By Emily Lample & Richard Thomas

Emily Lample served on the Learning Desk of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States from 2013 to 2020. Richard Thomas is Professor Emeritus of History at Michigan State University. He is author and coauthor of several books on race relations, the African American experience, and the Baha’i Faith.

The quarter century between 1996 and 2021 was a period of mounting racial contention in the United States. Marked by increased police killings of unarmed African Americans, race riots, burning of Black churches in the Deep South, the rise and spread of white supremacy movements, and wide-spread racial polarization, it resembled some of the worst racial strife of the 1960s. Not even the historic election of the first Black president, which many hoped would usher in a post-racial society, could turn the tide.1Cheryl W. Thompson, “Final police shooting of unarmed black people reveals troubling patterns,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 25 January 2021. “Unrest in Virginia: Clashes over a show of white nationalism in Charlottesville turn deadly,” Time, https://sites.goggle/a/ “Read the full transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2017.

During that period, the American Bahá’í community’s longstanding dedication to racial harmony and justice continued to be expressed in numerous initiatives undertaken by individuals and organizations. These initiatives unfolded amidst a period of profound advancement across the Bahá’í world. In 1996, the worldwide Bahá’í community entered a new stage in its development, propelled by a series of global Plans that successively guided “individuals, institutions and communities” to build the capacity to “[translate] Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings into action.”2Universal House of Justice. Riḍván 2021 message. Available at In turn, this progress made the possibilities for social transformation more and more visible to those laboring in the field of service and had implications for the efforts of Bahá’ís to combat racial prejudice and injustice.

In July 2020, for the first time in more than 30 years, the House of Justice addressed the American Bahá’í community, as it had done during other periods of racial turmoil in the United States:

A moment of historic portent has arrived for your nation as the conscience of its citizenry has stirred, creating possibilities for marked social change. … you are seizing opportunities—whether those thrust upon you by current circumstances or those derived from your systematic labors in the wider society—to play your part, however humble, in the effort to remedy the ills of your nation. We ardently pray that the American people will grasp the possibilities of this moment to create a consequential reform of the social order that will free it from the pernicious effects of racial prejudice and will hasten the attainment of a just, diverse, and united society that can increasingly manifest the oneness of the human family.”3Universal House of Justice. Letter to the Baha’is of the United States dated 22 July 2020. Available at

In the letter, the House of Justice pointed out the difficult path ahead amidst inevitable setbacks, saying: “Sadly, however, your nation’s history reveals that any significant progress toward racial equality has invariably been met by countervailing processes, overt or covert, that served to undermine the advances achieved and to reconstitute the forces of oppression by other means.” The “concepts and approaches for social transformation developed in the current series of Plans,” explained the House of Justice, could be “utilized to promote race unity in the context of community building, social action, and involvement in the discourses of society.”4Universal House of Justice, United States, 22 July 2020. Available at at

The sections below review developments in the US Bahá’í community during the period between 1996 and 2021, exploring their implications for the community’s response to racial injustice and the pursuit of racial unity.

1996 – 2006: Building capacity through focus on a single aim

For the Bahá’í world, the Four Year Plan (1996 – 2000), the first in the series of global Plans spanning the quarter century, marked a “turning point of epochal magnitude.”5Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 153. Available at The Plan assisted the Bahá’í community to mature in its understanding of transformation—both internally and in the world at large.

First clumsily and then with increasing ability, more and more Bahá’ís from diverse national communities learned to take action within a common framework. While it took more than a decade for new patterns of thought and action to take root across the US, the systematic approach called for by the House of Justice came to be appreciated as a vital facet of the American community’s efforts to combat deeply entrenched social ills, especially racism.

In parallel to the processes unfolding in the Bahá’í world, the 1990s and early 2000s saw Bahá’ís in the US continue to participate in a range of race-related activities in the wider society, often taking part in, and sometimes leading, initiatives in support of racial harmony. For example, many local Bahá’í communities participated in annual celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In June 1965, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States sent a telegram to Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, supporting the historic march on Montgomery: “YOUR MORAL LEADERSHIP HUMAN RIGHTS IN SOUTH PRAISEWORTHY HISTORY MAKING FREEDOM IN UNITED STATES. SENDING REPRESENTATION MONTGOMERY AFFIRM YOUR CRY FOR UNITY OF AMERICANS AND ALL MANKIND.”6Baha’i News (June 1965): 13. This relationship between the annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations and the Bahá’í race unity work has continued through the years. In 2002, the Bahá’í community of Houston was asked to lead and close their local parade, which attracted some 300,000 people to the parade route and was partially broadcast on four national television networks.7“Year in Review,” The Baha’i World, 2001 – 2002 (Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 2003), 84. Similarly, a number of Bahá’í communities participated in interfaith services responding to the burning of Black and multiracial churches.8“Year in Review,” 2001 – 2002, 76.

At the same time, Bahá’ís were initiating their own efforts to promote racial harmony and justice in light of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Detroit, Michigan appointed a task force with a mandate to promote racial unity, which for seven years (ending in 2000) promoted and conducted an annual Models of Racial Unity Conference involving Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í speakers from a range of diverse professional, racial, ethnic and religious community groups and associations.9Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 282-289.

In 1998, the US National Spiritual Assembly launched a national campaign to raise awareness of issues related to race unity in the country. The campaign included a television program called The Power of Race Unity, which aired on several national broadcast stations, as well as many local and regional channels, and a document penned by the National Assembly entitled Race Unity: The Most Challenging Issues, which was mailed to several thousand homes. It was estimated that 80 percent of local Bahá’í communities in the country hosted activities in support of the campaign, ranging from private viewings of the video to workshops and public discussions about racial unity.10Year In Review,” The Baha’i World, 1998 – 1999 (Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 2000), 91-92.

The opening of the Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, on 8 February 2003,11Nancy Branham Songer, “A Beacon of Unity: The Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum, Charleston, South Carolina,” World Order, 36, No. 1 (2004), 45. was among the most special developments of the period. The museum honored a dedicated champion who personified the American Bahá’í community’s long and unyielding commitment to racial unity and justice. According to one source, this was the “first Bahá’í museum in the world.” It honored “both a descendant of a black slave and a white plantation owner” in a city “through whose port an untold number of Africans passed into slavery and whose citizens witnessed the shots that came to symbolize the beginning of the Civil War.”12Songer, “A Beacon of Unity,” 45. It was hailed by one speaker at the dedication as a “beacon of unity” for the world.13Songer, “A Beacon of Unity,” 45.

Additionally, this decade saw ongoing efforts to tend to the hearts of, and build capacity among, African Americans within the Bahá’í community, especially African-American men, long subject to injustice in the form of harmful stereotypes, police brutality, staggering community violence, and mass incarceration. Many of these Bahá’ís did not find within the dynamics of their Bahá’í communities the patterns of worship, praise, and mutual support for which they longed. In many cases, their participation faded until they were invited back by the warmth of a series of gatherings known as the Black Men’s Gathering.14Frederick Landry, Harvey McMurray, and Richard W. Thomas, The Story of the Baha’i Black Men’s Gathering: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years, 1987 – 2011 (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 2011).

Between 1987 and 2011, the Black Men’s Gathering was dedicated to “soothing hearts” of black Bahá’í men who “had sustained slow-healing wounds” and “cultivating capacity for participation in a world-embracing mission.”15Universal House of Justice. Letter to the participants of the Black Men’s Gathering dated 28 August 2011. From the growing numbers of African-American men involved in the process arose melodies of praise and worship resonant with the African-American tradition, and gatherings led to travels to share the message of the Faith throughout many countries in Africa and the Caribbean. In July 1996, for example, more than one hundred Black Bahá’í men from the US, the Caribbean, Canada, and Africa attended the Tenth Annual Black Men’s Gathering in Hemingway, South Carolina, at the Louis Gregory Institute. In response to the call of the Universal House of Justice to “be a unique source of encouragement and inspiration to their African brothers and sisters who are now poised on the threshold of great advances for the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh,”16Universal House of Justice. Riḍván 153 message to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in North America: Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Available at forty-five of the participants “pledged to visit Africa over the following three years to share Bahá’u’lláh’s message with the people there.17“Year in Review,” The Baha’i World, 1996 – 1997 (Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 1998), 58.

In 2004, the editors of a national Bahá’í publication, World Order magazine, published a special issue with the following introduction: “We found that the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision of the United State Supreme Court that started the judicial desegregation of U.S. schools, afforded an opportunity to look at the matter from a number of perspectives.” The issue included articles examining the historic decision from the contexts of law, the teaching of history, and psychology, among others, written by Bahá’ís from diverse professional fields, racial and cultural backgrounds, and experience in promoting racial unity.”18 “Year in Review,” 1996 – 1997, 58.

These highly meritorious efforts carried forward the American Bahá’í community’s legacy of dedicated service to the cause of race unity, yet the community had a considerable distance to go in making the shift called for by the House of Justice to an approach focused on systematic processes that would build capacity in individuals and groups, and eventually in whole populations, to contribute to the kind of transformation that could ultimately dismantle the disease of racism.

In the country’s history, every time racism appeared to have been dealt a major blow—with the end of slavery, or the end of legal segregation, for example—it managed to rear up in a new form. It has proven itself deeply entrenched in American society. For this reason, notwithstanding the many activities that Bahá’ís had undertaken to address racial concerns, and their obvious merits and achievements, the ultimate results of such efforts had often been limited in their effect. As the Universal House of Justice noted, such efforts have often been characterized by “a cyclical pattern, with fits and starts,” presented with fanfare while failing to elicit universal participation.19Universal House of Justice. “Achieving Race Unity and Advancing the Process of Entry by Troops” (extracts from letters to individual believers in the United States), dated 10 April 2011. Activities, often accompanied by great enthusiasm and energy, would reach a peak and then, after a period of time, lose momentum and atrophy. For this reason, developing the capacity for collective, systematic action needed to receive a greater share of the attention of the American community. The groundwork for such an advance was more firmly laid in the next decade.

2006 – 2016: Unlocking the “society-building powers of the Faith”

During the second decade, through two consecutive Five Year Plans, the Universal House of Justice guided the worldwide Bahá’í community to explore how Bahá’í teachings can be applied at the grassroots to give rise to a new kind of community. As the House of Justice itself described in 2013:

Bahá’ís across the globe, in the most unassuming settings, are striving to establish a pattern of activity and the corresponding administrative structures that embody the principle of the oneness of humankind and the convictions underpinning it, only a few of which are mentioned here as a means of illustration: that the rational soul has no gender, race, ethnicity or class, a fact that renders intolerable all forms of prejudice … that the root cause of prejudice is ignorance, which can be erased through educational processes that make knowledge accessible to the entire human race, ensuring it does not become the property of a privileged few. Translating ideals such as these into reality, effecting a transformation at the level of the individual and laying the foundations of suitable social structures, is no small task, to be sure. Yet the Bahá’í community is dedicated to the long-term process of learning that this task entails, an enterprise in which increasing numbers from all walks of life, from every human group, are invited to take part.20Universal House of Justice. Message to the Baha ’is of Iran dated 2 March 2013. Available at

Much of the development witnessed during these years had long-term implications for the American Bahá’í community’s approach to racial justice and unity. This section will focus on two developments in particular. First, significant progress was made in learning to channel the energies of youth toward social progress. Second, the Bahá’í community, for which the betterment of society is a primary aim, evolved in its approach to, and understanding of, social transformation. As experience accumulated, the community also came to understand better the relationship between its own growth and development and its participation in the life of society at large.

Youth at the Vanguard

Regarding the first development, in December 2005, the House of Justice drew attention to the latent potential of young people ages 12 to 15, referring to them as “junior youth” and noting that they “represent a vast reservoir of energy and talent that can be devoted to the advancement of spiritual and material civilization.”21Universal House of Justice. Message to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated  27 December 2005. Available at The junior youth spiritual empowerment program began to take off in diverse settings around the world and showed great promise in preparing adolescents to contribute to social change. At an age when intellectual, spiritual, and physical powers rapidly develop, junior youth in the program were assisted to explore the social conditions around them, to analyze the constructive and destructive forces operating in their lives, and to develop the tools needed to combat negative social forces such as materialism, prejudice, and self-centeredness.22Universal House of Justice. Riḍván 2010 message. Available at

In the US, the junior youth spiritual empowerment program was established in neighborhoods representing a range of racial and ethnic diversity—some on indigenous lands, some in primarily Latino areas, others in predominantly African-American locations, and some in the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, comprising immigrants from all parts of the world. Through the program, young people in each of these contexts developed the capabilities necessary to contribute to the betterment of their communities. In an unjust social system that has tended to exclude racial and ethnic minorities from the American promises of equity and economic opportunity, in which forces of materialism distract those not benefitting from the system with harmful vices and mindless consumerism, the junior youth program, little by little, planted the seeds of possibility for change.

Central to the program is an educational curriculum that enhances participants’ intellectual capacities, helps build moral structure, and cultivates spiritual qualities and perception. The texts of the program seek to address the root causes of prejudice. For example, the text Glimmerings of Hope presents the story of a junior youth whose parents are killed in civil strife between two different ethnic groups. In the stories that follow, he learns that, even in the face of very painful and difficult circumstances, people have choices to make; they can opt for hope and love or let themselves fall prey to forces of hatred and division. In Observation and Insight, as a young girl learns to observe her physical environment and the social conditions of her village, she comes to question the prejudice in her community and is helped to think about ways to combat prejudice, both within herself and in the world around her.

As the junior youth program began to advance in the US, it also highlighted the distinctive role that youth play, not only in nurturing those younger than them, but in all facets of community life. The spiritual empowerment of the population between ages 15 and 30 became a central focus of this period. As more and more youth engaged in the sequence of courses offered by training institutes, they were assisted to apply what they learned in the context of community transformation. Foundational to the efforts was the concept of a “twofold moral purpose,” that is, “to attend to one’s own spiritual and intellectual growth and to contribute to the transformation of society.”23Reflections on the Life of the Spirit (Ruhi Institute, 2020), v. In 2013, the Universal House of Justice called for a series of worldwide youth conferences. In the US, approximately 5,800 young people of varied backgrounds, including roughly 2,000 youth of indigenous, Asian, African-American, and Latino heritages, attended.24“114 youth conferences, July – October 2013,” Baha’i Community News Service. 25“2013 Youth Conference Statistics.” Internal report dated 8 August 2013.

Contributing to Social Transformation

Regarding the second process, the work unfolding at the grassroots in numerous societies naturally drew members of the Bahá’í community into closer contact with diverse populations—comprising individuals, families, and organizations with whom they worked side by side—on city blocks in major urban centers and in neighborhoods, villages, and towns.

