Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Winter Solstice

(this is a guest blog by my wife, Ann)
Hi there! I am writing this on the shortest day of the year. Last night apparently thousands of people visited Stonehenge to witness the sunset closest to the solstice, as presumably many people have done in the last few thousand years. Standing at the head of the avenue leading to the stones, the midwinter sunset is visible (weather permitting!) through the central arch.

It is easy to understand why those of us who live this far north should find this an important time of year – I, for one, feel greatly cheered by the prospect of more sunlight and the hope of summer! It is thought that it was the advent of farming (as a change from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle) which made marking the seasons so important – knowing when to sow crops, for a start. If we were going by what nature is doing in England at the moment, for example, we could easily think it was spring already and time to start planting! (We have had an exceptionally mild spell and around here we have daffodils flowering two or three months early.) Certainly those who built Stonehenge and other Neolithic monuments had a good knowledge of the movements of the sun, the moon and some of the planets.  Apparently even the Romans realised that the ancient Britons had far more astronomical knowledge than they did!

Actually, of course, the Stonehenge monument was built and rebuilt over a long period of time – more than a thousand years at least, so it is likely that knowledge increased during that time and that some beliefs changed. From a Bahá’í point of view, we understand that God has always sent His Messengers to earth – no part of the world has been left out, at any time in history. Of course, we only know about those Messengers who appeared before the advent of writing through the stories handed down through the generations. However, these provide plenty of evidence for Great Teachers in many parts of the world, such as among the native Americans, for instance.

We will never know the beliefs of the Stonehenge people, but we can know something about their civilisation. They were certainly organised enough to meet together at Stonehenge from all over Britain (even as far away as Orkney) and live, feast, and presumably worship together, not to mention working together to raise huge stones as monuments to their beliefs. They obviously had a certain degree of unity, even if it was only perhaps once a year. Now, thousands of years later, we can build on that idea, only this time we need to live and work in unity with the people of the whole world in order to achieve much greater monuments to our civilisation, such as equal opportunities, peace and justice for every single person. Then the people of the future will be able to look back in admiration and approval of what we have achieved. No doubt those people will have their own challenges, perhaps learning to live with people from other planets? At least they will have a Messenger for their own time to guide them.

Whatever happens, I suspect that if people are still living this far north, then at this time of year they will still welcome the prospect of more sunshine! 

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Space – The Final Frontier?

The news media in the United Kingdom have got very excited, because a British man has joined the crew of the International Space Station for a few months. The I.S.S. is jointly owned by 26 different nations, and has been crewed by people from at least 17 countries so far. The Station has a wide number of uses – the conduct of experiments, actual space research, the study of human biology, etc – and is probably thought of as the first stop on the way back to the moon, or a jumping-off point for Mars.

Bahá’ís believe that ours is not the only planet to carry life. Bahá’u’lláh stated that, “…every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute”. What is more, there will have been a least one “Prophet, bearing a Message…in each of the worlds whose number God, alone…can reckon”.

Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, gave a talk in Paris, in 1913, stressing that it was time to start making efforts to reach other planets. Of course, at the time, man had only just succeeded in flying an aircraft over the English Channel! But in the mind of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá space travel was the next step. It is a great pity that the powers of the time did not work together on this, but instead directed their efforts towards war.

While the astronauts are floating along the corridors of the space station, living and working together in friendship, the politicians down on the Earth’s surface, coming from the same countries, are still engrossed in conflict, instead of urgently tackling the planet’s many problems. It must be very obvious to the astronauts on the space station, as they look down, that the earth is one entity. Perhaps if the world’s leaders could be up there too, then they might understand things differently and be prompted to make greater efforts towards uniting the world and preserving the planet’s ecosystem.

Clearly, the ability of the major powers to suspend their rivalry and send Russian, American and British astronauts off together in the same capsule is in itself a positive sign. However, for all the co-operation in space, we are still lacking solutions to problems such as warfare, racism, starvation, disease, gender inequality, political boundaries, universal education, religious rivalry, etc, etc. But once we do begin to see mankind as one human family, and the whole earth as our home, we will be able to make exciting discoveries on the “final frontier”. As Bahá’u’lláh explained, “Know…of a truth that the worlds of God are countless in their number, and infinite in their range.”

Let’s see what’s out there!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

A First for the World

Paris is in the news again – this time for positive reasons. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) has come to an agreement, which 195 countries are signing up to. This is not yet the conference to end war. There is no agreement yet that all the world’s religions have the same source. This is not the gathering to ensure gender equality in every society, nor the one to explicitly proclaim the oneness of mankind. But it matters. This is the conference at which every country seems to recognise the need to act in order to avoid a man-made catastrophe, and by its very existence it is establishing that mankind is responsible for its own common future.

It is of supreme importance that the countries of the earth – so diverse in many ways – are all agreeing on something so significant. The intention is to limit the amount of climate change. The forests, the soil and the underlying sediments were all “carbon sinks”, meaning that much of the world’s surplus carbon was tied up in them. But for centuries, we have been burning coal and oil, chopping down the forests and allowing the soil to be eroded by wind and flood. Gradually, the carbon has gone up into the air as smoke and fumes. We need to reinstate the natural carbon cycle, in which plants take in the carbon dioxide breathed out by animals. The consumer-driven materialism, which has allowed man’s life to lose its connection with nature, and with any inner sense of spirituality, must be abandoned, with a return to a more natural rhythm of life. As Bahá’u’lláh expressed it: “The civilisation, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men... If carried to excess, civilisation will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation. Meditate on this, O people.”

We have to keep the different aspects of the earth in balance. As Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, put it: “Even as the human body in this world which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.”

