Friends, this talk is a hike at a fast pace. You need to put on your mental walking shoes, or if you walk barefoot, take off your shoes, because we're going through five hundred years of the history of southern Uganda and three hundred years of European history, twice. Our goal is to understand social structures, so we can understand how to change them.
I want to suggest to you that the Bahá'í Revelation views social structures as embodiments of thought, which are built up, slowly over time. Self-interested, turning-away-from-God thought gradually creates social structures which hold people in oppressive patterns of action. Injustice is not inherent in societies it is not automatically there, like bad weather. People create injustice through intensely selfish, extremely powerful thought that shapes human action and human institutions. It builds up, layer by layer, and people live inside of it and consider it to be natural. We are liberated from oppressive social structures by thought that comes from God: human beings responding to the Will of God gradually create social structures which purify human actions and empower people. Justice grows out of human beings acting on thought that comes from God, systematically, over time.
If we look at this carefully, we will see aspects of the Bahá'í Revelation that we do not always pay attention to. Human agency comes into focus. This is useful for us, to understand what we ourselves are doing as Bahá'ís, and it helps us to make our explanations of the Faith more meaningful and more concrete to our listeners. So, I want you to pay attention to human agency the consequences of the actions that people take appearing in the logic of the Faith, in what I am saying.
Thinking about thought and social structures brings into focus the consequences of blind imitation. It illuminates why Bahá'u'lláh associates seeing with our own eyes with Justice. So, pay attention, as we go, to when people imitate, and how unthinking imitation can hold us back from actions that embody justice.
The power of thought to shape social structures is the theme of The Secret of Divine Civilization. Abdu'l Bahá writes of "thought" as not only conscious thought, but also, people's motivations and intentions, their will. Shoghi Effendi, through his secretary, explains the process through which thought shapes society:
"We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."1
We act on the world, and it acts on us. Abdu'l Bahá's statement regarding the origin of national boundaries and racial distinctions is a really clear example. He said "These boundary lines and artificial barriers have been created by despots and conquerors who sought to attain dominion over mankind, thereby engendering patriotic feeling and rousing selfish devotion to merely local standards of government." He went on to describe how rulers lived in luxury, forcing soldiers and peasants shed their innocent blood for a delusion. Despots and conquerors assert a thought like national boundaries that benefits them. Then, because people are organic with the world, the boundary which the despot created seems ordinary, people accept it as natural. But the origin of tremendously powerful social structures, like national boundaries or racial distinctions, is the selfish motives of those who sought to attain dominion over mankind.
The consequence of this interchange of people affecting the world, and being affected by it, can be unthinking imitation of the past. Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l Bahá both clearly indicate that self-interest, the desire to maintain control over followers, motivates leaders to promote a blind imitation of the past.2
Abdu'l Bahá describes this as encrustation: "the dogmas and blind imitations which have gradually encrusted it [religion] and which are the cause of the decline and effacement of a nation."3
Encrustation implies layering and hardening: each layer of selfish thought makes an oppressive reality more substantial. Since clay is often an image for the desires of the self in the Bahá'í writings, we can think of layer upon layer of the clay of human desires shaping the societies in which we live.
The Word of God enables human beings to break through the accumulated weight of oppressive social structures. Bahá'u'lláh explains,
is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformtion int he 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."4
Religion transforms the whole character of mankind:
Justice is in this day bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped its peoples. Through the movement of Our Pen of glory We have, at the bidding of the omnipotent Ordainer, breathed a new life into every human frame, and instilled into every word fresh potency... Wherefore fear ye, O My well-beloved ones? Who is it that can dismay you? A touch of moisture sufficeth to dissolve the hardened clay out of which this perverse generation is molded."5
The creative energy of God's will for humanity takes shape in new institutions. Hooper Dunbar's work, "The Forces of Light and Darkness" is a brilliant exposition of this theme, and I am deeply indebted to it. We find this concept all over the Revelation. One of the places is Shoghi Effendi explaining that the House of Worship is not just a place for prayer, it is a place for prayer and for action in the world, because attraction, and spiritual fervor are not enough; intelligent application and faithful execution of Bahá'u'lláh's laws are also necessary to remove the ills that afflict humanity.6
Shoghi Effendi identified this age, the Formative Age as the time when the creative energies released by Bahá'u'lláh into the world are crystallizing into institutions.
