Saturday, 13 October 2018

We can go backwards, or we can go forwards


When we look at the things that are wrong in the world, and the many problems we have, it is easy to forget that it has taken us very many generations to make this much progress. But we now operate in national groups, rather than as families, clans or tribes; to some degree, stronger countries are supporting weaker countries, through aid, by supplying peace-keeping troops, and in providing support after disasters; we have an increasing understanding between people of different religions; we have the United Nations, which is a brave attempt at international co-operation; and we have neighbouring countries co-operating in economic groupings in various parts of the world. All of these have been moves forward.

But in the last few years, it seems as if we have started going backwards again. One country has been allowed to “annex” part of another, with no real action having been taken by the world. Trade wars are breaking out between the most powerful trading nations. There are constant tensions between the states that have nuclear weapons, and those that might be developing them. Countries are trying to undermine one another through cyber-attacks. Diplomacy has been replaced by hostile actions. In some quarters an insular patriotism is replacing world vision.

Some people do not seem to have noticed that we all live on one planet! We are just one world. For thousands of years, the history of the human race has been a history of rival camps, and there has been a theme of the few trying to control the many - those with a less well-developed conscience deciding on the lives of everybody else. But we can now see our planet, our home, in just one photograph. With modern equipment, we can communicate instantly with people anywhere on the planet. As we are one planet, and one world, we need to act as one mankind. Bahá’u’lláh said: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” We need to replace outworn ideas, such as unlimited national sovereignty, with a world view. As Bahá’u’lláh put it: “Let your vision be world-embracing.” From religious rivalry, we need to go forward to religious unity. In Bahá’í eyes, the different religions are all from God, and are as chapters in one book. In essence there is no difference between them: “Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same. Their unity is absolute.”

From national rivalry, we need to go forward to world unity. From economic systems run on the principle of “survival of the fittest”, we need to go forward to fair treatment for all. New laws need to be enacted at a global level, ensuring a minimum income for every person, and limiting the unreasonable extremes of personal wealth. The Bahá’í Writings state that the workers should have a share in company profits, by right. Every enterprise is in reality a collective enterprise, with some people providing the financial input and ideas, and others their labour or skills. Therefore: “According to the Divine law, employees should not be paid merely by wages. Nay, rather they should be partners in every work.”

But any new world-wide economic arrangement has to follow a global change in the governmental system. Instead of world leaders denouncing one another, why are they not consciously trying to build world peace? Bahá’u’lláh, in the nineteenth century, urged the world’s most powerful rulers to bring about a universal peace conference, to reach a universal peace treaty. In 1985, the Universal House of Justice, which is the Bahá’í world body, pointed out that: “The holding of this mighty convocation is long overdue.” They nonetheless had the confidence to write in the same document that “World Peace is not only possible but inevitable.” It is the next stage in the progress of humanity. Let us drive further forwards rather than putting the world into reverse.        


Monday, 27 August 2018

The doctors are calling “Time!”


The medical profession has finally concluded what many of us have suspected for years, which is that the drawbacks associated with the consumption of alcohol outweigh the one positive effect that alcohol seems to have. It has long been known that alcohol significantly increases the risk of developing a wide number of ailments. It is also obvious that alcohol consumption leads a certain proportion of people directly into severe problems – drunkenness, addiction and mental health issues, each with further social and medical issues of their own. Some people have taken the view that for this reason alone, society should stop drinking – for the sake of the vulnerable ones.

The one advantage which has been found is that (specifically) red wine lessens the chance of heart disease. As red wine is a known trigger for migraine, we migraine sufferers have long been puzzled by that one! But now, a huge survey of individuals across 195 countries has found that even those who drink a very small amount of alcohol have a greater risk of contracting a number of diseases, including seven specific cancers. As alcohol consumption increases, so do the risks, exponentially. And crucially, the doctors who compiled this huge survey, now say that the risks from cancer and other diseases far outweigh any possible improvement in heart conditions.

Although Jesus and His disciples drank wine (this may have been less risky than the water that was available to them), a number of the World Teachers of the past have advised their followers against the consumption of alcohol. Two clear examples are the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad. This is one of the reasons why two-thirds of the world’s population avoid it – meaning that across the world, drinking alcohol is definitely a minority habit.