Talking of the society of the future, Bahá’u’lláh predicted that rich people would voluntarily give some of their wealth to help others. At a global level, this is reflected in the new agreement, in that the equivalent of £65 billion will be given by the rich countries to the poor countries each year, to help them develop their economies using renewable technologies, which otherwise they would not be able to afford.

But climate change is not the only process driving vast numbers of people into starvation, into fleeing as refugees, into suffering and despair, because we still have conflict. Baseless ethnic rivalries, senseless religious jealousies, ideological or selfish political struggles all combine to hold back the era of peace and progress which most of mankind yearns for. The Climate Change Conference in Paris must surely be a precursor for the “vast, all-embracing assemblage of men” which Bahá’u’lláh stated “the rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend,” and which “must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world's Great Peace amongst men.”

If this first major, worldwide agreement on tackling climate change can be built upon, if our mutual interdependence can be fully recognised, if trust between countries can be increased and can eventually lead to the universal peace conference then this really will be a great achievement. In the Bahá’í view, there is a glorious future in the long term, which is well worth working towards: “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.”

Monday, 30 November 2015

Unless and Until

Today Paris is again the centre of attention as it welcomes, for the first time, representatives of every country on earth to the latest climate conference organised by the United Nations. It is a hopeful sign that most of these countries have already submitted plans to cut emissions in order to start to combat climate change. Mankind as a whole is hoping that an agreement will be reached which will make a real difference. If nothing happens, we are likely to find that wars and upheavals will be caused by the fact that people are desperate to escape floods, drought, water and food shortages caused by the changes to the climate. This, on top of the wars we already have.

Many years before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed in Paris (see previous blog), His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, wrote from exile in Turkey to the kings and rulers of the time, urging them to convene a peace conference. At this conference, permanent boundaries would be fixed, lower levels of armaments would be agreed, and all the rulers would agree to support one another against any aggression. He wrote: “Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him.” Only one ruler, Queen Victoria, responded (politely) to Bahá’u’lláh’s letter. If they had all listened to His proposals, the two World Wars would never have happened, not to mention dozens of other wars from that time to the present day.

The world now finds itself fighting a new kind of war, in which one side in the conflict does not follow the “rules” of war. Ignoring all the conventions and agreements which humanity has come to, there are different groups now which act with complete barbarism. Wholesale slaughter of anyone outside their own group, the forcible abduction of women as sex slaves and the deliberate destruction of mankind’s religious and cultural heritage are all committed openly and triumphantly as if to advertise their total rejection of all the accepted norms of human behaviour. More and more people now understand that unless and until these groups are stopped, no-one else is safe.

Governments have come to realise that they must put aside political differences and work together to eliminate this particular threat to the peace and stability of the world. The ultimate goal of world peace is impossible unless the governments and peoples of the world “unitedly arise and prevent” the wanton massacres perpetrated by these groups. There are early signs that countries are now doing this. In West Africa, there are five armies now working together to combat the threat from one such terrorist group; in East Africa, the African Union has been using troops from six countries to push back another such group; and now, in the Middle East, over twenty countries are increasingly working together to overcome the most infamous group of all. Maybe we haven’t got the world peace conference yet which Bahá’u’lláh called for, but there has been significant advance in that the United Nations Security Council has now given its unanimous assent to action against the most powerful terrorist entity. Previously the United Nations was not able to act, due to the lack of unity among the political leaders. Perhaps we are taking a small step towards what Bahá’u’lláh envisaged.

Meanwhile, we still have the threat of climate change to deal with. The common element in the problems of war and climate change is the need for unity – that all human beings should be aware of their oneness, coming as they do from one species, and inter-related as we all are. Through the fires of suffering, through the threat of climate catastrophe, through the experience of united action, the different races and religions must see one another as one and the same. As Bahá’u’lláh put it:
"The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."

Let us hope that recent and current events in Paris will move us nearer to this goal.



Friday, 20 November 2015

Paris Talk

In October, 1911, an elderly man of 68 who had been visiting London set out to travel to Paris, where His intention was to announce to the people of Europe in general, and France in particular, the Bahá’í message that all mankind needed to become one human family. Having been released from nearly 60 years in exile, prison and house arrest, He wished to share His Father’s message that the religions of the world were all from the same source and that the world should be united. His name was ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and during His nine-week stay in Paris, He gave nightly talks to crowds of seekers wishing to hear how He thought the world could be changed. The series of talks He gave, to people from all walks of life, were later published as a book, known as “Paris Talks”. Each talk has a simple theme: that we should be welcoming to people from other lands; that prejudice should be abandoned; that there is real spiritual aspiration in the West; the need for union between the peoples of the East and the West; the need for both material and spiritual progress, and so on.

The social and religious teachings which ‘Abdu’l-Baha was giving are totally the opposite of the ideas which drove a group of hate-filled terrorists to slaughter innocent people in Paris in November, 2015. One hundred years later, and the teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha are just as necessary today as they were then. More so, because the dreadful weapons of the terrorist of today were not even invented then. The ideas that drive ISIS are a long way from the ideas towards which the world is currently moving. In the modern world, many people take for granted that all religions are of comparable value, whether they personally follow a religion or not. The current wave of terrorists assert that one religion is superior to the others, even though they do not actually practise its teachings on how human beings should treat one another! It may be that the foot-soldiers of ISIS are really trying to find a role in life, rather than actually following a religion. They simply have not caught the “spirit of the age”, which is that we are moving towards one world, that everyone should be supporting each other, that mutual aid and tolerance should be the hallmarks of civilisation.

