Saturday, 20 February 2021

“The meek shall inherit the earth”


 Recently, a recording of an online Parish Council meeting in Cheshire (England) went viral. At least five million people have watched it, as this unfortunate example of local government in action has become a source of amusement. There must have already been some disunity on the council, as some councillors had called in a representative of the Local Association of Cheshire Councils to provide support for the meeting. The meeting became infamous because of the apparently disorderly way in which it was conducted, and with the authority of several members openly disputed during the session.

This is a sad state of affairs and not conducive to making good decisions. It has to be said, of course, that consultation is more difficult online than in person, but it seems that there must have been a history of serious disunity to bring the meeting to such a pass. The subsequent meeting (attended this time by many spectators) was not much of an improvement.

Bahá’ís see unity as the necessary basis for any kind of consultation. Bahá’ís use a special method of consultation for their deliberations, with principles and procedures set out in writing as goals and ideals, rather than as clauses and sub-paragraphs. I have described before the method by which Bahá’ís elect their representatives at various levels, which means that the community should end up with relatively selfless individuals on their decision-making bodies (see below for a link to a previous blog explaining this). The main principles of Bahá’í consultation are described below. A chairperson will have been elected, by secret ballot, to ensure the smooth running of the meetings.

The goal of Bahá’í consultation at every level is to discover the best course of action to take for the well-being of all. This means everyone, not just those immediately affected or within the particular area. Those who are consulting together need to be open-minded in order to be able to assess the facts properly and make the right decision. If they have any private goals of their own these will only get in the way and the consultation will not be successful in achieving its objective. Above all, those who consult must be united in their desire to make the best decision for all concerned.

Before starting the consultation the group members will begin with prayers. This helps to promote a spiritual and positive frame of mind, for “True consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love.” The first step of Bahá’í consultation is then to establish the facts, and the second step is to decide on the principles to be applied to the situation. This will include deciding on the goal of the consultation and the considerations which need to be taken into account.

Bahá’í consultation calls for unity of purpose, rather than unity of opinion, and it states in the Bahá’í writings that, “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.” It is important to note that it is the opinions which clash and not the people! Everyone should express his or her opinion with the conviction that it will contribute in some way to the discussion. No-one should be too shy to offer an idea. Even if it is not adopted, it may inspire a better idea in someone else.

Each person should speak frankly, but with courtesy and moderation. After a point of view has been stated, it should not need to be repeated: “They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden.” All opinions must be listened to with respect and judged fairly. Any kind of conflict will only obscure the truth and make proper consultation impossible. The chairperson has the responsibility to ensure that everyone participates, that each opinion is listened to carefully and courteously and considered on its merits and that no-one is allowed to dominate or divert the discussion.

Each idea should be offered to the group as a gift: it should not be identified in anyone’s mind with the person who first suggested it. This means that the idea can be changed and developed, or even rejected, without anyone feeling hurt. If the participants are adopting the right approach, they will be able to see the best course of action to be taken, whatever their own original opinions might have been. It sometimes happens in Bahá’í consultation that a person will change his or her mind completely during the course of the consultation and even argue against an idea which he or she originally suggested!

If the consultation has gone successfully through these steps, making a decision will probably prove to be the easiest part. It is likely also that it will be a unanimous decision. But if efforts to reach unanimity are not successful, a majority decision will have to be adopted. Most importantly, each member should respect the consulting body enough to carry out its decision confidently - even if he or she did not vote in favour of it. This unity brings immense benefits, because with everybody actively supporting the decision, it will be much more likely to achieve a positive result. On the other hand, if it turns out to have been a mistake, that will more rapidly become obvious!

Most people feel instinctively that we should, as human beings, discuss things and come to a collective decision, but personality often gets in the way. Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This has been a cherished quotation ever since – during centuries of rule by people intent on wielding power - but it has never been made clear how, or when, the meek would inherit the earth. The Bahá’í method of elections and of consultation seem to offer some suggestions which may allow the meek to take their rightful place in the governance of society.

