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. http://www.npr.org/202101/25/95617701/fatal-police-shooting-of-unarmed-black-people-reveal-troubling-pattern. “Unrest in Virginia: Clashes over a show of white nationalism in Charlottesville turn deadly,” Time, https://time.com/charlottesville-whitenationalism-rally-clashes. https://sites.goggle/a/mmicd.org/american-racie-and-racism-1970-to-present/home/1990s. “Read the full transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2017. https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-obama-farewell-speech-transcript-20170110-story.html.
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 www.bahai.org/r/750707520 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 www.bahai.org/r/870410250
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 https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20200722_001/1#870410250
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 www.bahai.org/r/328665132 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 www.bahai.org/r/064654502. 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 www.bahai.org/r/063389421
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 www.bahai.org/r/527522699. 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 www.bahai.org/r/178319844
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. https://News.bahai.org/community-new/youth-conferences. 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 www.bahai.org/r/525496636
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 www.bahai.org/r/034096683 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 2014.32https://www.cnn.com/2012/05/18/justice/florida-teen-shooting-details/index.html. “The Killing of an Unarmed Teen: What we need to know about Brown’s Death.” NBC News. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/michael-brown-shooting-unarmed-teen-what-we-know-about-brown’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. https://www.history.history.com/this-day-inhistorycharleston-ame-church-shooting.
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 https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20151229_001/1#275100978
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.42https://www.bahai.us/collection/a-rich-tapestry/
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.43https://news.bahai.org/story/1514/ 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.” https://www.bahai.us/path-to-racial-justice/
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,”45http://www.bahaichair.umd.edu/aboutus 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.” https://raceamity.org/race-amity-day-festival/ 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.
At the heart of human experience lies an essential yearning for self-definition and self-understanding. Developing a conception of who we are, for what purpose we exist, and how we should live our lives is a basic impulse of human consciousness. This project—of defining the self and its place in the social order—expresses both a desire for meaning and an aspiration for belonging. It is a quest informed by ever-evolving and interacting narratives of identity.
Today, as the sheer intensity and velocity of change challenges our assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality, a set of vital questions confront us. These include: What is the source of our identity? Where should our attachments and loyalties lie? And if our identity or identities so impel us, how—and with whom—should we come together? And what is the nature of the bonds that bring us together?
The organization and direction of human affairs are inextricably connected to the future evolution of our identity. For it is from our identity that intention, action, and social development flow. Identity determines how we see ourselves and conceive our position in the world, how others see us or classify us, and how we choose to engage with those around us. “Knowing who we are,” the sociologist Philip Selznick observes, “helps us to appreciate the reach as well as the limits of our attachments.”1Philip Selznick, “Civility and Piety as Foundations of Community,” The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, Vol. 14, number ½, March-June 2004. Also see Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 388—9. Such attachments play a vital role in shaping our “authentic selves” and in determining our attitudes toward those within and outside the circle of our social relationships. Acting on the commitments implied by these attachments serves to amplify the powers of individuals in effecting societal well-being and advancement. Notions of personal and collective identity can thus exert considerable influence over the norms and practices of a rapidly integrating global community.
As we have many associational linkages, identity comes in a variety of forms. At times we identify ourselves by our family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, mother tongue, race, gender, class, culture, or profession. At other times our locale, the enterprises and institutions we work for, our loyalty to sports teams, affinity for certain types of music and cuisine, attachment to particular causes, and educational affiliations provide definitional aspects to who we are. The sources of identification which animate and ground human beings are immensely diverse. In short, there are multiple demands of loyalty placed upon us, and consequently, our identities, as Nobel laureate Amaryta Sen has noted, are “inescapably plural.”2Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence—The Illusion of Destiny (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. xiii.
But which identity or identities are most important? Can divergent identities be reconciled? And do these identities enhance or limit our understanding of and engagement with the world? Each of us on a daily basis, both consciously and unconsciously, draws upon, expresses, and mediates between our multiple senses of identity. And as our sphere of social interaction expands, we tend to subsume portions of how we define ourselves and seek to integrate into a wider domain of human experience. This often requires us to scrutinize and even resist particular interpretations of allegiance that may have a claim on us. We therefore tend to prioritize which identities matter most to us. As the theorist Iris Marion Young stresses: “Individuals are agents: we constitute our own identities, and each person’s identity is unique…A person’s identity is not some sum of her gender, racial, class, and national affinities. She is only her identity, which she herself has made by the way that she deals with and acts in relation to others…”3Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 101—2. The matrix of our associations surely influences how we understand and interpret the world, but cannot fully account for how we think, act, or what values we hold. That a particular identity represents a wellspring of meaning to an individual need not diminish the significance of other attachments or eclipse our moral intuition or use of reason. Affirming affinity with a specific group as a component of one’s personal identity should not limit how one views one’s place in society or the possibilities of how one might live.
While it is undoubtedly simplistic to reduce human identity to specific contextual categories such as nationality or culture, such categories do provide a strong narrative contribution to an individual’s sense of being. “Around the world,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “it matters to people that they can tell a story of their lives that meshes with larger narratives. This may involve rites of passage into womanhood and manhood; or a sense of national identity that fits into a larger saga. Such collective identification can also confer significance upon very individual achievements.”4Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 68. Social, cultural, and other narratives directly impact who we are. They provide context and structure for our lives, allowing us to link what we wish to become to a wider human inheritance, thereby providing a basis for meaningful collective life. Various narratives of identity serve as vehicles of unity, bringing coherence and direction to the disparate experiences of individuals.