I have no idea why ‘Abdu’l-Baha chose Paris as the place to stress these particular ideas. What I do know is that the world now needs to replace division and “religious” rivalry with unity and harmony. ‘Abdu’l-Baha constantly stressed to His listeners the need to avoid any kind of harm or upset to others: “Beware lest ye harm any soul, or make any heart to sorrow; lest ye wound any man with your words, be he friend or foe. Beware, beware, lest ye offend the feelings of another.” Even further from His ideas was the concept of people deliberately causing physical harm to others: “Force and violence, constraint and oppression are condemned in this divine cycle.”

Paris must rise above the current tragedy and show the cosmopolitan spirit for which it is famous. In one of the “Paris Talks”, ‘Abdu’l-Baha said, “This meeting in Paris is a truly spiritual one… Lift up your hearts above the present and look with the eyes of faith into the future!”

It is the future which must become the talk of Paris.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We are in a minority

In almost every country on earth, some groups of people can be identified as “minorities” – people who speak a different language from the “majority” in the country, or follow a different religion, or whose lifestyle is noticeably different from that of others. Probably because of our “us and them” way of thinking, we react towards minorities in odd ways. Some people resent a minority which still speaks its own language (“They live in our country. Why can’t they be like us?”), but if the minority area asks to become a separate country, which would remove the problem, that too is resented – they are resented whether they are “in” or “out”. If there is a minority  group which is perceived as richer, they are resented for that; but if another group is woefully under-employed, they are resented for that!

On British television screens, we have repeatedly been shown a particular minority group – the Rohingyas, in Burma/Myanmar. This particular group of people has apparently now been declared as non-citizens of the country, although this people has been there for several generations. In a country which includes many minorities (the ethnic Burmese [“Bamar”] are about 68% of the population, the others belong to 134 different ethnic groups), the Rohingyas particularly stand out. They look physically different from most groups in the country, and they are Muslims, in a country where the dominant religion is Buddhism. When Burma regained its independence in 1948, the constitution provided for a union, in which the five largest ethnic groups would have autonomy for their areas. The national flag, from 1948 until 1974, had five smaller stars around the main star, to represent these autonomous areas. But no real progress was ever made on recognition of the rights of the minorities – so it was not just a problem for the Rohingyas, but it is they who are now in a particularly desperate position.

Part of the Bahá’í approach to the world’s problems is to raise the status of “minority” peoples – the positive features of every culture should be cherished and encouraged. Although Bahá’í elections involve choosing people on their personal qualities as individuals, care should nevertheless be taken that material and cultural considerations do not prejudice the voter, and if everything else is equal, then a representative of a minority group should be favoured by the voter.

There are a large number of references in Bahá’í literature to down-trodden or underprivileged groups. For example, Bahá’u’lláh once compared the black people of the world to the black pupil of the eye, “from which the light of the Spirit shines forth”, and His son ‘Abdu’l-Baha, talking of the native Americans, said, “There can be no doubt that [through them] the whole earth will be illumined”.

On a world scale, everyone is part of a minority. In a population of 7 billion, even the “Americans” and the “Chinese” are minorities. If we had a world administration, based on the simple idea of “us” (the human beings) rather than “us and them”, we would be supporting and protecting one another, as “minority” peoples who are all on this planet together.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

War: what is it good for?

From time to time the attention of the world switches from one civil war to another – as if warfare can ever be civil. Three years ago, it was Libya, then the Ukraine, and now Syria. In each case, groups are fighting for a particular ethnic or religious cause, and usually there are outside forces willing to supply training and weapons.

In  most cases, if a country has an established history of democracy it tends not to descend into fighting. However, if the political parties in a country actually represent different ethnic groups, the possibility of armed conflict still exists.

The Bahá’í answer to all of this is the concept of unity. Not a grey uniformity, but an underlying recognition that all human beings, of whatever class or level of education, following whichever religion or none, of whatever skin colour and speaking whatever language, are from one original stock, and should belong to one human family. There never should be a situation in which one person seizes power, as happened in both Libya and Syria, and then manipulates everything in the interest of his family and friends. The injustice in this situation always boils over at some point, and leads to the armed struggles. In 1995, when the Bahá’ís made suggestions intended to strengthen the United Nations, one of the suggestions was that only those governments which were freely elected by the people of the country should have a vote in the General Assembly. The various dictatorships would still be allowed to attend the sessions, but would clearly be seen as less legitimate governments than the democracies. (Of course, the forms of democracy currently practised in the world are far from perfect, but are still preferable to locking the population in tyranny.)

On the subject of war itself, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, said: “How is it possible for men to fight from morning until evening, killing each other, shedding the blood of their fellow-men: And for what object? To gain possession of a part of the earth!... Land belongs not to one people, but to all people. This earth is not man's home, but his tomb.”
To argue that war should be abandoned as a method of settling disputes should not mean that the well-meaning people of the world should stand aside and let bloodthirsty tyrants and psychopaths slaughter the innocent. Surely the nations of the world should be able to construct an army of peace-keepers to be inserted into trouble spots as soon as a situation begins to get out of hand, instead of after the fighting has finished, which is what often happens now. In various parts of Africa, this approach is now being tried, although the lack of a world language restricts their effectiveness somewhat.

However, the real answer is unity – that people should feel a loyalty to mankind, to the planet, to the human family, rather than to one ethnic background or to the leader of some fanatical group. Bahá’u’lláh said ”The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” At some point, everyone will see the sense of replacing war with peace. A world peace conference should fix the boundaries of each country, and produce a universal treaty to which all of mankind can give its loyalty: “…and so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away and the most great peace shall come.”

If we do not learn how to stop these wars, what will the twenty-first century have learned? Absolutely nothing!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Once in a Lifetime

The Shrine of Baha'u'llah

Recently there was yet another catastrophe at the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage for Muslims. Hundreds of people were killed as two crowd movements collided. As the number of pilgrims continues to grow, the difficulties of maintaining safety for such numbers also grows.

