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Can a rainbow be partisan?

June 30, 2015
A Rainbow with the Bahai Ringstone symbol designed by Jesse McBride.

A Rainbow with the Bahai Ringstone symbol designed by Jesse Mcbride.

There is a flurry of rainbows on facebook, in celebration of the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision on June 26, 2015, that 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses require states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully licensed and performed in other US states.

In a Bahai run group, a Bahai stated that Baha’is publicly supporting gay rights will lead to grave consequences in other countries. It is an argument I have heard many times before, and it holds no water. The fact that our international administration is seated in Israel and that Baha’is believe in a messenger of God after Muhammad are much stronger reasons for any Muslim to be upset at Bahais. We do not hear of Bahais saying, we must stop public statements of belief in Baha’u’llah do we? On the contrary, if Bahais were seen as were a source of comfort or safety, in countries where gays and lesbians are oppressed, that would do wonders for our image as a religion that preaches equality and justice. I am not saying Bahais must be defenders for the oppressed, but it sounds like a good idea to me.

Rainbow flag and the nine pointed star. The star is a symbol often used by Bahais as a metaphoro for unity in diversity. The design is by Jesse Mcbride.

Rainbow flag and the nine pointed star. The star is a symbol often used by Bahais as a metaphoro for unity in diversity. The design is by Jesse McBride.

Then the administrator of another Bahai-run group objected to the flurry of rainbows, arguing that it was divisive, that the rainbow flag represents an ideology of a special interest group instead of representing the broad global needs that the Baha’i Faith aims to serve – ranging from the equality of men and women, elimination of prejudice to education for all children and the eradication of poverty.

Clearly these Bahais have missed the point of the rainbow flag symbol because a celebration for equality and justice for gay and lesbians is also a celebration of the diversity of humanity. Celebrating this does not reduce the equality and justice available to heterosexuals. The assumption made by these Bahais is that a celebration of gay and lesbian rights is something just for gays and lesbians.. This is like saying gender equality only benefits women, but it’s as clear as the noon day sun that when women have equality, society benefits – men and women benefit, not just women. So the flag is only divisive for those who do not believe in equality and justice for all of humanity.

I finish by quoting a few excerpts written by the SCOTUS judges:
“The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change…. For example, marriage was once viewed as an arrangement by the couple’s parents based on political, religious, and financial concerns; but by the time of the Nation’s founding it was understood to be a voluntary contract between a man and a woman…. As the role and status of women changed, the institution further evolved. Under the centuries-old doctrine of coverture, a married man and woman were treated by the State as a single, male-dominated legal entity…. As women gained legal, political, and property rights, and as society began to understand that women have their own equal dignity, the law of coverture was abandoned….

[T]he Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution… It cannot be denied that this Court’s cases describing the right to marry presumed a relationship involving opposite-sex partners. The Court, like many institutions, has made assumptions defined by the world and time of which it is a part…

The four principles and traditions to be discussed demonstrate that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples.

A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy…. A second principle in this Court’s jurisprudence is that the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals. … A third basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education…. Fourth and finally, this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order …

Excluding same-sex couples from marriage thus conflicts with a central premise of the right to marry. Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples. …

[B]y virtue of their exclusion from that institution, same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage. This harm results in more than just material burdens. Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives. As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society….

Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied….

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”
-The excerpts above come from religionclause.blogspot.com

See Sen McGlinn’s blog on some implications of SCOTUS in Obergefell for the policies of Bahai institutions.

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Homosexuality – a false dichotomy?

June 7, 2015

” … I feel I can no longer associate with a religion that does not perceive LGBT rights as a true social value,” Rayshel said, adding, “I, as a gay man, find it offensive that my same-sex attraction is primarily summed up to a sex act or a perceived notion that I over-emphasize my sexuality which is seen as destructive and self-indulgent.”
Sean Rayshel in The Bay Area Reporter, 4 June 2015.

