Saturday, July 30, 2011

Social Action

As the Bahá’í community continues to focus on learning about the essential ingredients of building spiritual neighborhoods, new avenues for learning will open up.  Therefore a new element has now been introduced in this Five Year Plan, for 2011-2016, which did not exist in the previous Five Year Plan. This element is known as social action.

Of course successive Plans are not disconnected from each other. In fact we view all of the Plans as part of an organic whole. They are indeed successive stages of the same Plan conceived by Abdu’l-Baha in 1916 and 1917, and communicated by Him to the American and Canadian Baha’is in the Tablets of Divine Plan. These were the war years and postal services operated only in limited ways. One limitation was that letters written and enclosed in sealed envelopes would not be delivered. Therefore Abdu’l-Baha wrote some of these original tablets on the back of post cards. As they were being transmitted from Haifa across the land, sea, and a vast ocean, these precious messages were open and visible to anyone who wanted to read them. The same sense of openness and inclusivity permeates the current phase of these Plans.

If we use the analogy of the growth of a tree, we can say that at each stage a new leaf grows, a new branch off shoots, or a new fruit appears. The first fruit during 1996-2001 period was the appearance of the training institutes on a large and systematic basis throughout the Bahá’í world. The next five years saw the emergence of the concept of cluster, followed by the establishment of intensive programs of growth. And now we arrive at the stage when a new fruit is visible on this tree. This new fruit is social action at the level of the neighborhood and cluster.

We know precious little about this at this time, but already a few elements are beginning to be understood, as we collectively work and learn from action. In fact we know more about what it is not, than what it is. Social action is not acts of charity by the rich for the benefit of the poor. Social action is not a development project as is commonly understood and practiced by the development agencies. Social action is not the same as activism, and it has nothing to do with protest. Social action does not normally start as a large and complex enterprise. The methods and approaches used in social action cannot be mechanistic. And social action cannot separate the people into developed and underdeveloped, or into givers and receivers.

This list can go on still. Social action is not about financial grants, even though some funds may be involved. Social action is not about the provision of technology, packaged or otherwise, even though the application of knowledge has a central role in social action. And social action is not about participatory reaction to some proposed idea that is assumed to help the lot of a people. In particular those serving in a capital city of each country, say at the National Bahá’í Center, will not design a particular line of action, and then take this to the villages seeking to attract participation of the villagers.

One thing we do know. The training institute raises the capacity of the individuals of all ages. As they come to better appreciate the attributes of the soul, and its connection with its Creator, as they connect with the Word of God, as they develop their powers of expression, as they arise and serve as teachers, animators and tutors, they are bound to reflect on their own human condition. And as they engage in cycles of action and reflection, these souls with raised capacities and expanded consciousnesses are bound to commit that which will enhance their spiritual and material lot. This then, in all its simplicity, is social action.

Like all organic systems social action, once it is born in the matrix of the institute process in a neighborhood, it is bound to grow and develop. It will gradually acquire added elements. And one day it may indeed be a large and complex enterprise. Its rate of growth however is intimately bound by its coherence with all other activities, and a sense of community in that neighborhood.

As we study this paragraph 25 of the letter of 28 December 2010 the following questions may be helpful.
  1. What are a few of the characteristics of social action at the grass roots described in the Ridvan 2010 message?
  2. What are some of the conditions that social action at the grass roots level must meet, as described in the Ridvan 2010 message?
  3. What is the role of the Nineteen Day Feast for social action?
  4. What are some of the potential pitfalls for social action?
  5. What is the relationship of the institute process and social action?
Baha’u’llah wrote: "[I]s not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God’s universal Manifestations would be apparent." [Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p.241]

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