In the wake of extraordinary advances in human knowledge, which have deepened global interchange and contracted the planet, we now find ourselves defined by overlapping identities that encompass a complex array of social forces, relations, and networks. The same person, for instance, can be a Canadian citizen of African origin who descends from two major tribes, fluent in several languages, an engineer, an admirer of Italian opera, an alumnus of a major American university, a race-car enthusiast, a practitioner of yoga, an aficionado of oriental cuisine, a proponent of a conservative political philosophy, and an adherent of agnosticism who nevertheless draws on insights found in the spiritual traditions of his forebears. One can simultaneously be a committed participant in local community affairs such as improving elementary-level education and an ardent supporter of transnational causes like human rights and environmental stewardship. Such juxtapositions of identity illustrate how individuals increasingly belong to multiple “communities of fate” in which long-existing spatial boundaries are being entirely redrawn and reconceptualized.5David Held and Anthony McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2002), p. 91. Modernity has transformed identity in such a way that we must view ourselves as being not only in a condition of dependence or independence but also interdependence.
The recasting of longstanding narratives of identification and affiliation is giving rise to widespread anxiety, grievance, and perplexity. In the eyes of many, the circumstances of daily life lie beyond their control. In particular, “the nation-state…that preeminent validator of social identity—no longer assures well-being,” the anthropologist Charles Carnegie avers.6Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured: Carribbean Borderlands (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), p. 1. Other established sources of social cohesion and expressions of collective intention are similarly diminished in their efficacy to ground the actions of populations around the planet, resulting in a sense of disconnection and alienation. The philosopher Charles Taylor attributes such disruption of customary social patterns to the “massive subjective turn of modern culture,” involving an overly atomistic and instrumental view of individual identity.7Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 26. This exaggerated individualism accompanies the dislocation from historic centers of collectivity that is a repercussion of the centrifugal stresses of globalization. Against this kaleidoscope of change, including the major migrations of peoples, the international nature of economic production, and the formation of communities of participation across territorial borders through the means of modern communications, the concept of citizenship, as membership in a confined geographic polity, is in need of reformulation.
Our connections to others now transcend traditional bounds of culture, nation, and community. The unprecedented nature of these connections is radically reshaping human organization and the scale and impact of human exchange. But globalization has been with us a long time; the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas is an inherent feature of human history and development. Virtually every culture is linked to others by a myriad ties.8For example, many important concepts in modern science and mathematics find their genesis in the work of Chinese and Indian thinkers, some of which were later elaborated and transmitted to the West by Muslim innovators. Asian culture and architecture was greatly influenced by the movements of the Mughals and Mongols. The Bantu migrations spread ironworking and new agricultural methods across Africa. The great distances covered across oceans by the Vikings and the Polynesians; the movements and engineering achievements of indigenous societies in the Americas; the existence of Ming china in Swahili graves; and the spread of the tomato and the chili from the Americas to Europe and Asia illustrate the extent of human migration and interchange throughout the ages.
Culture is neither static nor homogeneous. Anthropological and sociological research reveals that cultures cannot be seen as fixed, indivisible wholes. The various manifestations of “social belonging” exhibit a “constructed and pliable nature.”9 Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 9. Cultural resiliency has much to do with heterogeneity, assimilation of outside ideas, and the capacity to adapt. “We should view human cultures as constant creations, recreations, and negotiations of imaginary boundaries between ‘we’ and the ‘other(s)’,” the political scientist Seyla Benhabib emphasizes.10Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 8. The multifarious processes of integration now at work are serving to accentuate and accelerate such social, economic, and cultural interchange. Under these conditions, Benhabib adds, presumed lines of cultural demarcation are increasingly “fluid, porous and contested.”11Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 184. To perceive cultures, then, as objects of stasis, immune from the complex dialogues and interactions of human existence, is a fundamental epistemological and empirical error. As Appiah maintains: “Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.”12Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2006.
Often, the insistence that the essence of cultural distinctiveness is its putative immutability emerges from a sincere desire to preserve and honor the power of an existing collective narrative. What is at issue here is a legitimate fear that valued identities may be lost or overwhelmed by unfamiliar external forces. Although an advocate of cultural rights designed to prevent such unwanted change, the theorist Will Kymlicka notes that “most indigenous peoples understand that the nature of their cultural identity is dynamic…”13Will Kymlicka, cited in Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 132. From this vantage point, Kymlicka believes that globalization “provides new and valued options by which nations can promote their interests and identities.”14 Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 323. This suggests that a balance must be sought between the requirements of self-determination and the possibility of defining an aspect of self-determination as participation in the construction of a broader collectivity. Participation of this kind by a diverse array of cultures and peoples offers the promise of enriching the entire fabric of civilized life.
Recognition of the reality of globalization, however, does not mean that the current inequities associated with the process—how resources, opportunities, and power are distributed—should go unchallenged. And perhaps more important, the exhausted ideologies and intellectual frameworks that allow such inequities to persist must also be directly confronted.15For a in-depth exploration of this point, see the Bahá’í International Community statements, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995, and “Who is Writing the Future?”, 1999. It is here where the insights provided by diverse human traditions and value systems can engage with the constructive phenomena of contemporary change to open new frontiers of identity—frontiers offering a peaceful and just future.