Is the Bahai Faith “a religion that does not perceive LGBT rights as a true social value?” At the practical level, that is true except where a Bahai makes it clear that they do not discriminate and that their communities do not discriminate. For the present at least, the Bahai community has something to prove in this respect.
Because of the dominance of the perception of discrimination within the Bahai community, I have to constantly state first that I am for equality for gays and lesbians and only then state that I am a Bahai. Otherwise the person I am speaking to is put off from the beginning. I have so many stories, so many encounters, in which people do a double-take and tell me, “but Bahais don’t like gays” or “Bahais discriminate.” In the Philippines, in the U.K., in New Zealand, in the U.S., in the Netherlands … people have said things such as: “Oh what is the Bahai Faith about, because when I read that you didn’t accept gays, I stopped reading” or “So tell me more – I thought the Bahai Faith was conservative” and “When I read about homosexuality being forbidden I thought it was a fundamentalist church.”

I explain that I am as much a Bahai as the person who told them that gays cannot join the Bahai Faith. Then they learn that the discrimination is not embedded in our teachings. For me it is not so much whether or not a seeker is put off but two bigger issues: that our gay children are not tormented by impossible demands, and that our community practises the essential Bahai principles of justice and equality.

So I understand why Sean Rayshel withdrew his membership in response to the 2014 letter from the Universal House of Justice. As far as I know, letters from the Universal House of Justice, since 2010 (see 2013 + 2010) on the topic of homosexuality put an emphasis on removing discrimination and on Bahai communities not taking sides on the discussion of same-sex marriage. These letters maintain that marriage is only possible between a man and woman, but there is no negative association with homosexuality made in these letters.

In the 2014 letter the Universal House of Justice calls the discussion on homosexuality a “false dichotomy,” using ambiguous wording — but this letter makes it very easy for Bahais to continue to discriminate against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. My May 9th, blog is a response to the first part of this letter:
The reference to a false dichotomy is here:

“The contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality, which began in the West and is increasingly promoted in other parts of the world, generally takes the form of a false dichotomy, which compels one to choose between a position that is either affirming or rejecting. It is understandable that Baha’is would be sensitive to acts of prejudice or oppression in any form and to the needs of those who suffer as a result. But to align with either side in the public debate is to accept the premises on which it is based. Moreover, this debate occurs within the context of a rising tide of materialism and consequent reorientation of society, over more than a century, which has among its outcomes a destructive emphasis on sexuality.” (Department of the Secretariat for the Universal House of Justice, 9 May, 2014. The full letter is here)

Perhaps the discussion about same-sex marriage is a Western invention, but I would not assume that non-Western cultures discriminate against homosexuality. (See this link for a discussion of “two spirit” persons, in the context of Native American culture) Is it relevant to know where the discussion about same-sex marriage arose? The vote for women first appeared in the West: the fact that something is a Western invention does not mean that it is not universally a good thing or that it can’t be implemented in the Bahai community. In the Secret of Divine Civilisation, Abdul-Baha demolishes the argument that advances in civilisation are to be rejected just because they come from the West.

The Western phenomenon that is new is the legalization of same-sex marriage. It is possible this is what the Universal House of Justice means by “contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality,” however what I respond to most strongly in the sentences above is that this is followed by the words: “generally take the form of a false dichotomy.”

The premise for a Bahai should be justice and equity, and I interpret the false dichotomy as meaning that in the public debate you have people who confuse the rights, responsibilities and legal protections to marry and raise children with a focus on sex. So I ask, if the focus is really on sex why would they wish to marry?

The letter doesn’t state what this false dichotomy is, so another Bahai can easily use this statement of the Universal House of Justice to argue that Bahais must not identify themselves as gay because that “affirming” visibility is part of a false dichotomy.

It is also possible to interpret this to mean that Bahais must stay away from the topic of homosexuality, or that anyone who discusses the rights of gays or lesbians is part of the false dichotomy. I think it is not wise to attempt to squash any discussion on the rights of gays and lesbians, and this is why I felt compelled to write my May 9th, blog and the second one on criticism and now this blog. If as Bahais we cannot think and express ourselves as individuals, then there is no free will and no principle of the independent investigation of truth.

If the 2014 letter had been addressed to a Bahai Institution then I would have understood this to mean that Bahai Institutions are not to get involved in the discussion of gay rights in keeping with the Bahai principle of not getting involved in party politics. I could see the wisdom of that. However the letter is addressed to an individual so the implication is that in general any discussion on this topic is labelled a false dichotomy. This appears to be undermining the discussion – the discourse.