In the writings of the Bab as well as of Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l Bahá, crystal is an image of purity. In geological terms, crystal forms when extremely strong pressure forces molecules to line up in extremely regular patterns. Social structures which have the qualities of crystal would have all the selfish motivation and self-assertion squeezed out of them. When we think about the institutions Bahá'u'lláh has established, we can see they have that effect.
These are the elements of a Bahá'í understanding that thought shapes structures. This is a historical process. Social structures develop gradually through deliberate human actions. Oppressive structures are the result of generations of self-interest, building on top of each other through imitation of the past. Overcoming oppression involves seeing with our own eyes, and requires structural change. Structures that facilitate justice are the result of deliberate, continuous effort to implement the will of God. We have to see the role of human action in creating social structures; if we don't, we naturalize oppression, and obscure people's responsibility for justice.
Let's turn now to the question of accretions of self-interest which shape political realities. Let's imagine a Ugandan, coming up from the bus park in Kampala, to some downtown office. This office worker is impeccably dressed, his clothes are freshly ironed, his shoes are polished, he is thinking, on the way to work, about the capacity of human beings to create well-being in the world. To what degree can he act on this conviction in Uganda in the present?
This person participates in Uganda's unusual form of local government the local council, which is a nine person body elected from among all the people in a village or section of a town. It is responsible for settling local disputes, initiating activities for community well-being, and some administration. Every person in the local district is supposed to participate in regular meetings and make their contribution to the well-being of the community, and this institution gives Ugandans a potentially powerful tool to create well-being.
But people in Uganda are worried about good government. When the fifteen years of civil war ended, Ugandans hoped to create a government without corruption, but people feel they have not gotten it. "Eating" means taking the benefits of state office for one's self, and a prominent Ugandan parliamentarian, Winnie Byanyima, observed a few years ago:
"Sections of the press and some politicians have made "eating" acceptable and have placed it right at the centre of political debate. Struggling for the trappings of power is now at the centre stage, it has become acceptable and even fashionable. This eating is crude, self-centered, egoistic, shallow, narrow and ignorant. .... we must do away with if we are to start a new nation."7
Sectarianism, which in Uganda means sharp political divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and between Northerners and Southerners, is also a concern. Again, Winnie Byanyima, "what I observe is that ethnicity is being used to provide platforms from which the amenities of modernity can be competed for." She said it was playing "a perverse role" in political development, and that "we politicians are sometimes promoting [it] for narrow self-interest."8
The current burning question in Uganda is, should Uganda have a multi-party political system? Political parties are allowed to exist, but, in theory, any candidate for political office stands (that would be running in the US, but it is standing in Uganda) as an individual. Critics of "no-party" democracy, including virtually all of Uganda's donors, say it doesn't allow coalitions to form to agitate for their particular interests, and it allows a small inner circle in the national government to hold onto too much power. Competition among political parties would protect the nation from corruption. The government says no political parties cause people to think of narrow interest instead of the well-being of the whole society, and politicians in political parties can be as corrupt or more corrupt than leaders in a no-party system. This debate is paralyzing the country.
If we look at the history of political practices in Uganda, we can see that layers and layers of the assertion of self-interest, and instances when blind imitation of the past created the constraints that people now face.
One of these moments happened in the early eighteenth century. Buganda, a kingdom in southern Uganda, fought a war with a neighboring kingdom. The king tried to incorporated several thousand captive people as his personal clients at home, and the next few kings did the same thing, which caused a civil war, because the chiefs and people of Buganda did not want the king to have territories of captive followers. As a result of these wars, chiefship became much more rigid and hierarchical than it had ever been before. This new, rigid kind of chiefship was a result of the kings' actions, but people think it was always that way. The kings' selfishness became part of the structure of the society.