A new pattern emerged. Whereas many Bahá’ís were accustomed to bringing people one by one into their existing faith community—which has its own culture, habits, and ways of doing things—Bahá’í communities were now learning to take the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to whole populations, creating the possibility for such populations to investigate the Bahá’í teachings and apply them for the progress of their own people. To approach the masses of humanity in such a manner required a substantial shift in orientation for many in the Bahá’í community.

The Universal House of Justice on numerous occasions helped the Bahá’í world expand its vision and clarify its sense of mission, cautioning the community not to close in on itself or to separate itself from the world at large:

A small community, whose members are united by their shared beliefs, characterized by their high ideals, proficient in managing their affairs and tending to their needs, and perhaps engaged in several humanitarian projects—a community such as this, prospering but at a comfortable distance from the reality experienced by the masses of humanity, can never hope to serve as a pattern for restructuring the whole of society. That the worldwide Bahá’í community has managed to avert the dangers of complacency is a source of abiding joy to us. Indeed, the community has well in hand its expansion and consolidation. Yet, to administer the affairs of teeming numbers in villages and cities around the globe—to raise aloft the standard of Bahá’u’lláh’s World Order for all to see—is still a distant goal.26Universal House of Justice. Message to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors. 28 December 2010. Available at

During this period, American Bahá’ís established the basic elements of Bahá’í community-building activities in an increasing number of localities across the country. Those communities experienced, to varying degrees, the multiplication of devotional meetings open to all inhabitants, spiritual education classes for children, groups seeking to empower adolescents and older youth, and courses designed to develop the capacity of individuals to become active contributors to the betterment of the world around them. Critically, Bahá’ís learned to open these activities to the wider society. As they did so, some Bahá’ís whose backgrounds had afforded them relative freedom from exposure to prevalent injustices became cognizant of the reality faced by many of their fellows, with whom they were working for meaningful change.

Efforts in a predominantly African-American community, for instance, led to a tight fellowship between a growing number of residents and two Iranian-American Bahá’ís who had moved into the neighborhood. Members of the community came together weekly to pray and speak with one another about their lives, their struggles, and their aspirations for their children and grandchildren. A growing number of residents also studied courses of the training institute and offered classes for the spiritual education of children. Out of the rhythm of action and reflection that characterized these activities, there also emerged efforts to address local needs, with residents themselves taking the lead. The person responsible for cooking for children’s classes, for example, had faced challenges finding dignified employment. As he engaged in the progress of the community, he was inspired to prepare homecooked meals as a small business—an enterprise that was greatly valued in a locality with no grocery store nearby. Similarly, conversations in the community led to the formation of an organization dedicated to providing affordable eyeglasses to neighbors; at the writing of this article, more than 90 pairs of glasses had been distributed through this effort.27“Lessons Learned from Expansion within a Narrow Compass”. Internal report prepared by an Auxiliary Board member. The united and spiritually uplifted community forged through such activities offered a stark contrast to negative portrayals of the neighborhood in the media. Though nascent, this and many other examples demonstrate the deep wells of capacity, creativity, and desire for progress that exist in the masses of the country, the potentialities of which can be released when individuals and populations become spiritually empowered.

With such promising efforts underway, the Universal House of Justice helped members of the US Bahá’í community see the implications of what was being learned through efforts to combat the effects of racism. A letter written on its behalf to an individual believer in 2011 explained:

Only if the efforts to eradicate the bane of prejudice are coherent with the full range of the community’s affairs, only if they arise naturally within the systematic pattern of expansion, community building, and involvement with society, will the American believers expand their capacity, year after year and decade after decade, to make their mark on their community and society and contribute to the high aim set for the Bahá’ís by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to eliminate racial prejudice from the face of the earth.28Universal House of Justice. Letter to an individual believer dated 10 April 2011.

That same year, as those organizing the Black Men’s Gathering considered next steps, the Universal House of Justice offered encouragement to extend their efforts to many others in their local communities, drawing upon what was being learned in expansion and consolidation. A letter on its behalf explained that “the time has now come for the friends who have benefited from the Gathering to raise their sights to new horizons” and encouraged participants to “Let the well-prepared army you have assembled advance from its secure fortress to conquer the hearts of your fellow citizens,” for what was needed was “concerted, persistent, sacrificial action, cycle after cycle, in cluster after cluster, by an ever-swelling number of consecrated individuals.”29Universal House of Justice. Letter to the participants of the Black Men’s Gathering dated 28 August 2011. The same ethos of loving support, the spiritual devotion, and the dedication to service that had characterized the activities of the Black Men’s Gathering for over two decades could be extended locally to bring more people into the circle of unity drawn by Bahá’u’lláh—including neighbors, co-workers, families, and friends. Toward this lofty objective, participants of the Gathering could find in the methods and approaches of the Plan being strengthened during this period the tools necessary to address the challenges of racism in the country. As was explained in the same letter:

The experience of the last five years and the recent guidance of the House of Justice should make it evident that in the instruments of the Plan you now have within your grasp everything that is necessary to raise up a new people and eliminate racial prejudice as a force within your society, though the path ahead remains long and arduous. The institute process is the primary vehicle by which you can transform and empower your people, indeed all the peoples of your nation.30Universal House of Justice, Black Men’s Gathering, 28 August 2011.

In 1938, in Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi noted that the US Bahá’í community was too small in number and too limited in influence to produce “any marked effect on the great masses of their countrymen,” but that as the believers intensified efforts to remove their own deficiencies, they would be better equipped for “the time when they will be called upon to eradicate in their turn such evil tendencies from the lives and hearts of the entire body of their fellow-citizens.”31Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice. Available at During the ten-year period between 2006 and 2016, the number of people, particularly young people, drawing insight from the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh with the aim of effecting the transformation of society grew, as did their capacity to begin contributing to profound social change. The national Bahá’í community had laid the groundwork for new possibilities to address racial injustice and pursue racial harmony—possibilities that began to manifest in the final five years of this twenty-five-year period.

2016 – 2021: Envisioning the movement of populations

The beginning of the most recent Five-Year Plan (2016 – 2021) coincided with an upsurge in racial turmoil in the US. Heart-wrenching incidents of racism continued to make national news during these years, including the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy in Florida, by a Hispanic-American private citizen in 2012, and of Michael Brown, an unarmed young African-American man with his hands in the air, by police in Missouri in 2014.32 “The Killing of an Unarmed Teen: What we need to know about Brown’s Death.” NBC News. Available at’s-death. On 17 June 2015, the country was shocked by the horrific mass shooting of nine African Americans in Charlestown, South Carolina, during Bible study at one of the oldest African-American churches in the South, by a 21-year-old self-identified white supremacist.33“This Day in History: Charleston Church Shooting.” 17 June 2015.

As the country geared up for a new presidential election in 2016, voices of racism on the national stage became more overt. In his farewell speech in January 2017, President Obama acknowledged the harsh reality of racism that still plagued the country. “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”34“Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2017. That same year, groups of white supremacists and neo-Nazis held a Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they fought with anti-racism counter-protesters. Dozens were injured and one person was killed when a man drove into the anti-racism protesters.35“Unrest in Virginia,” Time.

Racially motivated acts of terror continued alongside entrenched social and economic injustice. In 2020, the Washington Post reported, “The black-white economic divide is as wide as it was in 1968.” And in January 2021, a National Public Radio investigation found that, since 2015, police officers had fatally shot at least 135 unarmed black men and women nationwide; in at least three-quarters of these shootings, the officers were white.36Thompson, “Final police shooting,” 25 January 2021.

Meanwhile, in those settings where developments had gone the furthest, the American Bahá’í community could see new models of community life emerging and glimpses of transformation at the grassroots. These lessons offered hope for genuine advancement in the community’s pursuit of race unity at the local and national levels.

Most notable, of course, were advances at the grassroots, where, in certain neighborhoods and city blocks, substantial numbers of local inhabitants became engaged in Bahá’í activities. Youth, in particular, took their place at the forefront of service, engendering hope and energy in their communities. Though nascent and modest in their scope, such experiences multiplied across the country, representing the first stirrings of the spiritual empowerment of populations.37Universal House of Justice. Message. 29 December 2015. Available at

A neighborhood surrounding a historically Black university in the Carolinas became home to exactly such a movement. In the US, it was legal to deny access to higher education solely on the basis of skin color as recently as the 1950s. Colleges and universities like this one, founded within that context to serve African-American populations, hold special significance. In 2016, what started as a small group of friends comprising Bahá’ís and their neighbors extended in five short years to embrace scores of youth, junior youth, and families. Cohorts of African-American university students, some the first in their families to attend college, spearheaded the emergence of dynamic community life that addressed both the spiritual and intellectual needs of children, youth, and adults. African-American and Latino junior youth groups formed and were increasingly empowered to undertake service projects that sought to address the needs of their community. Noticing that many children were assessed as having low levels of literacy, for example, the junior youth created a small lending library, wrote their own simple stories for the children, and set a regular time each week to read to them. At the same time, their families became active participants in community life. The parents of the junior youth in the program, for instance, brought neighbors together in community gatherings in which they could share a meal and discuss what they would like to see on their block. Devotional gatherings multiplied, and neighbors gathered together to pray, reflect, and share experiences, questions, and concerns. As participation grew and activities multiplied, social action initiatives emerged. Among them was a vaccination clinic.38“Lessons from the Grassroots: Fostering Nuclei of Transformative Change.” Panel at the National Symposium on Racial Justice and Social Change, hosted by the US Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs. 18 – 20 May 2021. The dynamic being experienced generated not only hope but also the first stirrings of the release of the potential of a population. Similar patterns were emerging, to varying degrees, in region after region in the United States.

While experience at the grassroots took root in a growing number of communities, the US National Spiritual Assembly initiated various actions to galvanize the entire national community to play its part in the advancement of racial justice and unity. These lines of action were, in part, laid out in a series of letters to the US Bahá’í community, calling attention to the “pivotal juncture in our nation’s history” during which Bahá’ís would be called to intensify their efforts to eliminate prejudice and injustice from society. The National Assembly drew the attention of the American Bahá’ís to their “twofold mission,” which is “to develop within our own community a pattern of life that increasingly reflects the spirit of the Baha’i teachings” and “to engage with others in a deliberate and collaborative effort to eradicate the ills afflicting our nation.” In pursuing this mission, the Bahá’ís had inherited “a priceless legacy of service spanning more than a century, originally set in motion by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself,” as well as “the framework of action given to us in the current Five Year Plan.” The more that the latter is understood, the Assembly asserted, “the better we can appreciate that it is precisely suited to the needs of the times.”39National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. Letter to the American Bahá’í community dated 25 February 2017. Bahá’ís were directed to deepen their “understanding of the forces at work in our society and the nature of our response as Bahá’ís—especially as outlined in the current set of Plans.” In their search “for answers and for a way forward,” the American people “are daily treated to a cacophony of competing voices” resting on “faulty foundations” and are longing for some “credible source” to which they can turn “for insight and hope.”40National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. Letter to the American Bahá’í community dated 31 January 2018. In response, the Bahá’í community was guided to engage with “specific populations mentioned numerous times by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice for the unique and vital contribution they will make to the creation of the new social order envisaged” in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.41National Spiritual Assembly to American Bahá’í community, 31 January 2018.

The National Spiritual Assembly also pursued ways, within the offices of its National Center, to give further attention to questions of racial justice and race unity in the context of already occurring work. Permanent and seasonal schools made race relations one of their central issues of study and discussion for several years. The Assembly’s Social Action Desk—which focuses on the emergence of social action in communities across the country—directed its attention to efforts at the grassroots that were addressing aspects of racial injustice. Furthermore, a national media project collected and told stories of community life characterized by building across racial and cultural divides through the pursuit of the aims of the Five Year Plan.42

In the nation’s capital, the US Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs allocated an increasing number of staff to participation in the national discourse on race through attendance at numerous conferences, workshops, and roundtables.  Bahá’í representatives met with leading thinkers and organizations working to eradicate racism. In its contributions to the complex and polarizing discourse, the Office sought ways to offer novel perspectives based on the Bahá’í teachings, seeking insights into questions relating, for example, to the perceived tension between the pursuit of unity and the pursuit of justice and to the relationship between means and ends as they relate to social change. Its contributions included the opening of new forums that fostered genuine consultation and common understanding among diverse individuals and organizations.

In May 2021, the Office brought together prominent national voices and social actors in the race discourse for a three-day symposium, Advancing Together: Forging a Path Toward a Just, Inclusive and Unified Society.43 Held exactly 100 years after the first race amity conference called for by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the event reflected the growing collaboration of the Bahá’í community with likeminded individuals and groups working to overcome racial disparities and promote justice.

Finally, as tensions heated up in the country in the summer of 2020, the National Spiritual Assembly issued a public statement addressing the current realities of race that ran in the Chicago Tribune and several newspapers across the country. It began:

“The Bahá’ís of the United States join our fellow-citizens in heartfelt grief at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others whose lives were suddenly taken by appalling acts of violence. These heartbreaking violations against fellow human beings due only to the color of their skin, have deepened the dismay caused by a pandemic whose consequences to the health and livelihood of people of color have been disproportionately severe.”44“Forging a path to Racial Justice: A message from the Baha’is of the United States, June 19, 2020.”

As the Bahá’í community’s efforts to contribute to racial unity were advancing with newfound capacity at the grassroots and national levels, the Baha’i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland was breaking new ground in the examination of race in the academic sphere.  As “an endowed academic program that advances interdisciplinary examination and discourse on global peace,”45 the Bahá’í Chair, held by Dr. Hoda Mahmoudi, focused on “Structural Racism and the Root Causes of Prejudice” as one of the central themes of its work. Among its initiatives was the creation of a dynamic, ongoing space where experts and scholars from many disciplines—including Public Health, Sociology, History, Communications, Psychology, Technology, Government and Politics, and the Arts—brought ground breaking research from their diverse fields into a collective effort to better understand the impact of race and racial discrimination on society in pursuit of a more peaceful and equitable future.46Individuals such as Dr. Aldon Morris, Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt have offered systematic, nuanced studies of how racial discrimination infects discourse while also providing solutions for how racial discrimination can end. Also, collaboration with Dr. Rayshawn Ray, a University of Maryland professor, Brookings Institution Fellow, and a Bahá’í Chair Board Member since 2018, has been particularly instrumental in shaping dialogues organized by the Chair. Applying Baha’i ideals concerning human dignity, human achievement, and human excellence, the Chair introduced into discussions on race and racial discrimination a spiritual perspective, highlighting humanity’s shared destiny. By 2021, the work initiated by the Chair nearly a decade before had garnered substantial support and high regard in the field. Dr. Mahmoudi and her colleague at the University of Maryland, Dr. Rashawn Ray, had, by 2021, initiated an ambitious project to bring together the perspectives of some of academia’s most well-respected and thought-provoking social scientists to analyze racism in America in a volume entitled, Systemic Racism in America: Sociological Theory, Education Inequality, and Social Change. Edited by Drs. Mahmoudi and Ray, the volume is scheduled to be published by Routledge Publishing later this year.

