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.”

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