Friday, April 08, 2005

Voice to the Voiceless

Ever since I first came out onto the Internet, various people have said "If you are so concerned about Baha'i issues, why don't you re-enroll and try to solve the community's problems from within the community?" My answer is that, as a condition for re-enrollment, my silence on issues would be required; I would lose my voice, and thus any chance to influence anything. I had no influence whatsoever when I was an enrolled member of the Baha'i Faith -- I'm not entirely certain I have any now. But I do have a voice, and it can't be silenced by anyone's threats.

[Somehow, I can already hear the condemnations of those who think that for anyone to wish for "influence" is blameworthy. But here's what Baha'u'llah says: The influence of individual souls is and always will be beloved. For the influence of each soul is its fruit, and a soul without influence is considered a tree without fruit in the most great realm. Tablet of the Son, Juan Cole translation]

This, of course, isn't the way it is supposed to be. Baha'u'llah made consultation an essential part of community practice; discussion, debate, free give-and-take until a satisfactory consensus is reached -- that's the way problems are supposed to be solved within the Baha'i community. A believer is supposed to be free to bring up any matter during the consultative portion at Feast, or at Convention; we are free to write to any Baha'i institution or official we like. In fact, this is the justification given for the relatively recent prohibition on public criticism -- that there is no reason for it, since there are ample opportunities to address issues within the community without making them public.

But Baha'is, if they take them to these internal channels, put themselves at risk -- as happened in the case that Baquia recently brought to our attention. Another example is a new poster on Beliefnet, who was turned in because of something he said to a friend in private emails. These are only two of many, many cases that I've been told about. In theory, we are free to express our conscience; in reality, any time one Baha'i talks to another Baha'i he puts himself at risk of being threatened with sanctions. And administration defenders got so angry when Juan called the Baha'i community a "panopticon"!

The thing that really turns my stomach is that it is all cloaked in concern for the person's spiritual well-being -- those that question the direction the institutions are taking the Faith are told they have a "spiritual problem". That is, one's state of spiritual health is not judged by one's honesty, one's generosity, or compassion. Loyalty to religious authority is the yardstick by which spiritual progress is measured. It's downright pathological, not to mention completely opposed to what Baha'u'llah said on the subject. According to these people, there are just some things that a Baha'i isn't supposed to think at all, let alone say to anyone.

So, the reality is that Baha'is really have no safe avenue for protest or criticism -- with one quiet exception: That of withholding financial support. There has been a good deal of discussion about this on Beliefnet Baha'i Debate lately. Baquia brought forward a suggestion on his weblog, that one could tie up funds in "Ten Year Gifts" that cannot be legally sent elsewhere; only the interest is available. (I presume this is Canadian law; I don't know what U.S. law would be.) Matt, our new poster on Beliefnet is saying that people should simply halve their contributions, until they get a response. My own suggestion was that those who are unhappy with the way funds are being spent should simply send the fund envelope which comes to them every month in the *American Baha'i* back to Wilmette, either empty, or with a typed, unsigned note outlining their reasons for not supporting the fund. Having a voice is worth the price of a stamp once a month.

Now, I should make it clear that I have no wish to pursuade people of my point of view. Anyone who is either happy with the way the Faith is going, or feels as a matter of conscious that contributions should be sent regardless of one's personal feelings about how they are spent should, by all means, continue to do what they think is right. This is about giving voice to the voiceless.

People are shutting their checkbooks anyway -- quietly, so no one even knows it's a protest. Certainly the 50-75% of enrolled Baha'is that are no longer active in the community aren't sending any money, and I know active Baha'is, who are trying to hang in there, that have stopped giving. Even some LSAs quietly tell the NSA to take a flying leap when it sends yet another appeal for more money. (The latest letter is asking all LSAs to empty their checking accounts and send the money to Wilmette.) The elaborate building projects in Haifa have drained the community dry; Haifa puts the squeeze on the NSAs; the NSAs demand more of LSAs and individuals, and on it goes. A whole lot of otherwise very loyal Baha'is are just tired of it. We have terraces and gardens, and marble buildings in far-away Haifa, while most of our local communities lack even the humblest place of worship. Some have the idea that maybe Baha'is ought to be doing some concrete good for somebody with the funds -- certainly Shoghi Effendi thought that charitable funds were very important. If the NSA were to annouce a major, nationwide charitable project tomorrow, my prediction is that you'd see the dollars just flowing in like they've never seen before. Baha'is, at heart, really are good people; they really do care about what happens in the world. All the administration would have to do is tap into that charitable impulse instead of trying to squeeze people for money to keep the plants watered in Haifa.

It doesn't have to be this way, you know. All Baha'is have to do is decide to take their religion back. Develop your local community, and ignore the attempts to twist your arm into going with the program. There are ways to do it; find them. And if one avenue is blocked; keep trying. Find a way to make your voice heard.


Anonymous said...

Dearest Karen,

You and I do seem to be very much on the same page.

I am happy to see that you are raising the profile of "giving voice to the voiceless" on your weblog, and I pray that the Baha'i AO takes notice and realizes it is the voiceless majority of Baha'is that they serve, and it is this voiceless majority who support them with their acts of kindness and charity through their financial donations.

It is therefore unseemly of the AO to continue to ignore this majority and continue to follow their own fancy, when such charity and kindness of the people of Baha could easily be directed elsewhere in the service of those in need, particularly when these needs are being neglected by the squandering of this charity and kindness.

It is simply a matter of time before this charity and kindness is completely redirected and the current AO left with no means of support. When this eventuality occurs, it is incumbent upon the people of Baha to take back their Administrative Order and fill it with "all" of their voices, so it functions for the service of them and humanity rather than for the well connected or privileged few. This can only be accomplished by direct elections at every level and position of the AO, including the NSA, the Board of Counsellors, the ITC, and the UHJ.

Who better than the people of Baha are better suited to assess the spiritual character and suitability of their leaders?

Who better than the people of Baha can ensure that "their" charity and "their" kindness is not squandered?

The time is nigh, oh people of Baha. Do not allow this opportunity to escape thy grasp. The mission of the Cause of spiritual unity of the world requires your voices to be heard.

And after taking back your AO and filling it with your voices, shake off all suspicion of your spiritual brothers and sisters and unite with every man, woman, and child who wants to serve humanity and uplift its spiritual condition. Show them the way by your embrace of all and do not let the superficial differences among you be the cause of separation.

Although we may be blessed with the latest of Manifestations, all previous Manifestations are one continuous line with the same unerring message of love for all as you would love yourself. So we cannot become arrogant and exalt "our" Manifestation over others and thereby exalting our Faith over others. As Baha'u'llah has told us: Let no man exalt himself over another because we are "all" bondservants of God.

Every Manifestation belongs to "all" of us, and it is therefore against our spiritual nature to denigrate one in favor of another.

So let's take our new voices that will now be heard to new heights of unity, in which we don't speak in one voice but in all of the voices of God.

With loving Baha'i regards,


Anonymous said...

You are free to express your personal view, as you would also have been when still a bahai. That it goes the way it does in your cirumstances does not mean it will be the same all over the world. It might be just a lack af spirituality, and hopefully it has not affected you too? Keep your soul happy and light. Return to your "source".
Every person has an "seat of honor", and an right to their path, be they bahai or not. So dont be to hars on any soul. (be they bahai or not)

Wich you all the best.

from the netherlands.