This period also witnessed countless initiatives undertaken by individuals and groups of Bahá’ís. One such initiative was the work of the Bahá’í-inspired organization, National Center for Race Amity (NCRA). Established in 2010 at Wheelock College in Massachusetts, the NCRA attracted experts on issues of racial discrimination and promoters of racial amity to its annual Race Amity Conferences and Race Amity Observations/Festivals not only in Boston but in more than a hundred other localities.  By the second half of the decade, its efforts gave rise to a number of noteworthy outcomes. In 2015, for example, the Massachusetts Legislature had established an annual Race Amity Day, to be celebrated on the second Sunday of June. The following year, similar efforts by the NCRA resulted in Senate Resolution 491 passed on 10 June 2016, “Designating June 12, 2016, as a national day of racial amity and reconciliation.”47“Background for the Establishment of Race Amity Day.” And in 2018 the NCRA produced the film An American Story: Race Amity and The Other Tradition. As one of a number of individual initiatives across the US, the NCRA had an example of the continuity of the American Baha’i community’s century-long response to racial injustice and the pursuit of racial unity.

As the period of 2016 to 2021 came to a close, the American Bahá’í community could see that its learning through the series of global Plans enhanced its efforts to contribute to the cause of racial justice at different levels of society.

 Conclusion: Forging a Path to Racial Justice

The identity and mission of the American Bahá’í community, fundamentally shaped by the hand of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is intertwined with the nation’s struggle to transcend the crippling legacy of racism and its current manifestations. At each stage of its development, the Bahá’í community’s long-term commitment to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh for the betterment of the world and to dismantle the insidious social ill of racism has required the development of new capacities.

Over the past quarter century, as American Bahá’ís continued to work for race unity in numerous ways, the entire Bahá’í world was set on a new path of learning about its own growth and development and its efforts to contribute to social transformation. The Bahá’í community in the United States, by the end of the period, had advanced its collective efforts to contribute to racial justice and unity at all levels of society. It had made strides in learning to build a new dynamic of community life at the grassroots—a dynamic in which individuals, families, and, in some instances, segments of a population became empowered to take ownership of the transformation of their own communities. While many of the developments described are modest and nascent, they hold promise for the long-cherished hope that the American Bahá’ís will play an increasing share in efforts to eradicate the blight of racism from their society.

By Gustavo Correa

In neighborhoods and villages around the world, tens, hundreds, and in some places, thousands of people, inspired by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, are engaged in activities that aim to “build community.” In their efforts, we can already see signs of the emergence of new patterns of collective life: a village coming together regularly at the hour of dawn to summon divine assistance before the day’s work; a group of people combining skills and knowledge to carry out a reforestation project; neighbors consulting on ways to establish classes for the spiritual education of their children; a population beginning to shed age-old prejudices and build new patterns of interaction based on justice and unity; young adults, in rural and urban settings, initiating small-scale agricultural projects to support their communities—examples like these and many more are springing up from every continent and multiplying.

The current global crisis has raised awareness about the importance of human solidarity and collective action. Within this context, it seems timely to ask ourselves: What is the place of community in our modern world and what is the kind of community towards which we aspire?

The image that is evoked by the word community can be quite different from one person to the next. Some think of a community simply as those who live in the same geographic area, regardless of whether its members interact; others use the word to refer to a collection of people who share common interests or are motivated by the pursuit of a common goal; and, for many, community is seen as a population that shares a common ethnic identity and set of traditions. We also come across people who believe that the sense of togetherness that we need as human beings can be fulfilled through virtual networks, and some thinkers even predict that the whole concept of a community as it has been traditionally known will eventually disappear.

Although certain aspects of the conceptions above may be valuable, the relationships that sustain society are also being reconceptualized by many in light of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Our understanding of community, then, will need to move beyond anything humanity currently knows or has experienced. To build a common vision of community, we turn to the messages of the Universal House of Justice. For instance, in 1996, the House of Justice described a community as

a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families, and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.1Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 1996. Available at

The House of Justice has also written about “vibrant communities,” describing them as being characterized by “tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will” and explaining that they provide an “environment in which the capacities of all components––men, women, youth and children––are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.”2Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 26 December 1995. Available at

Over the past decade, Bahá’í community-building efforts have unfolded in smaller geographic areas like neighborhoods and villages. This process has been very similar to the organic processes that take place in nature. Indeed, creating something new in social reality is, like the growth of a tree, an organic process that begins by planting a seed in fertile soil.

The process begins with a group of people inspired by a hopeful vision of change who take action together within the context of a neighborhood or village. The initial steps they take are not random or haphazard but rather unfold within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community. The various elements that cohere to advance this process include classes for the spiritual education of children; groups of junior youth who, together with an older youth, support one another, study together, and carry out acts of service; the opening of homes and community centers for collective prayer and discussions about the progress of a neighborhood or village; regular visits by neighbors to meet with one another and strengthen bonds of friendship; educational programs for youth and adults in which they reflect on the spiritual dimension of life and prepare themselves for a life of service; and in some places, initiatives that seek to enhance the social and material well-being of a population. Whatever the form and arrangement of activities, however, the process of community building is a process of transformation in which a population takes ownership of its own spiritual and social development.

The fruit of the process of community building is a unit of civilization that is characterized by the principles and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. The House of Justice has explained the long-term nature of these efforts:

The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Bahá’í endeavour to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.3Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2010. Available at

We are, of course, too early in these efforts to know exactly what the entire process looks like, what stages we will have to pass through, what obstacles we might face along the way, and what capacities will need to be developed at each stage of development by the members of the community, individually and collectively. These are questions we must ask ourselves in the years and decades to come, and answers to these questions will become clear to us as we engage in a systematic process of learning.

Much has already been learned about the early stages of community building: A group of people turns to the sacred Writings and the guidance of the Universal House of Justice and takes action within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community; it draws insights from the existing body of knowledge and reflects on experience; it has regular conversations in which questions are asked and ideas are clarified; and, as understanding advances, the group adjusts its plans, approaches, and activities. The result is that its efforts become more and more effective, and the process it is trying to promote advances. In this way, the Bahá’í community is gradually developing its capacity to operate in a mode of learning and, as an organic global community, is advancing collectively.

As people learn more about the process of community building and how to effectively contribute to it, certain questions arise. For instance, what is my conception of community and what contributions can I make to the development of my community? What are those qualities, skills, and abilities that need to be developed in individuals and in groups to build vibrant communities? What are the things that are needed to enhance the relationships in a community? In seeking answers to these questions, we turn to the guiding and operating principles involved. As we understand these principles better and internalize them, they begin to find expression in our actions. They influence how we see ourselves in relation to others which in turn influences how we interact with others.

There are many principles that are relevant to the process of community building. Foremost among these is the oneness of humankind. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, talked about the principle of oneness as “the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve.”4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at He said that it cannot be seen as a “mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope” and that it cannot be merely identified with the “reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men.”5Ibid. It has profound implications for every aspect of the organized life of society. Having the principle of oneness in mind as the guiding and operating principle sheds light on the process of community building and gives direction to our efforts as participants.

In His letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh writes: “Regard the world as the human body.” This metaphor of the human body, or a living organism, was also often used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He wanted to illustrate the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. Like any analogy, there are limits to how much it can explain. Nevertheless, like the elements of the human body, “all the members of this endless universe are linked one to another.” He urged us to act as the members of one body, each connected to the other with “a linkage complete and perfect” 6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at and contributing its part for the benefit of the whole. He said that “man cannot live singly and alone. He is in need of continuous cooperation and mutual help… He can never, singly and alone, provide himself with all the necessities of existence. Therefore, he is in need of cooperation and reciprocity.” The House of Justice, in commenting on this metaphor, has further explained:

In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “has endowed each humble being with ability and talent”7Universal House of Justice, letter of September 1994 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding subject of universal participation. Bahá’í Reference Library. Available at

Some characteristics of the living organism suggest where to focus our efforts as individuals. For example, the cells of the body are intimately connected to each other; their existence is purely in relation to the whole body. There is no possibility for the cell to live without its connection to the rest. The purpose of the cell is to maintain the health of the body and, at the same time, its life depends on it. In this regard, a characteristic that stands out is the necessity for the basic units of the organism to be selfless. Cells, in their very essence, are selfless. They are made that way. They adapt their functions in order to respond to unforeseen needs or emergencies or to protect the organism. The cell also takes only what it needs from the organism. The behavior of healthy cells in the body illustrates well the high standard that the individual whose purpose is to work for the common good aspires to as a member of a group or community. This implies, for instance, giving of one’s time and energy generously, sacrificing when the situation requires it, being detached from the results of what we do, and carrying out our actions with sincerity and purity of heart.

This concept of selfless service and the responsibilities that everyone has in accomplishing the collective aim have many implications for the way we relate to others and to our work. It adds significance to various roles and responsibilities that we undertake. To see ourselves like the cells of the body implies that each of us gives our very best in fulfilling our responsibilities; each one is conscious that everything he or she does influences the functioning of the community. And since each of us is responsible not only for his or her part but also for the functioning of the whole, cooperation and reciprocity should characterize relationships. In such an environment, everyone strives to draw out the best in people and to help others develop their full potential and takes joy in the progress of others.

This concept of selfless service also has implications for the manner in which we approach the acts of service we undertake and our various roles and responsibilities in a community. Serving with selflessness and diligence requires making choices, because, unlike the cells, we have free will. To put the interests of the collective before our own and to devote ourselves to doing things with excellence; to be ready to collaborate; to prefer our brothers and sisters over ourselves; to orient ourselves toward that which brings about the well-being of the community; to move beyond the inertia that sometimes holds us back from working to the best of our ability––all of these are individual choices that have to be made consciously. To give of ourselves is embedded in our nature; it is a capacity within us that can be developed and strengthened through constant effort, prayer, reflection, and the acquisition of knowledge. Maybe a word of caution is also needed here: To put the interest of the community before our own does not imply that we lose our individuality. We do not become dissolved in the community. There are many references in the Writings that shed light on the question of serving the common good.

O My Servant!
Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at

Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge.9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at

How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfil his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages.10Ibid.

In these early stages of building this new kind of community that reflects the divine teachings, we have to learn how to manage the apparent tension between pursuing our own interests and contributing to the common good. It is a very real tension within human beings. Undoubtedly, this will always be the case, since it is part of human nature. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained:

Man is in the ultimate degree of materiality and the beginning of spirituality; that is, he is at the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection. He is at the furthermost degree of darkness and the beginning of the light. That is why the station of man is said to be the end of night and the beginning of day, meaning that he encompasses all the degrees of imperfection and that he potentially possesses all the degrees of perfection. He has both an animal side and an angelic side, and the role of the educator is to so train human souls that the angelic side may overcome the animal. Thus, should the divine powers, which are identical with perfection, overcome in man the satanic powers, which are absolute imperfection, he becomes the noblest of all creatures, but should the converse take place, he becomes the vilest of all beings. That is why he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Available at

Although this tension will always be there, the Bahá’í writings also explain that the desire to do good is inherent in human nature because we are created noble. This desire to do good, however, needs to be cultivated and strengthened. It is through faith and our spiritual alignment with the will of God that we are enabled to do this.

The image of the functioning of the human body also gives us insights into the quality of the relationships that should exist within a healthy community. In the human body, we can appreciate how healthy interactions take place and how they contribute to maintaining unity and harmony among the diverse parts. Different organs, each with their own assigned functions, work together to allow new capacities to emerge––capacities that are manifested only when all the parts are functioning properly, each in its own sphere, and in perfect synchronization. Some of these capacities are associated with a specific organ while others do not belong to any particular one; the emergence of such capacities requires cooperation and reciprocity among the parts of the body. Whenever this cooperation breaks down or is replaced by competition, the body’s ability to manifest these capacities is inhibited.

The intention of this presentation is not to present a thorough analysis of the process of community building. It is simply to share a few ideas for reflection on the efforts of Bahá’í communities worldwide to bring about a new kind of community and ultimately contribute to the emergence of a peaceful and just world civilization envisioned in the sacred Writings. In this connection, we have spent some time examining the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. The analogy of a human body was used to see how the principle of oneness is foundational to our conception of a community and guides our choices and our actions.

The Bahá’í world is still in the early stages of the process of community building, and there is a great deal to be done before the process reaches fruition. In light of the challenges facing humanity, the task before us may seem daunting indeed, but we are committed to this process over the long term and are inspired to make constant efforts to better understand the relevant principles and to reflect this understanding in our approaches. We draw on spiritual forces to assist us and to propel us forward, and the most powerful force binding us together is the force of universal love. ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses us: “Strive to increase the love-power of reality” and “to make your hearts greater centers of attraction and to create new ideals and relationships.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy, (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 107. Love, He writes, is “the magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms” and “the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at

By June Manning Thomas

June Manning Thomas, Professor Emerita of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan, specializes in social equity and racial justice related to urban planning and civil rights. She is author of a number of books and articles.

Lack of unity among people of various races, ethnicities, and classes is a major problem for human society. Many nations face such disunity, which can cause social conflict, lack of empathy for “others,” discrimination, and exploitation. Bahá’ís think of such problems as symptoms; the illness is absence of the unity of the human race. One subset of the unity that is necessary is racial unity. As the term is used here, racial unity focuses on unity among various racial and ethnic groups.

Eliminating individual prejudice is a necessary, but insufficient, part of promoting racial unity. Human beings have embedded racial disunity within geographic space, where it is hard to change and is reinforced by political, economic, and social boundaries. Thus, individual people may believe themselves free of racial prejudice, but they may face no or weak testing of this belief if they are isolated in geographic circumstances that solidify racial disunity. Spatial geography can reinforce systemic racial discrimination.