Another moment: for about twenty years, until some time after 1910, Ganda chiefs interacted with British officers as their equals many of these chiefs were Protestants, they invited the British officers to prayers, Bible study, and tea. The British government required colonies and protectorates to be financially self-sufficient, so Ganda paid taxes and performed forced labor to provide salaries and services for colonial officers. This work, especially the forced labor, impoverished people because they did not have time to work on their own crops or their own homes. Chiefs had to stop doing what chiefs were supposed to do in Uganda which was taking care of their people because they had to make people do forced labor or lose their jobs. Chiefship became coercive. A fundamentally selfish way of thinking that rulers needed comfortable, somewhat ostentatious lifestyles, whatever the cost to the people they were ruling became the pattern for African rulers who took over from the colonials. The "eating" that Winne Byanyima was talking about is the assumption that rulers need comfortable, somewhat ostentatious lifestyles, whatever the cost to the people who are ruled. Pre-colonial chiefs showed their power through redistribution, giving feasts. Colonial officers, and post-colonial rulers, show their power by having fabulous wealth in comparison with the people they rule. It is an asertion of self, and also, blind imitation that benefits some at the expense of others.
One more example. One of the premises of good government in Uganda in the pre-colonial period was that decisions should emerge from consensus, and long, long, discussions about every issue were part of governing. The British introduced Westminster style parliamentary practice, which enabled one faction of Ganda chiefs to completely dominate the parliament, which could never have happened before. In 1927, a diverse group of Ganda thinkers brought a case against these dominating chiefs. Their complaint, basically, was that Ganda government had been better before the British came, and if the British really wanted progress for the country, they would allow a return to Ganda practices. They said the collaborating chiefs had
upset everything and as the results of that mistake caused the present ill feeling which exists among our people as a whole, shattering also our country from its former foundation and destroying all our good customs of helping and loving each other, thus putting us under a form of Government which we cannot understand. We feel as if we were under the hybrid customs.9
They were right. Premises of Ganda government which really were about loving and helping each other, about drawing people into a group and convincing them to stay there, had been undermined.
Our Ugandan person, well-dressed, headed for work, cannot use his full human capacity to be a responsible, engaged citizen because of a long heritage of selfish thought and blind imitation. The way people remember chiefship, as hierarchical, is a residue of selfish thought. Political corruption is both self-aggrandizing and imitating a colonial model. Political divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Uganda was blind imitation. It was patronizing and prejudiced blind imitation to adopt a Westminster parliamentary system instead of considering what institutional heritage Ugandans had for good government. The pressure on Uganda to abandon its innovative, no-party system for European or US style party politics is an arrogant attempt to get Uganda to imitate. This is the hardened clay out of which this generation is molded, and it is very, very hard.
What would dissolve this hardened clay? Throughout Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu'l Bahá urges people in power to have pure motives and selfless intentions. Think about the consequences for Uganda of that kind of thought. The hardened clay would dissolve if Uganda's public figures could act on behalf of all the people, not only of the people who had voted or would vote for them. The hardened clay would dissolve if public figures could be content with modest remuneration, and not seek to benefit from their positions. If Ugandans, and donors, could see their own well-being in the well-being of the whole and focus resources on the least developed regions of the country, that would remove the source of sectarian tension. If donor agencies could let go of their need to control, and their arrogant sense that their own plans are the best, and provide long-term support to fund infrastructure, that would help to dissolve the hardened clay.
Uganda, like other African states, is imprisoned in social structures which are encrustations of selfishness. Some of the oppressive structures come from the period of European imperialism, but others are older, a consequence of actions of Africans. The unquestioned assumption that what people do in Europe is the best way to do everything is a huge burden in the present. But even people who live inside these structures can create alternatives, and act on them, crystallizing the power Bahá'u'lláh released into the world.
Let's turn now from politics to economics, and from Uganda, home to North America. We can rest for a moment on our social theory hike, and look out at the view. We see Mount Antonio Gramsci, and Mount Michel Foucault, Mount Piere Bourdyuh. Since we're about to think about capitalism, is Mount Max Weber is very close by. But we don't have time to admire those views, for that, you can read the footnotes.
So, let's imagine a person who is driving to work in North America. Her clothes are not actually ironed, but she took them out of the dryer at just the right moment, so they aren't wrinkled and they look fine. Not ironed, but fine. This person, on the way to work, is thinking about nobility, and dignity, and the capacity of human beings to create well-being in the world.
