Monday, April 25, 2005

Kindergartener Arrested in Florida

This story is making the rounds, about the arrest of an unruly five-year-old in Florida. Actually, arrests happen in schools for unruly behavior more often than you might think, but usually the child is not so young, and usually he's already in a special class because of behavior problems. It is actually illegal for a child to disrupt a classroom, that's in California statutes anyway, and while schools save it as a last resort, arrest *is* an option. I've never personally seen kids arrested, but I have seen it threatened for persistently disruptive kids as young as ten. I think part of the shock being expressed is that most people just aren't aware that elementary school children are sometimes arrested when things get to the point when there isn't anything else you can do with them. I'm not shocked, anyway; this is something that is done.

I'm also hearing the old "If you bring back corporal punishment, you wouldn't have these problems." Which is a total crock. In my experience (i.e. my own kids) corporal punishment doesn't do squat to improve behavior. In the classroom, if a child makes it impossible for the teacher to teach, or other children to learn, then he or she needs to be out of there. People who have never dealt with very difficult children seem to think that if you muster up enough authority in your voice, and tell them very sternly to stop a certain behavior, then that will happen. Sometimes, it doesn't. Sometimes, you run out of options.

One thing the article, and the t.v. interview, brought up was the question of why this girl wasn't in an alternative classroom. First of all, you can't just kick a kid out permanently because you feel at the end of your rope. There's a process involved, including meetings with the principal, teacher, and parents, and any expulsion has to be approved by the school board. So, you can't just up and decide a child is too impossible to work with in a regular classroom overnight. It takes time. Secondly, children younger than fourth grade are very seldom expelled for behavior problems. I have a hunch the teacher has been spending the better part of this school year trying other management methods with this kid. You don't rush to form a Student Study Team the first time a little kid misbehaves; usually there is a culmulative record of bad behavior before the process even starts. The teacher was facing completely unruly behavior *that day*; no use complaining that this little girl already should have been elsewhere. You can't stop the school day to hold a meeting to discuss placement options. She needed to be out of that classroom, one way or the other.

Another aspect to this is the simple safety factor for other students. I don't know what precisely this child was doing, but a Kindergartner that hits, bites, pushes, and is generally aggressive with others is a danger to other children. From the point of view of lawsuits, the school could easily have other parents suing if their children are injured by an unruly classmate.

The biggest problem that I see here is that by time the police arrived, the child had settled down, and I'm not sure that a child so young is going to understand that the arrest was a consequence of her behavior all through the day. From the perspective of getting her to improve her behavior, arresting her was not going to help. From the point of view of allowing that classroom to function, though, it was probably the only thing the school could do.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Unenrolled Baha'is and Religious Identity

I lurk on a couple of academic Baha'i lists, without posting because although I have published one article, and have another on the way I don't precisely qualify as a scholar -- and those issues on which I do know something would probably not be appreciated very much by these groups, and I'd just as soon not get kicked off and lose the benefit of other discussions. Anyway, lurking on a Baha'i academic list isn't exactly like lurking on other academic lists, because the dust from the controversies of the last 10 years hasn't quite settled yet. Two issues come up on a pretty regular basis, like some sort of recurring illness, causing a flurry of posts that, while not exactly flames, have a bit of an edge to them -- causing pleas for the thread to halt, moderator intervention,and apologies, then normal discussion resumes for long stretches until these issues bubble up from under the surface again.

Anyway, the first is the old academic vs. doctrinaire viewpoint, which is an odd issue to be still hashing out on a scholarly list. One sees posts which are routine for debate lists, but rather bone-headed for such a normally erudite crowd. The other is whether or not Juan Cole is a Baha'i. This latter seems rather strange to me, since Juan hasn't been around Baha'i lists at all for a year and more -- although I understand he's had some book chapters published that have made the more conservative sorts unhappy. In any case, these folks haven't got over him yet, nor have they really understood the fact that a lot of people self-identify as Baha'is while not being on the Baha'i rolls.

Anyway, this time, the discussion broadened out from that, and some sociologists chimed in to say that from a social science viewpoint self-identification is all that matters. That's the one I used in my own survey -- and to me there's no other one that makes sense if you want to look at a religious community. Formal enrollment tells us nothing about religious belief, except that at one point in their lives these people were interested enough to sign a card. For some religious groups, notably Unitarian-Universalists, far more people identify as adherents than appear as formal members. That's the case, too, for Baha'is in some places. In Bolivia, where Radio Baha'i is popular, more than three times as many Baha'is appear on the religious census as on the rolls of the Baha'i Faith.