Bahá’u’lláh, writing for this age, likewise advised His followers to avoid alcohol, saying: “It is inadmissible that man, who hath been endowed with reason, should consume that which stealeth it away.” He saw spirituality as far more beneficial than chemical intoxicants: “Beware lest ye exchange the Wine of God for your own wine, for it will stupefy your minds, and turn your faces away from the Countenance of God…”  

At a time when medical science was in its infancy, Bahá’u’lláh was very clear about the most direct effects of alcohol on the human brain, with its undesirable results: “Alcohol consumeth the mind and causeth man to commit acts of absurdity.” Since that time it has been discovered that alcohol does indeed destroy brain cells, and also that the human liver cannot cope with significant quantities of this particular chemical. In addition, correct chemical balances in the brain lead to more complete development of other aspects of the body. Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, once said: “Experience has shown how greatly the renouncing of smoking, of intoxicating drink and of opium conduceth to health and vigour, to the expansion and keenness of the mind and to bodily strength.”

Although many people regard alcohol as a form of stimulant, medically it is the opposite – a depressant and an inhibitor. Perhaps meditation and prayer are two more effective ways of reaching inner happiness than alcohol seems to be. Another could be recognising our natural place in the world by re-connecting with nature, through spending time in parks, woods and the countryside generally. Bahá’u’lláh said: “Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator... Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.”

According to another recent survey, fewer young teenagers in Britain have been turning to alcohol. Perhaps they are beginning to realise that there are better ways of finding happiness. If there is a God, it follows that there ought to be a purpose in life. For Bahá’ís, that purpose is growing in spirituality, and growing towards perfection – that is, towards God. People have no need for alcohol  if they have something better, so prayer, meditation and a connection with nature may well be the answer. Maybe it is “time” to find out.


Photograph courtesy of Getty Images





Friday, 10 August 2018

The burning issue…


This year, there has been a prolonged period of hot, dry weather in a number of parts of the world. Even south-eastern Australia currently has a severe drought, despite it being winter there. The extreme weather has led to a large number of wildfires. In north America these have ranged from Alaska to Texas, with California suffering its biggest ever wildfire. England, Greece, Portugal and Sweden are just some of the European countries affected. The other side of the coin is that when low pressure weather systems do arrive, they can deposit unusual amounts of rain in a very short period. The higher air temperatures have led to larger accumulations of moisture in the atmosphere. Japan has recently had both problems: the western half of the country had torrential rain, leading to flooding, landslides and fatalities; now the eastern half of the country has had an insufferable heatwave.

All of this can either be explained as the natural vagaries of the weather system on our planet, or as something largely caused by man’s activities – destruction of the forests, burning too much fossil fuel, production of “greenhouse” gases, and so on. As so many scientists now believe that the causes are largely man-made, and that global warming is a fact; and as most people believe that it is foolish and dangerous to do nothing in any case, the countries of the world sent representatives to a convention in Paris in 2015. Despite so many countries having particular worries about short-term damage to their industries and their economies, the countries of the world nonetheless were concerned enough about the long term effects to sign up to the “Paris Agreement”, which is designed to try and limit the types of human activity which may be causing global warming. (See my blog post, “A first for the world”, December, 2015.) One country, which happens to have one of the biggest economies in the world, has given notice that it intends to withdraw from the Agreement. However, everyone else is holding firm, hoping that this decision will be reversed.

One of the main principles of the Bahá’í Faith has, from the beginning, been the unity of all mankind. This is the springboard for social development and progress for humanity as a whole. Bahá’u’lláh Himself, writing in the 1800s, said “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” In 1913, His  Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, gave a talk in Edinburgh which is referred to as the “Seven Candles of Unity”. In this talk He stated: “The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed.” Surely, the Paris Agreement is an example of unity of thought – an attempt to give mankind some peace of mind, security and well-being. Writing in the 1930s, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, saw “the inevitable curtailment of unfettered national sovereignty as an indispensable preliminary to the formation of the future Commonwealth of all the nations of the world.”