She cannot see the ways that her productive capacity is limited and confined by layer over layer of selfish thought. It seems natural and inevitable that her work is all about making profit for her company, and her enthusiasm and energy are reserved for her home, her recreation, and her social life. It does not seem unjust or perverse to her that she slots her efforts to be of service to humanity, and to grow as a spiritual being, into her spare time, after work. It is not a problem to her that she and her immediate family are entirely reliant on each other for their emotional, and social and physical needs. She does not feel oppressed by the constant stream of messages that tell her what to buy and when, and why. In fact, as she's driving to work, meditating on nobility, she passes the mall, and begins to make a list of things she needs to buy this weekend, because there is a big sale going on right now. She may not know it, but she is a victim of the creation of capitalism.
In order to understand the oppressive dimensions of a capitalist economy, it is essential to keep in mind the distinction which is made in the Bahá'í revelation between the new technological capacities which emerged in the 19th century, and what humanity has done with those capacities. Bahá'u'lláh very clearly identifies the discovery of those capacities with His Revelation, he says, "such ... material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His Knowledge"10
. We have the technological capacity to create such vast surpluses of material goods that material things have become virtually limitless. These skills and practices have great, great capacity to create human well-being. However, Bahá'u'lláh also condemns how those capacities have been used, saying that excessive civilization would be a source of evil and that His faith would be necessary to purge the "deeply-rooted and overwhelming corruptions" of "the civilization of the West" which "hath agitated and alarmed the peoples of the world."11
From our perspective, it may not seem all that alarming. We may not be agitated. We may wonder whether it is really excessive yet, or if the excess would be come at some future stage. So it is useful to know Shoghi Effendi's very precise explanation of the evil that is his word the evil consequence of the capitalist system. This is
"the crass materialism, which lays excessive and ever-increasing emphasis on material well-being, forgetful of those things of the spirit on which alone a sure and stable foundation can be laid for human society."12
There are two parts to this: the ever-increasing emphasis on material well-being, but also, that emphasis is forgetful of those things of the spirit which are the only stable and sure foundation for society. To understand the consequences of capitalism, therefore, we have to look for what has been forgotten about the things of the spirit which are the only stable and sure foundation for society.
A few pages later he gives a checklist of the qualities of the people who live in a nation engulfed by materialism. We know we are living in a nation engulfed by materialism when:
our spiritual faculties are paralyzed by apathy and lethargy
our outlook is darkened by animosities and prejudices
our time is filled by pleasures and dissipations
our minds are distracted by fears and anxieties
our souls are enshrouded by attachment to worldly things.13
I want us to try to think together about how this perverse, diminished condition for humanity came into being. The habit of leaving out human agency makes people think of modernity as inevitable. Bad things happened, but look at the good things that came out of it. I want us to consider that humanity could have had the good parts of industrialization and economic intensification without the bad parts. I want to suggest that the structures of industrial capitalism, which we take for granted, which appear to be natural just like the boundaries of nation-states, are the creation of people who, like despots and conquerors, sought to attain dominion over mankind.
A transformation in how people used natural resources in Northern Europe is a crucial part of the beginning of capitalism. Patterns of land use that involved many different people using the same land in complex ways, changed into a pattern of land use in which one person was the owner and sole controller of that land. One example from Scotland: the Duchess of Sutherland claimed ownership of 800,000 acres, evicted 15,000 people by burning their homes and villages and destroying their crops, and replaced them with 131,000 sheep. The people who succeeded in enclosing land depriving anyone else of rights to use it got very much richer, and the people who lost their rights to sustenance got very, very much poorer, and entirely lost their capacity to control their productive lives. We have to understand enclosure as an assertion of self-interest. Its structural consequences have been profound. These regions never regained their capacity create prosperity for large numbers of people, and it could be argued that the extremes of wealth and poverty that enclosure created have endured, it various manifestations, up to the present.
Loss of common lands and rural communities, as well as the push into wage labor, eroded social networks and habits of cooperation. When most people lost their access to any productive resources except their own labor, and wealth became more concentrated, relationships between people which had in the past had social and economic dimensions became solely economic. This is called commodification: it means that aspects of life which had many kinds of value such as people's ability to work came to have only a monetary value. When groups of people work in turns on each other's fields, and worked together on common fields that work had productive value, but it also had social value, in the community relationships it maintained. In the writing of economic theorists, the commodification of social relations was represented as progress: without the social obligations of communities, people had the opportunity to make individual choices, and then they choose to make a profit, and that causes economic growth. I don't think that is progress though, I think cooperation in a community is one of those things of the spirit which is the stable foundation for a society.
