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The Meaning of Community - a Baha'i Perspective

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

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

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

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

Because spiritual values have the power to simultaneously unite peoples and transform political order into a moral community, the Bahá'í Faith has tremendous capacities to promulgate the model of a healthy, dynamic community. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Faith, writing about the Bahá'ís, once referred to "the society-building power which their Faith possesses."

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

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

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

...the meaning of Community is a meaning which can only be gradually unfolded as our experience in living the ideals of Community grows and evolves. Beyond our sense of friendship and fellowship and social interaction there is the reality of spiritual unity.... ...unity is the essence of the Bahá'í Faith, because it is the principle of spiritual unity applied at a social level, a spiritual unity which has never before been realized in any community, a spiritual unity which flows from the communion of the individual soul with God and from the vision of God revealed in the soul of every other believer in that Community.

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

That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race.... Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth.... It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.

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

Universal benefits derive from the grace of the Divine religions, for they lead their true followers to sincerity of intent, to high purpose, to purity and spotless honor, to surpassing kindness and compassion, to the keeping of their covenants when they have covenanted, to concern for the rights of others, to liberality, to justice in every aspect of life, to humanity and philanthropy, to valor and to unflagging efforts in the service of mankind. It is religion, to sum up, which produces all human virtues, and it is these virtues which are the bright candles of civilization.

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

Faith alone, no matter how wholehearted and sincere, affords no basis on which the organic unity of a religious fellowship can endure... The Bahá'í teaching has this vital distinction, that it extends from the realm of conscience and faith to the realm of social action. It confirms the substance of faith not merely as a source of individual development but as a definitely ordered relationship to the community.

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

Sovereignty, in the Bahá'í community, is attributed to the Divine prophet, and the elected representatives of the believers in their administrative function look to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh for their guidance, having faith that the application of His universal principles is the source of order throughout the community. Every Bahá'í administrative body feels itself a trustee, and in this capacity stands above the plane of dissension and is free of that pressure exerted by factional groups.

Here one finds an application of the concept of "stewardship," as mentioned by Selznick. Indeed, as Holley says, the Local Spiritual Assembly, the council that is elected annually, "represents the collective conscience of the community with respect to Bahá'í activities." In short,

Spiritual Assemblies, local and national, combine an executive, a legislative and a judicial function, all within the limits set by the Bahá'í teachings.... They are primarily responsible for the maintenance of unity within the Bahá'í community and for the release of its collective power in service to the Cause.

The administrative model conceived by Bahá'u'lláh promotes a concept of leadership embodying trustworthiness, wisdom, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and whose highest expression is service to the community. It also fosters collective decision making and collective action through a process called "consultation." Conducted in a spirit of unity, its purpose is to search out the truth. Those engaged in the process are enjoined to express their views with "all freedom," but at the same time "with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care, and moderation." In this way, participants can avoid antagonism and conflict, and all can freely express their views without fear of displeasing or alienating anyone. Here, one sees how the "right" of freedom of speech is balanced by the "responsibility" of moderate expression. Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh states that "Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation." Its influence, He says, "is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure," and its moderation should be "combined with tact and wisdom."

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

And indeed, the spirit of unity underlying their communities and the structures that govern them are not only for Bahá'ís, who believe that through time a unified global community will be forged, whether "reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior" or "embraced now by an act of consultative will." As Shoghi Effendi wrote,

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

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

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

In the Bahá'í view, such a development is not a utopian vision; it is the next and highest step in the development of "an ever-advancing civilization," "the furthermost limits in the organization of human society."

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

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

Further, He states,

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

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

O members of parliaments throughout the world! Select ye a single language for the use of all on earth, and adopt ye likewise a common script.... This will be the cause of unity, could ye but comprehend it, and the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization, would that ye might understand!

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

This momentous and historic step, involving the reconstruction of mankind, as the result of the universal recognition of its oneness and wholeness, will bring in its wake the spiritualization of the masses, consequently to the recognition of the character, and the acknowledgment of the claims, of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh--the essential condition to that ultimate fusion of all races, creeds, classes, and nations which must signalize the emergence of His New World Order.

"Then," Shoghi Effendi continues, "will the coming of age of the entire human race be proclaimed and celebrated by all the peoples and nations of the earth." The "Most Great Peace" will be established with the universal recognition of the message of unity brought by Bahá'u'lláh, following which "a world civilization [will] be born, flourish, and perpetuate itself, a civilization with a fullness of life such as the world has never seen nor can as yet conceive."

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

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

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

Bahá'u'lláh delivered His message to humanity short years after Keats penned these lines. "The world's equilibrium," He stated, "hath been upset by the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind's ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System--the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed." Bahá'u'lláh called the peoples of the world together in unity; He delineated the structure of a community that can function unitedly on the local, national, and global levels to promote justice and build a peaceful world. When considering the challenges facing communities at the end of the twentieth century, thinking people would do well to study the model that has brought together, in some 177 years, around seven million people from extremely diverse backgrounds and has enabled them to establish a single, united global community that both nourishes the individual and safeguards the good of the whole. These are indeed, in Keats' words, "mighty workings": here is a model that can benefit all the inhabitants of the planet.

Ann Boyles offers a perspective on the meaning of "community," its condition today, and what it will look like in the next millenium. This article appeared in the 1996-97 edition of The Bahá'í World,pp. 197-219.



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