A male Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, at the time set aside for this, once during his lifetime, provided that he is of sound mind, can afford the journey, is not prevented by circumstances, and it is safe for him to do so. There is no such obligation for women. People who are not Muslims may wonder whether the believers will be put off making the pilgrimage in future. I doubt it. Hundreds of people have died in similar disasters at football matches: Ibrox Park, Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford, etc., but has this stopped people from going to see football games? Airline crashes sometimes have casualty figures in the hundreds, but many people are still happy to take the risk of flying.

A pilgrimage should be a spiritual experience – potentially life-changing in a positive way. Its impact on the pilgrims will vary dramatically from one individual to another. Some will find it of interest only, while others will come back profoundly changed in some way. There is a risk – of accident or incident – in travelling anywhere. I myself have had three near misses when driving to work, and on one occasion, while out on an errand in the car, I honestly thought I might get killed as a witness to murder! So if unexpected dangerous situations may arise at any time, why deny yourself the opportunity of a lifetime?

The Bahá’í pilgrimage is organised rather differently from the Muslim one. The pilgrimage to visit the Bahá’í Shrines in the Holy Land lasts for nine days, and pilgrims have to apply in advance. Limited numbers are allowed at any one time, and the pilgrimages are spread throughout the year. A fleet of coaches transports the increasing number of pilgrims between the various historical sites connected with the Faith, and each group has a guide as a constant help. Everything, therefore, feels calm and safe. It is made clear to everyone that in the future, as even greater numbers are catered for, pilgrims will not be able to have access to certain sites, as to do so will become logistically impossible. For example, they will only be able to circle round the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh (pictured above) at a distance, rather than be able to go inside to pray as at present.

But what is the point of pilgrimage at all? People will flock to an event – something where they expect to be entertained – whether it is a rock concert, the Edinburgh Festival or a Grand Prix race. But in each of these cases, they also wish to experience something, and a religious pilgrimage should likewise be an experience. Those who decide that there is no divine force potentially shut themselves off from receiving anything from that source. By going on pilgrimage, a person is (hopefully) opening his/her heart to any potential spiritual experiences, sensations, guidance or insights. There may well be an understanding or connection made, in the mind or heart of the pilgrim, with the particular Messenger or saint who lived at, visited or worshipped at the same spot, many centuries before. To deny the possibility of such an emotional connection is to negate the whole purpose of history as a subject, of archaeology, of historical fiction and art generally.

So, if there might be some sort of purpose to a religious pilgrimage, is there any sort of point to religion itself? A Bahá’í would answer “Yes”, believing that it has always been religion – at least in its pure form – which has outlined the way human beings should behave, and therefore given moral guidance. This idea may be difficult for people to accept at present, because we can see how the world’s religions have to a great extent lost their moral force in recent times. However, Bahá’ís have great optimism that the new religious teachings, on the need for a world civilisation, respecting all peoples, will soon take hold. Men and women will be treated equally, and the rights of all human beings will be explicitly spelt out. That which is beneficial in religion will join with that which is beneficial in science, and help to create a World Commonwealth in which all people, from whatever background, will be closely and permanently united. Bahá’u’lláh said: “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” Just once in the lifetime of humanity there is the chance to make the pilgrimage towards world unity, and that chance is now.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

It’s Time To Get Our Act Together

Recently, there was an earthquake in Chile. I only heard it mentioned once on British television, but some people were killed and damage was done to buildings. The authorities in Chile have a good warning system, and had evacuated people before the earthquake and its attendant tsunami struck. This was why so few people died.

A young friend of mine asked why God lets people get killed in earthquakes. While a proper discussion of all of the issues involved is beyond the scope of a short blog post like this, her question has made me dwell on how we can prevent most of the deaths from ever taking place. Legal documents always used to call such events “acts of God”, as if God had suddenly decided to shake things up a bit. Now that we understand more about the geological processes going on underground, and the meteorological processes overhead, we refer to earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, flooding, etc. as “natural disasters”. We understand that whereas some planets appear in many respects to be lifeless, the Earth we live on has “living” processes, involving volcanoes, undersea fissures, glaciation, avalanches, storms and the like. Of course, any sudden or “extreme” event has consequences for those living on the surface of the planet. Some of these events may be partially due to man’s actions – for example, floods in Bangladesh are now thought to be so devastating because of deforestation in the Himalayas. The trees and soil which should absorb the water are no longer there, so the water simply floods on down to the lowlands. Many people suspect – or are already convinced – that global warming is partly caused by man’s actions, and that the annual cyclones or hurricanes are now more powerful due to man-made climate change.

One possible interpretation of how human life works is that the world is designed in such a way as to give people challenges to overcome. If every problem were solved and there were nothing to strive for, if everything stayed the same and life had no colour, humanity would not be able to progress. Growth and change are both parts of human development. People adapt to the dangers they meet. In Japan, houses were traditionally built of lightweight materials such as wood and paper, to lessen the danger of death from earthquakes, and there were no interior walls, just lightweight partitions. In a number of tropical countries, houses were built on stilts, to reduce the chances of dangerous animals entering the home, or in some places to keep above flood zones. In more recent times, some countries – including both Japan and Chile – have brought in stringent rules which demand that “modern” structures are earthquake-proof. The stunning Bahá’í House of Worship currently being built in Chile is itself (hopefully!) earthquake-proof, and each of the “sails” has been independently seismically tested. However, as the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima power plant showed, even the Japanese regulations were not adequate for the worst possible tsunami, and new equipment and defences are already being put into place for similar plants.

