The Concept of Covenant

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Covenant, it has long been recognized, is not merely a theological concept but it has been termed the most powerful and enduring form of political foundation and one of the "fundamental political concepts illuminating the origins and basis of political life." Since the earliest biblical covenants uniting the Israelite tribes, the idea that human political relationships, like the relationship between God and humanity, ought to be based on "compact, association, and consent" has provided various peoples the inspiration and pattern for community organization and state building. According to Elazar, the resurgence of this world view in sixteenth-century Reformed Protestant Christianity in Europe gave rise to the federal theology on which English and American Puritans, Huguenots, and Scottish Covenanters based their political theories and constitutional principles, and which influenced the development of federal states in Switzerland and the Netherlands as well as the federation of the New England colonies into the United States of America. Moreover, he notes, "the biblical vision for the `end of days'--the messianic era" includes an extension of this divine "grand design" for human polity to "a world confederation or league of nations, each preserving its own integrity while accepting a common divine covenant and constitutional order. This order will establish appropriate covenantal relationships for the entire world."


The idea of covenant refers to a constellation of concepts: the free and willing recognition of a binding duty, originating in or guaranteed by a transcendent source, to act together in a collective enterprise defined by a purpose and according to a set of precepts or laws, with accountability in the form of blessing and benefits for fulfillment and punishment and retribution for failure. The vast ramifications of this idea become apparent when we consider a few of the implications that can be traced to the idea of covenant. The element of free and willing recognition is the origin of the principle of consent, as the basis of free society and self-government. The recognition of a binding duty generates the concept of strong obligation through the recognition of authority. The location of the duty in a transcendent, divine source is the pivot of the idea of legitimation. In the summons to a collective, purposive enterprise the community is created, implying for each individual a commitment to participate and engendering a sense of identity, loyalty, and responsibility. The set of precepts that guide and direct this enterprise define the character of the moral and political order of the community. It is here we find the content of law, rights and responsibilities, the hierarchy of values, and the virtues entailed by them. It can also be seen here that, because of its centrality to the lives and well-being of all the individuals who belong to it, that collective enterprise is itself an entity which has rights (in virtue of its responsibilities), and all those who identify themselves with this community share an obligation to give attention and care to the protection of the community as a whole. And finally, the element of retribution and proportionality is the basic principle underlying all forms of accountability and is a fundamental component of all moral codes.


The vehicle for ensuring the orderly practice, maintenance, and transmission of a society's values is its institutions. The specification of institutional structure can be considered as a separate formal element of a covenant, but the history of revealed covenants is notable for the absence of provisions for institutions or the scope of their authority. That this absence has been the prime cause of intrareligious conflict and schism highlights the profound significance and unprecedented potentiality of the institutional arrangements in the Bahá'í Faith. The structures and principles of the Bahá'í Administrative Order are not only clearly specified in the texts whose authority is universally recognized by Bahá'ís, but they are the subject of a special revealed covenant. The specific provisions of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant ensure the integrity as well as the flexibility and responsiveness of the system of governance, and guarantee the unity of the Bahá'í Faith itself by eliminating the historical cause of schism.


It has been pointed out that the covenantal element specifying the precepts governing social behavior is the historical source of bills of rights, not as a "legalistic limit on the power of government, but rather as a celebration of the fundamental value commitments of a people." According to Donald S. Lutz, the current concept of a "legalistic bill of rights...is a direct descendent of [this] foundation element found in covenants." Numerous colonial Bills of Liberty exemplifying the people's "value commitments all point to the earlier covenants, and the Bible that underlies them, rather than to any Magna Carta or English common law tradition." It has also been suggested that, in addition to the tendency to federal structure, democratic participation and collective, consensus-oriented decision-making are intrinsic aspects of covenantal polity.


In the covenantal concept of authority, the obligation to obey the law arises as a consequence of the relationship one recognizes and freely affirms between oneself and the source of those laws. Bahá'u'lláh begins His Most Holy Book, his Book of Laws, with a renewal of the great Covenant. "The first duty" is recognition of the authority of the Lawgiver; the second is to observe His ordinances. Here, we can see, morality is grounded in belief as "conscious knowledge" and begins with a duty, not a right. Consequently, it can be seen, the right to religious freedom comes into being, as a human right, in order to be able to fulfill the duty of obedience to God. That is, it becomes a civil right as a result of being held as a religious conviction.


The order of the two duties of recognition and obedience has an important implication. Obedience, in a covenant, follows only as a consequence of the genuine recognition of a source of authority higher than oneself. This is why the covenantal form of legitimation and authority can never be confused with authoritarianism because it is noncoercive by definition, beginning as it does with the free, uncoerced consent of individual reason. Thus, those who have seen coercion lurking wherever there is "transcendent authority," who feel that anyone who believes in a universal truth is bound to feel justified in forcing it on someone else, simply fail to recognize the critical point that coercion is entirely inconsistent with, and indeed, vitiates the principle of covenant. Although recognition of God is a duty, it cannot be performed at all unless it is consent willingly given, for coerced belief is no belief at all.