It is this idea of “national sovereignty” which may well prove to be an issue with the climate change question. The world needs to consider whether national sovereignty is so important that one government – which can effectively mean one person in some countries! – can be allowed to prevent the world taking remedial action when mankind senses danger. Climate change takes its place alongside all the other threats – including warfare, terrorism and organised crime, which are crying out for some kind of world authority with the capacity to successfully deal with them. For those who have been afflicted by these devastating fires, climate change has literally become the burning issue. We need a means of damping down all these problems, and a world authority is surely the best answer.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)                

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Our cup runneth over


For the past few weeks, millions of people around the world have been fascinated by the event known as the football (soccer) World Cup. Thirty-two national teams qualified to play, and the only certain fact when it started was that thirty-one of these teams would go home without the winner’s cup! Unfortunately England is one of these, despite having done much better than anyone expected.

Football is only one of many team sports which hold similar events to the FIFA World Cup. Team sport distils many of the different aspects of human life: comradeship, competition, identity, bravery, exertion, and self-sacrifice, as well as displaying individual skill and athleticism. In many ways, participation in sport can be very beneficial. Despite the England team being very inexperienced, it is generally accepted that it was their close comradeship and their team spirit which got them as far as they did.

Participation as a spectator in a football match shows certain parallels to participation in collective religious practices. The game sets out rules of behaviour, as does a religion. The spectators are often in serried rows, as in many religious services. Everyone comes together at set times, and in both sport and religion there may be symbolism in the clothing worn, there is often singing, and even a lot of praying (though this is mostly heart-felt, personal prayer at a football match!). Sport certainly provokes the same sort of fervour which attachment to a religion does, and in most cases gives people a positive sense of identity and belonging.

The FIFA World Cup may at first sight seem to be exalting the nation, whereas Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed that “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” However, the world is subtly changing. This World Cup treats every nation as theoretically important. So Senegal, Costa Rica, Colombia and Tunisia (nations less economically favoured) are treated as notional equals by Russia, Germany, France and Saudi Arabia (nations more politically or economically powerful). This is all part of the current process of humanity coming together. It is part of the road to true unity, in which all mankind will come together without needing the competitive element. It is national identity which is being celebrated here, rather than the outmoded concept of nationalism.

Another aspect of this changing world is also paraded for all to see – the increasing acceptance of obviously mixed populations. Many of the countries have teams made up of players of a variety of skin colours, and skill and effort are celebrated on merit, rather than because of someone’s ethnic background. Racism can still be found among some spectators, mostly from countries which are less varied in their own racial mix, but it has not been a major feature of this World Cup.

Bahá’u’lláh urged: “This handful of dust, the world, is one home: let it be in unity.” Every major sporting event, such as this exciting and unpredictable World Cup, helps this process on its way.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Why wait for the future?

Drastic measures have been applied in various countries, to try and control the flow of unofficial (“illegal”) migration from the poorer countries into the richer ones. In one country, children have even been taken from their parents as families were caught entering without permits. In another country, rescue boats have been refused permission to dock with the migrants they carry. But there seems to be no real attempt at solving the causes of this problem. In some countries, it is wars, that the rest of us allow to continue. However, in many cases, it is that people live in countries where living standards are so much lower than others. Why are not we, humanity, working for the development of all countries of the world? If the standard of living was being raised, and the morale in the poorer countries raised with it, the flow of desperate and hopeful people would cease.

In July, 2017, I ran a guest posting by my daughter, Helena, which was entitled “Helping those who want to help themselves”. It explained how BASED-UK – (the Bahá’í Agency for Social and Economic Development) – raises funds to help projects run by local people in poorer countries, but where extra financing is required. It states in the Bahá’í Writings that: “The good pleasure of God consists in the welfare of all the individual members of mankind.” All of the efforts made by Bahá’ís are for the entire community, and not just to benefit Bahá’ís.

Just waiting for the world to change is not enough. We need to initiate and shape that change. And the Bahá’ís, as part of the world community, need to play their part in actively promoting sustainable “Social and Economic Development”. Throughout the world, in thousands of different communities – and including, of course the United Kingdom - the Bahá’ís have been setting up children’s classes based on moral education, and Junior Youth Empowerment Programmes. In these, junior youth from eleven to fifteen years of age work on a programme which aims to empower them to take their lives under their own control, even in challenging circumstances. Self-worth and consideration for others are developed, along with a realisation that even at their age they can begin to take part in positive service projects. In the United Kingdom, these may be cleaning up a park or a beach, providing food for the needy, organising social events for a neighbourhood and so on. In other countries, it could involve tree-planting, starting up a rudimentary waste collection service, or similar enterprises.