In today’s news, several hundred people were killed in a stampede at the Hajj pilgrimage near Mecca. Early indications are that two different movements of people ended up converging on the same point. This clearly does not count as a “natural” disaster, but again shows the need for careful planning and management, and the need to adapt to new dangers – in this case hundreds of thousands of people in close proximity to one another.

In 2004, a powerful tsunami struck a number of countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka and India. The governments of the world had previously had the chance to install an early-warning system, but had decided it would cost too much money. This was a clear example of mankind failing to put other people’s lives and happiness first. And seven hours later, the same tsunami finally arrived in East Africa, and drowned people there who had simply not been warned about it. Gradually, better warning systems are being created, more organisations are working together to look for survivors of natural disasters, and to provide medical relief, tents, food and equipment.

But somehow, this concern for our fellow human beings is not yet universal. Other groups of people are busy fighting local wars, killing people from rival tribes or different religions. Perhaps we should also ask what can be done about these “unnatural disasters”. In the Bahá’í Writings it says: “Man has been able to bend the powers of nature to his will. God gave this power to man that it might be used for the advancement of civilisation, for the good of humanity… but man prefers to use this gift to destroy instead of to build… for hatred and discord and devastation”.

Let us turn our attention from creating disasters towards preventing them.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A Long Way Short

A lot of people have arrived unexpectedly in Europe this summer, and many of these are fleeing tyrannical regimes and warfare, especially from Syria. At the time of writing, the countries in the European Union have no effective system of coping with those who arrive “illegally” in large numbers. Every day, we see new twists and turns in this story. Some countries are welcoming refugees from countries at war with open arms. Others are building fences to keep them out. Most people see a distinction between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrants”, but without a working system, nothing can effectively be done to deal with either group. This is not just a European problem - other parts of the world are receiving migrants from less fortunate countries.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, urged the world to create a world government. Addressing the immediate future He said: “The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective.” Certainly, the richer parts of the world are incapable of coping in any organised way with the arrival of large numbers of refugees and other unregulated migrants. The world does not even agree on the rights a human being should have. Some countries do not allow their citizens to leave. Far more have no objection to their citizens leaving, but object to people arriving from outside. The world also seems incapable of preventing the organised people smuggling which is undertaken by criminal gangs.

What is more, the world has not created any real mechanism for preventing warfare, either within countries or between countries. The United Nations Organisation was, unfortunately, not set up with a mechanism for preventing the types of war which now occur; nor does the United Nations have the authority, or the armed forces, to intervene at an early stage when fighting does break out. It is the warfare and despotism which the world allows to continue which promotes mass emigration from certain unfortunate countries. The world has also not evolved past the stage of political and religious divisions and fanaticism. Presumably foreseeing this kind of chaos, Bahá’u’lláh predicted that, “Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.” In His letter to Queen Victoria, when talking about the rulers of the world, He said: “Should any one among you take up arms against another, rise ye all against him, for this is naught but manifest justice.” A world government would have the authority to take quick decisions to prevent situations from deteriorating. It would have a form of world police force which could be used in trouble spots, and as long as it functions in the right spirit, it would also have the affection and loyalty of the vast majority of the world’s citizens. In 1955, and again in 1995, the Bahá’ís made detailed proposals to the United Nations Organisation for major reform of the way it is organised and on the areas it should have authority to tackle, but unfortunately no changes have been made.

At present, the world is a long way short of what it could be. The nations need to put aside what they believe is their own interest in order to develop a form of world administration which will be able to sort out the problems which countries cannot solve by themselves.

(Note: cartoon thanks to Simon Kneebone)

Monday, 31 August 2015

With This Ring I Thee Wed

I have never met Ashley Madison. I do not even know if it’s a man or a woman. But I do know that Ashley Madison has helped to increase the amount of unhappiness in the world.

People have been paying money to the website of that name, hoping to have an extra-marital “affair” with somebody. Obviously the data hacked from this website means that many of those who have been cheating will get found out, but it seems to me that for many people, it would only be a matter of time before their spouse finds out anyway. A stray email, a text noticed on a mobile phone, lame excuses for some sudden departure… My impression is that most people get caught out eventually.

In whatever way each person may justify their behaviour to themselves, they are setting out deliberately to break the vows they have made to their wife or husband. Does the guilty party think deeply about the disloyalty they are showing to their partner and what it means for their relationship? Cheating on a marriage suggests that the love between the couple is not quite what it could be. In the Bahá’í writings it says that the couple should be “two helpmates, two intimate friends, who should be concerned about the welfare of each other. It they live thus, they will pass through this world with perfect contentment, bliss, and peace of heart.” If you really are concerned about the welfare of your spouse, this would seem to rule out any idea of infidelity. After all, true love implies putting your partner first.

Indeed, if marriage were seen as a spiritual union, as two souls travelling through life together, this might give a more long-lasting perspective than a materialistic viewpoint may give. Again, the Bahá’í writings say: “…true marriage…is this, that husband and wife should be united both physically and spiritually, that they may ever improve the spiritual life of each other, and may enjoy everlasting unity throughout all the worlds of God.”

Any form of successful human relationship requires trust, but particularly between husband and wife. People have a happy and secure basis to their lives if they know they can rely absolutely on their partner. Once this trust is destroyed, the relationship is never the same again. Ashley Madison has encouraged people to cheat on their spouses and has made money out of it. The irony is that people trusted Ashley Madison to keep their details (and affairs) secret. I doubt if anyone will trust Ashley Madison again.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Left, Right or Straight Ahead?

The governments of the United States and Cuba are now speaking to one another, and moves are under way to try and normalise relations, although Cuba is a communist state and many Americans regard any form of communism or socialism as evil! Meanwhile In Britain, the Labour party is electing a new leader, who will either be from the “right” or the “left” of the party.