In 1945, aware of the imminent test of the first atomic weapon, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned: “Today we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”16These were among the last words penned by Roosevelt which, due to his death, were not delivered. See http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1945/450413b.html Clearly, the perceptions that human beings hold of themselves and each other matter. In a world convulsed by contention and conflict, conceptions of identity that feed the forces of prejudice and mistrust must be closely examined. Assertions that certain populations can be neatly partitioned into oppositional categories of affiliation deserve particular scrutiny. The notion of civilizational identity as the predominant expression of human allegiance is one such problematic example.17Samuel Huntington, in his seminal article “The Clash of Civilizations?”, posits that global stability will be determined by the interactions among what he calls Western, Hindu, Islamic, Sinic, African, Latin American, Buddhist, and Orthodox Christian civilizations. Huntington writes: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993. For Amartya Sen, such thinking leads to “conceptual disarray” that can undermine international stability.
To view the relationships between different human beings as mere reflections of the relations between civilizations is questionable on both logical and pragmatic grounds. First, civilizations themselves are not monolithic in character; indeed, their vast internal diversity is among their distinguishing features. Second, as we have seen, reducing personhood to a “singular affiliation” denies the essential variety and complexity of human experience.18Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 20. Of most concern, argues Sen, is the danger that assigning “one preeminent categorization” to human beings will exacerbate and harden conceptions of difference between peoples.19Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 16. This presumption of a “unique and choiceless identity,” that people are what they are because they have been born into a certain ethnic, cultural, or religious inheritance, is an “illusion” that underlies many of the “conflicts and barbarities in the world.”20Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. xv. “Reasoned choice,” Sen believes, must be used to examine the intrinsic merit of our antecedent associations as well as the broader social ramifications of identity.21 Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 8.
“A tenable global ethics,” Kwame Anthony Appiah concurs, “has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices.”22Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2006. For this reason, there exists an intimate relationship between cultural diversity and liberty. A sustainable and authentic expression of collective development must be a freely chosen path pursued by the members composing the group in question; current generations cannot impose their vision of what a desirable form of life is upon future generations. Existing mores, practices, and institutions can inform, validate, and even ennoble the human condition, but cannot or should not foreclose new moral or social directions for individuals and communities. Indeed, collective learning and adjustment are defining characteristics of social evolution. Because our perceptions and experiences change, our understanding of reality necessarily undergoes change. So too, then, do our identities change. “The contours of identity are profoundly real,” Appiah states, “and yet no more imperishable, unchanging, or transcendent than other things that men and women make.”23Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 113. At the same time, “if we create a society that our descendants will want to hold on to, our personal and political values will survive in them.”24wame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 137.
Significant portions of the world’s peoples, we know though, are deprived of the autonomy necessary to develop a plan of life or a corresponding identity that can inspire and assist them to realize life goals. The widespread subordinate social position of women and minorities restricts the latitude of their self-determination; members of these groups are frequently denied, in a systematic way, the chance to fully explore their individual potential and to contribute to the processes of cultural, social, and moral advancement. Constructions of identity can therefore be quite tenuous for marginalized groups or individuals whose personal characteristics fall outside received categories of classification. This can be especially true for persons of mixed ethnic, racial, or religious descent. Concepts of race and nation can serve as powerful instruments and symbols of unity, but can also lead to the isolation, dispossession, and “symbolic dismemberment” of minorities.25Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 17. In this regard, Charles Carnegie’s call for a “new consciousness of belonging” seems vital.26Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 9.
The prevalent stance that identity is about difference is untenable. Perceiving identity through the relativistic lens of separation or cultural preservation ignores compelling evidence of our common humanity and can only aggravate the forces of discord and disagreement now so pervasive in the world. The only alternative to this path of fragmentation and disunity is to nurture affective relationships across lines of ethnicity, creed, territory, and color—relationships that can serve as the warp and woof of a new social framework of universal solidarity and mutual respect. A one-dimensional understanding of human beings must be rejected. As Amartya Sen underscores: “The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division.”27Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. xiv. This is an appeal for imagination in creating new ways of being and living; for a new vision of human nature and society—one that recognizes the unmistakable shared destiny of all peoples. The resolution of the problems now engulfing the planet demands a more expansive sense of human identity. As articulated by Bahá’u’lláh more than a century ago: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”28Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/696472436
The crucial need of the present hour is to determine the conceptual and practical steps that will lay the foundations of an equitable and harmonious global order. Effectively addressing the crises now disrupting human affairs will require new models of social transformation that recognize the deep interrelationship between the material, ethical, and transcendent dimensions of life. It is evident that such models can emerge only from a fundamental change in consciousness about who we are, how we regard others who enter our ambit—no matter how near or distant, and how we collectively design the structures and processes of social life, whether local or global.
Such observations lead to yet more questions. In a world of pluralistic identities and rapidly shifting cultural and moral boundaries, is a common understanding of human purpose and action possible? Can a genuine cosmopolitan ethic, one that fully embraces human diversity, emerge from the multiple experiences and perceptions of modernity?
A basis of an affirmative Bahá’í response to these questions can be found in Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortations to the world’s peoples to “set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you,”29Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407719266 and to “let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.”30 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/294539200 For Bahá’ís, though, such a perspective is not simply a matter of belief or hopeful aspiration, but is grounded in experience.