One of the group members there spoke of a rather interesting survey that estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 unenrolled Baha'is in the U.S. In some cases, this is the result of multiple identities e.g. a person says they are both Jewish and Baha'i. In other cases, people don't make their adherence "official" in deference to parents or spouses who object. Online, of course, we run into people who have either resigned their membership, or came close to enrolling but were turned off by some of the authoritarian aspects of the Faith.

Some people on the list objected and quoted the "official" line from the new official website, apparently not understanding that when you are studying a religion, what is "official" isn't important. But that's an old story; I've defended my religious identity from such people more times than I can count. But I did think it interesting that there was an actual educated guess about the number of unenrolled Baha'is.

Happy Ridvan!

A joyous Ridvan to all my Baha'i friends.

Love, Karen

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.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Year 2000 in the Baha'i Consciousness

I've been wondering lately at the role of the passing of the year 2000 has had on the increasingly sectarian attitude of the Baha'i Faith in recent years. To me, there has been a dramatic shift in emphasis from the Baha'i Faith as a universal religion that would embrace the whole of humanity, to the current viewpoint that it is a religion with very specific beliefs, and if you don't go along, then you should just get the hell out of Dodge.I never ran into this latter attitude until I came onto the Internet, and since then, things have gotten worse. Enrollments are at their lowest point in decades, and those who question the current direction the community is taken get into trouble -- as in this example. People are not becoming Baha'is, and longtime Baha'is are either leaving or becoming active. The astounding part of it is that the administration doesn't care! No longer are we reciting the mantra of "Entry by Troops" being around the corner; there is much more open concern about making sure that those who remain in the Faith has a particular, generally fundamantalist outlook, and those who don't share that are either silenced or pushed out. And, the administration just seems to think that it's a good thing for the Faith to shake out as much of what they regard as dead wood as possible.
Anyone who came into the Baha'i Faith before the mid-'90s was given a particular vision of the near future: Within the 20th century, mankind would be faced with an apocalyptic Calamity that would be so terrible that the nations of the world would recognize the necessity for a world government, and create the political arrangement called "the Lesser Peace" by Baha'u'llah. This deadline is based, apparently, on oral statements by 'Abdu'l-Baha', and from what I understand, the word he used does not literally mean "century" but is vaguer, more like "era" or "age".
Anyway, as late as the early '90s, Baha'is would speak of this as if it were a near-certainty. Not only ordinary Baha'is, but highly placed officials, like Peter Khan, who gave a talk on the subject -- I have the tape. He was discouraging an over-emphasis on apocalyptic speculation, while at the same time, taking it for granted that the Lesser Peace would arrive by the year 2000. The whole plan to finish the buildings on the Arc in on Mt. Carmel was based on something Shoghi Effendi said, that the completion of these buildings would coincide with the Lesser Peace, so there was a great drive to have that done before the end of the century. (They didn't make it; there's still one building left to go, and the spot is owned by someone else.) There were Baha'is who gave money to this effort, believing that they were somehow hastening the arrival of world peace by doing so.
These hopes gradually fizzled out as the last decade of the century progressed, and by the time 2000 came, it seemed that no one was talking about it any more. I guess the UHJ wrote a letter about it, but for the most part, this expectation that loomed so large in the Baha'i consciousness just sort of disappeared. No big crisis of faith, no big disappointment; it was just gone. What I'm wondering is what other hopes have been taken along with it.
As I mentioned, the expectation of "entry by troops" i.e., large numbers of converts, has largely disappeared. Things have been stagnant too long for even the most hard-headed fundamentalist to believe it anymore. The number of LSAs in the U.S. declined from a peak of 1750 in 1985, to just above 1100 in the mid-90s -- and it was explained away by a change in election requirements. Once upon a time, the preservation of these assemblies was a big priority, and a loss would have been considered a major disaster, but now, it's no big deal. People are leaving, and it's no big deal. It's as if the universal vision of the Baha'i Faith is gone completely, replaced by a view of Baha'is as a kind of spiritual elite with a lock on the truth. I can't help wondering if extending the expectation of the Lesser Peace into the distant future has contributed to that. We aren't really trying to bring in mankind anymore; the administration would rather have a handful of ideologically correct Baha'is than deal with the inevitable mess having a diversity of people within the Faith would bring. All the rage is the Ruhi program, which is meant to program people into the proper views, and expectations for growth are put off until each community has completed a certain amount of that program. The number and extent of these classes is now being kept track of, as a record of progress, just like the numbers of LSAs once were. It seems that they don't want converts until they are sure that those who are currently believers have adopted a fundamentalist view of the Faith, and the expectation is that they will bring in new believers who have a similar outlook. Gone is the outreach to freethinking, liberal "seeker" types, for whom they have a considerable degree of contempt; at least one NSA member is encouraging Baha'is to give up on that type and teach Christian fundamentalists. He says that the liberal types haven't responded to the message, but that's not true -- they *did*, once upon a time. The real issue is that the administration wasn't happy with that kind of convert, once they got them.