Do these labels of right and left tell us anything? If you turn the steering wheel hard left, and then try to go forwards, the vehicle goes round in circles. If you turn hard right, you might think this is (ideo-)logically different, but you get the same general effect! If a pilot lifts either the left or the right wing – sorry, port or starboard – higher in the air, thereby raising its importance, the aircraft tilts, and gives the passengers an uncomfortable ride. And yet so many people are ideologically attached to “left-wing” or “right-wing” ideas. What the world really needs to do is to move on, to a future, and that involves looking straight ahead, and definitely using both wings!!

Different industries, different services, different towns and villages, all have separate needs of their own, and these needs change over time. This law of change seems to exist throughout the universe, so why do people think that both politics and economics are somehow free from it, and prefer to cling to somebody’s theory? Every enterprise should be seen as an amalgam of initiative, creativity, thought, care, finance and co-operation. The future will probably require endless mixes of different ideas and structures, as conditions change and new situations arise.

From a Bahá’í point of view, it is clear that local control, whether in business or government, is preferable to over-centralisation. Some level of co-ordination is obviously required, but a local town or village council is usually in a better position to judge what initiatives are necessary, to bring benefit to the community, rather than strangers in an office hundreds of miles away in the capital city. Bahá’u’lláh said that there should be a Local House of Justice in each town or village, which would be close to the people it exists to serve. This body would have greater powers of initiative than a present-day town council, and greater freedom to be of direct assistance to individuals. When making its decisions, the House of Justice would have to consider the needs of people outside its area as well as those within. As is obvious from its name, it must ensure that everyone is treated fairly, and this includes economic justice. Bahá’ís believe that there should be laws designed to eliminate poverty completely, and to ensure that no person has ridiculous amounts of personal wealth. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh’s son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “It is important to limit riches, as it is also of importance to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good.”

None of this will work, of course, unless there is agreement and the consent of the community. In other words, everyone has to be united. A Local House of Justice will work most effectively if its members come from diverse backgrounds – it has to represent the entire community. Once this “unity in diversity” is established, every useful idea, instead of being labelled “left”, “right” or “centre”, will be evaluated to see whether it fits the current needs.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

A Climate of Change

In President Obama’s recent television announcement, climate change was presented as established fact. The United States government therefore wishes to reduce the carbon emissions that the country produces. As America has already legislated on certain pollutants, and has reduced the polluting level of its cars – sorry, automobiles – it seems that the target for reduction now is coal-fired power stations. Similar power stations have been closing in Europe, for the same reason.

But people will still need electricity to power their homes and their places of work, so alternative methods of power generation have to be promoted. Apart from the natural reserves of coal, oil and gas which the planet holds, there are the renewable sources, which are essentially replenishing themselves at all times. Some renewable energy sources have unwanted side effects. Wind turbines, for example, are known to cause many bird deaths, including large birds such as eagles. Solar “farms” displace wildlife, and tidal barrages cause ecological damage where they are installed. However, there are other methods which have less impact: using small-scale solar and hydro-electric schemes, ground heat pumps, etc.

Doing nothing about the increasing change in the planet’s climate risks potential disaster. One scenario involves a melting of the ice caps, accompanied by flooding, due to a rise in sea levels. Others include potential food and water shortages, as the rain ceases to fall in some areas, contrasting with disastrous floods elsewhere. Despite the years of collecting evidence of how things *have* changed, there is still no certainty about how things *will* change, even in the near future. It could be argued that while only some countries are reducing their emission levels, there is no real chance of avoiding further climate change. It needs to be every country making an effort at the same time. We do, after all, inhabit just one earth, with just one atmosphere. China’s carbon output is approximately double that of the United States, but, due to its much larger population, emissions per head are much lower. If it reached the same levels as the USA it would be catastrophic! Luckily, China has finally started to replace its “dirty” technology because of its awful internal pollution problems.

So many people seem to just look at their own (supposed) interests, and fail to regard this earth as one immense planetary system, in which the atmosphere, the seas, tectonic and volcanic processes, animals, plants and humans endlessly interact with one another. “The structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.”  The Earth itself is, of course, part of a much wider system, and could not exist without the Sun, for example, “for every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance”. If we push these relationships too far, we may cause just such an imbalance, and bring about a catastrophe.

In the Bahá’í view, “We need a change of heart, …a new orientation of our activities. The inward life of man as well as his outward environment have to be reshaped.” To do this, there needs to be a climate of change. The change of heart needed can be categorised by the word “spiritual”, conveying a feeling for the world based on a sense of oneness with the world and respect for the world rather than a sense of ownership and exploitation. This would mean less materialism and therefore less need for energy from whatever source.

(Quotations in italics are from the Bahá’í writings)

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

This Earth Is One Country

For hundreds or probably thousands of years, young men, and indeed whole families, have left their homes to go travelling elsewhere in the world, looking for better prospects for themselves. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people from Europe swarmed across the ocean in ships, seeking to settle in the Americas, or find a way of making a fortune in Africa, Asia or Australia. Provided that no-one was actually killing them, they did not mind whether they were wanted there or not! They went, because they were looking for a better life.

At the present time, Europeans are seeing this process in reverse. Instead of people fleeing Europe to escape poverty, war and persecution, people are now trying to get into Europe to escape poverty, war and persecution. Prosperity has increased in much of Europe since the nineteenth century, and a system of migration designed to help the peoples within the European Union has resulted in the doors being shut to most people wanting to come to Europe from outside. The doors are shut, so people have started coming through the windows. They pay some hard-hearted criminal gang for about 80 square-inches of floor space on a crowded boat and get towed or pushed out to sea.