A conviction of the practicality of world unity and peace, coupled with an unwavering dedication to work toward this goal, is perhaps the single most distinguishing characteristic of the Bahá’í community. That this community is now representative of the diversity of the entire human race, encompassing virtually every national, ethnic, and racial group on the planet, is an achievement that cannot be casually dismissed. The worldwide Bahá’í community, as an organic whole, eschews dichotomies prevalent in public discourse today, such as “North” and “South,” and “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Bahá’ís everywhere, irrespective of the degree of material well-being of their nations, are striving to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the process of building unified patterns of collective life. In this undertaking, every member of the community is a valued participant. In this respect, the roots of Bahá’í motivation and the formation of Bahá’í identity have a long history.
In the early part of the twentieth century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor—urged the some 160 Bahá’í inhabitants of a small village in a remote part of Iran who were experiencing persecution to “regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.”31Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/031947140. And further, they should “show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.”32Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/690838011 But apart from enjoining upon them an attitude of remarkable forbearance and amity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not address these followers as simple rural people with narrow parochial concerns. Rather, He affirmed their innate dignity by speaking to them as citizens of the world who had the capacity and the power to contribute to the advancement of civilization:
O ye beloved of the Lord! With the utmost joy and gladness, serve ye the human world, and love ye the human race. Turn your eyes away from limitations, and free yourselves from restrictions, for … freedom therefrom brings about divine blessings and bestowals…
Therefore, so long as there be a trace of life in one’s veins, one must strive and labour, and seek to lay a foundation that the passing of centuries and cycles may not undermine, and rear an edifice which the rolling of ages and aeons cannot overthrow—an edifice that shall prove eternal and everlasting, so that the sovereignty of heart and soul may be established and secure in both worlds.33Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/416856683
In short, the perceptions, preferences, and assumptions of the denizens of this small, isolated village were radically transformed. Their identity had been remade. They no longer were concerned just with local matters, and even though they were far removed from the mainstream of intellectual and cultural exchange, they regarded themselves as “servants” of the “entire human race,” and as protagonists in the building of a new way of life. They understood their “ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.”34Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/463388482 That the broader Iranian Bahá’í community achieved, over the course of three generations, levels of educational advancement and prosperity well beyond the general population, even under conditions of severe religious discrimination, underscores the capacities that can be released when the moral and spiritual dimensions of human consciousness are awakened and purposively channeled.35Through adherence to and active implementation of spiritual precepts, the Iranian Bahá’í community effectively eliminated poverty and achieved universal literacy over the span of six to seven decades. Commitment to the principles of human equality and nobility, moral rectitude, collaborative decision-making, education—particularly of girls, of the exalted station of work, cleanliness and good hygiene, and respect for scientific knowledge as applied to agriculture, commerce and other avenues of human endeavor constituted the basis of a spiritually inspired process of social advancement. For additional perspective on the Bahá’í approach to social and economic progress see Bahá’í International Community, “For the Betterment of the World”, 2002; and In Service to the Common Good: The American Bahá’í Community’s Commitment to Social Change, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 2004. For those interested in apprehending the sources and mechanisms of individual and community empowerment, it would be difficult to find a more compelling example of social transformation than the case of the Iranian Bahá’ís.
In response to Bahá’u’lláh’s call for the creation of a universal culture of collaboration and conciliation, Bahá’ís drawn from almost every cultural and religious tradition “have achieved a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives and that, clearly, is not the expression of any intrinsic moral superiority on their own part…”36One Common Faith, Bahá’í World Centre, 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/969956715 It is an accomplishment “that can properly be described only as spiritual—capable of eliciting extraordinary feats of sacrifice and understanding from ordinary people of every background.”37One Common Faith, Bahá’í World Centre, 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/969956715
So it is clear that from a Bahá’í perspective, a universal identity is a vital precursor to action that is universal in its effects—to the “emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture.”38Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/580032274 In emphasizing our global identity, Bahá’u’lláh presents a conception of life that insists upon a redefinition of all human relationships—between individuals, between human society and the natural world, between the individual and the community, and between individual citizens and their governing institutions.39Bahá’í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind, 1995. Humanity has arrived at the dawn of its maturity, when its “innate excellence”and latent creative capacities can at last find complete expression.40 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/494001842 Accordingly, new social forms and ethical precepts are enunciated in the Bahá’í teachings so that human consciousness can be freed from patterns of response set by tradition, and the foundations of a global society can be erected.
Bahá’u’lláh thus speaks to the reshaping and redirection of social reality. That all individual action and social arrangements must be informed by the principle of the oneness of human relationships, gives rise to a concept of moral and social order that safeguards personal dignity while deepening human solidarity. In recognition of this central insight, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í community, urges all to “embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfillment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history.”41Universal House of Justice, Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002.