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This is a link to one of the blog posts (July, 2016) which explains how Bahá’í Assemblies are elected. It is called “For many are called, but few are chosen”:

https://paddyvickers.blogspot.com/2016/07/for-many-are-called-but-few-are-chosen.html

Saturday, 23 January 2021

It has deep roots


Recently, my brother Steve told me that he had become Chair of the Trustees of the International Tree Foundation. This was a complete surprise to me, as I know some of the things to which my brother gives his time, but I was unaware of this one! The origins of the International Tree Foundation are interesting, but more of that later.

People love trees. They provide us with so much – such as fruit, shade and timber -  and they are fascinating to watch through the changing seasons. There are tens of thousands of species of tree, and the exact number of species has still not been established! Trees, the largest plants above ground, form a crucial part of many different ecosystems. We often read, for example, that the “English” oak tree supports around 800 different species of living creature, many of which are insects. These insects, in turn, are part of the food chain for many species of bird. Another important function of trees is that they take in carbon dioxide, and give out oxygen. This makes it essential that we ensure that there are always a large number of trees on the planet, because animals and people have the opposite effect: we breathe in oxygen, but breathe out carbon dioxide. So trees provide us with what we need to breathe and at the same time they reduce the amounts of one of the most important greenhouse gases, thereby helping to reduce the threat of climate change!

Trees are also a factor in the natural water cycle. When clouds pass over the forests, the trees below cause a drop in the air temperature, reducing the temperature in the clouds, and thereby encouraging the clouds to drop rain. Take away those forests, as in coastal California, and you get drier conditions and the likelihood of wildfires. Furthermore, a tree root system is huge, so during periods of rainfall, it helps to hold the soil together. These underground systems therefore take a good proportion of the rain which falls, and help to hold the water in the ground. Removing the trees from upland areas can create the conditions for flooding downstream. This happens in many parts of the world, and a particularly striking example is Bangladesh. Most of the country is a floodplain, and deforestation of the lower slopes of the Himalayas means that during the monsoon, vast quantities of water run straight off the mountains and onto the plains of Bangladesh, causing flooding and immense suffering.

Our souls – or something basic inside us – respond with pleasure to the colour green, which means we have a positive emotional response to woodland. This is presumably because during our development as a species, wandering across the land and sailing across the sea, the sight of an expanse of green meant the possibility of food to us. An expanse of sand, rock or ice does not provoke the same kind of feeling. People can settle, finding or growing food, where the soil is fertile. So we depend on the plant world – the world of nature. According to Bahá’u’lláh: “Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.” Man, who consumes plants and animals, cannot destroy nature completely, as he would die in the process: “All praise be to God Who hath adorned the world with an ornament, and arrayed it with a vesture, of which it can be despoiled by no earthly power, however mighty its battalions, however vast its wealth, however profound its influence.” Nature will always grow back eventually.

As previously mentioned, the origins of the International Tree Foundation are interesting. An Englishman called Richard St Barbe Baker worked as a logger in Canada just before the First World War. He became convinced that European settlers were causing soil loss through the way that they stripped the countryside of the diverse vegetation to create farms, by cutting down the forest trees without planting replacements. He came back to England to study biology and botany, and then went to Kenya, where he worked with the Kikuyu people to begin reforestation in that country. Together with Chief Njonjo, he founded an organisation called “Watu wa Miti”, meaning “People of the Trees”.


Whilst back in England, where he gave a talk at a “Congress of Living Religions” in 1924, he was told about the Bahá’í Faith, and became a Bahá’í. The Bahá’í ideals of uniting the planet and seeing all human beings as one family chimed in completely with what he was trying to do for the world. Later, while working on reforestation in Palestine, with the help of people from all the main religions there, he met Shoghi Effendi, who was the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. Shoghi Effendi became one of the first life members of the “Men of the Trees”.  “Men of the Trees” was international in its scope, and eventually became known as the “International Tree Foundation”. Chapters (they could hardly call them branches!) were established in over a hundred countries, and it has been estimated that this organisation and others assisted by Richard St Barbe Baker have been responsible for planting around 26 billion trees! Richard St Barbe Baker himself died in Saskatoon, Canada, in 1982.