The way we industrialized and the ways cities grew in order to accommodate workers intensified the destruction of social networks and the transition to an insistently individualistic organization of society. We could have done it differently. Suddenly, in the mid-nineteenth century, people had to figure out how to use the technological capacity of new kinds of engines and new kinds of tools. We had to create a new pattern of working to use these new technological capacity. We could have created industrial production with a sharing of profits between workers and owners, so that a new kind of production wove a more solid social fabric, instead of ripping it apart. We could have created working conditions for the new workers that allowed them to maintain relationships of mutual support, and forms of community solidarity, instead of grinding cooperative social practices into nothing. The technology would have worked just as well that way. Instead, we created forms of industrial production in which all the profits went to owners and workers were barely able to stay alive as they worked. This was an assertion of self-interest. Subsequent generations have imitated it in its essentials, even though we've ameliorated the extremes. The consequences are our apparently rigid extremes of wealth and poverty, our acceptance that work does not have to be meaningful, and our love affair with individualism.
There is a strong intellectual current in our culture that says the assertion of individual choice over community obligation was the best thing that ever happened to humanity. It isn't that bald, but it is there. It is true, we do have a lot of choices. We can choose our work. We can choose our friends. We can choose to put ourselves first. In the United States, we can choose our health care provider. We can't choose to be part of a community where everyone takes care of everyone else, though, because that takes a real community, with active, productive relationships. Which we don't have any more. The point is, our commitment to a deluded, destructive, pernicious individualism has a history. And that history is of self-interest, of some people seeking dominion over others.
As people confronted the technological capacities of industrial production, they had another problem to solve. How can the production of goods continue to be profitable when so much has been produced that no one needs any more? If everyone has clothing, how can the textile mill that produces cloth keep operating? The solution to this problem was to convince people that meeting their needs was not enough. That they would be better people, happier, freer, and more alive, if they bought more things. Part of the history of the past hundred years is our increasing commitment to this manipulation of our reality. As Abdu'l Bahá said "material forces have attacked mankind."14
We could have technology without economies built on constantly increasing rates of consumption. But we don't. Our measure of the success of economies is how they are growing. Everything about the productive systems we live in, from the measure of GNP to the advertising we see every day, to the way that we live on the landscape, asks us to think of ourselves as bundles of needs that can be met through purchases. This is pernicious and destructive. It enshrouds our deadened souls. The organization of the laws, structures, and habits of our economy, its forms of information and its built environment, all perpetuate this delusion, this fabrication. It is a form of self-interest and imitation which has benefits for a few. This is the hardened, hardened clay out which this perverse generation is molded.
The power of thought that comes from God enables us to free ourselves, to create alternative structures of production that evoke and transmit the Will of God. Unlike other critiques of capitalism, the Bahá'í perspective endorses wealth. "Wealth is most commedable, provided the entire population is wealthy".15
But how could that possibly happen? Part of our blind imitation of the past is to believe that economic prosperity and material well-being require that some people will be out of work and poor. We know this is not so. Abdu'l Bahá provides very clear guidance on the appropriate characteristics of economic structures in society. For example, he says "The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit."16
This is not easy for us to understand, because we are submerged in materialism, so that our perception is distorted. But if we lay it out systematically, we can get it. All economic activity, all of the things people do which involve production of things and exchange of things and adding value to things, create social relationships. The social consequences of economic activity can be positive or negative, but they are never neutral. A farmer who grows food with the intention of sustaining people creates positive social relationships. A trader who buys goods with a concern of the needs of the producers for a just price creates positive social relationships. A trader who squeezes producers and deceives consumers creates negative social relationships. A factory owner who takes all the profit and leaves the workers with bare subsistence creates negative social relationships. But, that same factory could be a source of positive social relationships if the owner provided for the workers adequately and shared profits with them.