From the basic principle of the unity of the world’s peoples are derived virtually all notions concerning human welfare and liberty. If the human race is one, any assertion that a particular racial, ethnic, or national group is in some way superior to the rest of humanity must be dismissed; society must reorganize its life to give practical expression to the principle of equality for all its members regardless of race, creed, or gender;41 each and every person must be enabled to “look into all things with a searching eye” so that truth can be independently ascertained42Bahá’u’lláh emphatically states that “women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.” He insists upon the emancipation of women from long-entrenched patterns of subordination and calls for the full participation of women in the social, economic, and political realms of civilized life. Women: Extracts from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice (Thornhill, Ontario: Bahá’í Canada Publications, 1986), No. 54. Concerning racial equality, Bahá’u’lláh counsels, “Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness.” Cited in Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/486554855 ; and all individuals must be given the opportunity to realize their inherent capabilities and thereby foster “the elevation, the advancement, the education, the protection and the regeneration of the peoples of the earth.”43Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Available at www.bahai.org/r/473374410
In the Bahá’í view, social origin, position, or rank are of no account in the sight of God. As Bahá’u’lláh confirms, “man’s glory lieth in his knowledge, his upright conduct, his praiseworthy character, his wisdom, and not in his nationality or rank.”44Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Available at www.bahai.org/r/327958234. It should be noted, however, that the Bahá’í teachings recognize the need for authority and rank for the purpose of ensuring functionality in the pursuit of community goals. In this regard, all decision-making authority in the Bahá’í administrative system rests not with individuals but elected corporate bodies. A distinction is thus made between the moral and spiritual equality of all human beings and the differentiation that may exist in how individuals serve society. This emphatic declaration of the essential moral and spiritual worth of every human being is echoed in an epistle of Bahá’u’lláh’s to a devoted follower: “Verily, before the one true God, they who are the rulers and lords of men and they that are their subjects and vassals are equal and the same. The ranks of all men are dependent on their potential and capacity. Witness unto this truth are the words, ‘In truth, they are most honored before God who are most righteous.’”45 Bahá’u’lláh, provisional translation, courtesy of the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Hence, embedded in the Bahá’í understanding of human identity is a fundamental expectation of justice and equality of opportunity, as well as an imperative of striving for greater moral awareness and responsibility.
It must be stressed that the “watchword” of the Bahá’í community is “unity in diversity.”46Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/895919188 Oneness and diversity are complementary and inseparable: “That human consciousness necessarily operates through an infinite diversity of individual minds and motivations detracts in no way from its essential unity. Indeed, it is precisely an inherent diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity.”47Bahá’í International Community, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/406673721 Just as integration of the differentiated components of the human body makes possible the higher function of human consciousness, so too is global well-being dependent on the willing give and take, and ultimate collaboration, of humanity’s diverse populations.48The sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to such coordinated interaction among society’s diverse elements as “organic solidarity”—a solidarity governed by the “law of cooperation.” See Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth, pp. 142-3. Acceptance of the concept of unity in diversity implies the development of a global consciousness, a sense of global citizenship, and a love for all of humanity. It induces every individual to realize that, “since the body of humankind is one and indivisible,” each member of the human race is “born into the world as a trust of the whole” and has a responsibility to the whole.49Bahá’í International Community, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/616572370 It further suggests that if a peaceful international community is to emerge, then the complex and varied cultural expressions of humanity must be allowed to develop and flourish, as well as to interact with one another in ever-changing forms of civilization. “The diversity in the human family,” the Bahá’í writings emphasize, “should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”50‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/268841058 More than creating a culture of tolerance, the notion of unity in diversity entails vanquishing corrosive divisions along lines of race, class, gender, nationality, and belief, and erecting a dynamic and cooperative social ethos that reflects the oneness of human nature.
The ideology of difference so ubiquitous in contemporary discourse militates against the possibility of social progress. It provides no basis whereby communities defined by specific backgrounds, customs, or creeds can bridge their divergent perspectives and resolve social tensions. The value of variety and difference cannot be minimized, but neither can the necessity for coexistence, order, and mutual effort. “The supreme need of humanity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá underscores, “is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity.”51‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Available at www.bahai.org/r/322101001 Diversity by itself cannot be regarded as an “ultimate good.”52 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 153.
Unity, in contrast, “is a phenomenon of creative power.”53Cited in Century of Light. Available at www.bahai.org/r/202372160 To foster a global identity, to affirm that we are members of one human family is a deceptively simple but powerful idea. While traditional loyalties and identities must be appreciated and recognized, they are inadequate for addressing the predicament of modernity, and consequently, a higher loyalty, one that speaks to the common destiny of all the earth’s inhabitants, is necessary. And so, in our quest for solutions to the problems that collectively confront us, a first step must involve relinquishing our attachment to lesser loyalties. Yet, while Bahá’u’lláh is saying that at this moment in human social evolution a global identity is vital, an inherent aspect of such a universal identity is recognition of the spiritual reality that animates our inner selves. 54It should be noted that for one who does not arrive at a spiritual understanding of existence, Bahá’u’lláh urges that individual to “at least conduct himself with reason and justice.” Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2002. Available at www.bahai.org/r/653038584 To be sure, a global identity grounded in awareness of our common humanness marks a great step forward from where humanity has been, but a strictly secular or material formulation of global identity is unlikely to provide a sufficient motivational basis for overcoming historic prejudices and engendering universal moral action. Establishing a global milieu of peace, prosperity, and fairness is ultimately a matter of the heart; it involves a change in basic attitudes and values that can only come from recognizing the normative and spiritual nature of the challenges before us. This is especially so given that the vast majority of the world’s peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings responding to material exigencies and circumstances, but rather as beings endowed with spiritual sensibility and purpose.