The International Tree Foundation (I.T.F.) is now based in Oxford (England), and promotes forestry initiatives worldwide. This involves not just re-planting forests, but ensuring that these forests meet the needs of the communities which live in and near them. Forests, if properly managed, can provide sustainable levels of fuel, food and medicine. A great part of the I.T.F.’s work is assisting local organisations which promote forestry, in whichever country they may be. There are over a hundred of these organisations which are helped by I.T.F.

Richard St Barbe Baker’s vision lives on, and the organisation he founded back in 1922 is actively promoting forests which help the planet, the soil, the human communities and the wildlife. One of the most heart-warming parts of this story is that one of Richard St Barbe Baker’s ideas – the planting of a wall of trees across the southern end of the Sahara Desert – is now being put into practice. Under the auspices of the African Union, eleven African countries have begun planting “The Great Green Wall”. Other countries are assisting, and perhaps thirty million trees may have been planted so far. Although a number of problems remain – getting water to the young trees is a big challenge – Richard St Barbe Baker’s vision is alive and guiding us today! Mankind’s love of trees has deep roots.

(If you are interested in, or would like to support, the International Tree Foundation, the website is:
http://www.internationaltreefoundation.org )

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Friday, 8 January 2021

So, what exactly is the Bahá’í Faith?

 


Finding the Bahá’í Faith was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I was 20 years old when I became a Bahá’í – I have now been retired for some years. It has guided my life, given my life a purpose, and given me hope for the future. For the last 5 years I have been writing a blog about current affairs, giving a Bahá’í viewpoint. I have covered dozens of different subjects. However, I have now realised that I have never even attempted to explain to the readers what the Bahá’í Faith actually is, and to give an overview of its teachings. I thought it was time to remedy this!
 
The Bahá’í Faith is a new world religion, although it builds on all its sister religions that have come before it. Like all religions, there is a belief that there is a spiritual purpose to life, and that for our souls to progress in the next world, we need to develop spiritual qualities in this life. The Bahá’í Faith is all about transformation – of one’s self and of society as a whole. Since I became a Bahá’í, the Bahá’í community has grown in so many ways. It now has a more obvious positive impact on the world, especially in countries where numbers are growing more quickly.
 
Bahá’ís believe that there is a purpose to Creation – that there is a First Cause, a creative force, a God. Because it created us, the essence of this First Cause is unknowable to mankind. It cannot be seen, or even understood. However, this doesn’t stop us trying! It is in the nature of humanity to strive. Through this same act of striving, human beings can develop positive attributes, or virtues, which bring us nearer to, and more like, God. The overall development of human beings towards perfection, and at the same time towards building a developing civilisation, is driven by a series of Messengers of God, such as Moses, Krishna, Jesus, the Buddha and Muhammad. Bahá’ís call them “Manifestations of God” because they manifest – or show – the attributes of God. Each One brings a religion suited for a particular time, building on the work of the previous religions, but taking human understanding and development a little further. After some time, however, the purity of the religion gradually becomes obscured by man-made ideas which often cause division. Eventually the time is right for another Messenger to move mankind forward again. This is a process without end.
 
The Bahá’í story actually begins with a young Messenger Who called Himself “The Báb”, meaning the “Door” or “Gate”. He claimed, in 1844, that He was the Gateway to a new age, and to a new Messenger Whom God would send. There is such a World Teacher promised in various ways in all the previous religions. After He had attracted tens of thousands of people to His new teaching, mostly in His native Persia (now Iran), He was executed by firing squad in 1850, for daring to announce a new religion. In 1853, in a dungeon in Tehran, one of the Báb’s followers known as Bahá’u’lláh (“The Glory of God”), had a vision, which revealed to Him that He was the One promised by the Báb. The authorities in Persia did not dare to kill Bahá’u’lláh, who was well-liked by the poor people of Tehran, and also well-respected by the various foreign ambassadors in the city. Therefore, He was exiled rather than killed, and spent the rest of His life in other countries – first in Iraq, then Turkey and finally Palestine. At the point of His departure from Iraq to Turkey, He announced what many people had already realised: that He was the Promised One of all religions.
 
Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed that all the major world religions were divine in origin. He declared that all human beings are one people, and should be in complete unity. He declared that men and women should have equal opportunities; that we should abandon all forms of prejudice; and that fairness and justice should be the guiding principles of human society. He called for a conference of the world’s rulers, in order to create a permanent peace treaty, and to prepare for the creation of a united world. He said that one language and one alphabet should be chosen, and then taught in all the schools of the world, so that everyone would be able to keep their own language but also have a common means of world communication. Bahá’u’lláh urged us to develop a form of world government, and laid down guidance for the formation of a body called the Universal House of Justice. Importantly, Bahá’u’lláh’s call for unity does not mean uniformity. In other words, oneness does not mean sameness. For example, encouraging the local indigenous culture is an important part of Bahá’í activity in many parts of the world.
 
Bahá’u’lláh passed to the next world in 1892, whilst in exile in Palestine. In His will, He asked all His followers to turn to His eldest son as a point of unity. This son, known as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (“Servant of the Glory”), was an example of how a Bahá’í should live, and was the sole interpreter of His Father’s writings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was eventually released by the authorities in 1908, and, although now elderly, was then able to travel to Egypt, Europe and North America, announcing His Father’s Message. His two major tours were widely covered in newspapers at the time, and attracted a lot of attention from intellectuals, from other people of prominence, and from the ordinary people, who flocked to hear Him speak. However, because of the First World War He was unable to travel overseas again, and was actually under threat of crucifixion from the Turkish general based in Haifa. He was rescued by the British army, which sent a force of Indian cavalry on ahead to ensure His safety. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá received a knighthood from the British crown for His wartime work in providing food for the poor people of the area. 
Photo of Abdu'l-Bahá:
 

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in turn, also left a clear Will and Testament, and asked the Bahá’ís to support His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Faith. Shoghi Effendi oversaw a huge expansion of the Bahá’í Faith, translated many of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings into English, and generally guided the new religious community, until he died during a visit to London in 1957. Following the detailed guidance left in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will, the Bahá’ís elected the Universal House of Justice which Bahá’u’lláh had ordained, and it is this body which is now leading the Bahá’í community into the future. There are no priests in the Bahá’í Faith, so local and national bodies are all elected without any nominations or canvassing, as is also the case with the Universal House of Justice. It is this clear transfer of responsibility which has kept the Faith united and will continue to do so in the future.
 
The Bahá’í community consists of several million people, found in virtually every single country and island group in the world. This community works to overcome prejudice, to promote the equality of the sexes, for the unity of all mankind, for the betterment of the world, and to spread the Bahá’í message amongst mankind. As a major thrust towards the rebuilding of a community spirit, the Universal House of Justice has encouraged the Bahá’ís in each area around the world to undertake a number of locally-based initiatives. These include classes promoting moral behaviour in children, junior youth groups where younger teenagers can find their place in life, and activities designed to bring spiritual enrichment for older youth and adults.
 
Obviously, I have missed out a huge amount of detail, and cannot even attempt to convey any sense of the spirit which animates Bahá’í meetings throughout the world, but perhaps the purpose of the Bahá’í Faith can best be summed up in Bahá’u’lláh’s own statement that, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
 
Bahá’ís have a positive outlook for the future. It may well be that on the way, mankind will have to go through severe trials, but in the end we will survive to build a civilisation where everyone will be treated justly and with respect, and will be able to reach their full potential. As Bahá’u’lláh said: “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole world.”
 