Although the habits of thought which are part of capitalism tell us that economic activity can be good even when its social consequences are negative, I think that a more valid perception, one that pays attention to those things of the spirit which are the only foundation for a stable society, would be that economic activity is only productive when it has positive social consequences. Abdu'l Bahá consistently observed that the material civilization of the West, the fruit of capitalism, was not productive. "Material civilization alone is not sufficient and will not prove productive."17
He wrote to the Committee for a Durable Peace, "Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. Divine civilization is the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit, otherwise it becomes a corpse."18
In order to breathe life into the dead body of material civilization, all our productive activity has to be characterized by love. We can act with love as participants in a local economy, building sustaining relationships with businesses that give life to our communities. We can act with love as consumers, making sure that the firms we endorse with our purchases act responsibly in their relationship with producers. We can act with love as producers and workers. We can act with love in creating meaningful bonds of support among people in our neighborhoods and towns, because economic vitality develops where links among people are strong. We can act with love by using our wealth to create the means of well-being for others. I think this is what Abdu'l Bahá means when he says "Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity." 19
We manifest true economics by making sure that any economic interaction has positive consequences for every party involved in it.
People sometimes portray a Bahá'í economy as the same as the capitalism we have, but with the rich giving more to the poor. I think the implications of Abdu'l Bahá's statements are much more profound than that. I think a deliberate and systematic insistence on interactions characterized by love, severance, and generosity would transform economic structures. A deliberate, systematic insistence on interactions characterized by love, severance, and generosity would change the way human beings think about ourselves, because attention to love in our productive lives would make us aware that happiness does not come from owning things or satisfying desires, but from serving others. It would change the structure of wealth inside the nation, inside cities, and around the world, because the impulse towards generosity on the part of those who have more than they need would facilitate the creation of prosperity where it does not now exist. The elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty would create stability, and lead to a reduction in disease. A deliberate and systematic insistence on economic interactions characterized by love, severance and generosity would restructure the geographical organization of economic activity, because productive units that build positive social relationships would probably happen more fundamentally inside regions, rather than on a global scale. It would require a change in the structure of ownership, because stockholders would not be content to receive profits from companies that might be treating workers badly, and would demand more knowledge. Industrial processes would change, with a goal of drawing in the intelligence and creative capacity of workers, instead of seeking to replace workers with machines. We would have to redefine the measure of economic success, because people seeking to show love, severance, and generosity might decide that efficiency is an empty goal. It might lead us to producing less, of higher quality.
I think it is appropriate for us to think this way, to envision the consequences of actions we might take. I think this is what Bahá'u'lláh intends for us to do, when he says "The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye."20
He has given us the capacity.
Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped its peoples. Through the movement of Our Pen of glory We have, at the bidding of the omnipotent Ordainer, breathed a new life into every human frame, and instilled into every word a fresh potency. ....
Wherefore fear ye, O My well-beloved ones? Who is it that can dismay you? A touch of moisture sufficeth to dissolve the hardened clay out of which this perverse generation is molded. The mere act of your gathering together is enough to scatter the forces of these vain and worthless people....21
We need to be confident in the society-building power our faith possesses. We can do this. We are all already engaged in the systematic dismantling of materialism when we offer Huquq'u'llah.
Now it is time for another short break on our social theory hike. We can have a little snack, and since we've been talking about economics characterized by love, we'll have imaginary fair trade chocolate and imaginary fruit which we bought at a farmer's market.
So, we turn to our third example of clay structures and crystal structures, which has to do with intellectual structures, the house of ideas that we inhabit. Now, we're talking about us. In here. We know whether or not we ironed our clothes. How are we constrained by oppressive structures of thought in our aspiration to be useful to Bahá'u'lláh, particularly in a service like Bahá'í studies?
It may be useful at this moment to invite social theory out of the footnotes and consider Antonio Gramsci's characterization of intellectuals. According to Gramsci, intellectual activity does not just happen inside institutions of higher education. And often, the most important thinking does not happen in universities. Gramsci said people who are working in the world, who perceive how the world could be different, and educate people to make those changes, are organic intellectuals. Bus drivers and physical therapists and junior high school teachers are as capable of changing the world with their ideas as professors. Probably more so, actually. What Gramsci was talking about is the capacity that Bahá'u'lláh gives every person to understand reality and to serve humanity. So as we think about how we interact with oppressive structures of thought, I want to make sure that we think about all kinds of people, all kinds of engagement with structures of ideas. Different strategies, the same power.