In light of ongoing social turmoil and the upheavals of the last century, it is simply no longer possible to maintain the belief that human well-being can arise from a narrow materialistic conception of life. The persistence of widespread human deprivation and despair speaks to the shortcomings of prevailing social theories and policies. Fresh approaches are required. A just social polity, Bahá’ís believe, will emerge only when human relations and social arrangements are infused with spiritual intent, an intent characterized by an all-embracing standard of equity, unconditional love, and an ethos of service to others. Addressing practical challenges through a spiritual lens is no easy task, but it is to this objective that Bahá’ís are firmly committed. Through recognition of the centrality of spiritual values and the deeds they inspire, “Minds, hearts and all human forces are reformed, perfections are quickened, sciences, discoveries and investigations are stimulated afresh, and everything appertaining to the virtues of the human world is revitalized.”55 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/008934837 The power of a spiritually-actuated identity in furthering human betterment cannot be overestimated, for those “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.”56Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/194578922
It is still regrettable that the identity of certain individuals or groups emerges from a shared experience of oppression—from being the victims of systematic discrimination or injustice. In addressing this dimension of human identity, Bahá’u’lláh speaks forcefully and repeatedly about the rights and dignity of all human beings, and the indispensability of creating mechanisms of social justice, but He also explains that spiritual oppression is the most serious of all: “What ‘oppression’ is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth…should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?”57Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at www.bahai.org/r/621220243 From this standpoint, it is in the displacement of a transcendent understanding of life by an ascendant materialism that we find the source of the disaffection, anomie, and uncertainty that so pervades modern existence. All forms of oppression ultimately find their genesis in the denial of our essential spiritual identity. As Bahá’u’lláh earnestly counsels us: “Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.”58Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic No. 30. Available at www.bahai.org/r/172419670
These words tell us that we must choose who we wish to be; we must “see” with our “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.”59 Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic No. 2. Available at www.bahai.org/r/099947277 We must create our own sense of self and belonging. To have such power of choice affirms human nobility and is a sign of divine grace. Our different senses of identity consequently become fully realized through the development of our spiritual identity; they each provide a means for achieving our basic existential purpose—the recognition and refinement of the spiritual capacities latent within us. Through the tangible expression of such capacities—compassion, trustworthiness, humility, courage, forbearance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good—we define a path of spiritual growth. In the end, though, whether we have attained our spiritual potential is enshrouded in mystery: “the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.”60‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/199999278
Connected with the idea of spiritual identity, then, is the inalienable sanctity of every human soul; that a unique destiny has been bestowed upon each of us by an all-loving Creator—a destiny which unfolds in accordance with the free exercise of our rational and moral powers. As Bahá’u’lláh indicates, “How lofty is the station which man, if he but choose to fulfill his high destiny, can attain!”61 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/397234171 This promise of new vistas of accomplishment for both the individual and society, is, for Bahá’ís, a source of enduring confidence and optimism. The forces now buffeting and recasting human life, Bahá’u’lláh attests, will serve to release the “potentialities inherent in the station of man,” thereby giving impetus to “an ever-advancing civilization.”62Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/494001842
The Bahá’í belief in the spiritual nature of reality, and its underlying unity, sheds new light on the question of religious identity. In stressing 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,”63Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407719266 Bahá’u’lláh is confirming a basic intuition that the truth underpinning the world’s great religions is in essence one. This explicit rejection of exclusivity and superiority, which have so dominated religious thinking and behavior, and suppressed impulses to reconciliation and unity, clears the ground for a new ethos of mutual understanding. For indeed, to believe that one’s system of belief is somehow superior or unique, has only led humankind to misery, despair, and ruin. In warning His followers never to assume what their own spiritual end might be, Bahá’u’lláh plants the seeds of humility and spiritual maturity so necessary for the creation of a world of tolerance and tranquility. In recognizing the divine origin of the world’s great religions, and that they have each served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society, the Bahá’í Faith does not and cannot make any claim of religious finality, but rather a claim of paramount relevance to humanity’s current spiritual and social plight. Its role as a reconciler and unifier of religions is clearly anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh: “A different Cause…hath appeared in this day and a different discourse is required.”64 Bahá’u’lláh, The Tabernacle of Unity (Bahá’í World Centre, 2006). Available at www.bahai.org/r/855801133
Bahá’u’lláh clarifies that a moral logic pervades the fabric of human life, and that it is through observance of spiritual principles that the individual can realize the divinely intended goal of his or her existence. As beings capable of spiritual and moral development, our autonomy and welfare are not only determined by the laws and constraints of the natural world, but also by an objective spiritual world that is integrally related to it. To follow a moral path is not only to carry out the duties that we have to those around us, but is the only means for realizing true happiness and contentment. Our obligations to God, our inner selves, our family, and the wider community give definition to who we are and what our aims should be. For Bahá’ís, fulfillment of these obligations to the Divine will and to our fellow human beings ensures the emergence of a stable and progressive society. Moreover, by honoring such responsibilities, the nobility and rights of others are protected. In this sense, it is the requirement of individuals’ being able to meet primary spiritual and moral obligations that safeguards human rights.65This is not to suggest that duties prevail over or precede rights, but that the recognition and exercise of such duties provide the very framework for actualizing human rights. There is a complementary relationship between rights and duties. That individuals have specific entitlements or needs, informs us of particular duties that attach to other individuals or the broader society.