A startling proof of the efficacy of this programme showed up on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu. This part of the South Pacific occasionally suffers from cyclones, and that of 2015 devastated the island, destroying nearly every building. As is normal in these circumstances, the people felt initially unable to do anything to improve their lot, but the young people who had been through the Junior Youth Empowerment Programme rapidly organised themselves and began to take decisions as to what actions to take, and in what order. Their experience of working on previous projects had shown to them that you need to have a vision that you can achieve something, and then arise to take the first step, the second step, the third… Gradually, the rest of the population began to follow the lead of these young people, who were by themselves clearing debris from the roads, starting to rebuild the houses of the most vulnerable, and so on.

In another example, this time in Tajikistan, a Bahá’í girl organised a group of Romany (Gypsy) teenage girls, and took them through the Junior Youth programme. Well before the end of it, the girls were saying how their horizons had been raised. Rather than remaining perpetually marginalised, they were resolving to go on to further education, raise their own status and make a contribution to the world!

Over and above the programmes for children and youth, some of the most common threads that run through Bahá’í Social and Economic Development (S.E.D.) programmes are: empowering women and promoting gender equality; mobile health clinics; education (at all levels); and encouraging low-tech enterprises.

Around the world, there are over 600 ongoing Bahá’í S.E.D. projects, and several thousand projects of shorter duration. These include tutorial schools in villages which previously had no schooling; Bahá’í radio stations which disseminate social and spiritual programmes alongside agricultural advice; and FUNDAEC, which is a distance learning programme run from Colombia. A spokesman for one of the Bahá’í-inspired organisations which helps with the setting up of rural schools in Africa explained that they do not see their efforts as the solution for all the educational needs, but that it enables people to be raised up from within the community who can lead development processes in their own community.

In India, the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women trains women from marginalised tribes and less developed villages in literacy, more effective agricultural practices and in crafts which they can then use to generate income for their villages. The same institute has also developed solar-powered cookers, which can be constructed from old oil drums, and which take away the constant search for fuel. This endless search for firewood is, in many countries, a major cause of the perpetual degradation of the environment. In the Bahá’í view, all of these challenges have to be taken together: “We need a change of heart, a reframing of all our conceptions and a new orientation of our activities. The inward life of man as well as his outward environment have to be reshaped.” As a small example, around the new Bahá’í Houses of Worship in both Chile and Colombia there are now plantings of native vegetation, to encourage the regeneration of the local wildlife.

Helena’s blog highlighted the Setsembiso Sebunye Foundation in Swaziland, which helps local communities to found rural pre-schools. Another project supported by BASED-UK is the Bayan Association in Honduras. The Association has set up a Community Banking Scheme, which enables the community to offer small loans to individuals, so that they can start small businesses or enterprises. The money raised by BASED-UK pays for the training of the organisers, and thereafter the bank is self-supporting. As Abdu’l-Bahá put it: “The Lord of all mankind hath fashioned this human realm to be a Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise. If, as it must, it findeth the way to harmony and peace, to love and mutual trust, it will become a true abode of bliss, a place of manifold blessings and unending delights. Therein shall be revealed the excellence of humankind.”

Why wait for the future, when we can help it come?

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If you would like to help with children’s classes or the junior youth programme, please get in touch with your local Bahá’ís if you know how. Otherwise, visit www.bahai.org . Likewise, anyone can contribute to BASED-UK’s projects, by visiting www.baseduk.org 






Friday, 8 June 2018

Respect for life


The cities of Britain are currently suffering an alarming number of seemingly senseless murders of young people. Since the start of 2018, over sixty have been killed in London alone. Most often the weapon is a knife, in other cases it is a gun.

There is no one definite cause we can point to, but those who perpetrate these killings often seem to have loyalty to one tiny group of people: their own group or “gang”. They do not subscribe to any wider sense of right or wrong. The most important thing seems to be what is now called “respect” – that others recognise the claimed importance of their group. The killings may sometimes be committed under the influence of alcohol or some mind-altering drug. They may even be committed because of some quarrel over drug supply. In some cases it seems more likely that it was simply an argument which got out of hand.

Almost invariably, the family and friends of both the deceased and of the killer tell us what a lovely person he or she was, and how popular they were with their friends. These people were not “loners”, unable to function in society, but they were victims of a lack of community cohesion, and a general lack of spiritual awareness. In most cases, the killers have no loyalty to the wider community. Bahá’ís all over the world are working to re-establish that sense of community, where often it has been lost. Bahá’u’lláh declared that all mankind is one family: “These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family.” He also asserted the complete equality of all races, nationalities and religions: “Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other.”