Monday, April 04, 2005

John Paul II

Juan has a good write-up today on the passing of the Pope. (I knew he would; it was one of the first things I checked this morning.) I also watched the re-run of the Frontline program about John Paul., and was quite touched by it. While liberals would get irritated at him for his stance on birth control, abortion, women in the priesthood, etc. (In my forthcoming article on women's exclusion in the Baha'i Faith, I note the striking parallels between his position and that of the UHJ. They are virtually identical.) But there's no doubt he did much to advance religious tolerance, and he was a strong voice for peace and human rights. That's the things that our Protestant conservatives so often miss about the message of Jesus -- the care and compassion for "the least of these". According to the gospel, it is this that separates the "sheep from the goats"; if you don't have that, then you can't pretend to be "saved". Don't believe me? Go look it up. Matthew 25:31-46.

At least John Paul was consistent in his promotion of the value of human life -- not only concerned about the unborn , but the condemned murderer, the starving, the oppressed, and those slaughtered on the battlefield. And he used the immense prestige and charisma of his office to speak out on behalf of "the least of these." May he rest in peace with the Lord he served so well.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

New Blog

I've set up a new blog, Karen's Path . What it is, and what it's for, the first post will tell you. Folks that aren't into spirituality, or reading stuff with a personal, internal focus probably won't be interested.

Friday, April 01, 2005

What's Pro-Life All About?

For the most part, I got tired of the pro-life/pro-choice debate years ago, but I thought the discussion here was interesting.

I think, when you're talking about people who get involved in the "pro-life" movement, there are a variety of motivations. Yes, control of women is a motivation, and it would be most certainly be the result if they got their way, but there's more to it than that. What is it that makes anybody choose, out of so many problems in the world, one particular thing? Why are people weeping, protesting, and threatening, over the death of a woman who is a mental vegetable when most of the people in the world who starve to death do it with all their mental facilities intact, with nothing at all to ease their suffering? Why is one death important, and a million others aren't?

I know, that when I am emotionally affected by a news story, it's because I can put myself in the picture in some way. Several months ago, before I started the blog up again, I was very deeply affected by the school fire in India, where the teachers all saved themselves, and 70-80 children were abandoned inside to die. Why? Well, of course, it was a terrible thing, and just about anyone would be appalled at a story that described schoolchildren trapped, helpless, and burning to death. But I think one reason that it particularly hit me in the gut is because I'm a teacher; I'm responsible for the safety of young children on a regular basis. I'm like the captain of a ship; if there's a dangerous situation, I'm the last to leave. It was horrifying to think of teachers who would just run, and leave the kids there. That is, I could put myself in the picture. Same thing when my kids were little, I would be very affected by tragic stories involving little children.

So, I think that when people get swept up in something like the Terry Schaivo case, or deeply involved in the pro-life movement, these people see themselves in the picture somehow. Maybe Tom DeLay on some level feels guilty about the decision to allow his father to die. (Of course, he could just be a cynical politician riding the wave.) More than a few pro-lifers are women who had abortions in a pre-conversion past. It's an interesting thing that they don't generally demonize the woman, but characterize her as a victim, even though they see abortion as equivalent to murder.

Religious fundamentalists fear and hate many aspects of modern life as a threat to meaning and order. If women can choose not to be mothers, then that changes the very definition of what a woman is, and casts aside a role that is seen as divinely ordained. If people can have premarital sex without the threat of pregnancy, then the entire basis for its sinfulness is swept away. A case like Terri Schaivo's brings up uncomfortable questions about when a person is really "a living soul", and when they aren't. It isn't so much about life -- old-fashioned types of killing like capital punishment, and war are just fine with these people. (A truly "pro-life" person would oppose any taking of human life, in any circumstances.) It's a protest against the idea that, if a brain isn't there, one is no longer a person. It's a struggle against the idea that human beings can just be reduced to their biological functions. The Schindlers, and their supporters, were entirely convinced -- all medical evidence to the contrary -- that Terri the person was still there, and suffering. Because if we aren't a person when our brain has turned to mush, then what exactly is a person in the first place? Just a bunch of synapses firing away? What are our lives worth, then? If, because of an accident, disease, or age our mental faculties wither, are we not still a human soul? These are tough questions.

So, yes, to some extent it's about control. But it's because the modern world threatens to spin things out of control, and drain them of meaning, so these people feel a compulsion to fight back.