This is a difficult problem, but throughout its history the Bahá’í Faith has always championed racial unity, even in difficult circumstances. Direct guidance from the Head of the Faith, in each period of Bahá’í history, has consistently counseled the Bahá’ís to abandon prejudice against different races, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. In addition, the Bahá’í community has purposefully aimed to increase diversity within its own religious community by inviting people of diverse races, ethnicities, and nationalities into its ranks. The approach that the worldwide Bahá’í community now uses builds on these historic principles and strategies, while extending beyond them to offer lasting social transformation for all people in a community. It offers the world a process that can help promote racial unity, even in situations of geographic disunity. Considering how to accomplish this requires strategic thinking.

The Bahá’í Plans and Spatial Unity

The worldwide Bahá’í community’s dedication to the principle of racial unity dates back to the founding of the religion. Bahá’ís have held fast to key principles related to the unity of humanity, in general, and to racial unity, specifically, while learning to develop flexible new strategies that recognize contemporary challenges. They have done so within the framework of global plans that guide the growth and development of the Bahá’í community worldwide.

Since its birth in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century, the Bahá’í Faith has given rise to a religious community with significant capacity to unite people across traditional barriers of race, class, nationality, gender, and creed. Its cardinal teaching is the oneness of all humanity. Bahá’í administrative institutions have paid special attention to the issue of racial disunity in North America; much guidance on the subject relates to that continent. This has been true ever since the head of the Faith at that time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, visited North America in 1912. Through both word and deed, He emphatically encouraged interracial fellowship and disavowed traditional norms of racial segregation and discrimination. He urged people to overcome racial barriers through means such as intermarriage and multiracial meetings, and He praised the beauty of such diversity. These were remarkable exhortations for that time, when interracial marriage was illegal in many American states and Jim Crow laws discouraged free association between people of different racial backgrounds.1“Jim Crow” was the label given to a set of state and local laws upheld in the southern United States and dating mostly from the late nineteenth century. Designed to separate blacks and whites in most social and economic settings, they covered such institutions and places as public schools, public transportation, food establishments, and public facilities such as parks. The principles He enunciated for North America also pertained to the world with all its various forms of prejudice and social conflict.

Following His visit, in letters sent to the North American Bahá’í community and later published collectively as Tablets of the Divine Plan, Abdu’l-Bahá presented a visionary spatial strategy for unity of the world’s peoples. He asked North American Bahá’ís to travel first to other states and provinces in their own countries and then to a long list of countries, territories, and islands in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, spreading the unifying teachings of the Bahá’í Faith to peoples of diverse race and ethnicity. He also placed great importance on teaching America’s indigenous populations. His vision was to “establish the oneness of the world of humanity.”2‘Abdu’l Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), 42.

When leadership of the worldwide Bahá’í community passed to Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in 1921, he continued to emphasize interracial fellowship as a path to racial unity, even when custom discouraged such fellowship. Starting in the 1920s, his letters to North American Bahá’ís addressed these issues, with his most forceful communication being the book-length 1938 letter The Advent of Divine Justice. In that work, he laid out principles for the success of a global plan for the growth and development of the Bahá’í community. This Seven Year Plan covered the years 1937 through 1944 and encouraged North American Bahá’ís to travel to other North, Central, and South American states, provinces, territories, and countries—many of them mentioned in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan—to share with peoples of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’ís were encouraged to reach out in particular to “the Negro, the Indian, the Eskimo, and Jewish races. … No more laudable and meritorious service can be rendered …”3Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984), 45. This letter was completed in December 1938 and published in book form the next year; these were the terms (“Negroes,” “Indians”) used for those populations at that time. Among the three major requirements for success of that plan was freedom from racial prejudice, a necessary precondition in that momentous spiritual endeavor to share the Faith with diverse people. 4The other two of three principles were rectitude of conduct, primarily for institutions, and a chaste and holy life for individuals. The assumption in the two subsequent global plans that Shoghi Effendi initiated, the second Seven Year Plan (1946-53) and the Ten-Year Crusade (1953-63), was that freedom from racial prejudice would continue to be important as the geographic scope of the Faith expanded to the entire world. 5For confirmation of the current relevance of these principles, see Universal House of Justice, 4 March 2020, letter to an individual, par. 3, reprinted in “Extracts from Letters Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Individual Believers in the United States on the Topic of Achieving Race Unity, 1996-2020.” Notably, each global plan aimed to increase the number of nationalities, tribes, ethnicities, and races represented within a faith that could then shelter its members from the pernicious influences of division, prejudice, and materialism. As “pioneers” spread the Bahá’í teachings, thus increasing the Faith’s reach and diversity, Shoghi Effendi illustrated detailed global maps showing the increasing number of tribes, ethnicities, and peoples who were joining the Bahá’í Faith worldwide. 6Pioneers are Bahá’ís who travel to other places in support of the global plans. Usually moving without financial support from the Bahá’í Faith, they find jobs or other means of income and live among their new population as contributing members of the community. In addition to The Advent of Divine Justice, see for more description of the global plans: Melanie Smith and Paul Lample, The Spiritual Conquest of the Planet: Our Response to Global Plans (Palabra Press, 1993) and June Thomas, Planning Progress: Lessons from Shoghi Effendi (Association for Bahá’í Studies, 1999).

Since its first election in 1963, the worldwide governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, has continued to champion the central principles of racial unity and diversity. Between 1964 and 1996, it launched five global plans that reached the world’s diverse peoples in various ways, such as by sending travelers to various countries. 7“Preface,” The Four Year Plan: Messages of the Universal House of Justice (Palabra Publications, 1996), iii. As time passed, however, it became increasingly obvious that the ability of the Bahá’í community to effectively contribute to constructive social change and new models of social organization was limited. One reason was that, despite its wide geographic spread, the Bahá’í community was still relatively small in number. The other was the lagging moral and spiritual state of the world’s people in the face of rapid social, scientific, and technological developments and of a rampant materialism.

Place and the Institute Process

In a new series of global plans initiated in 1996 with the call for a “network of training institutes,” the worldwide Bahá’í community began to approach expansion in a different way.8The Universal House of Justice initiated in 1996 a series of five plans that would lead the worldwide community until 2021, the anniversary of the death of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “Preface,” The Five Year Plan, 2011-2016: Messages of the Universal House of Justice (Palabra Publications, 2013), iii. One innovation was the creation of training institutes. These “centers of learning” aim to build human resources and improve communities through a spiritually-based training program designed for different age groups, ranging from children to adults.9Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1996 letter, par. 28 and 29. Listed are only a few of the skills that the training institute facilitates. They embody a form of distance education that can reach even remote areas of the globe. By 1999, these centers of learning had made “significant strides in developing formal programmes and in putting into place effective systems for the delivery of courses.”10Universal House of Justice, 26 November 1999 letter, par. 2. The program involves direct education as well as participatory study circles open to youth and adults, with all activities open to people of all faiths, races, and creeds. The Universal House of Justice calls the efforts for capacity building for advancing community building and propelling social change the “institute process.” After a few years of reflective learning, the worldwide Bahá’í community adopted, from among several options, the curriculum that first arose from the Ruhi Institute in Colombia.

As the Universal House of Justice learned more about the institute process and as Bahá’ís gained more experience with Ruhi educational materials, they began to focus their efforts on neighborhoods and villages.11Bahá’ís organized groups of metropolitan areas, cities, villages, or rural areas into “clusters,” defined by Bahá’ís but based on existing secular conditions, specifically “culture, language, patterns of transport, infrastructure, and the social and economic life of the inhabitants.” Universal House of Justice, 9 January 2001 letter, par. 10. The Universal House of Justice sent messages between 2010 and 2016 that described salutary experiences in several such receptive locations. It advised the world’s Bahá’ís to look for “smaller pockets of the population” that would benefit from the institute process. It defined such pockets: “in an urban cluster, such a centre of activity might best be defined by the boundaries of a neighbourhood; in a cluster that is primarily rural in character, a small village would offer a suitable social space for this purpose.”12Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010 letter, par. 5.

In such places, the role of the institute would be both to nurture the population spiritually and to enable the building of capacity and community. The means for doing so were deeply participatory: to “enable people of varied backgrounds to advance on equal footing and explore the application of the teachings to their individual and collective lives.”13Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010 letter, par. 5, 14. By 2013, the Universal House of Justice could report clear evidence for the power of “community building by developing centers of intense activity in neighbourhoods and villages.” In 2016, the Universal House of Justice reported that, because of such strategies, the Teachings of the Faith were influencing people in many different spaces: “crowded urban quarters and villages along rivers and jungle paths.”14Universal House of Justice, 26 March 2016 letter, par. 5.

All of this was an effort to support salutary transformation in the lives and fortunes of the world’s people. In 2015, the Universal House of Justice described the following: “A broader cross section of the population is being engaged in conversations, and activities are being opened up to whole groups at once—bands of friends and neighbours, troops of youth, entire families—enabling them to realize how society around them can be refashioned. … Prevailing habits, customs, and modes of expression all become susceptible to change. … Qualities of mutual support, reciprocity, and service to one another begin to stand out as features of an emerging, vibrant culture among those involved in activities.”15Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015 letter, par. 24.

Addressing Racial Unity through Institutes

In 2010, the Universal House of Justice bemoaned that “prejudices of all kinds—of race, of class, of ethnicity, of gender, of religious belief—continue to hold a strong grip on humanity.” It noted, however, that its current global plans could “build capacity in every human group, with no regard for class or religious background, with no concern for ethnicity or race, irrespective of gender or social status, to arise and contribute to the advancement of civilization.” It expressed the hope that the process set in place by these plans would steadily unfold to “disable every instrument devised by humanity over the long period of its childhood for one group to oppress another.”16Universal House of Justice, 28 December 2010 letter, par. 34.

Indeed, institute-related activities began to bring into collaboration members of diverse faiths, creeds, and ethnicities, as whole villages, cities, and neighborhoods around the world studied unifying spiritual principles and turned away from separations by race, ethnicity, caste, or class. In 2018, the Universal House of Justice reported on results “from country to country.” “As the work in thousands of villages and neighbourhoods gathers momentum,” it wrote, “a vibrant community life is taking root in each.” The House of Justice then explained that, as this happens, a “new vitality emerges within a people taking charge of their own development. Social reality begins to transform.”17Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2018 letter, par. 3

The Universal House of Justice sent special assurances to North American believers about the effectiveness of the institute process. Steady promotion of the institute process “will usher in the time anticipated by Shoghi Effendi … when the communities you build will directly combat and eventually eradicate the forces of corruption, of moral laxity, and of ingrained prejudice eating away at the vitals of society.”18Universal House of Justice, 26 March 2016 letter, par. 3. In this letter and in many others, the Universal House of Justice affirmed the potential benefits of the institute process as a tool for racial unity.

The North American community needed such assurance. The United States, especially, continues to experience problems of racial disunity, characterized by lingering racial segregation, social and economic lags for minority-race people, and political/cultural confrontation. Racial prejudice continues to be a problem ingrained in society and in its geographic places. Metropolitan areas in the United States demonstrate spatial inequality, implanted by historic federal and state policies or by ongoing discrimination and exclusionary zoning. Efforts to resolve problems falter: “Any significant progress toward racial equality has invariably been met by countervailing processes, overt or covert, that served to undermine the advances achieved and to reconstitute the forces of oppression by other means.”19Universal House of Justice, 22 July 2020 letter, par. 2.

Not just in the United States, but in other countries, place-based action in small geographic areas could encounter such built-in racial disunity. Many metropolitan areas and cities around the world contain sectors or neighborhoods set aside for specific racial, ethnic, or national groups and habitually marginalize the poor. Spatial segregation by race, ethnicity, or income level persists, often oppressing the disadvantaged. How, then, could the current plan’s institute process, an educational initiative based in discrete neighborhoods or localities—some of them defined by racial exclusion—promote racial unity?

Consider two hypothetical families as examples. The first family lives in a modern metropolitan area. That family lives a life of relative prosperity, is not a “minority,” and holds no antagonism toward people of minority races—although its everyday life is isolated by race and income level. Only families of its own, comfortable income bracket live in its section of the city, because of historic circumstances or municipal laws limiting access. Because of longstanding exclusionary practices, the city where this family lives is home to few minority-race people. Schools are similarly homogeneous, and the family’s children have no friendships with diverse people. How might this family help promote racial unity?

The second family lives in the same metropolitan area. That family is of a minority race and has low income. It lives in an isolated neighborhood, housing families with very similar characteristics to its own. Like the first family, this family also has no antagonism toward other racial groups. Its most challenging issue is not overcoming its own individual prejudices, but surviving in a hostile environment. Its children go to inferior schools; its adults suffer from underemployment or unemployment; and the public services it receives are grossly inferior to the norms for its nation. How might this family make sense of the concept of racial unity, while hemmed in by the geographic proof of disunity?

The Universal House of Justice has explained that different circumstances call for different approaches. Both families and the neighborhoods they live in contain people who can benefit from the institute process, but the utility of the process may manifest itself differently in the two neighborhoods. The specific approach to racial unity would vary as well. Here are four of several possible approaches:

Become free from racial prejudice

The first principle is individual freedom from racial prejudice. The Bahá’í Writings offer much guidance on exactly what this means, but they refer to both attitudes and actions. What binds this guidance is a fundamental recognition of our common humanity and an unwillingness to prejudge people because of race, color, or other exterior characteristics. The Bahá’í teachings also counsel action. In 1927 Shoghi Effendi gave specific spatial advice; he told Bahá’ís to show interracial fellowship “in their homes, in their hours of relaxation and leisure, in the daily contact of business transactions, in the association of their children, whether in their study-classes, their playgrounds, and club-rooms, in short under all possible circumstances, however insignificant they appear.”20Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages, 1922-1932 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995), 130. Bahá’í institutions have continually confirmed the importance of mirroring forth freedom from racial prejudice in both attitude and action.

Both the family of comfortable means and the family of circumscribed means should treat others without racial prejudice, but their charges differ. Although Shoghi Effendi noted that both blacks and whites should make a “tremendous effort,” he called on whites to “make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem.” Blacks, in turn, were to show “the warmth of their response” when whites did reach out.21Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, 33. In conditions of geographic isolation, a majority-race family may need to make special efforts to help promote racial unity. This might require seeking diverse friendships, associations, and social activities, as a matter of general principle and as a service to its own children. It is important to replace racism with “just relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions or society that will uplift all and will not designate anyone as ‘other.’ The change required is not merely social and economic, but above all moral and spiritual.”22Universal House of Justice, 22 July 2020 letter, par. 4.