When I first read the first page of this letter it made me feel ill. So for me there is no choice. Either critique this letter or renounce membership in the community.

I am a Bahai because of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, so I remain a Bahai. And I think I can do more good working from the inside. The Universal House of Justice is perfectly free to make any policy it wishes. That is the authority the Universal House of Justice has. It can change its policies too, and it has.

Shoghi Effendi wrote: “He [the Guardian] cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances.” The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh by Shoghi Effendi, p. 151.

If Shoghi Effendi can allow for the possibility that the Universal House of Justice could “depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances,” surely this means that policies of the Universal House of Justice can be critiqued and even criticized by anyone, because there is no guarantee that what they say reflects the spirit of the Bahai Teachings. These are Shoghi Effendi’s words.

Can someone show me that the 2014 letter cannot be used by Bahais to promote discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? Even worse, might it not be used as an argument to silence the debate? That would mean denying our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters a voice or visibility by shifting the discussion from justice and equality to a supposed “destructive emphasis on sexuality.”

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Is criticism allowed?

May 28, 2015

A number of responses by Bahais on several Facebook groups to my previous blog “Critiquing the Universal House of Justice” indicated that I was doing something wrong by critiquing. Some called this criticism. For arguments sake, I thought, let’s see if criticism is allowed in the Bahai Teachings?

Baha’u’llah’s writings contain many references to the importance of seeking knowledge for oneself such as:
“The incomparable Creator hath created all men from one same substance, and hath exalted their reality above the rest of His creatures. Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore, depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 81-82)
And not only that, but: “Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 39)
Abdul-Baha wrote: “Thank thou God that He hath given thee a power for discriminating the reality of things.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 79)
So it seems that being critical, in the sense of thinking or looking into things for oneself, is so important that in Baha’u’llah’s words, a person “must search after the truth to the utmost of his ability and exertion, that God may guide him in the paths of His favour and the ways of His mercy.” (Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 27-28)

So far I have not found any text by Baha’u’llah nor ‘Abdul-Baha that restricts the topics one is allowed to critique, although there is also a stress on the importance of unity and warnings about not using words just for their own sake. To me this means we should question our motive, or at least be open to change, if we find that our motive is not productive. It seems to me that it would be up to each of us to determine what is meant by motive or being productive. For me, obeying an instruction without question, without considering the implications, is not a very productive route to take. I obey road rules because I understand them and because I understand them I can use them, I hope, with wisdom. There might be occasions when I have to break them – to save someone’s life, for example. If I only follow rules without question, I would not be in a position to adjust to a new situation, such as if I should see someone collapsed on the street and quick action is necessary.

So back to the topic. It seems to me there is nothing in Bahai Scripture that states we are not allowed to critique or to criticise, but there is plenty to warn us that we should use wisdom so we do not cause divisions.

To avoid the problem of Bahais mistaking my critique as divisive I wrote in my last blog:
Abdu’l-Baha said that we must obey the Guardian to safeguard the “mighty stronghold,” the Baha’i community. The same could be said of obedience to the House of Justice, which is the Head of the Bahai community today. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha wanted to avoid the problems other religions had of being torn into schisms, so they emphasized obedience very strongly. It doesn’t mean that Bahais can’t think for themselves.
So I am free to disagree and to critique, but I am not free to go and claim any form of leadership or a new Bahai religion. I am also not interested in any ideas associated with what might be called reform because I see no need for these. My arguments and the ideas I express on my blog here as just a Bahai aim to follow Baha’u’llah’s pleas for each of us to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93)

If I wanted to lobby the Universal House of Justice or wanted to attempt to have any influence on them, I would write a letter directly to the Institution, but I do not. I do not see it as my place and I do not think they should take any notice of what any particular Bahai might say. Their goal, I think, should be on how best to act according to their understandings and in line with the Teachings of Baha’u’llah.
“…the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge” Secretariat for the Universal House of Justice, 22 Aug, 1977

In critiquing the first few paragraphs of the 2014, May 9th letter penned by the secretariat of the Universal House of Justice I was looking at what the words seem to mean or imply to me. In doing this, I am not suggesting how I would write this nor am I making any form of an evaluation, only a critique. That’s all. I wouldn’t assume that I would know a better way, and I say this not out of fear but out of principle. Bahais should be free to critique everything including texts written by the Universal House of Justice, knowing that the Universal House of Justice has the authority to have the final word. I am not critiquing their authority. Why would I?