We inhabit an intellectual world that has a strictly enforced functional atheism. One obvious manifestation of this is Enlightenment darkness, the conceptual framework created in the early eighteenth century by European intellectuals who prioritized human reason and knowledge derived from the senses over religious knowledge. God out of the center, human beings into the center, rational useful thought begins and ends with human beings. The result is almost rock solid, impermeable structures that say rigorous intellectual thought is materialistic thought.
A more subtle manifestation of functional atheism is the practice of religion as something people do, in churches and temples, as a distinct compartment of their reality. Abdu'l Bahá calls this materialism:
"Consider to what a remarkable extent the spirituality of people has been overcome by materialism so that spiritual susceptibility seems to have vanished, divine civilization become decadent, and guidance and knowledge of God no longer remain. All are submerged in the sea of materialism. Although some attend churches and temples of worship and devotion...it is evident they have not found reality and are not engaged in its adoration."22
The darkness of functional atheism that covers the world does not necessarily mean that people don't believe in God, it means that people do not recognize or utilize the power of God to illuminate and transform every aspect of reality. That we do not understand this is the essence of oppression. Bahá'u'lláh says there is no greater oppression than to be blocked from perceiving reality. He says that although the fingers of divine power have unlocked the portals of the knowledge of God the leaders of people, who busy themselves with selfish calculation, maintain that the door of knowledge is closed. He says "voracious beasts have gathered and preyed upon the carrion of the souls of men."23
The powerful religious leaders of Iran, who told people, no, it is not true, Bahá'u'lláh is not a Messenger from God, maintained that the door of knowledge was closed, They were voracious beasts, preying on the carrion of the souls of men. Political leaders who focus attention on themselves as the only hope for the people of their country are doing the same thing, assuring people, through blind imitation, that the door of knowledge is closed. They are voracious beasts. The leaders of thought, who, through blind imitation, insist that humanity's future is the same as its past, hold the door of knowledge closed. Advertisers who tell people they are their bodies, or they are their purchases, are acting in self-interest, they are voracious beasts, preying on the carrion of the souls of men. "What oppression is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?"24
We are oppressed, because we do not know reality. "For the helpless masses know nothing of the world, and while there is no doubt that they seek and long for their own happiness, yet ignorance like a heavy veil shuts them away from it."25
I think it is critical that we recognize the influence that the dark structures of materialism have on our own thought and our own action.
If we are have been educated in a Western tradition, we have been indoctrinated to believe that productive, useful, worthy intellectual activity is centered on human experience. That religion ought to be compartmentalized. We have been rewarded for thinking about the world in materialistic terms.
The dark structures of functional atheism may structure our thought, even our thought about God. For example, I can read Bahá'u'lláh's words "The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it?26
, and I appreciate them, they are very beautiful. But can I comprehend them? Can I fathom what ungodliness is, and can I understand what human society would be if it were cleansed and revived? And if I can think that thought, can I communicate it?
This seems perilous to me. If I do not make an effort to break out of the hardened clay of dark thought, and truly comprehend Bahá'u'lláh's words, then I am still oppressed. If I curtail my explanation of His words, to conform to my hearer's need to stay in a dark mode of thought, then I am perpetuating the oppression of that person.
When we speak about the Faith as a religion in the way that people are used to thinking about religion, we want them to listen to us. If we say things that are too challenging, perhaps they may stop listening. But who is there that can dismay us? But other people's responsiveness is not our problem.
Functional atheism can creep into our statements about the Faith when we leave out human agency. For example, when we say "Bahá'ís believe in the equality of the sexes," there is no causality in that statement. There is no human action. We need to say "We believe in the equality of the sexes, and we are confident that our love of God and our devotion to justice will enable us to overcome oppressive habits of thought and action, and allow us to create new and equitable patterns for our personal lives and the life of society." The Bahá'í Faith is not a set of beliefs, it is a divine energy, a will, that gets realized in human action. This is beautifully clear in Hooper Dunbar's Forces of Light and Darkness. We also need to avoid truncated statements, where we offer a beautiful vision, but cut off what Bahá'u'lláh says about the power of true religion to realize that vision. For example, we often quote "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens" without the preceding sentences, which state humanity's obligation to promote the best interests of the kindreds of the earth.27
We often quote " Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch" but almost never include Bahá'u'lláh's wish, expressed in the next sentence, "We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny."28
What human beings are supposed to do is an essential part of Bahá'u'lláh's statements. The world becomes one country through human beings' actions to serve the entire human race. It is human beings' obligation to respond to Bahá'u'lláh's hope and eliminate tyranny that will demonstrate we are the leaves of one branch. If we speak about the Faith without Bahá'u'lláh statements about human actions, we are conforming to a functional atheism which keeps religion in a separate sphere, as if it belongs just to God and not to us.