Reach out to minority peoples

This, too, is a principle enshrined within Bahá’í history and widely assumed in the present activities of the global community.23Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015 letter, par. 25. This principle applies to both families in our hypothetical examples. Assume they are all Bahá’í. The more privileged family might consider how to help greater numbers of minority people gain access to the capacity-building potential inherent in the institute process. This would require some form of access and communication; fortunately, a range of possibilities exists. In a letter, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States recommended that Bahá’ís consider homefront pioneering into communities predominantly populated by African-Americans, Native Americans, or immigrants.24National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 31 January 2018 letter, par. 4. Alternatively, such a family might steer toward mixed-race neighborhoods when it makes its next move from one domicile to another. Another strategy would be to befriend and engage minorities in their own locality, or to reach across municipal boundaries and associate with people who live in areas segregated from their own. This may require a concerted, conscious effort to overcome the geographic boundaries that exist and to offer genuine friendship. The second family, living in a high-minority, low-income area, could find it easier because of location to offer neighbors local opportunities for collaboration as part of the institute process, although that family, too, may face challenges of agency and receptivity.

Utilize the institute process as a matrix for racial unity

The institute process can help build community as a part of a process of social transformation. Both hypothetical neighborhoods could benefit; usefulness of the institute process is not dependent on the socio-economic status or racial characteristics of any geographic area. The institute process can support racial unity in part because it allows people to converse on related topics in a warm and loving atmosphere, and because it allows them to walk together along several paths of service to humanity.25See for example Universal House of Justice, 10 April 2011 letter. Other relevant letters compiled in “Extracts from Letters Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Individual Believers in the United States on the Topic of Achieving Race Unity, 1996-2020.” This process would work best as a tool for racial unity, of course, with diverse participants. For the two families that we have described, both in homogeneous areas, it could be difficult to arrange activities for racially diverse participants, dampening the ability of the institute process to support racial unity. Even so, the spiritual principles enshrined within the institute curriculum are a useful foundation for raising consciousness in people about the importance of racial unity, since those principles include such virtues as respecting the nobility of human beings, valuing kindliness and generosity, seeking justice, and nurturing the life of the soul as opposed to materialistic pursuits. If more people of privilege understood and acted on such principles, this would help counteract self-righteousness, prejudice, and lack of empathy, shortcomings that pose major barriers for racial unity. Likewise, understanding such principles could be of tangible, even life-saving importance for a minority-race family living in a low-income area experiencing social disintegration. Indeed, a main protection against pernicious influences in such a situation may be spiritual education for themselves and for their surrounding neighbors, giving rise to a process of social transformation.

Aim toward social and economic development

We have already mentioned several benefits that could come from engagement in the institute process, including elevation of spiritual dialogue, the education of children, the nurturing of junior youth, and the promotion of moral conduct. All of this could lead to various forms of social action. Built into the institute process is the idea that groups of people can raise up protagonists for social action from within their own communities. This happens by nurturing individuals’ capacity and then enhancing collective capacity as the community consults on possibilities for action that address complex needs. These needs could range from health and welfare to water safety, the provision of food, or neighborhood beautification. Although this level of collective action is still, in some nations, only in embryonic form, in other nations the institute process has led to a flowering of social and economic development initiatives that are borne out of a deep understanding of the needs of local inhabitants of all faiths, races, and ethnicities, joined together in unified action.

Such action could take place in a wide variety of neighborhoods of various economic means. This characteristic would be of particular importance, however, to the hypothetical low-income family. From their perspective, a necessary aspect of “racial unity” could indeed be support for their movement toward sustenance and survival. The training institute could offer short-term support from visiting helpers, teachers, or study circle tutors. The aim, however, would be for residents to arise to become tutors within their own neighborhoods, becoming indigenous teachers and accompanying growing numbers of their fellow residents to contribute to the betterment of their community. The institute process is “not a process that some carry out on behalf of others who are passive recipients—the mere extension of the congregation and invitation to paternalism—but one in which an ever-increasing number of souls recognize and take responsibility for the transformation of humanity.”26Universal House of Justice, 10 April 2011 letter, par. 4. People living in a particular place could begin to reshape their destinies as they engaged growing numbers of friends and neighbors in collective action.

Furthering the Racial Unity Agenda

The struggle for the unity of humanity is a long-term one that requires much concerted action along the way. Members of the Bahá’í Faith have continued to advance international, national, and local plans and efforts designed to further such unity. On the specific matter of racial unity, both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi provided unifying spiritual guidance within the framework of visionary, international plans designed to bring the world’s people into one human family. They also addressed such matters as how to change both attitudes and actions in order to overcome racial prejudice and help bring about unity. The Universal House of Justice has supported and advanced these strategies.

This worldwide governing body has now offered humanity a potent tool in the form of the institute process, an educational strategy that can help prepare people to build up their communities and contribute their share to the betterment of humanity. The Universal House of Justice has also turned the attention of Bahá’ís to the challenge of helping to bring about such social transformation within small portions of nations, such as villages or neighborhoods that are part of cities or metropolitan areas. This article concerns one of the dilemmas connected with efforts to advance unity, particularly racial unity, in such places: society has segmented people and communities by divisive lines that have cemented disunity. This poses a spatial problem that needs thoughtful action in response.

We used two hypothetical (but realistic) examples to serve as thought experiments, efforts to think through the implications of geographic space for race unity action within the framework of the institute process. The examples were just that; the point is that people in many places face difficulties of various kinds in promoting a race unity agenda in contemporary times. The challenge is to assess our own situations and to take appropriate action. We do know, based on experience from around the globe, that the institute process offers a powerful tool for social transformation and for bringing about several forms of social unity, including racial. It is also capable of raising up individual protagonists who can begin to reshape themselves and their communities in myriad positive ways, a matter of great importance particularly to neighborhoods suffering the consequences of historic racial inequality.

Study circles, a fundamental element of the institute process, have an essential function in what the Universal House of Justice sees as a process of community building starting with spiritual empowerment and moral education, extending to social action at a small scale, and ultimately expanding to include progressively complex community-building projects. The experience that is being gained opens the possibility for the greater influence of spiritual principles in important matters of public discourse, such as racial unity, the environment, health, and other areas of concern. In such ways, the process of implementing Bahá’u’lláh’s vision, furthered by the institutions of His Faith, is advancing.

By Bahá'í World News Service

The prestigious biennial Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) International Prize is not a typical architectural award.

An international jury of six highly distinguished architects has to choose a building that stands out for being “transformative within its societal context” and “expressive of the humanistic values of justice, respect, equality, and inclusiveness.” This they have to do from among an extraordinary selection of architectural structures from around the world that have impacted the social life of the communities within which they were built.

“The Bahá’í Temple was a community project. Numerous volunteers worked on this project, similar to a way a community project works in a small village, but this was on a global scale,” explains Diarmuid Nash, a distinguished Canadian architect and Chair of the Jury. “But the Temple went beyond the community,” he continues. “It extended the principles of the Bahá’í Faith—that every person is equal, that every person can come here to reflect and regenerate. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

This year’s RAIC International Prize of $100,000 was awarded to the Bahá’í House of Worship for South America. The prize money is being dedicated to the long-term maintenance of the Temple. Commissioned by the Universal House of Justice and designed by Canadian architect Siamak Hariri, the House of Worship for South America has become an iconic symbol of unity for Santiago and well beyond. Overlooking the city from the foothills of the Andes, the Temple has received over 1.4 million visitors since its inauguration in October 2016. The House of Worship has not only symbolized unity but it has given expression to a powerful conviction that worship of the divine is intimately connected with service to humanity.

The connection between the built environment and the well-being of society was a preeminent concern for the Jury of the RAIC Prize. Diarmuid Nash, the Jury Chair, explains that three architectural projects were selected as finalists for the transformative impact they had on their respective communities. “The Bahá’í Temple was a community project. Numerous volunteers worked on this project, similar to a way a community project works in a small village, but this was on a global scale.”

The Baha’i Temple for South America

The Baha’i House of Worship for South America

“But the Temple went beyond the community,” he continues. “It extended the principles of the Bahá’í Faith—that every person is equal, that every person can come here to reflect and regenerate. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

The process of selection was rigorous and extended over six months. Jury members were asked to perform site visits as part of their research and selection process. “We asked Stephen Hodder, former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and guest Juror, to visit this project,” says Mr. Nash. “We thought he would have a dispassionate eye.”

Mr. Hodder visited the Temple for three days earlier this year and spent a significant amount of time with the local community. He later shared his impressions with the Jury, referring to the House of Worship as “truly transformational, timeless and spiritual architecture, the like of which I have never experienced, and the influence of which extends way beyond the building.”

“…every person can come here to reflect and regenerate,” reflects Diarmuid Nash, the Chair of the Jury. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

Speaking about Mr. Hodder’s visit, Mr. Nash says “Stephen said to me that he had not felt such an emotional impact since he had walked into Ronchamp, which is a very famous chapel all of us have visited in our architectural careers. It is a touchstone of modern architecture. He said ‘this goes beyond Santiago, it reaches out to the world.’”

Mr. Hodder in his comments to the Jury shared the following thoughts:

“How can it be that a building captures the spirit of ‘unity,’ a sacred place, or command a prevailing silence without prompting? The interior space spirals upwards vortex-like culminating with the oculus within which is the inscription ‘O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious’. Seating orientates to Haifa and the Shrine of the Báb, the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh…. But why do people flock to the Bahá’í Temple? Is it the garden, planted with native species and lovingly cared for by volunteers, or the view over Santiago and remarkable sunsets, or the curious object set against the mountains? The Temple is the anchor…At night, the opacity of the cast glass outer skin, and the translucency of the Portuguese marble inverts, and the dome appears to glow ethereally from the inside…. The Temple has not only afforded a focus for the Bahá’í community but in their commitment to ‘service’ also for the neighbourhood and its well being.”

An interior view of the House of Worship during its inauguration in October 2016

It was not only the impact of the Temple on society but also the nature of its craftsmanship that struck the Jury. “It was lovingly assembled,” says Mr. Nash. “The woodwork, the stonework, and the glasswork—they all have the sense of a hand shaping them, which is remarkable for a project so sophisticated. This had a powerful impact on the Jury. There was this sense that the hand of the community had crafted the outcome.”

In the wake of the award, Mr. Hariri has been reflecting on the endeavour. “Hundreds of people sacrificially worked on this project with great dedication, enormous skill, and put themselves forward at the very frontier of what’s possible in architecture,” he explains.

“The Temple reflects an aspiration. What architects do is put into form aspiration. When you have a chance like this, where the aspirations are so great, it requires the furthest reaches of imagination to meet that challenge.”

Siamak Hariri, the architect of the House of Worship

Diarmuid Nash, Jury Chair of the RAIC International Prize

The award was presented on 25 October at a ceremony at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto. “Above all,” said Mr. Hariri in remarks he made that evening, “our gratitude extends to the Universal House of Justice which was our unwavering source of guidance, courage, and constancy.”

Mr. Nash, who was there, says that as the talk finished people were standing and cheering. “We were all very inspired. It’s a project that has a life of its own. It is supposed to be a building built to last 400 years. I suspect it will go well beyond that.”

“How can it be that a building captures the spirit of ‘unity,’ a sacred place, or command a prevailing silence without prompting? The interior space spirals upwards vortex-like culminating with the oculus within which is the inscription ‘O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious’. Seating orientates to Haifa and the Shrine of the Báb, the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh…. But why do people flock to the Bahá’í Temple? Is it the garden, planted with native species and lovingly cared for by volunteers, or the view over Santiago and remarkable sunsets, or the curious object set against the mountains? The Temple is the anchor…At night, the opacity of the cast glass outer skin, and the translucency of the Portuguese marble inverts, and the dome appears to glow ethereally from the inside…. The Temple has not only afforded a focus for the Bahá’í community but in their commitment to ‘service’ also for the neighbourhood and its well being,” writes former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and member of the Jury, Stephen Hodder.

By Ann Boyles

It was Aristotle who first defined the word “community” as a group established by men having shared values. That initial definition has been refined and expanded through the years. We have come, for example, to recognize that people can belong to a number of different “communities” simultaneously—communities of place; cultural communities; communities of memory, in which people who may be strangers share “a morally significant history”; and psychological communities “of face-to-face personal interaction governed by sentiments of trust, co-operation, and altruism.”1Daniel Bell, Communitarianism and its Critics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 14.

The world, we are repeatedly reminded, has contracted into a “global village.” One effect of this contraction is the bringing together of hitherto isolated peoples, allowing for the development of new patterns of civilization—but also creating new tensions. Thus, challenges now confront communities at local, national, and global levels. For example, new information technologies have created “networks” and “cybercommunities” in the world of the Internet that link individuals and organizations around the globe without regard for national boundaries; small communities around the planet are affected by urban migration or by degradation of the natural and built environment; the existence of national communities—nation states—is under threat from assaults by ethnic or tribal enclaves. Ironically, while the emergence of a global community wielding effective power is seen by many as a necessity in order to combat the ill effects of unfettered market economics, the whole idea that a real global community can ever come into existence is met with deep misgivings or complete skepticism by others. How, then, can we understand “community” at the end of the twentieth century—and what will its future be in the next millennium?

A number of significant challenges to community have arisen from developments in global information technologies. While pundits ponder whether or not Internet users form any kind of viable community as they sit at their computers in farflung corners of the world, a deeper and more serious issue is the manner in which the entire structure of computer networks undermines more traditional kinds of community organization.

As Jessica Mathews points out in her essay “Power Shift,” which appeared in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, these new information technologies have challenged established societal hierarchies. They have empowered civil society, which in turn has allowed the world’s peoples generally to be more involved than previously in issues that were once the sole province of states and to forge new links between democracy, human rights, and international security. Yet, the technologies themselves are not always used to achieve constructive ends. They have, for example, also promoted the spread of global organized crime, and they have enabled individuals to cross borders easily to subvert governments and, at times, create new societal divisions.

The future of the state, in her view, is therefore uncertain. Information technologies, she points out “disrupt hierarchies, spreading power among more people and groups.” She continues,

In drastically lowering the costs of communication, consultation, and coordination, they favor decentralized networks over other modes of organization. In a network, individuals or groups link for joint action without building a physical or formal institutional presence. Networks have no person at the top and no center. Instead, they have multiple nodes where collections of individuals or groups interact for different purposes. Businesses, citizens organizations, ethnic groups, and crime cartels have all readily adopted the network model. Governments, on the other hand, are quintessential hierarchies, wedded to an organizational form incompatible with all that the new technologies make possible. 2Jessica T. Mathews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs (January-February 1997), p. 52.

