Sunday, 27 May 2007

Dealing with Racism within the Bahá'í Community

In the course of my travels to various Bahá'í communities, and in my correspondence with Bahá'ís of various backgrounds, I have become keenly conscious that one of the greatest challenges of being a Bahá'í lies in the fact that the Bahá'í community brings us to a frontal encounter with cultural diversity, and, inevitably, with cross-cultural tension. No one can be expected to know adequately and relate effectively to a culture to which they have been but little exposed, more so when some kind of stigma attaches in wider society to a given ethnic or cultural group.

The response below is addressed to such a situation, when friction becomes excessive, and its burden well nigh intolerable. It looks to 'Abdu'l-Bahá for possible avenues of approach to overcome the painful, tragic deadlock of racism when it raises its ugly head among what remain, even so, with the whole human race, our brothers and our sisters.

Dearest,

I must say that I was shocked at the message you shared, and it is a very sad example on the alienating impact of unkind words and harsh attitudes, that add to the pain of cultural misunderstanding the barbs of hostility. Clearly, Shoghi Effendi wrote in Advent of Divine Justice that no one can claim to be free from prejudice, and that is a battle we must all wage within our souls. The implication is that prejudice is also a constant in our interaction with fellow human beings. What there are is degrees and nuances, and some expressions of prejudice are more apparent and more hurtful than others.

The Bahá'í Faith traces the goal of unity, furnishes the impulse and energy required to face and gradually overcome its obstacles, not in a linear, but in an organic way, paved not just with advances but reverses also, and gives us an array of potent tools to transform millenia upon millenia of disunity. But it does not save us from walking the distance with our own feet. In the course of that journey, we discover we are but poorly shod, the road is thorny, and, sometimes, our feet bleed.

Nowhere is this more palpable to me than among indigenous populations the world over, who have been historically marginalized in their own countries, frequently in a brutal and violent manner, for hundreds of years. When these precious souls join the Bahá'í community, they bring, like all of us, very high expectations of the maturity and freedom from prejudice of a community committed, like no other, to the unity of humanity in all its diversity. It can be very hard to discover that the Bahá'í community is not, as in the Christian ideal, a "community of the elect". Rather, it is a community of humanity, warts and all. In it coexist the good, the bad and the ugly, except Clint Eastwood has yet to convert.

What brings us together is not a level of spiritual achievement, but a level of aspiration, that makes sense of a remark attributed to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, when asked how one particularly obnoxious individual could be a Bahá'í: "Imagine what he would be like if he weren't!". What brings us together is not that we are all morally, spiritually and socially excellent. It is that we all, whatever our starting point, want to become better, and our direction and our path and our strength is found, for all of us, in Bahá'u'lláh.

Be that as it may, it is hardbreaking when, expecting to find a refuge from prejudice, one has the misfortune of encountering it within our own community. Whether among Gypsy Bahá'ís in Spain, American Indian Bahá'ís in the United States, or Maori Bahá'ís in New Zealand, many are the anguished voices that tell painful stories of ignorance, prejudice and intolerance from their brothers and sisters in the Faith. From one perspective it is distressing, since it negates the very aims that sustain our aspirations, albeit generally unconsciously. From another perspective it is truly encouraging. It means that we are encountering one another beyond the surface, and are confronting, not avoiding, the very real and deep seated factors that have so bitterly and intractably divided our societies. As events, they are discouraging, but seen within a process of reconciliation on a global scale, they are in fact important milestones in our painstaking advance toward unity. If conflict were not in place, reconciliation would be irrelevant. But, our writings state, the purpose of this Faith is the reconciliation of the contending peoples of the world. If there was no pain in this encounter, chances are that the encounter, in an authentic way, was not taking place. Without friction, there is no movement possible. But excess of friction stops all movement.