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For further information, see www.bahai.org
 


Friday, 6 November 2020

“So powerful is the light of unity…”

 


The 2020 election for the new President of the United States has led to a situation in which America seems to be divided by precisely what should unite it – its freedoms, its democracy, its tolerance and its distaste for the arbitrary use of power. The consequences of this include the extensive boarding-up of the central districts of Washington, New York and other cities, due to worries about possible rioting. They include wrangling, contentious claims, and law suits being prepared even while the votes are still being counted. There is general anxiety about the way forward from the current divided situation.

 

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, declared in the nineteenth century: “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.” He exhorted us to consciously recognise the need for this powerful force of oneness: “This handful of dust, the world, is one home: let it be in unity.” In both of these quotations, Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that this unity will extend across the whole planet. Unity does not stop wherever there happens to be a line on a map. Unity is oneness, and oneness is essentially a universal concept. Unity implies everybody participating without discord, without conflict, and without division. Unity is the pivotal teaching of the Bahá’í Faith, which believes that it is necessary to establish this unity in order to allow us to move forward as a civilisation: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

 

At present neither the world, nor even the United States of America, has “peace and security”, and according to Bahá’u’lláh the unity of mankind must be established first in order to achieve these. Unity has several basic requirements. It states in the Bahá’í writings that “Equality and brotherhood must be established among all members of mankind. This is according to justice. The general rights of mankind must be guarded and preserved. All men must be treated equally. This is inherent in the very nature of humanity.” While anybody still feels themselves to be excluded from equality, or from the general brotherhood of their fellow human beings, unity cannot exist. In the world, no one people is in the majority. In the U.S.A., this is also true, although it is not always recognised. More than half of the population is termed “white”, but this is not a single group. Although most now use English at home, in reality they are a complex mix of people from many different ethnic backgrounds. The American nation is often termed a “melting pot”, but a number of groups do not feel themselves to be treated as having an equal status within this pot, nor to participate in a genuine brotherhood.

 

Unity requires equality, brotherhood and love between all the races of mankind. It requires equality between the genders. It requires unity of religion, in which the followers of every religion regard the other religions as being of equal worth and equal validity. It requires an end to any distinctions based on social level or educational level. It requires a love for all mankind, respect for our fellow-creatures and caring for the whole earth.

 

The people of the United States need unity, between all the different parts of the country, all the different races and backgrounds in the country, all the cultures of the country, and of course with the rest of humanity. But whatever happens over the next few months, humanity has a glorious future, for we have Bahá’u’lláh’s promise that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”      

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Better luck next time

 


Members of a group called “The Big Step” are calling for reform of the law in the United Kingdom, in order to reduce the way that the names of gambling firms are becoming ever more prominent in football grounds. As a way of drawing attention to the problem, the group has spent several days walking a route which calls at some of the grounds where the teams are sponsored by gambling companies. The group is for people trying to recover from their gambling addictions, and they are asking the Prime Minister to make a number of changes which would take the names of betting companies out of the limelight, as was done with cigarette manufacturers.

Of the twenty teams in the Premier League, ten are now sponsored by betting firms, who must surely think that linking with sport is helping them make a lot of money. Gambling enterprises also sponsor seventeen of the teams in the English Championship, allowing the names of these companies to appear on the shirts of the footballers. This encourages the practice of gambling, but these arrangements have been made between businessmen, and are not by popular request. The Football Supporters Association says that only 13% of fans surveyed are in favour of this sponsorship. Groups such as “Gambling With Lives” believe that there are around 430,000 problem gamblers in the country, with over a million others also at some risk of developing a severe problem. It is very easy for fans to engage in casual conversation as to the possible results of a match, leading to the idea of placing a bet on the result, especially now that you only have to reach for your mobile phone in order to place that bet, and your team shirts tell you precisely what to type into your phone.

Addiction to gambling is not just a problem in Britain. In the United States of America, recent research suggests that although some forms of gambling have decreased in popularity, the number of people gambling online has increased. There is also evidence that the size of the bets is increasing. The proportions of people gambling are higher among black people and Hispanics, and less among the higher socio-economic groups.

