Bahá'í Community & Administrative System

Social Basis of World Unity

Sunday April 21, 1946


In this address by Miss Elsie Austin (a Bahá’í attorney and the first Black woman to be appointed assistant attorney general of Ohio) to the Bahá’í Centenary Program held on Thursday, May 25, 1944 in the Ballroom of the Hotel Stevens, in Chicago–and published in The Baha’i World Volume 10 (1944-1946)–she explained the need for the application of the Bahá’í tenets as a necessity for the regeneration of human hearts and characters as the first step to a needed social change.

By Elsie Austin

Today, people who seek to stress the spiritual basis of peace and justice among men, or who dare to accent the necessity for the regeneration of human hearts and characters as the first step to needed social change, are usually rebuffed by those who immediately cry out, “Oh, you must be practical and realistic.”

This is because so many folk think that the only practical approach to human problems is one which deals immediately with outward evidences of what is desirable. They do not see human needs beyond the specific projects devised for education and security. Outwardly these matters do represent the things which separate the “Haves” from the “Have Nots” in human society, and if you look at them in this light, they may seem to be the sole issues which have all along produced restlessness, division and strife among men.

However, any social program which is to operate for true world betterment must of necessity go beyond outward evidences, if it is to be really practical. The best plans for social cooperation and peace are always limited by the kind of human beings who must use and apply them. There is no more realistic force in the world today than the Bahá’í Faith. In its teachings and its social program there are profoundly realistic approaches to the· fundamental social changes which must be the basis of any real and lasting unity for mankind.

The Bahá’í Faith is first of all a Faith which harmonizes the inward incentives and outward procedures to unity. Outward procedures give the means for unity and inward incentives give the heart for unity. There is great difference between folk who have the means for unity and the folk who have the heart for unity.

Legislation and the interplay of conflicting social interests may furnish a kind of means for unity, and even a certain state of outward compliance. However, legislation and the pressures of expediency have never been able to get at the inward fears, jealousies, greeds and animosities of men. And it is these which furnish the vicious inner motives which can browbeat the intelligence of men and make mockery of outward social compliance. Nearly every day we see tragic instances of failure where social change depends upon means alone. Instances where people nullify and obstruct legislation, where they sabotage social effort or fail to produce and support the kind of courageous policies and action needed for the patterns and standards consistent with just and enlightened ideals. The means for unity is there, but legislation is killed or evaded; communities lose their moral integrity in compromise with policies of hatred and division, and people excuse themselves from honest upright action by saying, “Law is not the way to do this.” “The time is not ripe” or “This is the right policy, but we must work up to it gradually.” Now, all such people are really saying is, “I have not the heart to do this thing” or “The people whose opinion I fear have not the heart for forthright action about this, and I do not know how to reach them.”

The religion of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of The Bahá’í Faith, begins with that essential spiritual regeneration of the human being which creates a heart for brotherhood and impels action for the unity of mankind. Bahá’u’lláh has made it very plain that the test of Faith is its social force. Principle and social planning are useless until they are rendered dynamic by the stamina and will of men to enforce and apply spiritual ethics to human affairs.

The second great realism of the Bahá’í faith is that it provides new patterns for the application of spiritual principle to the social problems of humanity.

When Bahá’u’lláh first proclaimed some eighty years ago, “This is the hour of the coming together of all the races and nations and classes. This is the hour of unity among the sons of men,” the prophecy was a far fetched ideal to the world of jealous politics and cultural isolation which received it. But the unity of mankind today is no mere social ideal. Human strife has made it a social necessity.

It is not surprising then to see that human unity is an increasingly popular subject for liberal thought and action. Nor is it surprising that programs to foster unity are being launched on every hand. Yet so many of the bona fide efforts for unity are being fatally compromised because they must be launched through the established social patterns which preserve old disunities. Do people learn brotherhood and the spiritual attitudes and social cooperation which brotherhood involves by lectures or hesitant compromising ventures, which leave untouched and unchanged the separate education, separate worship, separate security, separate social planning which shape every phase of their community living—embittering separations made in terms of differences of race, creed, culture and nationality? Any social pattern which elaborately preserves and accents these outward differences and their resultant inward animosities must of necessity crucify the objective of social unity.

The Bahá’í Teachings not only destroy without equivocation the fallacies which have nourished social strife and disunity, but they provide new patterns of social living and development through which men learn brotherhood by performance.

And what realistic way is there, you may ask, to deal with the ancient bitter diversities of race, religion and culture? What can be done with the changing pressures of unstable economics and the conflicting education of the world’s peoples?

