dynamics it is likely to grow - and if the initial environment is receptive, the soil is rich and ready, then there are such forces in nature that for decades after the original person has gone, that tree will continue to grow. Similar forces exist in the spiritual worlds of God and in the collective life of humanity. The operation of these forces is such that certain seeds, planted appropriately in receptive souls, can and will grow to become a new life, giving rise to new habits, a new culture and ultimately a new civilization based on spiritual foundations.

Baha'u'llah wrote: "All men have been called into being for the betterment of the world". [Baha'u'llah, Tabernacle of Unity, page 44] Therefore there must exist in the world the necessary natural and spiritual forces to enable each one of us to fulfill this goal of our lives.

This same concept is in fact explored in the first section of the first Book on Reflections on the Life of the Spirit where it quotes Baha'u'llah that "The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct", and then we explore the suggestion that there are so few good people in the world that their actions will have little impact. Most groups are able to come to the conclusion that every act, no matter how small will have an impact.

This notion is equally applicable to the efforts of any organization in civil society that is concerned with the social development of a community. If the correct spiritual forces are harnessed along their natural and proper direction even the smallest effort will be amplified and will have long lasting trans-formative effects.

The following 6 questions are suggested by the study of this 4th paragraph. You will be able to reflect on the answers by revisiting the original document here.

1.     What dictates how “the process of growth begins in a cluster”?

2.    When “a single homefront pioneer” arrives in a virgin cluster, what would be his/her first lines of action? What happens next?

3.    What are those activities that “serve as a stimulus to growth”?

4.    How can we know if it is best to multiply a given core activity, or to initiate new activities?

5.   What is meant by “cohesion” in this passage?

6.   What “marks the first of several milestones in a process of sustainable growth”?

Baha'u'llah wrote:

"To whatever place We may be banished, however great the tribulation We may suffer, they who are the people of God must, with fixed resolve and perfect confidence, keep their eyes directed towards the Day Spring of Glory, and be busied in whatever may be conducive to the betterment of the world and the education of its peoples." [Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, page 271]