My own father never gambled his money away, but this was not based on any moral argument. He just did not like to feel that he was being taken for a ride. His view was that whichever “punters” were “lucky” or “unlucky” on a particular day, the bookmakers always won – they always make money. My father hated the idea that someone would be taking him for a mug, and laughing up their sleeves at him for being so stupid. And happily for me that idea, which I heard from my dad, has stuck with me all my life. Other people may say, “I have never won on the lottery,” but I can say to myself, “I have never lost on the lottery!”

Gambling is a form of reliance on chance. But human life cannot be left solely to chance, we need to put in some effort. It could be argued that, in terms of effort, the gambler is trying hard to get something for nothing, or for very little. I have written blog posts previously, stressing that according to the Bahá’í Writings, there are spiritual benefits coming from positive effort: “The practice of an art or trade in the true spirit of service [is] identical with the worship of God.” “All effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.” 

“Better luck next time!” We often hear that from sympathisers who know that someone has lost money on some gambling process. “Better luck next time” - but what about the next life? We cannot just put our next life down to chance. We need to develop our spiritual qualities, such as honesty, trustworthiness, kindness to others. Bahá’u’lláh advised us that we need “justice and fair-mindedness; forbearance and compassion and generosity; consideration for others; candour, trustworthiness, and loyalty; love and loving-kindness…” If we spend our time developing these qualities, we can steer ourselves towards progress – and then we won’t need luck. For some people gambling goes on from being a pastime, and becomes an addiction. Some religions therefore proscribe it (ban it). It is very easy to go from trying to guess the outcome of a football match, to having a small bet on it, and then to get sucked in deeper and deeper. This then blocks out real life, and we forget our real purpose in life, which, as already mentioned, is to develop our spiritual qualities. If we are thinking about how much we might win if we guess the right results, is that preventing us from thinking about our next move in life? “If a man's thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material.” It follows therefore that a gambler (like all of us) should try to focus his life on looking outwards, on helping others. This builds one’s self-esteem, and self-esteem leads to greater self-reliance, which leads to progress in our spiritual qualities.

Another source of resolve and encouragement is prayer. Asking God for help in overcoming gambling can be very powerful. In the Bahá’í Writings we find a short prayer which can be said repeatedly in times of difficulty: “Is there any Remover of difficulties save God? Say: praised be God! He is God! All are His servants, and all abide by His bidding!” Perhaps quiet repetition of this prayer would help the gambler as he passes briskly by the betting shop, or ignores the adverts at the football ground, and help him to take “The Big Step” to freedom.


(Photo courtesy Getty images.)

 

 

Sunday, 9 August 2020

A Better Future

 

On 4th August, 2020, a fire started at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, which ignited a quantity of fireworks stored there. It is likely that the fire was caused by some welders working on the warehouse door. The fire soon spread to an enormous store of ammonium nitrate, which had been taken off a damaged ship six years before. Over those six years, repeated letters to the courts, asking for permission to sell the ammonium nitrate, which was not being stored under safe conditions, went unanswered.

The ammonium nitrate exploded in what may have been the largest non-nuclear explosion ever caused by human activity. It damaged ships in the port, destroyed both the warehouse, an adjacent grain silo and most of the other port buildings. Nearly 220 people are known to have died, including sailors, port workers, and nurses and patients at the nearest hospital. A number of those killed were people from other countries. Over 7,000 people were injured, as the shock wave from the blast blew in windows, destroyed balconies and houses, and caused immense damage.

In the Beirut area, a large number of people have expressed general disgust at the way in which circumstances in their country have been deteriorating rapidly over the last few years, and of which this explosion represents a low point. Corruption is considered to be endemic. The economy has been in freefall. Unemployment is rife, about half of the population have now fallen into poverty. Rubbish has not been collected in Beirut. As a result, many are calling for a new type of political leader, rather than the current figureheads who represent different segments of the population. Lebanon has several different sects of Christians, different sects of Muslims and also the local Druze religion, in addition to other ethnic groups such as Palestinian refugees. The political system used at present guarantees seats in government for all the main groups. The same families have been in power for decades. In these circumstances, the idea that all religions are essentially one, and that religion should be a force for unity, is difficult to establish. So is the idea that the people are one, and can be in unity.

