Friday, September 30, 2011

Qualified Authority

Our study of the Letter of 28 December 2010 from the Universal House of Justice has brought us to paragraph 30. There is so much that can be said about this paragraph, and so much that can be learned from its study.

It begins by reminding us that individual Baha’is do not seek to serve on the institutions of the Faith. Of course there is no campaigning in Bahá’í elections. No one is running for anything. In fact if the electorate senses that someone - who is never campaigning - nonetheless really wants to be elected, then this attitude and posture would often be interpreted to mean that he or she is not sufficiently detached from pomp or glory on this mortal plane. This is one sure way of not being considered for service on institutions. Also those whose duty is to appoint others to various tasks of service often keep this posture of genuine humility and detachment in mind before making any appointments. But all this does not mean that those who are called for service, for a period of time, are not invested with a singular honor. After all it is a duty, a responsibility, and a tremendous privilege to be a part of a “structure designed to be a channel through which the spirit of the Cause flows.”

The rank and file of the believers are called upon to engage in a set of activities, inspired by their study of the Word of God, that sets them on a path of learning about community building in their neighborhoods. This path includes participation in study circles, learning to engage in meaningful conversations, finding new friends based on shared understanding, and walking a path of service with them. Members of institutions are not exempt from these requirements. And they should not operate on the periphery of this learning process. Just because someone has been elected to an Assembly – Local or National – does not imply that they themselves do not need to be personally engaged in these core activities. And indeed the vast majority of such friends are intimately engaged in the process of implementation of the Plan.

When a person is not serving on one of the institutions, such a person has greater freedom in expressing their personal understanding, according to their own likes and dislikes. But when the same person is now elected to serve on a Spiritual Assembly it is natural that they would want to align their own thinking with and echo the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, lest inadvertently they steer “the community in whatever direction personal preferences dictate.”    

Bahá’í institutions are not without “authority to guide the friends”. But this authority is exercised with an overarching qualification. The whole notion of power and influence is conceptualized in a new light in Bahá’í Writings. Perhaps one way to explain this is by using the concept of service-leadership. Those who are in a position to lead the community, see themselves as serving the community, in an atmosphere of loving fellowship. This concept is so foreign to the current practices in the wider society that it may be difficult to appreciate it. Bahá’í institutions do “exert moral, spiritual and intellectual influence on the lives of individuals and communities”, but they do so within an “ethos of loving service” which “pervades Bahá’í institutional identity.” 

In the study of this paragraph the following questions are suggested:
  1.  What is the proper attitude of an individual towards service on institutions?
  2.  What are some of the qualities and characteristics that members of institutions must strive for?
  3.  Why the members of institutions cannot operate on the periphery of the learning process?
  4.  What is the spiritual significance of this form of exercise of authority?

We have no better example of servant-leader than Abd’u’l-Baha. He lived a life of utter sacrifice in service of humanity. And this month is the centenary of his visit to London. You can read about His journeys to the West here. And you can read the full text of his first public talk delivered in London here.

There is something very spiritual about proper attitudes towards service on institutions. Whereas the wider community may think of such membership as gaining access to a position of influence, in fact it calls for greater sacrifice of oneself. Sacrifice of ones own likes and dislikes, and sacrifice of ones own ideas and thoughts. Abd’u’l-Baha explains this sort of sacrifice by using the analogy of an iron placed in fire. He says: “when a lump of iron is cast into the forge, its ferrous qualities of blackness, coldness and solidity, which symbolize the attributes of the human world, are concealed and disappear, while the fire's distinctive qualities of redness, heat and fluidity, which symbolize the virtues of the Kingdom, become visibly apparent in it." 