I think it is human nature to speak up when you see something you disagree with and to say nothing when you do agree. Most of my blogs here are written because I am trying to grapple with what I perceive as discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. But another aspect of Baha’u’llah’s teachings is that they focus on the positive and optimistic. Abdul-Baha wrote “…the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century — the century of light — hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 31). I am a Bahai because of the positive. My words here are because I believe the Bahai teachings allow for critique and criticism and if I critique something it doesn’t mean that I know better, but if I don’t critique then I will only have myself to blame. Personally I think self-censorship is the worst form of censorship.

If criticism was not allowed then we would end up with a managed democracy, much like how Iran currently operates, where there are elements of free speech, but the parameters for differences of opinion or investigation are controlled by an authority in power who can operate without transparency or accountability.

A statement from the Bahai International Community, a PR department of the Universal House of Justice, sums this up nicely: “Those who wield authority bear a great responsibility to be worthy of public trust. Leaders — including those in government, politics, business, religion, education, the media, the arts and community organizations — must be willing to be held accountable for the manner in which they exercise their authority.” (Baha’i International Community, 1998 Feb 18, Valuing Spirituality in Development)

Also, unlike other religious authorities in the world, the Universal House of Justice may not interpret what the Bahai Teachings are, but at the same it has full freedom to make policy and to change this policy in light of its understandings of the teachings and of current issues. This is another revolutionary aspect of Baha’u’llah’s teachings – an authority which can change its own policy. One reason Bahais get upset at me is that they see the Universal House of Justice’s policies as being set in stone.

“We make these observations not to indulge in criticism of any system, but rather to open up lines of thought, to encourage a re-examination of the bases of modern society, and to engender a perspective for consideration of the distinctive features of the Order of Bahá’u’lláh. What, it could be asked, was the nature of society that gave rise to such characteristics and such philosophies? Where have these taken mankind? Has their employment satisfied the needs and expectations of the human spirit?” (The Universal House of Justice, 1988, Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 6)

Is there any reason why it would be un-Bahai, to take the same approach and ask the same questions of the evolving policy of the Universal House of Justice regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage? It has changed over time, and for the better, as the science and the social understanding of questions has developed. But this blog is looking just at the 2014, May 9th letter penned by the secretariat of the Universal House of Justice and the first step is to clarify for myself just what the Universal House of Justice is saying now.

A comparison with letters from the 1980s would show the development, and could be used as evidence of the flexibility that Shoghi Effendi takes pride in (World of Baha’u’llah, p. 54). That trajectory will continue. Those who reject criticism or critique of any present policy seem to be implicitly supposing that whatever may have changed in the past, the policy is now perfected and the flexibility is at an end — so analysis is futile.

For some Bahais it appears that any form of critique, whatever the topic, is a big no, no. Here are a few responses to my question “Can a Bahai critique texts penned by the Universal House of Justice or the Department of the Secretariat?”

Bahai A: No. We must leave our egos behind and obey the word of God

Bahai B: If I want to come to the point of critiquing Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, or the Universal House of Justice (which is the only authorized elucidator of the Writings), I would simply take my name off the list.

Bahai C: …it depends. If one’s purpose and attitude is to better understand or to bring up an unforeseen consequence, surely so; if one is trying to undermine the institution or to showcase oneself… no.

It is not a Bahai Teaching that letters penned by the Universal House of Justice are “letters from God.” In fact, both Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were very clear about the separation of spheres between legislation (making rules and policy which the Universal House of Justice does) as separate from Bahai Scripture and Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations of this.