Elections within the Bahá’í community are organised on a quite different basis. For a start, there are no candidates. No-one puts themselves forward. Within each town or village, the Bahá’ís come together once a year for a meeting organised on spiritual lines. After prayer, and some short readings encouraging the election of people of “recognised ability”, of “mature experience” and of “selfless devotion”, each person simply writes down the names of nine Bahá’ís within that town/village. The voting papers are collected, and the nine people who receive the most votes are automatically considered to have been elected as the Local Spiritual Assembly. Of course, there are further details, but in essence that is how it is done. The Bahá’ís do not even discuss between themselves the qualities of other individuals. The election is considered as between the voter, his or her conscience, and God.

The result is a harmonious process in which no-one knows who has voted for whom, and in which no cliques can form. The nine people elected are likely to be reasonable and moderate people, whereas an adversarial system can sometimes favour more stubborn people, with strong opinions. Given the historical background in Lebanon, more stubborn people feature widely in the current system.

“Well, yes,” you may say. “It is easy for a small group of people who know each other. It wouldn’t work for the whole country.” Fair point. What happens, in the election of the National Spiritual Assembly, is that the Bahá’ís in each area vote for one person, who becomes their delegate and goes to a national convention. The delegate, once at the convention, will again be able to vote for nine people, again without any hindrance from the procedures of nominations, canvassing, etc. And the odd thing is – it works! Every vote is cast for someone, because of their positive qualities, rather than, as sometimes happens elsewhere, against someone, because of their less attractive qualities or their predetermined ideas. The voter does not have to choose between various parties, none of which actually represents a person’s views in their entirety.

Democracy means “government by the people”, but the actual system for achieving that varies widely from country to country. In the case of Lebanon, what is needed is one body seen to represent the entire country, and not factions seen as protecting particular partisan interests.

In the Bahá’í system, both the Local Spiritual Assembly and the National Spiritual Assembly are automatically elected afresh every year, so there should always be some renewal alongside a certain continuity. With no candidates, and no canvassing, there is no possibility of anyone trumpeting their achievements, or of making extravagant promises for the future.  Confrontation and opposition are simply not required as part of the system at all. There are no competing groups or parties, so everyone naturally pulls together.

Lebanon has featured in Bahá’í history in the past. Beirut was an administrative centre within the Ottoman Empire, and Bahá’u’lláh was banished to nearby Akka. Although Bahá’u’lláh Himself was confined to that city, His Son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had reason to travel to Beirut on various matters. At a later time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, first to school, and then to university in Beirut. Shoghi Effendi learned English there, and his command of the language was so good that he was later admitted to Oxford University. There is a small, but significant, Bahá’í community in the country, which has never been involved in any of the factional fighting, and has always promoted the idea of the oneness of religion.

The immediate fate of the country depends on the ability of the country to reform itself. It needs to function as one people, instead of a rainbow of rival Christian and Muslim groupings. The parliament needs to function on behalf of the whole country. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá put it,  “The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.”

The more Lebanon is able to create a system of government by the people and for the people, the more it will thrive, rise above its present conflicted state and create a better future for its people.

 

 

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Earl Cameron - A life well lived


Today we have heard of the passing of our close Bahá’í friend, Earl Cameron, aged 102. He was an actor, and was still acting even into his nineties.

Among the many films in which he acted were Pool of London, Simba, Thunderball and The Interpreter, which was his last major role. When I was young, I remember seeing him in Thunderball, and being initially very surprised that the Chief Secret Serviceman in the West Indies was black, although it took me only seconds to realise that this was, in its way, quite natural!

Earl told me how his grandfather had become a slave. His grandfather was a boy of perhaps fourteen years old, and was fishing at sea with one of his friends in a small boat off Senegal. They were captured by a passing British merchant ship and taken to be sold as slaves, despite this having now been made illegal by Parliament. They were taken across the Atlantic, and Earl’s grandfather made good his escape once they had reached land in Bermuda. But of course he could not speak the language, and the chances of remaining free on an island were rather small! He was taken again and used as a slave.