The technologies, she concludes, weaken community by empowering individuals, and her article contains this dire prediction:

The prophets of an internetted world in which national identities gradually fade, proclaim its revolutionary nature and yet believe the changes will be wholly benign. They won’t be. The shift from national to some other political allegiance, if it comes, will be an emotional, cultural, and political earthquake.3Jessica T. Mathews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs (January-February 1997), p. 65.

Mathews raises important questions: What kind of community can be forged in an internetted world, where the structure of the technology promotes anarchy, with its emphasis on complete freedom of expression and lack of regard for authority? Does this spell the end of the nation-state and, if so, what other kind of political entity might arise in its stead? The challenges posed by the new information technologies may generate significant crises felt throughout the world, but such a development looms on the horizon.

There are, however, a number of current crises facing community. Loss of the sense of community based on “place” is a worldwide phenomenon. Millions of people all over the planet are being displaced from their homes. Some are refugees fleeing escalating political strife. Others are forced from their homes by economic necessity, such as farmers from rural China who are migrating to cities in vast numbers, searching for factory work. Such movement destroys families, undermines the traditional sense of trust found in community, increases feelings of isolation and dislocation, and creates a host of social problems.

Even where people still maintain their homes, there are challenges to the sense of place. A case in point is America, where planners are in revolt against the manner in which the built environment of communities has been shaped in the latter part of the twentieth century. A movement widely known by the name “new urbanism” protests against the “fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness” of “the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce” so common in American towns and cities, contending that “this ugliness is the surface expression of deeper problems” and contributes substantially to the widely expressed sense of “loss of community” felt throughout the society.4James Howard Kunstler, “Home From Nowhere,” Atlantic Monthly (September 1996), p. 43.

The new urbanists posit that going back to the planning and design principles that shaped the traditional neighborhoods of America is a way of recapturing this lost sense of place and community, of reversing a pattern of development they see as “economically catastrophic, an environmental calamity, socially devastating, and spiritually degrading.” Discarding the zoning laws that segregate various activities, they seek to create neighborhoods (or hamlets or villages) of manageable size which, when clustered together, become towns and cities. Each neighborhood is constructed on a “human scale”; it contains both residential and commercial property and provides housing for people of different levels of income. The proposal is not fantastic. Many traditional European towns, for example, have preserved this element of “human design.” But to make such a change, citizens everywhere must take an active role in decisions regarding the environment in which they live:

Human settlements are like living organisms. They must grow, and they will change. But we can decide on the nature of that growth—on the quality and the character of it—and where it ought to go. We don’t have to scatter the building blocks of our civic life all over the countryside, destroying our towns and ruining farmland…. It is within our power to create places that are worthy of our affection.5James Howard Kunstler, “Home From Nowhere,” Atlantic Monthly (September 1996), p. 66.

Such loss of “community of place” can also bring loss of communities of memory and communities governed by trust. In the late nineteenth century Ferdinand Tönnies theorized that in the development of systems of culture, communities invariably move from a period of Gemeinschaft, where shared experience and likeness are most important, toward a period of Gesellschaft, where individuals exist in isolation from each other, there is a strong sense of competition, relationships are contractual, and monetary values prevail. Such a progression has been noted by others as well. In this century, Pitirim A. Sorokin, for example, saw societies moving through ideational, idealistic, and sensate stages, away from spiritual truth and values towards self-indulgence and material values. But is such a progression inevitable?

If we again take the case of America and look at it in Tönnies’ terms, we see that the society is in a period of Gesellschaft. William Leach, in his insightful 1993 volume Land of Desire, analyses the forces that have shaped modern America as “a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy…. The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.”6William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 3.  As this culture grew, Leach writes, “Increasingly, the worth of everything—even beauty, friendship, religion, the moral life—was being determined by what it could bring in the market.”7William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 8.

Leach characterizes the dominant mode of interaction in twentieth century life as an amoral “brokering style,” the features of which are “repressing one’s own convictions and withholding judgment in the interest of forging profitable relationships.” Contending that it “occupies a preeminence in today’s political and moral economy,” he writes, “Brokers are now busy in nearly every sphere of activity, and they have helped inject into American culture a new amoralism essentially indifferent to virtue and hospitable to the ongoing inflation of desire.”8Leach, p. 11.  Because America, with the collapse of communism, is now the world’s undisputed single superpower, its role as the leading exponent of Western capitalist values—which have been exported throughout the entire world—is crucial.

Indeed, some writers have gone so far as to characterize the current devotion to those values as a worldwide “religious” phenomenon. David Loy writes:

…our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism—best understood as a capitalist “heresy”—makes it more apparent that the market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe more and more tightly into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as “secular.”9David R. Loy, “The Religion of the Market,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62.2 (Summer 1997), p. 275.

George Soros shares this view, stating, “What used to be a medium of exchange has usurped the place of fundamental values…. The cult of success has replaced a belief in principles. Society has lost its anchor.”10George Soros, “The Capitalist Threat” in The Atlantic Monthly (February 1997), pp. 45-58.  Concluding that “there is something wrong with making the survival of the fittest a guiding principle of civilized society,” he proposes an “open society” as the antidote to the havoc that laissez-faire capitalism and market values are wreaking in democratic society, where the guiding principles of “nonmarket values” are eclipsed by the influence of market values. Current confidence that “the unhampered pursuit of self-interest will bring about an eventual international equilibrium” is, in his view, “misplaced.” An “open society” would promote institutions that allow people to live together in peace, in spite of their different views, interests, and beliefs concerning what is true. He concludes, however, that there is currently no willingness to establish the means to preserve a global open society.

Another commentator, William Greider, in his book One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, also contends that the widespread adoption of market economics does not and will not bring social and political stability, which have often been touted as long-term benefits. In fact, he says, the spread of market economics destroys the fabric of traditional societies and provides ideal conditions for contending political forces to fight each other for control.

In a response to Greider’s book in The Atlantic Monthly, Lester Thurow concurs, saying, “Capitalism is myopic and cannot make the long-term social investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development that it needs for its own future survival. It needs government help to make those investments, but its own ideology won’t allow it either to recognize the need for those investments or to request government help. That is the ideological paradox of our time.”11Lester Thurow, “The Revolution Upon Us” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1997), pp. 97-100.

According to Greider, we stand at a watershed in history: “A revolutionary principle is embedded in the global economic system, awaiting broader recognition: Human dignity is indivisible. Across the distances of culture and nations, across vast gulfs of wealth and poverty, even the least among us are entitled to dignity, and no justification exists for brutalizing them in the pursuit of commerce.”12William Greider, excerpted from One World: Ready or Not and published under the title “Planet of Pirates” in The Utne Reader (May-June 1997), pp. 72-73.  He continues, “any prospect of developing a common global social consciousness will inevitably force people to reexamine themselves first and come to terms with their own national contradictions and hypocrisies. And just as Americans cannot claim a higher morality while benefiting from inhumane exploitation, neither can developing countries pretend to become modern `one world’ producers and expect exemption from the world’s social values.”13William Greider, excerpted from One World: Ready or Not and published under the title “Planet of Pirates” in The Utne Reader (May-June 1997), p. 102

While there is, as yet, no set of social values generally accepted by the world, attempts have recently been made to introduce an internationally accepted “Charter of Human Responsibilities.” This document would “provide a broader ethical context to the principles inherent within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” to “accentuate those positive obligations each individual should assume in the service to humanity and the rest of creation.”14Taken from the Core Initiatives of “The State of the World Forum ’95.”  The charter has not yet gained wide acceptance, but its formulation is a hopeful sign.

Values are also a main concern of Philip Selznick, a communitarian philosopher who contends not only that social justice must be the foundation of community but that it is the responsibility of both individuals and the collective. Thus, the communitarian concept of community is a “unity of unities”—a sort of “federal” unity that preserves the integrity of the parts by emphasizing individual moral autonomy as well as the moral bonds of civility, which are seen to be interdependence and reciprocity.15Philip Selznick, “Social Justice: A Communitarian Perspective,” in The Responsive Community 6.4 (Fall 1996), p. 15. For further discussion, see also Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 367-71.  The concept of “stewardship” in governance further binds social power to moral ideals.16Philip Selznick, “Social Justice: A Communitarian Perspective,” in The Responsive Community 6.4 (Fall 1996), p. 15. For further discussion, see also Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 22.  It is a concept that looks outward rather than inward—or, as Selznick puts it, moves towards “the `we’ of humanity.”17Philip Selznick, “Social Justice: A Communitarian Perspective,” in The Responsive Community 6.4 (Fall 1996), p. 15. For further discussion, see also Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 23.  In this concept of community the balance of particularism and universalism is regarded as crucial, respecting diversity “without allowing its claims to override those of basic humanity and justice.”18Philip Selznick, “Social Justice: A Communitarian Perspective,” in The Responsive Community 6.4 (Fall 1996), p. 15. For further discussion, see also Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 24.

It is not surprising that movements such as the communitarians have arisen to revisit the roots of Western society and to reexamine the values underpinning its culture. Their response to “the weakening of institutions, the blurred line between liberty and license, the widespread preference for short-run gains,” is to prescribe “more extensive responsibility in every aspect of personal experience and social life” as the antidote.19Philip Selznick, “Social Justice: A Communitarian Perspective,” in The Responsive Community 6.4 (Fall 1996), p. 15. For further discussion, see also Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 13.

Two other communitarians have offered some valuable insights into a community-friendly, sustainable system of economics. In their book For the Common Good, Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., make a distinction between two different paradigms of economic behavior: chrematistics and oikonomia. Chrematistics, they say, “can be defined as the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner”—a model that conforms to Leach’s, Soros’ and Greider’s view of capitalism, as epitomized by the American system. In contrast, oikonomia “is the management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run.” They continue, “If we expand the scope of household to include the larger community of the land, of shared values, resources, biomes, institutions, language, and history, then we have a good definition of `economics for community.'”20Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 138.

The concept of oikonomia seems quite close to Selznick’s “stewardship.” Cobb and Daly’s assertion that “True economics concerns itself with the long-term welfare of the whole community”21Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 159  posits a conception of humans as something quite different from mere consumers—and of community as something much different from a mere marketplace. They argue that seeing people only as beings “bent on optimizing utility or satisfaction through procuring unlimited commodities,”22Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 159.  which is the view underlying current economic theory, leads to “policies that weaken existing patterns of social relationships.”23Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 163. They advocate, instead, that “economics should be refounded on the basis of a new concept of Homo economicus as person-in-community,”24Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 164.  recognizing that

the well-being of a community as a whole is constitutive of each person’s welfare…because each human being is constituted by relationships to others, and this pattern of relationships is at least as important as the possession of commodities. These relationships cannot be exchanged in a market. They can, nevertheless, be affected by the market, and when the market grows out of the control of a community, the effects are almost always destructive. Hence this model of person-in-community calls not only for provision of goods and services to individuals, but also for an economic order that supports the pattern of personal relationships that make up the community.25Daly and Cobb, pp. 164-165.

Daly and Cobb argue strongly for a conscious movement towards the adoption of social behavior and values that will enhance “the common good” and build the foundations of a community that will protect the environment and promote ways of living that provide for a sustainable future. Such an approach addresses some of the key challenges facing community.

At the broadest level of discussion, many contemporary thinkers, such as Daly and Cobb, see the global nature of environmental crises and the interconnectedness of national economies, for example, as leading inexorably towards the establishment of a global community of some sort. Others, however, see the whole idea as an utter impossibility. Some of the most provocative pieces to appear in print on this topic during the past several years have been authored by Samuel P. Huntington, whose essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs sparked a firestorm of debate on his thesis that the emergence of a global civilization is a utopian fantasy. Huntington later expanded his position to a full-length book, notably dropping the question mark at the end of the title to read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

The phrase “world community” “has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing `the Free World’) to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western powers,”26Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 184.  he contends. The West, whose system of liberal democracy has recently been touted as the pinnacle of social evolution and achievement, is not, in his view, a universal civilization. “What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest,” he states.27Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 184.

While Huntington focuses on “civilization,” which he defines as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species,” the elements he sees as shaping civilizations are quite similar to those generally accepted as characteristics of community: “common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions” and “the subjective self-identification of people.”28Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 43.

He is extremely skeptical that any kind of unified global civilization can ever develop. At the individual level, he asserts that there must always be “the civilizational `us’ and the extracivilizational `them'” because we fear and distrust people who are different; we experience difficulty in communicating with them; and we are unfamiliar with what motivates them, how they conduct social relationships, and so on.29Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 129.  In opposition to Daly and Cobb, he states that “it is human to hate”; “for self-definition and motivation people need enemies: competition in business, rivals in achievement, opponents in politics. They naturally distrust and see as threats those who are different and have the capability to harm them.”30Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 130.  This rivalry extends to the sphere of religion. As Huntington says, “Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and nonbelievers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”31Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 97.  Further, “if a universal civilization is emerging,” he asserts, “there should be signs of a universal language and a universal religion developing.” He concludes, “Nothing of the sort is occurring.”32Samuel P. Huntington, “The Many Faces of the Future,” The Utne Reader (May-June 1997), pp. 75-77.

Andrew Bard Schmookler, while also identifying “intersocietal anarchy” as “the overarching context of civilized life,” is somewhat more optimistic than Huntington about the development of a united global civilization. “As long as the human cultural system was fragmented into a multiplicity of separate units,” he asserts, “the problem of power remained insoluble.”33Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984), p. 33.  He contends that now “an escape from this fragmented system is beginning to emerge,” although dangers still remain:

For the first time, the world is becoming a single interdependent system in which all the world’s peoples are in contact. Meanwhile, the age-old struggle for power goes on and may annihilate us before we can create an order that controls power. But the centuries ahead give us the opportunity to place all human action within a structure that for the first time makes truly free human choice possible. Even so, it is far from clear how to get from here to there, or even what kind of world order “there” should be.34Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984), pp. 33-34.

To avoid such conflict, he asserts that if we reflect on “higher ideals,”

we will discover that there is less difference between East and West than is often made out to be….The challenge at hand is to conceive a common vision of the future which goes beyond our current concerns and preoccupations, advancing toward the creation of a global community, dominated neither by the East nor the West, but dedicated to the ideals of both.35Anwar Ibrahim, “A Global Convivencia vs. The Clash of Civilizations,” excerpted in New Perspectives Quarterly (Summer 1997), p. 41. 

To avoid such conflict, he asserts that if we reflect on “higher ideals,”

we will discover that there is less difference between East and West than is often made out to be….The challenge at hand is to conceive a common vision of the future which goes beyond our current concerns and preoccupations, advancing toward the creation of a global community, dominated neither by the East nor the West, but dedicated to the ideals of both.36Ibrahim, p. 41.