And we are called not only to sacrifice ourselves, but also to rejoice in such a sacrifice. This then is the true quality for which all members of institutions strive.  “Ye must in this matter--that is, the serving of humankind--lay down your very lives, and as ye yield yourselves, rejoice.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

In the Context of an Organic Process

Bahá’í institutions operate at many levels. These include local, cluster, regional, national, continental and global. The development of these institutions takes place within the broader context of the process of growth. It is only natural that some of these institutions are more directly concerned with the elements of growth than others. For instance institutions operating at the level of the cluster are almost entirely concerned with processes of growth. While local or national Assemblies will naturally also have duties related to properties, funds, or protection concerns. But while the Assemblies certainly will need to acquire greater capacity to address a multitude of questions, it is equally important that they understand and relate to the processes of growth. We have previously observed that such familiarity cannot be merely at the theoretical level, but must include personal involvement of the Assembly members in the activities, reflections on activities and consultation and planning for cycles of development in neighborhoods.

Maybe we can use an example to illustrate the point. At this time I can only think of a somewhat artificial example, but I hope that my intention becomes clear.

Imagine that we have a few people who are trying to work together and grow some tomato plants. Let us imagine that tomatoes were highly valuable and their society would attach a great deal of importance, honor and respect for any one who could successfully grow tomatoes. Maybe this task was so important that the people in this village had conducted an election, and had elected these few people to be responsible for planting and growing these tomatoes. Now also imagine that these folks know nothing about seeds, nutrients, soil composition, watering, pruning or any other aspect of gardening. Such a lack of practical knowledge, or an absence of a conceptual framework, does not by itself inhibit these people, and they will proceed to formulate their ideas. Each one of these appointed or elected officials begins to make certain proposals and develops plans and schemes for doing their work. They also consult about their work to make collective decisions. But since they do not know very much about the principles of gardening, other factors begin to influence their thinking. Perhaps the social dynamics including competition, popularity, the distinctions among the members, the consideration of whose ideas should be followed, and a host of other questions related to the Old World Order concepts of power and influence become the dominant issues among them.

We can easily see that in the above scenario lack of knowledge about the dynamics of gardening has been combined with secondary and irrelevant considerations related to seeking ascendency over one another, and has completely obscured the real issues. Knowledge has been set aside, and completely overshadowed by biases, prejudices, and narrow-mindedness of the participants in the decision making process.

This condition can be resolved if one person arrives, who is familiar with the chemistry and organic nature of gardening, who has some skills of dealing with tomato plants, and who in a complete posture of humble service sets about to learn about the present conditions of the soil and the climate, and in a modest way begins to try to carry out the necessary tasks. Now knowledge about the natural forces which govern the organic growth of this little garden take precedence over all the interactions among the workers. The nature of the questions change from who should make decisions. The focus becomes the task at hand, and not the personalities involved. It is a high mark of the maturity of the institutions that they have now come to this level of understanding.

Paragraph 29 of the message of 28 December 2010 from the Universal House of Justice expresses the hope that the friends who serve on various institutions carry out their tasks in the context of the organic process of growth. This then represents a new stage in the development of these institutions. The focus moves away from the personalities and is focused on the process of growth.

The study of this paragraph suggests the following questions:

1.     What is the context within which institutions of community administration should develop?

2.     Why is growth referred to as an organic process?

3.     What are some of the privileges of those who serve in various institutional capacity?

4.     What are some of the boundaries implied by these privileges?
Abdu’l-Baha wrote “O ye loved ones of God! In this, the Bahá’í dispensation, God’s Cause is spirit unalloyed. His Cause belongeth not to the material world. It cometh neither for strife nor war, nor for acts of mischief or of shame; it is neither for quarrelling with other Faiths, nor for conflicts with the nations. Its only army is the love of God, its only joy the clear wine of His knowledge, its only battle the expounding of the Truth; its one crusade is against the insistent self, the evil promptings of the human heart. Its victory is to submit and yield, and to be selfless is its everlasting glory. In brief, it is spirit upon spirit.” [Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 257]

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Service on Institutions

Paragraph 28 of the letter of 28 December 2010 of the Universal House of Justice begins a new section dealing with service on Bahá’í institutions. Because of its importance, here is the full text of this paragraph.