Because the European Union has a system, it is totally flummoxed when people don’t use the  system, but just turn up on the open sea. What does Europe do in response? Well, nothing very organised, because the “problem” of people entering illegally is, by its very nature, haphazard and uncontrolled.

The United Kingdom has its own part in this, with several thousand people hanging around near Calais, trying their best to get into the U.K. by almost any means, because they do not have the paperwork which would allow them entry. Although the exact details of the “problem” will continue to shift, people trying to move to another part of the world, which seems so much richer and/or safer than their homeland, will continue for a considerable time.

Why? For a number of reasons. Some parts of the world are much richer than others. One big step towards solving this would be the institution of a world currency. This would immediately put an end to currency speculation, to adverse exchange rates and much economic uncertainty. Companies wishing to open a second factory would find it more beneficial to do so in places where the wage levels are lower. Money would shift towards the poorer countries until the financial situation of all countries would be better balanced. If the rich countries really want to avoid being magnets for everyone who sees themselves as dispossessed, more immediate and determined efforts need to be made to distribute the wealth better, so that it reaches all parts of the world.

Of course, it is not only Europe which attracts migrants. Other countries which apparently offer employment and economic opportunities are equally attractive – people cross from Mexico into the United States every day, and Thailand, Malaysia and Australia have “boat people” trying to gain entry. Any well-to-do country which speaks English (the U.S.A., Canada, the U.K., Australia, etc.) may become more attractive to the more determined migrants, because many of these people already speak the language. A world language would help this situation greatly. If all the schools in the world taught the same shared language, then English-speaking countries would be no more attractive to migrants than would other countries.

But a huge reason for millions of people leaving their homes is conflict. People are currently fleeing conflicts in the Yemen, in Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc., and some of them are heading for distant lands. Peace and political stability are desperately needed in the world. Bahá’ís see democracy as a way forward for the planet and the Bahá’í writings emphasise that universal freedom is an important part of creating unity in the world. We all need to see mankind as one family, and the whole earth as one home.

The “problem” of “illegal” migration will not be solved until  the causes of the situation have been removed. Bahá’u’lláh said: “This earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens”. Until we look at it from that perspective, and start asking how we can improve the lives of all of its citizens, we will continue to struggle for solutions.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Out of Africa

President Obama has visited Kenya, and attended a conference on “entrepreneurship”, which I take to mean a conference about individual initiative and wealth creation. It seems that the world is gradually realising that Africa has talent, which needs to be encouraged and given chance to flourish in order to make each country prosperous.

During the colonial period Europeans, armed with superior weapons, marched in and took over, telling the locals what to do. In each area, somebody was set up as a governor, with personal transport and a big house. For these people, money seemed to mysteriously arrive from Europe. Small wonder, then, that when these colonies regained their freedom – sorry, became independent – many local leaders set themselves up in the same style, with big palaces and impressive personal transport. And money still arrives from Europe (and the other “Western” countries), in the form of aid money or development funds. However, the technical term for people ensuring that they get a share of their country’s money quietly siphoned into their own bank accounts, wherever they are in the world, is “corruption”.

In most, if not all parts of the world, corruption is a problem. It may be more blatant, widespread or institutionalised in some countries than others.  However, it is now more generally realised, and more openly spoken of, as a barrier to progress. Money quietly siphoned into someone’s bank account is playing no part in the generation of wealth. Ultimately, money is only useful if it is being used – in other words, if it is circulating. And it is most useful when it helps to create jobs. Sitting in a rich person’s bank account, it is doing nothing. In areas like Africa, even if that person then decides to purchase a private plane, or a luxury yacht, that money is going straight back into the Western economy, because such things are only built in the developed countries. This is why Western countries still see giving aid money as beneficial. Even when the money goes to infrastructure projects, the machinery required is often built in Europe or North America, so the money actually helps wealth creation back in the West.

For wealth to reach the general population of the “developing” countries, trustworthiness is required on the part of all citizens, including those in government and those paying taxes. The Bahá’í writings say: “Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading to the tranquillity and security of the people. In truth, the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it.” This should be self-evident, really, but it’s worth being reminded! Trustworthiness does not only apply to government, business and other financial affairs, it applies to every aspect of life, including justice.

Let the rest of the world now set an example to Africa by removing its own corruption. This will  encourage the people of the African nations to rid their own countries of corruption and bring Africa to the prosperity its people deserve.

Friday, 24 July 2015

To Pluto – And Beyond!

On March 13th, 1781, musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel saw a green blob through his telescope. He cleaned the lenses, but the blob was still there. He had discovered a new planet – Uranus!

But Uranus did not behave quite as astronomers calculated it should. Was there another planet pulling it out of line? They searched for another one, further out, and found Neptune in 1846. It was the same story again – was yet another planet, even further out, pulling Neptune off course slightly?

So began the search for Pluto. At a special observatory set up for the purpose, Clyde Tombaugh compared photos of the night sky taken a few days apart. If one tiny speck of light had changed position, perhaps it was a planet, and not a star. Sure enough, after looking at about “thirteen million” specks (according to him!!), he found a speck that had moved. It was given the name Pluto, but it turned out to be smaller than expected, and was eventually downgraded to a “minor planet”, even though it has moons of its own.

And now a spacecraft has flown past it and started to send back pictures of it (“Wish you were here…”). We are now learning that every planet, and every moon, is different – unique. The universe seems to be designed that way: endless variety. As a Bahá’í I find this very exciting. In the 19th century Bahá’u’lláh stated that other stars have their own inhabited planets and that each such planet has “its own creatures, whose number no man can compute”. In 1913, Abdu’l-Bahá, His son, urged that the technology should be developed to enable space exploration to begin, starting by visiting other planets.