He advocates a “civilizational dialogue,” undertaken with the goal of achieving a “global convivencia—a harmonious and enriching experience of living together among people of diverse religions and cultures.”37Ibrahim, p. 42.

The uncertain hope expressed by Schmookler, the pessimism of Huntington, the fundamental structural changes described by Mathews, the ills outlined by Leach, Greider, Soros, and others, and the prescriptions advanced by Daly, Cobb, Selznick, and Ibrahim all provide differing perspectives on the strenuous debate currently taking place around the subject of community. Where the world will go from here remains uncertain. Various individuals and organizations have attempted to address the ills of society, which are generally perceived to be worldwide in scope, but, as Soros comments rather bitterly, no will exists to establish institutions and mechanisms that would effectively govern a global community. And certainly there is no wide agreement about what exactly the fundamental values of such a community should be.

It is clear from the number and variety of problems confronting humanity at this stage in its history that community development must be pursued at all levels, from the local to the global. Religion is one powerful means to address these problems, since it has traditionally been concerned with two broad questions: the purpose of existence and the nature of the community. In fact, the word “religion” itself is derived from religio, meaning “to bind together.”

Members of the world’s youngest independent religion, the Bahá’í Faith, who now number some five million souls from more than 2,000 tribes, races, and ethnic groups, have forged a united, dynamic community that is flourishing at the local, national, and global levels. The vision that unites this diverse group comes from Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. He taught that all people worship one God, Who has guided the development of humanity through successive Messengers Who have founded the world’s major religions. The human race, Bahá’u’lláh said, now stands at the threshold of maturity, and the time has come for the uniting of all peoples into a peaceful and integrated global society. His prescriptions for humanity all lead toward that end.

Bahá’ís are, therefore, deeply concerned with the process of community building. To help them advance in their understanding of this issue, the Universal House of Justice, the Faith’s international governing council, has offered a definition of “community,” which it characterizes as “more than the sum of its membership”:

it is a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.38The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan letter to the Bahá’ís of the world, B.E. 153 (April 1996).

Because spiritual values have the power to simultaneously unite peoples and transform political order into a moral community, the Bahá’í Faith has tremendous capacities to promulgate the model of a healthy, dynamic community. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Faith, writing about the Bahá’ís, once referred to “the society-building power which their Faith possesses.”39Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991), p. 195.

The principle that has enabled the Bahá’í Faith to achieve an unprecedented level of unity as a world community and yet preserve local communities’ and individuals’ unique identities is that of “unity in diversity,” about which Shoghi Effendi offers this commentary:

The Faith of Bahá’u’lláh has assimilated, by virtue of its creative, its regulative and ennobling energies, the varied races, nationalities, creeds and classes that have sought its shadow, and have pledged unswerving fealty to its cause. It has changed the hearts of its adherents, burned away their prejudices, stilled their passions, exalted their conceptions, ennobled their motives, coordinated their efforts, and transformed their outlook. While preserving their patriotism and safeguarding their lesser loyalties, it has made them lovers of mankind, and the determined upholders of its best and truest interests. While maintaining intact their belief in the Divine origin of their respective religions, it has enabled them to visualize the underlying purpose of these religions, to discover their merits, to recognize their sequence, their interdependence, their wholeness and unity, and to acknowledge the bond that vitally links them to itself. This universal, this transcending love which the followers of the Bahá’í Faith feel for their fellow-men, of whatever race, creed, class or nation, is neither mysterious nor can it be said to have been artificially stimulated. It is both spontaneous and genuine. They whose hearts are warmed by the energizing influence of God’s creative love cherish His creatures for His sake, and recognize in every human face a sign of His reflected glory.40Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, pp. 197-98.

This sense of spiritual unity that provides the basis of community structure pervades all aspects of Bahá’í community life. As one writer puts it,

…the meaning of Community is a meaning which can only be gradually unfolded as our experience in living the ideals of Community grows and evolves. Beyond our sense of friendship and fellowship and social interaction there is the reality of spiritual unity….

…unity is the essence of the Bahá’í Faith, because it is the principle of spiritual unity applied at a social level, a spiritual unity which has never before been realized in any community, a spiritual unity which flows from the communion of the individual soul with God and from the vision of God revealed in the soul of every other believer in that Community.41John Davidson, A Bahá’í Approach to Community: Process and Promise, Vol. 1, Bahá’í Studies in Australasia: Bahá’í Community and Institutions (Association for Bahá’í Studies-Australia, 1993), p. 36.

True civilization does not arise from material progress, but rather is founded on the transcendent values that hold society together. Bahá’ís believe that the theories and practices that promote self-indulgence and disrupt the connections among individuals must be directly challenged. Service to humanity and a commitment to a deeper level of engagement with each other and the problems of society are key motivating forces behind the Bahá’í community. As Bahá’u’lláh has written:

That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race…. Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth…. It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.42Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983), p. 250.

Such service is the hallmark of true religion. In the words of `Abdu’l-Bahá, son of Bahá’u’lláh:

Universal benefits derive from the grace of the Divine religions, for they lead their true followers to sincerity of intent, to high purpose, to purity and spotless honor, to surpassing kindness and compassion, to the keeping of their covenants when they have covenanted, to concern for the rights of others, to liberality, to justice in every aspect of life, to humanity and philanthropy, to valor and to unflagging efforts in the service of mankind. It is religion, to sum up, which produces all human virtues, and it is these virtues which are the bright candles of civilization.43Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1994), p. 98.

To support the spiritual unity and desire to serve humanity that form the basis of community in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, a structure to guard that unity and to promote acts of service is also explicitly laid out in the Faith’s sacred writings. As the eminent Bahá’í writer Horace Holley comments:

Faith alone, no matter how wholehearted and sincere, affords no basis on which the organic unity of a religious fellowship can endure…

The Bahá’í teaching has this vital distinction, that it extends from the realm of conscience and faith to the realm of social action. It confirms the substance of faith not merely as a source of individual development but as a definitely ordered relationship to the community.44Horace Holley, “Aims and Purposes of the Bahá’í Faith,” The Bahá’í World, Vol. XII (1950-54), p. 8.

He goes on to discuss the nature of the authority to which Bahá’ís commit themselves:

Sovereignty, in the Bahá’í community, is attributed to the Divine prophet, and the elected representatives of the believers in their administrative function look to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh for their guidance, having faith that the application of His universal principles is the source of order throughout the community. Every Bahá’í administrative body feels itself a trustee, and in this capacity stands above the plane of dissension and is free of that pressure exerted by factional groups.45Horace Holley, “Aims and Purposes of the Bahá’í Faith,” The Bahá’í World, Vol. XII (1950-54), p. 9.

Here one finds an application of the concept of “stewardship,” as mentioned by Selznick. Indeed, as Holley says, the Local Spiritual Assembly, the council that is elected annually, “represents the collective conscience of the community with respect to Bahá’í activities.”46Horace Holley, “Aims and Purposes of the Bahá’í Faith,” The Bahá’í World, Vol. XII (1950-54), p. 9.  In short,

Spiritual Assemblies, local and national, combine an executive, a legislative and a judicial function, all within the limits set by the Bahá’í teachings…. They are primarily responsible for the maintenance of unity within the Bahá’í community and for the release of its collective power in service to the Cause.47Horace Holley, “Aims and Purposes of the Bahá’í Faith,” The Bahá’í World, Vol. XII (1950-54), p. 9.

The administrative model conceived by Bahá’u’lláh promotes a concept of leadership embodying trustworthiness, wisdom, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and whose highest expression is service to the community. It also fosters collective decision making and collective action through a process called “consultation.” Conducted in a spirit of unity, its purpose is to search out the truth. Those engaged in the process are enjoined to express their views with “all freedom,” but at the same time “with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care, and moderation.”48Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in Consultation: A Compilation (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980), #10, p. 6.  In this way, participants can avoid antagonism and conflict, and all can freely express their views without fear of displeasing or alienating anyone. Here, one sees how the “right” of freedom of speech is balanced by the “responsibility” of moderate expression. Indeed, Bahá’u’lláh states that “Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation.” Its influence, He says, “is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure,” and its moderation should be “combined with tact and wisdom.”49Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995), p. 143.

Because the Bahá’í community—just a century and a half old—is only “at the very beginning of the process of community building,” the House of Justice also provides, in its Ridvan 1996 letter, guidance regarding the elements necessary for healthy community growth. To facilitate the healthy growth of communities that can engage in an “unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress,” the House of Justice emphasizes that they must promote patterns of behavior “by which the collective expression of the virtues of the individual members and the functioning of the Spiritual Assembly are manifest in the unity and fellowship of the community and the dynamism of its activity and growth.” These patterns include the integration and inclusion of all the adults, youth, and children in “spiritual, social, educational and administrative activities,” as well as “local plans of teaching and development.” Another distinctive pattern of behavior is seen in the “collective will and sense of purpose” to establish and maintain Bahá’í administrative institutions, particularly evident in the annual election of Spiritual Assemblies in communities around the world. A final pattern involves “the practice of collective worship of God” through regular devotional meetings, seen as “essential to the spiritual life of the community.”

And indeed, the spirit of unity underlying their communities and the structures that govern them are not only for Bahá’ís, who believe that through time a unified global community will be forged, whether “reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior” or “embraced now by an act of consultative will.”50The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1985), p. 1.  As Shoghi Effendi wrote,

Unification of the whole of mankind is the hall-mark of the stage which human society is now approaching. Unity of family, of tribe, of city-state, and nation have been successively attempted and fully established. World unity is the goal towards which a harassed humanity is striving. Nation-building has come to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.51Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 202.

Shoghi Effendi describes the global society promised in the Bahá’í sacred writings as follows:

A world community in which all economic barriers will have been permanently demolished and the interdependence of Capital and Labor definitely recognized; in which the clamor of religious fanaticism and strife will have been forever stilled; in which the flame of racial animosity will have been finally extinguished; in which a single code of international law—the product of the considered judgment of the world’s federated representatives—shall have as its sanction the instant and coercive intervention of the combined forces of the federated units; and finally a world community in which the fury of a capricious and militant nationalism will have been transmuted into an abiding consciousness of world citizenship—such indeed, appears, in its broadest outline, the Order anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh, an Order that shall come to be regarded as the fairest fruit of a slowly maturing age.52Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 41.

In the Bahá’í view, such a development is not a utopian vision; it is the next and highest step in the development of “an ever-advancing civilization,” “the furthermost limits in the organization of human society.”53Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 163.

A response to Huntington’s objection that there can be no global civilization because no universal religion or language is emerging is found within the Bahá’í Faith. First, it is a universal religion. As Bahá’u’lláh wrote over one hundred years ago,

There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose.54Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 217.

Further, He states,

Verily I say, this is the Day in which mankind can behold the Face, and hear the Voice, of the Promised One…. Great indeed is this Day! The allusions made to it in all the sacred Scriptures as the Day of God attest its greatness. The soul of every Prophet of God, of every Divine Messenger, hath thirsted for this wondrous Day. All the divers kindreds of the earth have, likewise, yearned to attain it.55Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, pp. 10-11.

With regard to the choice or development of a single language, Bahá’u’lláh says in His book of laws:

O members of parliaments throughout the world! Select ye a single language for the use of all on earth, and adopt ye likewise a common script…. This will be the cause of unity, could ye but comprehend it, and the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization, would that ye might understand!56Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), p. 87, paragraph 189.

While all the elements necessary for the establishing of a global society are present in the Bahá’í sacred writings, the forging of a world community will, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, be a “gradual process.” The first step towards it will be the establishment of what Bahá’ís call “the Lesser Peace,” a political union reached by the nations of the world:

This momentous and historic step, involving the reconstruction of mankind, as the result of the universal recognition of its oneness and wholeness, will bring in its wake the spiritualization of the masses, consequently to the recognition of the character, and the acknowledgment of the claims, of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh—the essential condition to that ultimate fusion of all races, creeds, classes, and nations which must signalize the emergence of His New World Order.57Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 123.

“Then,” Shoghi Effendi continues, “will the coming of age of the entire human race be proclaimed and celebrated by all the peoples and nations of the earth.” The “Most Great Peace” will be established with the universal recognition of the message of unity brought by Bahá’u’lláh, following which “a world civilization [will] be born, flourish, and perpetuate itself, a civilization with a fullness of life such as the world has never seen nor can as yet conceive.”58Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980), pp. 123-24.

The establishment of a world civilization, promoting an unimaginable “fullness of life,” is assured. With confidence in the eventual achievement of this aim, Bahá’ís face the uncertainty of the transition period in which we are now living.

While others are not so confident, even the more pessimistic express some vague hope that a peaceful world community will somehow arrive. At the end of his book The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Robert Kaplan asks a crucial question: “As a species, we can imagine justice and harmony. But how can justice and harmony be possible for much of humanity, given the evidence of history, plus the inflammatory potential of a fourfold increase in population since the nineteenth century, with antennas rising from mudhuts to allow the poor to see how the rich live?”59Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century (New York: Random Books, 1996), p. 437.  Kaplan has no answer to this question, but he closes his book with a quotation from the poem “Addressed to Haydon” by the visionary English poet John Keats:

And other spirits…are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?—
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.

Bahá’u’lláh delivered His message to humanity short years after Keats penned these lines. “The world’s equilibrium,” He stated, “hath been upset by the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.”60Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 84, para. 181.  Bahá’u’lláh called the peoples of the world together in unity; He delineated the structure of a community that can function unitedly on the local, national, and global levels to promote justice and build a peaceful world. When considering the challenges facing communities at the end of the twentieth century, thinking people would do well to study the model that has brought together, in some 153 years, more than five million people from extremely diverse backgrounds and has enabled them to establish a single, united global community that both nourishes the individual and safeguards the good of the whole. These are indeed, in Keats’ words, “mighty workings”: here is a model that can benefit all the inhabitants of the planet.

At the Habitat II conference in Istanbul , in June 1996, the Bahá’í International Community shared its vision of communities of the future—a vision that addresses many of the challenges facing us at the end of this turbulent century:

Communities that thrive and prosper in the new millennium will do so because they acknowledge the spiritual dimension of human nature and make the moral, emotional, and intellectual development of the individual a central priority. They will guarantee freedom of religion and encourage the establishment of places of worship. Their centers of learning will seek to cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness and will pursue as a major goal the participation of all peoples in generating and applying knowledge. Remembering at all times that the interests of the individual and of society are inseparable, these communities will promote respect for both rights and responsibilities, will foster the equality and partnership of women and men, and will protect and nurture families. They will promote beauty, natural, and man-made, and incorporate into their design principles of environmental preservation and rehabilitation. Guided by the concept of unity in diversity, they will support widespread participation in the affairs of society, and will increasingly turn to leaders who are motivated by the desire to serve. In these communities the fruits of science and technology will benefit the whole society, and work will be available for all.

