“So powerful is the light of unity …”

[UPDATED 8/14/2017] I woke up this morning to the news of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville is not merely a random place on the map to me. I spent four years there as a graduate student at the University of Virginia. Like many people who move there, I quickly fell in love with the town. Charlottesville is a special place. It is a beautiful small town with a vibrant cultural life. It is place where people actually know there neighbors and (usually) get along with them. It is a friendly town where you can generally count on strangers to help you. I hope it remains that way.

I have said little publicly about the current situation in the U.S. because I am a Bahá’í, and Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), the prophet-founder of our Faith, forbade us from participating in partisan politics in any way. His son and the appointed Center of His Covenant with humanity, Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), made this injunction even clearer: “Speak thou no word of politics; thy task concerneth the life of the soul, for this verily leadeth to man’s joy in the world of God.” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá 53.2) It has become almost impossible to say anything in the U.S. without being understood as taking a political stand. I have therefore held my tongue except on issues where the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith are clear and I felt I could take my stand on religious and human grounds

Abdu'l-Bahá, image credit http://centenary.bahai.us/photo/formal-portrait-abdul-baha
The Bahá’í Faith has, since the very moment of its inception, upheld the unity of all peoples, declared justice to be the prerequisite to the establishment of peace and prosperity in the world, championed the equality of women and men,  condemned racism and prejudice as a poison in veins of human society, opposed tyranny and oppression in all forms, disavowed the use of coercion or violence in the promotion of the truth, and called for the moral and spiritual rejuvenation of humanity. Beginning with Bahá’u’lláh Himself, Bahá’ís around the world have worked tirelessly, suffered terribly, and at times been martyred in the promotion of these principles for the good of all humans. As Bahá’u’lláh informed the one European who left a written record of his meeting with Him:

Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile … We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment … That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled—what harm is there in this? … Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most great Peace’ shall come … (E.G. Browne, A Traveller’s Narrative, pp xxxix-xl)

It might seem natural that a faith devoted to the unification of all humanity and the establishment of world peace would involve itself in political contests in an effort to promote its ideals. Why do Bahá’ís refuse to do so?

The answer is simple, but it’s implications are far-reaching. Partisan politics in any form is inherently divisive. When a human society is broken up into organized competing groups it is inevitable—no matter the intention behind that division—that the self-interest of these competing groups will sooner or later render all attempts at mutual discussion and cooperative action fruitless. Once that point has been reached, society and government become locked in a power struggle. Winning is impossible because any short-term advantage gained by one side simply exacerbates the rancor and animosity of the other, leading to ever-increasing strife and disunity and ultimately to the destruction of that society and government.

Ironically, the threat of political parties and divisiveness was long ago recognized by American leaders and thinkers. In his farewell address, George Washington warned us:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Since that time many individuals have noted that democracies have a peculiar propensity to destroy themselves even when no external force could bring them down. The situation in the U.S. has reached this level. We are, to borrow Lincoln’s words, “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” We need to recognize the peril that our nation faces and find real solutions to our problems. In particular, we need to realize that the only way to win this war is to stop fighting.

Discussion and decision making are hopeless from the outset if we enter the discussion convinced of our separateness and disunity. Under those conditions each side assumes ill-will and deceit on the part of the other. People do not accept the validity of an argument—however rational—when they see the person proposing it as their enemy. A number of recent studies have claimed to prove this, but it’s hardly a new revelation. In discussing the U.S., Alexis de Tocqueville observed in early 1800s, “Men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends.” If discussion is going to arrive at the truth and make good decisions, we must have no enemies. We must consult together as a unified group of friends, each wishing the best for the other, and each determined to find the best solution to the problem before us. Otherwise nothing can result but division and confusion.

This is precisely the situation in which America now finds itself. As the country becomes ever-more divided, the two sides have begun to inhabit separate realities. Each side considers anything the other side says untrue by definition. Neither side will listen to the other. The situation grows worse day by day. How can we find a way out of this potentially fatal impasse? We have to begin talking to one another again instead of always talking at one another. We have to stop vilifying each other, calling each other names, and posting hateful memes about one another. Above all, we must refrain from violence. Far from ameliorating the situation, these actions only exacerbate the divisions that are at the root of the problem. It is rather like pouring lighter fluid on a fire in the hope of extinguishing it: an action foredoomed to failure.

Unkind words cannot carry us forward or bring about a more just, unified, and equitable society, but kind words may be able to do so. Bahá’u’lláh taught that “A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.” When we speak to one another as fellow humans and well-wishers, there is at least the possibility of understanding one another and touching each other’s hearts. When we resort to unkind words, there is no such possibility.

This approach is not foreign to the American way of doing things. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us to oppose hatred with love, to oppose violence with “soul power.” On 17 November, 1957, in Montgomery, Alabama, King gave a sermon now known as the “Loving your Enemies” sermon (the full text of the sermon may be found at https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218225514/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol4/17-Nov-1957_LovingYourEnemies.pdf). He urged his listeners to look for the good in their opponents:

A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to dis- cover the element of good in his enemy. And every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points. … Even the nation that hates you most has some good in it. Even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls the “imageofGod,”you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. And there is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy.And asyou seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

He extolled the power of love to change others, our society, and ourselves.

There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet.Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating. ButJesus comes to us and says, “This isn’t the way.”

1024px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_edit
He warned of the futility of returning hatred for hatred.

One of them [the ways of responding to oppression] is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh, this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I have said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their strug- gle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.

He urged everyone to oppose love to hatred and non-violence to violence.

But there is another way. And that is to organize mass nonviolent resistance based on the principle oflove. It seems to me that this is the only way. As our eyes look to the future, as we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.Jesus discovered that.

King knew, as did Abdu’l-Bahá, that love conquers hate, that far from handing them the victory, loving your enemies is the surest–the only–method by which oppression can be overcome and injustices set right. These were Abdu’l-Bahá’s exhortations to the people of the world:

Be ye loving fathers to the orphan, and a refuge to the helpless, and a treasury for the poor, and a cure for the ailing. Be ye the helpers of every victim of oppression, the patrons of the disadvantaged. Think ye at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race. Pay ye no heed to aversion and rejection, to disdain, hostility, injustice: act ye in the opposite way. Be ye sincerely kind, not in appearance only. Let each one of God’s loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. Let him improve the character of each and all, and reorient the minds of men. In this way, the light of divine guidance will shine forth, and the blessings of God will cradle all mankind: for love is light, no matter in what abode it dwelleth; and hate is darkness, no matter where it may make its nest. O friends of God! That the hidden Mystery may stand revealed, and the secret essence of all things may be disclosed, strive ye to banish that darkness for ever and ever. (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá 1.7)

As difficult as it may be, I believe these are teachings we must follow if we hope to see a brighter future for the U.S. and for the world as a whole. No matter how much we disagree, no matter how much we are provoked, we must continue to talk to one another and look for the good and the true in each other. In short, we must find our shared humanity once again. In this way the “world-devouring fire” of hatred that “cannot but result in strife and ruin” may be quenched and the light of unity and justice “illuminate the whole earth.”

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