Thus, in the past when ecclesiastical institutions undertook, without warrant in their own scriptures, to make affiliation in a particular faith or sect mandatory and to use force upon those who were not believers, this was itself a contradiction of the most basic principle of the divine Covenant.


However, the voluntary principle means that once one has given consent, recognized the authority of the lawgiver, and become a party to the covenantal relationship, one has obligated oneself to the relationship, with all its provisions and implications. This conception of consent makes the covenantal relation very different from the social contract, and contemporary notions of contract, where individual interests are the measure of the contract itself. Selznick writes: "a social ethic is the linchpin of the covenant.... This social ethic is something more than a natural, unconscious acceptance of social norms." It "suggests an indefeasible commitment and a continuing relationship." Moreover, as he has noted, covenant is the foundation for all other particular promises and contracts. In a covenant, we enter into a relationship, which is not determined by purely individual interests. Entering it constitutes an affirmation that our own best interests are necessarily located within it, and that they are inextricably interrelated with those with whom we share membership in this collective enterprise. The covenant thus integrates the private and the public, the spiritual and the temporal, as through the personal covenant with God the individual enters the social covenant. Miller writes of this idea as it was once conceptualized:

The personal covenant of the soul with God is impaled on the same axis as the social, like a small circle within a larger. Before entering into both the personal and social covenants men have a liberty to go their own gait; afterwards they have renounced their liberty to do anything but that which has been agreed upon. The mutual consenting involved in a covenant, says Hooker, is the "sement" which solders together all societies, political or ecclesiastical; "for there is no man constrained to enter into such a condition unlesse he will: and he that will enter, must also willingly binde and ingage himself to each member of that society to promote the good of the whole, or else a member actually he is not."

The covenantal concept of social interdependence is expressed as an encompassing, global perspective in the Bahá'í writings, in the central principle of the oneness of humanity. `Abdu'l-Bahá writes of Bahá'u'lláh's teaching:

The Blessed Beauty saith: "Ye are all the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch." Thus hath He likened this world of being to a single tree, and all its peoples to the leaves thereof, and the blossoms and fruits. It is needful for the bough to blossom, and leaf and fruit to flourish, and upon the interconnection of all parts of the world-tree, dependeth the flourishing of leaf and blossom, and the sweetness of the fruit. For this reason must all human beings powerfully sustain one another and seek for everlasting life; and for this reason must the lovers of God in this contingent world become the mercies and the blessings sent forth by that clement King of the seen and unseen realms. Let them purify their sight and behold all humankind as leaves and blossoms and fruits of the tree of being. Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines.

This view of human interdependence is reflected in Shoghi Effendi's explanation of the Bahá'í conception of society as based on the subordination of "every particularistic interest, be it personal, regional, or national, to the paramount interests of humanity, firmly convinced that in a world of interdependent peoples and nations the advantage of the part is best to be reached by the advantage of the whole, and that no abiding benefit can be conferred upon the component parts if the general interests of the entity itself are ignored or neglected." As the Universal House of Justice has explained,

This relationship, so fundamental to the maintenance of civilized life, 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.

The implications of such a model, and such a vision, to serve as the foundation of a global social order are developed in the Bahá'í International Community's statement, The Prosperity of Humankind:

Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals, each one of whom is endowed with intelligence and will; nevertheless, the modes of operation that characterize man's biological nature illustrate fundamental principles of existence. Chief among these is that of unity in diversity. Paradoxically, it is precisely the wholeness and complexity of the order constituting the human body--and the perfect integration into it of the body's cells--that permit the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each of these component elements. No cell lives apart from the body, whether in contributing to its function or in deriving its share from the well-being of the whole. The physical well-being thus achieved finds its purpose in making possible the expression of human consciousness; that is to say, the purpose of biological development transcends the mere existence of the body and its parts. What is true of the life of the individual has its parallels in human society. The human species is an organic whole, the leading edge of the evolutionary process. 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 inhering diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity. What the peoples of the world are today experiencing, Bahá'u'lláh said, is their collective coming-of-age, and it is through this emerging maturity of the race that the principle of unity in diversity will find full expression.... ...Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions.

The principle of interdependence and the relationship of the interests of the individual and society naturally has crucial implications for the concepts of governance and of justice.

Wendy M. Heller explores the religious origins of the organizing principles of civil society, tracks their secularization in the modern era, and examines the prospect of an inclusive global moral order based on the enduring concept of covenant. This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 185-222.

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