The Bahá’í Faith provides for the diversities of religion, that long needed center of reconciliation, which can produce harmonious understanding of its varying prophets and systems. Bahá’u’lláh has shown us in the Bahá’í Revelation that the great revealed religions of the world are like lamps which carry the pure light of Divine Truth providing social teaching and discipline for humanity. But as that lamp is borne by human hands, there are periods when conflicting interpretations of the Divine Word, dogmas and superstitions, alienate and divide men. Periods when the temptations of material power pervert religion into an instrument for the exploitation and suppression of human development. It is because of this that new lamps have always come and will always come. Each of the great lamps tests the social force of the others. In this men should find source for progress, not reason for strife. God in His mercy has provided in the Divine Faiths a continuous and successive renewal of Universal Spiritual Truth.

The Bahá’í learns the relation and ordered unfoldment of Truth in all Divine Religions. Thus Spiritual Faith is lifted above the period differences of its various names and systems. Is it unrealistic that in a world so in need of spiritual regeneration, Jews, Christians, Moslems and Believers of all Divine Faiths should be given that which will relate their spiritual purposes and development and thus enable them to travel harmoniously a wide free path to greater social demonstration and understanding of the Truth? Is this not a more effective way to create the heart for unity than the elaborate separations and the jealous fencing off of Religious paths? Today men so preserve and concentrate upon their symbolic differences that the common goal is lost in confusion and animosity.

There are really no diversities of race to those who truly accept the fact that all mankind is God’s creation. Yet the outward differences of color, physiognomy and culture have annoyed and divided us. When members of the human family meet each other who have striking differences in appearance and manners, they resort very naturally to reactions of fear, distaste and derision, which grow out of the human complex for conformity and the fear of strangeness. Unity of mankind is not only a basic principle in the Bahá’í Faith, but it is also the basis of a new social pattern in terms of which Bahá’ís worship, work, educate themselves and contribute their capacities to civilization. Living in a Bahá’í community is a matter of learning differences, appreciating them and achieving with them great loyalties to human welfare, which are above the narrow confinements of race, creed and class, color and temperament. The most practical knowledge in the world is the knowledge that the world can never become what so many people like to believe; a world in which we make other people look, act, and understand in terms of that with which we are familiar. That kind of world is neither possible nor desirable. What we really want is a world of harmonized differences, where a man can make his contribution with other men for the good of all mankind. This is the world of the Bahá’í Community, a community covering seventy-eight national backgrounds and thirty-one racial origins and Heaven knows how many temperaments and cultural backgrounds in this first one hundred years. A growing Community which operates with every possible human difference to take into consideration, yet its members through practicing and perfecting their practice of the Bahá’í Teachings, have achieved a unity of objectives through which entirely new social patterns, standards and virtues are being evolved.

People do not like to mention religion and economics in the same breath. The problem is that of the economically disinherited who in bitter restless upsurge change periodically the pressures and controls of this world’s unstable economics. It is practical to talk of trade policies, of commerce regulations and spheres of influence, now. However, the world must soon face the fact that economic instability and the bitter struggle and suffering which go on because of it, have a question of human motives, human development, behind them. Motives behind the failure to use opportunity, or the use of it to selfishly acquire and control wealth, goods, and services, constitute the real factors causing the unhealthy inequalities, the exploitation and suppression in human society. Bahá’u’lláh stressed the need of a spiritual basis as the first step in the development of stable world economics. The extremes of poverty and vast wealth are not only matters of material opportunity and education, they are also matters of greed and slothfulness in human characters.

Material education and spiritual enlightenment must be applied to bring the kind of economic adjustments which will make possible responsible efforts for all people and insure a just distribution of wealth, goods and services for all people.

Until then, we are all, regardless of our skins, creeds and countries, caught economically between the evil extremes which are produced by the Jeeter Lesters and those masters of selfish financial genius, who, like a cancerous growth, feed upon and weaken the earth’s human and material resources.

Nothing but the wholesome regeneration of human hearts and establishment of new social objectives for the efforts and acquisitions of men, will in the final analysis remedy these ills.

The great realisms of the Bahá’í Faith lie in its new spiritual teachings and in the new social patterns which they provide for needed development of mankind; a development which will turn men from the beliefs and superstitions which are destructive to human solidarity and create in them the heart to initiate and perfect new standards, new morals and new undertakings for a great new era of civilization.

These achievements are possible when man is afforded that perfect combination of Human and Spiritual Unity. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the great expounder of the Bahá’í Teachings, has described it in these words:

Human Unity or solidarity may be likened to the body, whereas unity from the breaths of the Holy Spirit is the spirit animating the body. This is a perfect unity. It creates such a condition in mankind that each one will make sacrifices for the other and the utmost desire will be to forfeit life and all that pertains to it in behalf of another’s good. It is the unity which through the influence of the Divine Spirit is permeating the Bahá’ís, so that each offers his life for the other and strives with all sincerity to attain His good pleasure. This is the unity that caused twenty thousand people in Írán to give their lives in love and devotion to it. It made the Báb the target of a thousand arrows and caused Bahá’u’lláh to suffer exile and imprisonment for forty years. This unity is the very spirit of the body of the world.