The Bahá’í teachings explain that moral insight is both transcendentally and dialogically derived. The values and ideals that bind human beings together, and give tangible direction and meaning to life, find their origins in the guidance provided by the Founders of the world’s great religious systems. At the same time, it is human action in response to such guidance that gives real shape to social reality. Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that all such action must be consultatively-inspired and directed. Given that human life has a “fundamentally dialogical character,” it is through interchange that individuals and the communities they compose are able to give definition to their identities and their long-term goals.66Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 33 Consultation can lead to the creation of new social meanings and social forms that reflect what is reasonable and fair for society to achieve. But any such process of collective deliberation and decision-making, the Bahá’í writings insist, must be devoid of adversarial posturing as well as dispassionate and fully participatory in spirit. It is through discourse which is inclusive and unifying that the religious impulse finds expression in the modern age.
Clearly, there can never be an absolutely objective or static understanding of what constitutes concepts such as social equity, human security, power, “the common good,” democracy, or community. There is an evolutionary aspect to social development—a dynamic process of learning, dialogue, and praxis in which social challenges and solutions are constantly redefined and reassessed. There are always multiple understandings of particular social questions and these diverse perspectives each typically contain some measure of validity. By building a broader framework of analysis that encompasses not only material and technical variables but the normative and spiritual dimensions of various social issues, new insights can emerge that enrich dialogues previously locked into narrow conceptual boundaries. A unifying sense of identity can obviously play an important role in facilitating and sustaining such a consultative path.
In many ways, the struggle to understand our identity is tied up with the question of meaning in modern life. Increasingly, calls are being made for rooting meaning and identity in community, but when the community is religiously, morally, and culturally pluralistic in character it is challenging for diverse voices to find common ground. It is here where the Bahá’í concepts of unity in diversity and non-adversarial dialogue and decision-making can offer a potent alternative vision of social advancement. Engaging in a cooperative search for truth will no doubt lead to the discovery and implementation of shared perspectives and values. Such open moral dialogue within and among variegated communities can lead to a process of action, reflection, and adjustment resulting in genuine social learning and progress.67The evolving international human rights discourse is one significant example of such cross-cultural moral exchange. As Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, “No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”68 Bahá’u’lláh, in Consultation: A Compilation (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 3.
Meaning emerges from an independent search for truth and a chosen freedom grounded in social experience and social participation—a participation that leads to the enlargement of the self. Participation creates new identities and new solidarities. In Bahá’í communities around the globe, patterns of fellowship, knowledge-building, and collaboration among diverse peoples are giving rise to a new human culture. Bahá’ís have found that encouraging new modalities of association and participation is key to promoting meaningful social development and effective local governance that is democratic in spirit and method. Hence, Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that fellowship and sincere association “are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations.”69Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/787830813
Human beings are social beings. The self, therefore, cannot evolve outside of human relationships. Indeed, the self develops principally through endeavors that are participatory in nature. Virtues such as generosity, loyalty, mercy, and self-abnegation cannot be manifested in isolation from others. The Bahá’í teachings affirm that the essential arena of moral choice is the autonomous person. But this autonomy is exercised within a broader social context, as well as an all-encompassing spiritual reality that informs the nature of that social context. The Bahá’í teachings thus offer a social conception of human identity in which the inner aspirations of the self are aligned with the goals of a just and creative global polity. In this way, the Bahá’í community is able to reconcile “the right” with the “good.”70In the vocabulary of moral philosophy, “the good” refers to a vision of happiness, human well-being, or a specific way of life. Thus, many conceptions of “the good” are possible. “The right” refers to types of principled or just action—binding duties, codes and standards that regulate and guide how individuals pursue their particular notions of “the good.” Modern liberal thought, going back to Immanuel Kant, places emphasis on “the right” over “the good.” Communitarians have critiqued this view, arguing that it has led to the exaggerated individualism of Western society.
Individual well-being is intimately tied to the flourishing of the whole. It is a reciprocated benevolence, founded on the ideals of service and selflessness, rather than utilitarian self-interest, that underlies the Bahá’í idea of social life. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good.”71‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/006593911 While preservation of “personal freedom and initiative” is considered essential, so too must the relational aspect of human existence be recognized. The “maintenance of civilized life,” the Universal House of Justice explains, “calls for the utmost degree of understanding and cooperation between society and the individual; and because of the need to foster a climate in which the untold potentialities of the individual members of society can develop, this relationship must allow ‘free scope’ for ‘individuality to assert itself’ through modes of spontaneity, initiative and diversity that ensure the viability of society.”72 Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/437022378
Given the social matrix of human reality, the quest for true self-determination and true identity involves finding one’s place within a moral order, not outside it. But in the Bahá’í view, such “ordered liberty” concerns the awakening of the soul to the capacities of integrity, kindness, and sincerity that lie within it. And spiritual growth of this kind must be fostered by the community in which the individual is embedded. Any conception of “the good”—an equitable society promoting the development of individual potential—must recognize the necessity of imbuing the concept of duty into society’s members. In this respect, laws and ethical standards are intended not to constrain but to liberate human consciousness so that a moral ethos can come into being. To a great degree, then, the emergence of the citizen devoted to a moral praxis results from the collective voice of the community. Although a path of social virtue and service must be freely chosen, the community must strive to cultivate and empower this voice.73 For more on this point, see Amitai Etzioni, The Monochrome Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 221-45. The ultimate expression of this spiritually motivated moral voice is a culture where action flows not from externally imposed duties and rights but from the spontaneous love that each member of the community has for one another. From our shared recognition that we are all sheltered under the love of the same God comes both humility and the means for true social cohesion.
