Sunday, 24 January 2016

I have a dream

I woke in the night on Friday from quite a vivid dream. I was helping to make a “rap” record, and I was the only “white” person in the studio. (I am not really white – my face and chest are pink, my arms are brown, especially in summer, but I do have white legs.) Everyone in the studio who knew how the equipment worked was “black”, and they were very friendly and helpful, amused by my ignorance of the technology, but not condescending. Suddenly, back to real life – and there in the dark, only partly awake, I knew I had to write a blog post about racism.

Martin Luther King made a very famous speech, in which he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” And what is the news from America? While the country has definitely moved on, it happens that all twenty actors nominated for the top “Oscars” this year are white. The Master of Ceremonies at the Award Ceremony will be a black man, Chris Rock; and the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a black woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (pictured above). But not one black actor has been nominated for any of the top twenty awards. If it had just happened once it would have looked like just chance, but when it happens two years running, it starts to look more like cultural bias.

In the United States of America, approximately 13% of the population is from African-American stock, descended from Africans taken there against their will. One of my Bahá’í friends, the actor Earl Cameron (now 98 years old), told me that his grandfather was seized from his fishing boat by a passing ship, after the British Parliament had outlawed slavery, and was sold as a slave in the Americas, ending up in Bermuda. Given that the black population of the Americas is there because of direct acts of force and violence, there is great sensitivity about the need now to ensure that everyone is being treated as being of equal value. The Bahá’í religion was founded on the principle of the oneness of mankind. Bahá’u’lláh said: “O people of the world, ye are all the fruit of one tree and the leaves of one branch,” and His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said (about a hundred years ago): “Let them look not upon a man's colour but upon his heart. If the heart be filled with light, that man is nigh unto the threshold of his Lord, … be he white or be he black.”

One of the early Bahá’ís in the United States was Louis Gregory, whose parents had been born into slavery, and who became very active with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged Louis Gregory to marry a white English lady called Louisa Mathew. They married in 1912. He saw inter-racial marriage amongst the Bahá’ís as an example to the rest of the population, even though such a marriage was actually illegal in some of the States and caused them many problems. Many years later, Martin Luther King counted several Bahá’ís among his friends.

So what of the Oscar nominations? Already this year’s events have jolted the process somewhat, and the membership of the Academy in future will be deliberately steered into a different, and more diverse, direction. History is shaping us, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá knew it would, in the direction of Martin Luther King’s prophetic dream.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Messenger of Joy

I heard on the radio this morning that the singer and musician, David Bowie, had died. This is not a person who was a great influence on my life, although I do own two of his records. However, music has a way of playing on the emotions, and is capable of taking the soul to higher states. “Singing and music are the spiritual food of the hearts and souls…” (although admittedly a different kind of music is also capable of arousing aggressive emotions). It is clear that a lot of people regarded David Bowie as a highly talented and original musician, and that he will be greatly missed. However, his music manifestly lives on, for people to select the pieces which mean most to them. Bahá’u’lláh said: “We have made music a ladder by which souls may ascend to the realm on high.” Mr Bowie’s music will live on, as a ladder for others, for many years to come.

But surely we would also wish for the person himself to continue. Bahá’ís believe that the human consciousness does survive after death – that we have some sort of “spirit” or “soul”, which returns to the spiritual realm. In the case of David Bowie, millions of people would rather that there was no sense that his passing was final. Rather, that his life on earth had achieved extraordinary results, and that now he himself is moving on.

Bahá’ís believe that this life is a sort of matrix – a learning environment to prepare our souls for the next life. However, trying to imagine what the next life is like is as difficult for us as it is for the child in the womb to imagine this life. The baby is unaware of the life that awaits it here, even though that life actually surrounds it! The same is probably true of the next life – it is connected with this life in a way which we cannot even imagine. In the Bahá’í understanding, the next world is a different plane of existence entirely: “The Kingdom of God is sanctified (or free) from time and place; it is another world and another universe.” However, it is a plane which allows for progression. The old ideas of a static heaven or of rebirth into this world are replaced by a new understanding more in keeping with our modern concepts of infinity and of parallel universes. Death, then, becomes an open door to another existence, one in which the soul can flourish. Our happiness in the next world is largely dependent on the qualities which were acquired in this life. Trustworthiness, honesty, kindness, love, tolerance, patience and love of God are all spiritual qualities which we can work hard to develop, or which we can choose to ignore. These very qualities or attributes are those which are necessary in the spiritual life to come. Musicians who have opened the channel to spiritual sensibilities should be able to flourish in the next world.

So physical death is also the door to a new, spiritual, life. This is why Bahá’u’lláh said, with reference to every person who moves on: “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?”