Earl himself joined the British merchant navy. He found himself stranded in England in 1939, due to the outbreak of war, and hit upon the idea that he would like to be an actor. He used to turn up at the theatres, and talk to the people there, hoping to be given a way in to the profession. The answer always came down to the fact that you cannot act without an Equity card. Equity is the trade union for actors in the United Kingdom, and the only way to get an Equity membership card is to be acting. Acting, therefore, was a “closed shop”, and difficult to get into. Earl once told me how this impasse ended. He was walking along the street and bumped into a theatre producer. “Earl!” said the man. “You want to be an actor? Well, now, here’s your chance! One of our wizards hasn’t turned up for today’s show! How would you like to be our fourth wizard?” Earl jumped at the chance, and was promptly handed an Equity card! He explained to me what that first performance was like: “There was the singer at the front, and there were four wizards, two nearer the front and two behind them. They put me as one of the ones at the back. I tried to learn the words of the song, and the dance steps. But there wasn’t enough time for me to learn it all! That first performance was terrible, with me not singing, and making all the wrong dance moves! But from then on, I was in.”

I saw Earl quite frequently over the last few years. The basic meeting of the Bahá’í community is the “Feast” (it is a spiritual feast!), which happens once every nineteen days. The Bahá’ís from all of central Warwickshire often meet together in one home each time, and Earl was usually there with his wife, Barbara. His fine actor’s voice added to the timbre of the prayers being read out, and Earl was always an enthusiastic supporter of all types of Bahá’í activity. Every year, the Cameron family provided support for the Bahá’í stall at the Leamington Spa Peace Festival, and over the years I have come to know three of his daughters personally. (His son, Simon, is my friend on Facebook, but lives in the Solomon Islands where Earl and his first wife, Audrey, served as Bahá’í pioneers for some years.)

The other service I regularly performed for Earl was the supply of literature. My wife and I serve as  distribution agents for Bahá’í books, and Earl frequently rang me: “Paddy, do you have a copy of ‘Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era’?” Earl considered that particular book to be the best introductory book on the Bahá’í Faith, as do I – although some people prefer other ones. Earl was constantly meeting new people, and was always keen on sending people a good, solid read, if he thought that they were at all interested! And even at his advanced age, he was still reading books himself, and used to ring me up asking for new titles which had come out.

Oddly, despite the huge difference in our ages, Earl and I came across the Bahá’í Faith because of the same event. In April, 1963, the Bahá’ís of the world held their first World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall, in London. One of Earl’s friends from Bermuda was a Bahá’í, and came to London for this large gathering. Staying with Earl, he managed to persuade Earl to come along for one session. Earl was not interested in organised religion, but went as a favour to his friend, and was absolutely bowled over by the friendly spirit, the openness, the enthusiasm and the inclusiveness of the Bahá’ís. He never looked back! When people questioned his sudden enthusiasm for religion, he used to say, “But this is different!” Meanwhile, when I was a teenager being driven through London, I was stuck in a traffic jam outside the Albert Hall. My mother, who loved London, was saying, “Look, boys, that’s the Albert Hall!” I looked, and people of all sizes and colours were pouring out of it, many of them in national costume. The large banner proclaimed: “Bahá’í World Congress”. “What’s that ‘B’ word, Dad?” I asked. Luckily, my father knew what it was, because my mother’s best friend from her schooldays (Audrie Reynolds, née Rogers) had become a Bahá’í. Audrie was, of course, at the Congress, and met her husband there. Later that year, I attended their wedding… I never told Earl about this odd connection between our lives.

So, what happens now? Bahá’u’lláh states that “The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother. When the soul attaineth the Presence of God, it will assume the form that best befitteth its immortality and is worthy of its celestial habitation.” In other words, we move on into another world, another plane of existence.

Such a lovely man will surely make steady spiritual progress in the next world.