Communities such as these will prove to be the pillars of a world civilization—a civilization which will be the logical culmination of humanity’s community-building efforts over vast stretches of time and geography. Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that all people are “born to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization,” implies that every person has both the right and the responsibility to contribute to this historic and far-reaching, collective enterprise whose goal is nothing less than the peace, prosperity, and unity of the entire human family.61The Bahá’í International Community, Sustainable Communities in an Integrating World, a concept paper shared at the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Istanbul, Turkey, 3-14 June 1996.

By Roger White

It is little known in the West among students and adherents of the Baha’i Faith that Bahá’u’lláh addressed Himself to the public press. It is necessary to set aside squeamishness to depict the circumstances which brought about His doing so. A spring day in Yazd, a Persian city dating from the fifth century, the seat of numerous mosques, an important centre for the production of silk carpets. It was the 19th of May, 1891. Exhilarated by the violence it had witnessed, the excited mob called for the shedding of more blood of the hated Bahá’ís. Only two victims remained, young brothers in their early twenties. Already the crowd had been treated to a thrilling spectacle. A young man of twenty-seven, ‘Ali-Asghar, had been strangled and his body dragged through the streets to the accompaniment of drums and trumpets. Then Mullá Mihdí, a man in his eighty-fifth year, had been beheaded and his corpse hauled in similar manner to another quarter of the city where a considerable throng of onlookers, their frenzy mounting with the music, witnessed the decapitation of Áqá ‘Alí, the youthful brother-in-law of the two young men who had thus far escaped harm. From there the people rushed to yet another sector of Yazd where they relished the sight of Mullá ‘Alíy-i-Sabzivárí having his throat slashed. They then fell upon his body, hacking it to pieces with a spade while he was still alive, and pounded his skull to a pulp with stones. At the moment he was seized he had been addressing the tumultuous gathering, exhorting them to recognize the truth of the New Day, fully aware of his imminent martyrdom and glorying in it. Then, in yet another quarter, the townsfolk rejoiced in slaying Muḥammad-Báqir. It is reasonable to feel compassion far this rabble. Theirs was a profound and manipulable ignorance easily inflamed by fanatical rhetoric and capable, with encouragement from figures of authority, of finding expression in acts of depravity and barbarism. The calculating would be among them—those with vested interests, fearful of loss of power and office—and ruffians and idle thrill-seekers; but no doubt many of their number were utterly convinced that their actions were meritorious in the sight of God, would win the approval of His Prophet and priests, and secure their position in the all-important afterlife. And so their sincere devotion led them to participate in these murders of supposed enemies of the established order. It is a classic example of what scholars of the phenomenon call ‘enantiodromea’, the principle by which any extreme—even virtue—if pushed to the limit, grotesquely crosses over into its opposite.

Five had died. But two young men remained and these were to receive the full force of the crowd’s savage fury. The music grew wilder, drowning the shouts of the swirling mob which propelled the youths brutally to the public square, Maydán-i-Khán, where an especially theatrical fate, matched to the mood of the crowd, awaited them.

The youths, sons of Áqá Ḥusayn-i-Káshání, known as Baktáshí, were silk weavers. They had been raised by affectionate parents and had always lived close to the bosom of their family. Everything about them was conventional for that time and place save that they and their parents had embraced the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. It was this circumstance which brought them to the horrific scene on that spring day in Yazd. The young men, with the five other Bahá’ís whose deaths they had just witnessed, had gathered for a meeting when a surprise raid was conducted on the house and all were carried off. It is said that some ill-disposed neighbours had alerted the authorities. Good citizens, these, for the pogrom had been instigated by the mujtahid of the city, Shaykh Ḥasan-i-Sabzivárí, acting on instructions of the Governor, Jalalu’d-Dawlih, and the slaughter of the victims—sanctioned sport for the Muslim populace—could be averted only by their denial of faith. The seven were, in a caricature of trial, invited to renounce their religion. How can the true believer barter or dissemble? Having spurned the offer, all seven were condemned to death and surrendered to the executioner and the mob who were eager to aid him in his grisly task.

The elder brother, age twenty-three, bore the same name as his friend who had died earlier that day—‘Alí-Aṣghar. He had recently married and was the father of an infant daughter. The younger, Muḥammad-Ḥasan, age twenty-one, has been described by those who knew him as a youth of extreme beauty, delicacy and masculine grace. The official executioner, Afrasiyab, and the chief constable, Mubárak-Khán, had been urged by the Governor to spare Muḥammad-Ḥasan’s life, if possible, by persuading the young man to recant. Were he to do so, he would be welcomed at the residence of the Governor and showered with favours.

‘Alí-Aṣghar was dealt with first. Having swiftly affirmed his refusal to recant, he was beheaded. Then it was his younger brother’s turn. The Governor’s enticement was extended by the constable to the handsome young man from whom it drew an impatient reply: ‘Hurry up! My friends have all preceded me! Do what you are charged to do!’ He was then decapitated. In a burst of showmanship—playing to the cheering crowd—the executioner slit open the boy’s stomach, plucked out the heart, liver and intestines, and held them aloft. This exhibitionist gesture inspired the audience to commit further atrocities. The head of Muḥammad-Ḥasan was impaled on a spear and paraded through the city—again with the accompaniment of music—and suspended on a mulberry tree. The multitude stoned it so viciously that the skull was broken. His body was then cast before the door of his mother’s house. Some women darted from the crowd, danced into the room where the mother sat, and mocked her. Pieces of the boy’s flesh were carried away to be used as a medicament. Then the head of Muḥammad-Ḥasan was attached to the lower part of his body and borne with the remains of the other martyrs to the outskirts of the city where they were pelted with stones and finally thrown into a pit in the plain of Salsabíl.

The elder brother, ‘Alí-Aṣghar, was not spared ignominy. In an especially cruel gesture, the crowd carried his head to the home of his mother and cast it into the room where she sat with her son’s young wife. The mother arose, bathed her son’s head, and set it outside, admonishing her jeering torturers not to attempt to return to her what she had given to God.

The frenzy had at last reached its climax, and now a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The Governor declared a public holiday and by his order the shops were closed. When evening came the city was illuminated and the populace gave itself over to festivities.

The name of the mother of the two young men has not come down to us; we know her only as Umm-i-Shahíd, the mother of the martyr, though she lost more than one member of her family that day. But the magnificence of her gesture will fire the imagination of generations to come. She lived on into the period of the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and received from Him at least one Tablet extolling her courage and fortitude, and consoling her in her loss. The young widow of ‘Alí-Aṣghar, Sakinih Sultán, chose not to remarry, though she had offers and was urged to do so. Apprised of her plight, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá invited her and her infant daughter, Fáṭimih Ján, to come to the Holy Land where she had the bounty of serving in His household.

Thus all seven lost their lives. It was not, alas, the only occasion upon which a septet of believers was slain in Yazd; similar episodes occurred in July 1955 and as recently as September 1980. There were also many isolated martyrdoms in that city over the years, and an especially devastating upheaval took place in 1903 when many Bahá’ís lost their lives in various ways, including stabbing and axeing, and one even being shot from a cannon by a direct order of Jalal’ud-Dawlih, the Governor. Bahá’u’lláh stigmatized this man—son of Ẓillu’s-Sulṭán ‘The Infernal Tree’, and grandson of Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh—’The Tyrant of Yazd’.

The deaths of the seven plunged Bahá’u’lláh, then living out the penultimate year of His life in the mansion of Bahjí, into profound grief. The late Hand of the Cause H. M. Balyúzí, in Bahá’u’lláh, the King of Glory, recounts:

When news of the death of the Seven Martyrs of Yazd reached them, it brought great sorrow to Bahá’u’lláh. Ḥájí Mírzá Ḥabíbu’lláh (a great-nephew of the wife of the Báb) writes that for nine days all revelation ceased and no one was admitted into His presence, until on the ninth day they were all summoned. The deep sorrow that surrounded Him . . . was indescribable. He spoke extensively about the Qájárs and their deeds. Afterwards, He mentioned the events of Yazd; thus sternly did the Tongue of Grandeur speak of Jalalu’d-Dawlih and Ẓillu’s-Sulṭán. … Then He said: ‘Do not be sad, do not be downcast, do not let your hearts bleed. The sacred tree of the Cause of God is watered by the blood of the martyrs. A tree, unless watered, does not grow and bear fruit . . .’

Bahá’u’lláh also revealed a Tablet, as yet not fully translated into English, honouring the seven martyrs. Sometimes popularly referred to as the ‘Tablet to The Times’ because of its reference to the most respected and influential newspaper of the day—The Times of London—it is a document of astonishing power. The tone is one of impassioned anguish, the ‘Tongue of Grandeur’ giving divine expression to our human responses, reflecting even our indignation and bewilderment, our sense of outrage and inconsolableness. Specific reference is made to the two young brothers and an unusually full description is given of their torture and martyrdom. The Governor’s offer of protection for the younger man is mentioned and even the sector of the square where the youths died is named. Such atrocities, Baha’u’llah exclaims, have not been witnessed in the past nor will again be seen in future. He describes the mutilating of the bodies, alludes to the reward given to the executioner, the taunting and reviling of the families of the victims, the parading of the head on spear-point through the streets to celebratory musical accompaniment, the lighting of the city by night, the festival air which prevailed. God knows, He laments, what the oppressed innocents suffered.

Then He calls upon the public press of the world—newspapers, in the Bahá’í Revelation are exhorted by Bahá’u’lláh to mirror truth, and all those responsible for their production ‘to be sanctified from malice, passion and prejudice, to be just and fair-minded, to be painstaking in their enquiries, and ascertain all the facts in every situation’—to take note of these happenings, to launch an enquiry, to faithfully record these facts and, in effect, to aid in awakening human consciousness to these sacrifices. The Tablet was not delivered to The Times (nor perhaps was intended to be), but in the following excerpt that newspaper is singled out, it would seem, as representative of the rational spirit of enquiry, of all that is true, praiseworthy and humane in Western thought:

O ‘Times’, O thou endowed with the power of utterance! O dawning place of news! Spend an hour with the oppressed of Irán, and witness how the exemplars of justice and equity are sorely tried beneath the sword of tyrants. Infants have been deprived of milk, and women and children have fallen captive to the lawless. The blood of God’s lovers hath dyed the earth red, and the sighs of His near ones have set the universe ablaze.

O assemblage of rulers, ye are the manifestations of power and might, and the fountainheads of the glory, greatness and authority of God Himself. Gaze upon the plight of the wronged ones. O daysprings of justice, the fierce gales of rancour and hatred have extinguished the lamps of virtue and piety. At dawn, the gentle breeze of divine compassion hath wafted over charred and cast-out bodies, whispering these exalted words: ‘Woe, woe unto you, O people of Irán! Ye have spilled the blood of your own friends and yet remain in ignorance of what ye have done. Should ye become aware of the deeds ye have perpetrated, ye would flee to the desert and bewail your crimes and tyranny.’

O misguided ones, what sin have the little children committed? Hath anyone, in these days, had pity on the dependants of the oppressed? A report hath reached Us that the followers of the Spirit (Christ)—may the peace of God and His mercy be upon Him—secretly sent them provisions and befriended them out of utmost sympathy. We beseech God, the Eternal Truth, to confirm all in accomplishing that which is pleasing to Him.

O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world! Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears? Or have these remained concealed? It is hoped that ye will investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.

In His Ṭarázát, Bahá’u’lláh, Who had, on more than one occasion, been personally slandered and maligned in the press, and His Cause misrepresented in stories fabricated by His avowed enemies, recorded His awareness of inaccurate, perhaps even irresponsible, reporting:

Concerning this Wronged One, most of the things reported in the newspapers are devoid of truth. Fair speech and truthfulness, by reason of their lofty rank and position, are regarded as a sun shining above the horizon of knowledge. The waves rising from this Ocean are apparent before the eyes of the peoples of the world and the effusions of the Pen of wisdom and utterance are manifest everywhere.

It is reported in the press that this Servant hath fled from the land of Ṭá (Ṭihrán) and gone to ‘Iráq. Gracious God! Not even for a single moment hath this Wronged One ever concealed Himself. Rather hath He at all times remained steadfast and conspicuous before the eyes of all men. Never have We retreated, nor shall We ever seek flight. In truth it is the foolish people who flee from Our presence. We left Our home country accompanied by two mounted escorts, representing the two honored governments of Persia and Russia until We arrived in ‘Iráq in the plenitude of glory and power. Praise be to God! The Cause whereof this Wronged One is the Bearer standeth as high as heaven and shineth resplendent as the sun. Concealment hath no access unto this station, nor is there any occasion for fear or silence.

In the same Tablet He extols knowledge and describes the integrity and regard for truth which should govern those who write for newspapers:

Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it. Such arts and material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His knowledge and wisdom which have been revealed in Epistles and Tablets through His Most Exalted Pen—a Pen out of whose treasury pearls of wisdom and utterance and the arts and crafts of the world are brought to light.

In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of diverse peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behooveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should inquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.

Among the indicators that “appear as the outstanding characteristics of a decadent society”, corruption of the press is cited by Shoghi Effendi, together with “the degeneracy of art and music” and the “infection of literature”, in his masterful and succinct analysis in “The Unfoldment of World Civilization”. In that same essay, in sketching the broad outlines of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, whose goal is the unification of the planet, he does not fail to mention the lofty and constructive role to be played by a truly free press. “The press will, under such a system,” he writes, “while giving full scope to the expression of the diversified views and convictions of mankind, cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples.” No “mirror of the world” more dramatically reflects the emergence of the Baha’i Faith from obscurity than the press. With the renewed persecution of the Bahá’ís in the land where the Faith was born—persecution which, despite its instigators’ seeming sole concession to enlightenment in the adoption of polite refinements such as closeted firing squads, private hangings and diabolical, exquisitely designed secret tortures, has the same demonic force and malicious purpose as earlier episodes—the media, and particularly the press of the world, on an unprecedented scale, locally, nationally and internationally, has sympathetically, emphatically, eloquently, insistently and for the most part accurately reported the situation, expressed shock and dismay editorially, striven to alert readers to the gravity of the oppression, condemned its barbarity and demanded its cessation. Among them, it is noted with gratification, is The Times.