Wanting people to listen to us is not the only reason that our statements about the Faith get limited to ones that make sense inside the boundaries of materialistic thought. If I spoke about the power of God in history as a professor of history at a small New England liberal arts college, I would be fired. Or if I had tenure, I would be completely marginalized. It is against the rules of my discipline to perceive God acting in historical processes. I can be seen to "have" a religion, but I have to keep the religion I "have" like a possession in a box. My need to keep my job keep me may motivate me to avoid even thinking in a way that would threaten it.
How can we fulfill Bahá'u'lláh's request that we see with our own eyes, if the intellectual boundaries that we inhabit demand that we think like functional atheist? The kinds of work we do will lead to different strategies, but these ideas may be useful for some people. First, I think we have to educate ourselves about what religion really is, using the images and explanations which are part of the Revelation. Then we can speak about it, and explain it, so people understand that the religion we are trying to implement in the world is not the religion they think is a bad thing. The Promise of World Peace is an excellent model of speaking about religion in a way that also defines religion in Bahá'u'lláh's terms. Next, I think we have to challenge intellectual structures which embody materialism. What are the consequences of marginalizing God in modern thought? What are the consequences of imagining that competition is the motive power in society? Again, we can see this in the Peace Statement. Finally, we need to carefully and deliberately put the logic of the power of God in the world into the way we think about our work. How does faith change the premises of the mental health profession? How does faith change the work of an educator? How does it change environmental activism? Inserting the reality of God into the world we work in is just one step. We have to pay attention to the hardened clay of oppressive thought that is manifested in our work environments. How do the assumptions of our work embody a belief in the primacy of individuals over groups? Does our work conform to the delusion that human beings are bundles of unmet needs that can be satisfied through consumption? Where do we see blind imitation, and what could we do about it? My experience is that if we take the first step, and really educate ourselves about the nature and power of religion, the other two are not as difficult as they might seem. And our reward for this effort is liberation, insight, and communion with our Lord.
O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart, how it behooveth thee to be. Verily, justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes."29
- Shoghi Effendi through his Secretary, quoted in Universal House of Justice, Research Department, Statement on Conservation of Earth's Resources .
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, 26-7; Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, page 157, SWAB, page 259 of 1997 ed, para 202.3; pp. 265-265 new, no. 205; SDC 56-57, 103-4.
- AB, PUP, 363.
- Kitab-i_Iqan, 240-1.
- Bahá'u'lláh, GL 92-95
- SE, BA 185-6.
- Winnie Byanyima, quoted in Aili Mari Tripp, Women and Politics in Uganda, (University of Wisconsin Press: 2000, p. 1.
- Byanyima, quoted in Tripp, p. 124.
- Appeal to Kabaka Daudi Chwa by the "Buganda National Federation of Butaka," February 1922, Land Holding Question, 17-25. paragraph 3.
- TB 39-40.
- TB 69.
- SE, Citadel of Faith, 124.
- SE Citadel of Faith 149.
- AB PUP 12.
- AB, SDC 24.
- AB, PUP, 238-9. It is interesting to consider how Shoghi Effendi's description of the evil consequences of capitalism echo this statement.. That is "the crass materialism" which is "forgetful of those things of the spirit on which alone a sure and stable foundation can be laid for human society."
- AB PUP 166.
- AB, SWAB 1997 ed, p. 317, #227.22.
- B, PUP, 238-9.
- Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, 157.
- Bahá'u'lláh, GL 92-95
- AB PUP 221.
- Kitab-i-Iqan, 29-31.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Iqan, 31.
- AB, SDC 11.
- Gleanings, page 200.
- TB, 167.
- TB, 164.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Persian Hidden Words, #2.