This spiritually-based conception of social life goes beyond notions of mutual advantage and prudence associated with the idea of the social contract. While the principle of self-interested, rational exchange implied by the social contract indisputably represents an advance over coercion as a basis for social existence, there surely exists a step beyond exchange. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum states, the pursuit of “individual ends” must “include shared ends.”74Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap and Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 9-95. Social cooperation, as manifested through a “global society of peoples,” she argues, cannot be based on seeking mutual advantage, but can only result from recognizing that “a central part of our good is to live in a world that is morally decent, a world in which all human beings have what they need to live a life with dignity.”75Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap and Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 9-95. Yet, Nussbaum’s thoughtful critique of current social forms falls short in outlining a pathway for mediating among divergent identities and value systems so that unity on a global scale becomes a realistic possibility. For without a genuine, transcending love emanating from the heart of human consciousness and motivation, it is unlikely that contending peoples and cultures can come together to form a harmonious and interdependent whole. Under the pluralism of the social contract, however enlightened that pluralism may be, disunity reigns.76To acknowledge the limitations of pluralism, however, is not to deny the centrality of individual and group autonomy, civil rights, and democratic values to human well-being. What is being critiqued here is a pluralism that is unable to foster a definite vision of the common good.
Bahá’u’lláh instead offers a covenant of universal fellowship, a spiritually-empowered ethic of deep and abiding commitment, as the basis for collective life. As a result of this covenant of oneness, in the deprivation and suffering of others we see ourselves. Such a frame of reference opens the door to critical reflection and real social transformation. In the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.”77‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/015747998
The Bahá’í concept of an inhering human diversity leading to higher forms of unity suggests that we can and must move beyond a liberal construction of pluralism that is unable to provide an overarching vision of human development. But rather than engaging in a quixotic quest to overcome the innumerable evils at work in society or right the “countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age,” Bahá’ís are devoting their energy to building the world anew.78Universal House of Justice, May 24, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/413655933 As we have seen, recognizing the essential spiritual character of our identity is a defining feature of this project. Further, at this moment in our collective evolution, the appropriate locus for action is the globe in its entirety, where all members of the human family are joined together in a common enterprise of promoting justice and social integration. Here, it should be noted that the Bahá’í teachings envision social and political development unfolding in two directions: upward beyond the nation-state and downward to the grassroots of society. Both are vital and interlinked. In this regard, the Bahá’í community offers its own unique system of governance as a model for study.79Bahá’ís attach great importance to cooperative decision-making and assign organizational responsibility for community affairs to freely elected governing councils at the local, national, and international levels. Bahá’u’lláh designated these governing councils “Houses of Justice.” This administrative system devolves decision-making to the lowest practicable level—thereby instituting a unique vehicle for grassroots participation in governance—while at the same time providing a level of coordination and authority that makes possible collaboration and unity on a global scale. A unique feature of the Bahá’í electoral process is the maximum freedom of choice given to the electorate through the prohibition of nominations, candidature and solicitation. Election to Bahá’í administrative bodies is based not on personal ambition but rather on recognized ability, mature experience, and a commitment to service. Because the Bahá’í system does not allow the imposition of the arbitrary will or leadership of individuals, it cannot be used as a pathway to power. Decision-making authority rests only with the elected bodies themselves. All members of the Bahá’í community, no matter what position they may temporarily occupy in the administrative structure, are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of their Faith. Significantly, in many parts of the world, the first exercises in democratic activity have occurred within the Bahá’í community. Bahá’ís believe that this consultatively-based administrative system offers a useful example of the institutional structures necessary for global community life. For more on the underlying principles of the Bahá’í Administrative Order see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/922842353.
Bahá’u’lláh provides us with a potent new moral grammar that allows us to appreciate and nurture human diversity while expanding our horizons beyond the parochial to a solidarity encompassing the boundaries of the planet itself. By extending human identity outward to embrace the totality of human experience, Bahá’u’lláh offers a vision of a comprehensive good that recognizes and values the particular while promoting an integrating framework of global learning and cooperation. His summons to unity articulates an entirely new ethics and way of life—one that flows from a spiritual understanding of human history, purpose, and development. He also gives us new tools that allow us to negotiate amongour diverse perceptions and construct unified modes of living without resorting to adversarial means and the culture of protest that heretofore have characterized even the most advanced democratic polities. He exhorts us to “flee” from “dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy…”80 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Available at www.bahai.org/r/852608044
By redefining human identity, the Bahá’í teachings anticipate the moral reconstruction of all human practices—a process that involves the remaking of individual behavior and the reformulation of institutional structures. It entails the internalization of spiritual concepts so that the theory, assessment, and reformation of social affairs reflect the ideals of altruism, moderation, reciprocity, and justice. When society draws upon the spiritual mainspring of human identity and purpose, truly constructive avenues of social change can be pursued. “Among the results of the manifestation of spiritual forces,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirms “will be that the human world will adapt itself to a new social form…and human equality will be universally established.”81‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/841208804
In our very longing for a world free from violence and injustice, lie the seeds of hope. But such hope can only be sustained by the certitude conferred by faith. As the Universal House of Justice assures us: “The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs…That our Earth has contracted into a neighbourhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books.”82Universal House of Justice, On the Occasion of the Official Opening of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb, May 22, 2001. Available at https://news.bahai.org/story/119/