The question is how to face prejudice and constructively transform it. In this we might most profitably look at 'Abdu'l-Baha's example of dealing with a lifetime of vicious prejudice against as well as within the Baha'i community. I see four key elements in His response:

1) Uncompromising in His upholding of the principle of the unity of humanity and the equality of the races. Without respect for the occasion He took every opportunity to demonstrate in His own actions the principle of the oneness of humanity, whether by encouraging Baha'is to inter-marry, giving honour to minorities within the very environment that excluded them, instructing the Baha'is to hold integrated meetings when the community was split down the middle on the wisdom of doing this, etc.

2) Unconfrontational in His engagement with the issues. Not once in His talks or the accounts of pilgrims or in His writings does 'Abdu'l-Baha directly condemn an individual or a specific segment of the population as racist, even as His actions quietly but unmistakably challenge the very foundations of prejudice. This is in sharp contrast to the strategies of the anti-racism movement, which often concentrate on exposure, controversy, and at times violent protest.

3) Long-term in His strategy. When they arrived in Akka, Baha'u'llah and His companions were ostracised, jeered, deprived of food, and mistreated. 'Abdu'l-Baha set out to undermine the very root of prejudice by establishing bonds of friendship and respect with the very source of the attacks; resulting by the end of Baha'u'llah's imprisonment in the passive disobedience of jailors, of their orders to maintain the stringent confinement and incommunication of Baha'u'llah and His followers, indeed allowing Him to move into house imprisonment. Prejudices had, it must be admitted, severely eroded - over a period of decades of consistent and systematic cultivation of genuine bonds of love. With the American Baha'is, rather than condemn those who opposed interracial marriages flouting His explicit and widely circulated guidance; or those who persisted in holding segregated meetings when He called for integrated ones, He focused on reinforcing the progressive tendencies and proscribing, without aggressively condemning, the regressive tendencies in the community. The Baha'i community, with all its imperfections, was well in advance of any other community of a similar size and make-up in their journey to overcome the legacy of centuries of prejudice, resentment, oppression and hostility between the races.

4) Reliant on the power and divine impulse in the Faith, which transforms copper into gold. Not for an instant, in the gloomiest moments, was His hope and confidence shaken, His certitude in the regenerating power of His Cause and its capacity to heal the prejudices of mankind. Consequently, His response was grounded in a peacefulness and a joy and an abundance that stands in sharp contrast with the (legitimate) anger, hopelessness, and alienation that characterises much of today's noble efforts to heal racism.

And so, when attitudes like those of the woman who posted such a hurtful, unkind message concerning a long-oppressed, noble people, surface in the Cause, they are part of the process of healing. They are part of what we bring into the crucible of the Baha'i community to be transformed by our mutual love for the Cause of Baha'u'llah, which takes our prejudices, our frailties, our blinkers and blindspots, and turns them into light, little by little, day by day. Prejudices act as a veil between the soul and its beloved, and so, if one is sincere in love, love itself will teach us, painfully, to let go of prejudice, and if not, love itself will marginalise our views, render us powerless and isolate us, for love feeds on love, and makes no room for bitterness or for resentment.

Rejoice, therefore, your struggles are in the path of love. They are noble, and ennobling. "Not for a moment are ye alone. Not for a moment are ye left to yourselves. The Beauty of Abha is with you. The Glorious God is with you. The King of Kings is with you." And we, your friends in His love, broken winged birds that we are, we too, are with you.

Ismael


8 comments:

Bill said...

The challenge of racial prejudice also requires the vigilance and courage of Baha'i institutions, the community, and individuals. One of the most disheartening trends I have witnessed in recent years is the arrival in the U.S. of Baha'i refugees fleeing persecution who are rapidly infeced with prejudice against black and hispanic Americans. In part this stems form refugees being placed intially in low-income, high-crime apartment blocks, primarily tenanted by people of these minority groups.

Our Spiritual Assembly knew it had to take action when an Iranian immigrant stated in the Nineteen Day Feast that "all black people are bad" - a statement made in front of African-American members of our community. The Assembly provided to the family concerned and to all the Iranian friends Persian-language materials about racial unity; at feasts we deepened on the principle of elimination of prejudice and discussed the legacy of slavery and inequality in America; and we asked the friends how such prejudiced attitudes would inhibit their ability to teach the Faith. There has been improvement, but it takes effort and reminding people that Baha'u'llah calls us to a higher standard.