“In setting out for you in these pages developments we are eager to see in the administrative work of the Faith during the next Five Year Plan, we are reminded of the repeated warnings raised by the Guardian in this regard.  "Let us take heed lest in our great concern for the perfection of the administrative machinery of the Cause," he stated, "we lose sight of the Divine Purpose for which it has been created."  The Baha'i administrative machinery, he reiterated again and again, "is to be regarded as a means, and not an end in itself".  It is intended, he made clear, "to serve a twofold purpose".  On the one hand, "it should aim at a steady and gradual expansion" of the Cause "along lines that are at once broad, sound and universal."  On the other, "it should ensure the internal consolidation of the work already achieved."  And he went on to explain:  "It should both provide the impulse whereby the dynamic forces latent in the Faith can unfold, crystallize, and shape the lives and conduct of men, and serve as a medium for the interchange of thought and the coordination of activities among the divers elements that constitute the Baha'i community."”

In many societies there is a tension between the individuals and social institutions. In particular institutions of governance in Western societies are seen as necessary evils for the maintenance of order. A libertarian argument goes something like this: legislative institutions, such the senate and the house of representatives, at state or federal levels, draw up and pass laws and regulations. These are enforced by executive institutions, including regulatory agencies, and coercive elements including the police, and correctional facilities. Year after year, as long as we have legislators, they will have to legislate. The total number and complexity of laws continues to increase. This will necessitate others to enforce these laws. Therefore even if the total size of the population remains stable, there is a tendency for the size of the government to grow. In an adversarial system the need for more and more lawyers then grows, unlike the number of educators or health providers.

This line of reasoning has lead many people to formulate a principle to reduce the size of the government, believing that governments are of little productive use and that they do not generate wealth. While these governments tax the working population and distribute wealth, and perhaps even bring a measure of social justice for the more unfortunate among us, they do not stimulate innovation or productivity. These are believed to come from what is termed market forces. But it is left to our imagination as what these forces are, if they are real or positive, and if society can be left at their mercy. While we can accept that many people do act in self-interested ways, and these actions will have aggregate effects, I want to suggest that it is misleading to believe in such “forces” as though they were some mystical or spiritual forces that exist and can influence social dynamics.

Institutions of governance exercise a certain authority and the people who operate in these institutions hold a certain power by virtue of the office that they occupy.  To reduce the abuse of power in the current society we have the ingenious arrangement of balance of powers. Such an arrangement is necessary in a society where there is little or no spiritual education about exercise of power.

The Bahá’í community is deliberately hoping to construct a different model. To begin with the Bahá’í electoral process is designed to promote the election of those members who are deemed to be least egotistical and most service-oriented in the eyes of the members of the Bahá’í community themselves. Then, once elected, there is great emphasis on the members viewing their service in a humble light. Service on the institutions is to be regarded as a means and not an end in itself. Therefore the whole discourse of power does not enter the conception of the duties and functions of the members of Assemblies.

If institutions are the means, then what are the ends? As we reflect on this question we note that there is a reference to “dynamic forces latent in the Faith”. These are mystical, and other-worldly, but very real and positive forces. These forces tap the roots of motivation. Such forces have been the driving energy behind many great accomplishments, both individually and collectively. What a contrast between these real forces, and the illusory forces of a self-centered market place!

In study of this paragraph the following questions come to mind:

  1. What does it mean to say that administration of community affairs is not to be regarded as an end in itself?
  2. The administration of community affairs should be regarded as a means to what ends?
  3.  Why such a warning might be necessary?
  4.  What are the twofold purposes of community administration?
  5.  What should be the impact of administrative machinery on the lives and conduct of the people?
  6.  What then are the salient differences between a rule-bound bureaucracy and a mature administrative machinery?

Baha'u'llah wrote: "Thy day of service is now come. Countless Tablets bear the testimony of the bounties vouchsafed unto thee... Thou must show forth that which will ensure the peace and the well-being of the miserable and the downtrodden. Gird up the loins of thine endeavour, that perchance thou mayest release the captive from his chains, and enable him to attain unto true liberty."