Scientists are now starting to find likely candidates for inhabited planets at vast distances from Earth. If we are ever to consider travelling beyond our own solar system, either by probe or in person, there are a lot of technical problems to consider; but we are probably not ready in other ways, either. We need to develop a united planet, with a world civilisation, before we have a worthwhile contribution to make to anyone beyond Pluto!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Great Deal to Discuss

Several of the world’s most militarily powerful nations have finally made an agreement – sorry, a “deal” – with the government of Iran. Put simply, this agreement gives the International Atomic Energy Authority the right to check on all Iran’s nuclear facilities. Result: Iran will not be able to build a nuclear weapon (well, not in the near future, anyway). But a number of the countries involved in the deal already have nuclear weapons themselves!

Writing in about 1890, Bahá’u’lláh (the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith) stated: “Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal.” Did He have some insight into nuclear radiation? In 1911, His son (Abdu’l-Bahá) warned a Japanese ambassador: “There is in existence a stupendous force… Let us supplicate God… that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilisation shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower material nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.” In 1945, nuclear weapons were dropped on two Japanese cities, killing about 200,000 people. In the period after World War II, the number of countries with such nuclear weapons rose, and currently stands at nine.

Are they necessary at all? Why can we not have a universal peace treaty, uniting all the nations of the world in a universal agreement? All national borders would have to be agreed, and the arms of each nation would have to be limited. At the same time, the people of the world would have to agree that *any* national government breaking this treaty would be removed from office. Unless and until we do this, the world will continue to lurch from one crisis to another, and our attention will endlessly have to switch to trying to fix the next “deal”.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Money, Money, Money

A lot of the news in recent weeks (or months, or years) has been about the Greek financial crisis. Somehow, circumstances have arrived at Greece being in the European Union, and within the €urozone, without having had its finances sorted out. (Some Bahá’í friends of ours moved to Greece in the 1990s. They had the great inconvenience of having to wait nearly 2 years to get a telephone connected because they refused to pay a bribe.) There is a need now for justice for all parties and an acceptable standard of living for ordinary Greeks, but what the financial world sees as important is something quite different – the “success” of the €uro as a currency.

Every day, huge amounts of money are being changed from one currency to another (and of course some people are making a *profit* out of it!) The currency of every country is being constantly valued and revalued by people in the “currency markets”, as people make money out of money.

But isn’t money what we use to buy food with, or clothes, or houses? Why should it be a plaything for companies and financiers? Money was invented to make people’s lives easier, but the financial markets do not treat it like that. In the nineteenth century, Bahá’u’lláh offered the idea of one currency for the whole world. Although this would necessitate certain realignments in financial arrangements, this would surely be both easier and fairer than the present system, in which the currency of poor countries is seen as worthless, while the currencies of rich countries, such as the United States of America, Japan or the United Kingdom, are sought after. The present system leaves poorer countries at a daily disadvantage.

The “€uro” currency could be seen as a step towards a world currency, but money markets prefer to see it as a “risk” or an “experiment”. The only country which has officially proposed a world currency is China, and what it is proposing is a currency for trading purposes. Each currency would be traded against this common world currency, instead of dollars, yen, Swiss francs or gold. The Chinese do not perceive it as something ordinary people could use.

So, back to Greece. Either Greece will stay in the €urozone, or it will drop out of it and go back to drachmas, or there will be some other arrangement – for example the Greeks using both currencies. This will be important to the Greeks, of course, and probably the rest of Europe, but whatever happens, useful experience will have been gained in what does and does not work with a shared currency. Ultimately, it will have helped mankind to develop what it needs: one currency for the whole world.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, on 7th July, my son-in-law safely took a number 30 bus between Hackney and Euston. Later that morning, a similar number 30 bus was blown up by a suicide bomber. Ten years on, so much is happening in the world, and the situation seems to be going from bad to worse. A gunman, claimed to be a “soldier of the Caliphate”, has killed 38 people on a rampage in Tunisia. When an American citizen visits his local school and starts shooting people, we shake our heads that the world seems to have so many disoriented and dysfunctional people. But in many ways, what happened in Tunisia was *worse*. The killer was not known to have mental problems, and his heartless and ruthless actions seem to have been part of a plot, and not simply the actions of a deranged person trying to go out in a blaze of infamy.

This man had support. He had been supplied with a powerful weapon and some hand grenades, and he had been trained in a terrorist camp. He tried to kill only tourists, and not Tunisians. Presumably his masters did not wish to alienate the Tunisian population. And presumably he was either targeting “westerners”, or “Christians”, at the same time as damaging, or even destroying, Tunisia’s tourist industry.

ISIS, based in Syria, published his picture on electronic media, thereby proving that they had at the very least some involvement in either his actions, his mindset, or both. The leaders of ISIS seem to have developed their own idea of how Muslims should behave towards other human beings, none of whom they seem to hold of any account whatsoever, and once again we see it all done in the name of religion. “Religion” and “spirituality” seem to have gone their own ways, somehow. By contrast, Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith (which is my religion)  said we should “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”

Bahá’u’lláh also seems to have foreseen the present state of things. There are very few things he forbade, but *fanaticism* was one of them. He wrote: “Religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire, whose violence none can quench. The Hand of Divine power can, alone, deliver mankind from this desolating affliction.” One aspect of this statement could be that the “Hand of Divine power” will provide an antidote to this affliction. People of limited insight (and no fixed morals!) seem at present to be driven by a loyalty to what they are *told* religion is for – in this instance conflict and domination. They can, however, be changed by a religion which offers them something better – a religion with a positive and loving attitude to everyone, regardless of who they are.