Bill said...

CORRECTED POSTING

The challenge of racial prejudice also requires the vigilance and courage of Baha'i institutions, the community, and individuals. One of the most disheartening trends I have witnessed in recent years is the arrival in the U.S. of Baha'i refugees fleeing persecution who are rapidly infected with prejudice against black and hispanic Americans. In part this stems from refugees being placed intially in low-income, high-crime apartment blocks, primarily tenanted by people of these minority groups.

Our Spiritual Assembly knew it had to take action when an Iranian immigrant stated in the Nineteen Day Feast that "all black people are bad" - a statement made in front of African-American members of our community. The Assembly provided to the family concerned and to all the Iranian friends Persian-language materials about racial unity; at feasts we deepened on the principle of elimination of prejudice and discussed the legacy of slavery and inequality in America; and we asked the friends how such prejudiced attitudes would inhibit their ability to teach the Faith. There has been improvement, but it takes effort and reminding people that Baha'u'llah calls us to a higher standard.

Phillipe Copeland said...

Ishmael, it is nice to know that there are others taking on this issue which is a profoundly painful one. It is so hard to follow the example of 'Abdu'l-Baha when racism evokes so much pain, sorrow and rage especially among those of us who are most directly impacted by it. My current understanding is that the best way to transform attitudes as well as support the maturation of the institutions of our Faith is through the growth of the community. This is why I have been trying to focus my energies there rather than engaging in trying to change the views of individuals in the community. As Bill has pointed out, there are external forces at work in the world that make race unity work all the more difficult among which are entrenched patterns of residential and educational segregation in the United States. These increase the alienation among people. It seems to me that the best way to deal with this problem is for dedicated souls to bend their energies to welcoming large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds into the Faith and walking with them until they are fully empowered to participate as equals in creating a new civilization. That is my current strategy. Hope it works!

bicyclechronicles said...

I thought about joining this faith because I got tired of the "pink elephant" in the room in regards to racism that no one ever addressed honestly in the Catholic church. As a "Latino" I was isolated and faced internal racism in my culture because of the skin gradient that gives lighter skinned individuals more social capital. I am fairly light skinned(can be perceived as middle eastern) but I still hated being allocated a color that gave me privilege in some instances and hindered me in other ways. In addition, some "Latinos" have many of the same economic instability that Africans born in the U.S. have. After reading this, I think I will keep looking for a more encompassing religion that is not afraid of speaking out against racism. It is a divisive evil plot that will keep affecting all life, both plant and animal, negatively and I feel it is the cause of many problems of the world today and throughout history. As long as one man/woman is seen as superior then another, we will constantly have conflict and resources allocated accordingly. In addition, the human being must collectively understand that this planet is a gift and the life on it sustains us. It is all non-renewable. One it is gone, it's globe for good... Native American prophecies and stories have predicted this. Sometimes, I think there is no hope in fighting the greed in man and woman that concentrates into toxic levels over generations.

Anonymous said...

These points are all well-taken. However, I think that there is a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided tendency within the Baha'i community to cite to Abdu'l-Baha's example when the subject of racism within the community is brought up. Yes, Abdu'l-Baha is our Exemplar, but that does not mean that we have to wait until we achieve his vaunted station [if indeed we ever can] before we can tackle racism within our community. Unfortunately, citing to Abdu'l-Baha's example often leaves the impression that one must be a saint, or almost one, before one may tackle this subject. Not so.

We as Baha'is need to read and consult more of the Writings on justice, forgiveness, and indigenous peoples. I think that it is noteworthy that our Writings tell us that advancing civilization is dependent on justice, NOT on forgiveness, even as we are told to forgive, forgive, forgive. This says a great deal when one is contemplating and addressing racism within the Baha'i community.

Touba said...

I think you have made a keen obsrevation. Had we not had such a problem the Universal House of Justice would not have directed our attention to the eradication of all prejudices.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I am a refugee - you will never get me out of here.