Somehow, the teaching that you should not kill, and the teaching that you should love and forgive other people, have both been lost. These teachings seem to have no place in the minds of the killers. Presumably, not enough emphasis has been placed in their lives on these teachings to successfully steer them away from confrontational situations, and from carrying weapons. The result is that many people carry a knife “for self-protection”, and end up using it when they lose self-control on the street. Bahá’u’lláh specifically said that: “It is better to be killed than to kill.”

Worldwide, the Bahá’ís are engaged in a process of community-building. They are organising neighbourhood classes for children of all backgrounds, focussing on self-respect, on respect for others, and on moral behaviour. Similarly, there is the Junior Youth Empowerment Programme, which is for youth between the ages of eleven and fifteen. Where possible, these are run by older teenagers, to whom the “junior youth” can look up as role models. The Junior Youth have a set of workbooks, along with social activities, which aim at positive character formation and at empowering the young people to take control of their own lives and their own job prospects, as well as to make a positive contribution to the life of the neighbourhood. An essential part of this programme is the adoption of local projects – helping old people, cleaning up the environment, collecting for the food bank, whatever the Junior Youth themselves suggest or the local area needs. They often also take part in junior youth camps, alongside members of similar groups, to broaden their horizons. From the age of fifteen, the option is there to channel the energy of the youth into helping those younger than themselves, by training to run children’s classes and junior youth groups themselves.

But society as a whole also needs to adopt a wider vision and a supportive philosophy. For most people in the past, religion gave a moral framework and an outward-looking belief system. Those who believe in God see their behaviour as answerable to the Life Force behind creation, to the Creator Itself, not as answerable to a tiny group of friends. The teenage killers reflect an aspect of a society that needs to adopt this wider vision, and have a loyalty to the world, to mankind as a whole. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh, "That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race." 

Friday, 18 May 2018

When Harry met Meghan


Queen Elizabeth 2nd is monarch of around forty countries. Her grandson Harry is unlikely to become king, but is nonetheless a prominent (and popular) member of the Royal Family. He has chosen to marry Meghan Markle, an American woman of black heritage.

To me, their union augurs well for the future. One of the most basic Bahá’í principles is that of the oneness of all mankind. The Bahá’í Writings state that all humanity was created from the same original stock. The general public acceptance of Meghan as a member of the Royal Family is hugely significant. Over a hundred years ago, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, urged the early American Bahá’ís to promote inter-racial marriage. He Himself suggested to Louis Gregory, a prominent black American Bahá’í whose parents were born slaves, and to Louisa Matthews, a socially well-connected white English woman, that they marry. Their marriage was a happy and successful one. To establish new Bahá’í communities, they frequently moved to new cities in America. Sometimes they were living in states whose marriage laws prevented inter-racial marriage!

As far back as the 1860s, Bahá’u’lláh wrote weighty letters to many of the world’s rulers, advising them to make radical changes to the way their territories were run. Only one of these monarchs – Queen Victoria – sent a response, and hers is the only monarchy which survives, out of all those which Bahá’u’lláh addressed.

On the supposedly rival systems of monarchy and republicanism, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “Although a republican form of government profiteth all the peoples of the world, yet the majesty of kingship is one of the signs of God. We do not wish that the countries of the world should remain deprived thereof. If the sagacious combine the two forms into one, great will be their reward in the presence of God.” On another occasion He wrote: “The system of government which the British people have adopted in London appeareth to be good, for it is adorned with the light of both kingship and of the consultation of the people.” Due to this moderate approach to government, the peoples of Britain seem to be largely happy with their monarchy.

But what of the marriage itself? Bahá’ís see marriage as a “fortress for well-being”. The right of the couple to choose one another is sacrosanct – arranged marriage is not permitted – and only then is the approval of the family sought. Ideally, both families should be in complete support of the marriage, which will help it be successful. In the case of Harry and Meghan, they would appear to have very similar interests. Both are heavily involved in charity work, and both devote themselves to the service of others. Common interests and purposes – common enthusiasms even – give a marriage a real chance to blossom. (I can vouch for that J!) I wish them every success in their life together.