“As Shoghi Effendi explained, “…it is made indubitably clear and evident that the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings.” The Universal House of Justice, 7 Dec, 1969, published in Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963 to 1986

“Shoghi Effendi has given categorical assurances that neither the Guardian nor the Universal House of Justice ‘can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other.’ Therefore, the friends can be sure that the Universal House of Justice will not engage in interpreting the Holy Writings. . . .” The Universal House of Justice, 25 Oct 1984, Messages of the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986, p. 645

Bahais are free to their opinions as much as I am to mine, but we do need to be careful if we assert that what we say is a Bahai Teaching. So I am free to critique and still remain a Bahai.

Not only is it not a Bahai Teaching that I cannot critique, but that I should critique the Bahai Writings. If I can critique Baha’u’llah’s writings, then why not texts penned by the Universal House of Justice?

Another Bahai pasted a section from a 1997 letter penned by the secretariat of the Universal House of Justice – “Furthermore, at the very end of the Will and Testament, in warning against the danger of Covenant-breaking, `Abdu’l-Bahá wrote: ‘Beware lest anyone falsely interpret these words, and like unto them that have broken the Covenant after the Day of Ascension (of Bahá’u’lláh) advance a pretext, raise the standard of revolt, wax stubborn, and open wide the door of false interpretation.’ In this context, He continues: ‘To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Centre of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error.’” (Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice, 3 June 1997)

Without any further context it appears that Abdul-Baha is saying that our own opinion or expression is not allowed, however what Abdul-Baha was referring to at the end of the Will and Testament was to avoid the schisms and infighting after the death of Baha’u’llah. Abdul-Baha meant that we (Bahais) must accept Shoghi Effendi as Centre of the Cause. Here is more of the text which makes this context clear
“O ye the faithful loved ones of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi, …. he is, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Guardian of the Cause of God … the beloved of the Lord must obey him and turn unto him. He that obeyeth him not, hath not obeyed God; he that turneth away from him, hath turned away from God and he that denieth him, hath denied the True One. Beware lest anyone falsely interpret these words, and like unto them that have broken the Covenant after the Day of Ascension (of Bahá’u’lláh) advance a pretext, raise the standard of revolt, wax stubborn and open wide the door of false interpretation. To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error”(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 25)

So now we can see that the ‘grievous error’ is to fail in our duty to turn to Shoghi Effendi or not to obey the Universal House of Justice. The grievous error is not that we express our opinion or critique.

Another Bahai posted an excerpt from the same 1997 letter “As you recognize, the authority of the Universal House of Justice is unchallengeable.” But critiquing or even criticism of a letter penned by the secretariat does not challenge the authority of the Universal House of Justice. In fact, because the authority of the Universal of Justice is so solid, so clearly outlined in Bahai Scripture, I think it should be clear that any criticism or critique of any texts has to do with the content at hand and not to do with their authority.

I finish by quoting Udo Schaefer a Bahai scholar: “It is dangerously reductionist — almost a dismemberment of our faith — to portray rational thought and the qualities of the heart, rationality and spirituality as opposites, and to identify critical thinking with an absence of spirituality. There is widespread skepticism — one might almost call it a profound mistrust — within the Bahá’í community, which has been directed at critical thinking. This is a serious prejudice, harmful to the faith.”
Schaefer, Loyalty to the Covenant and Critical Thought, p. 2)

And Abdul-Baha said: “The fourth teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the agreement of religion and science. God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.” (9 June 1912 Talk at Baptist Temple, Broad and Berks Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.180)

I am just a Bahai, and this means that I aim to question, and to seek clarity, and to express my opinions. I do believe that through the clash of differing opinions, sparks of truth illuminate understanding.

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Critiquing the Universal House of Justice

May 22, 2015

Can a Bahai critique texts penned by the Universal House of Justice or the Department of the Secretariat? My answer, “Of course. Critiquing is engagement. We must obey the Universal House of Justice but that doesn’t mean we must be silent if we do not understand their reasoning.”

Abdu’l-Baha said that we must obey the Guardian to safeguard the “mighty stronghold,” the Baha’i community. The same could be said of obedience to the House of Justice, which is the Head of the Bahai community today. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha wanted to avoid the problems other religions had of being torn into schisms, so they emphasized obedience very strongly. It doesn’t mean that Bahais can’t think for themselves.

So I am free to disagree and to critique, but I am not free to go and claim any form of leadership or a new Bahai religion. I am also not interested in any ideas associated with what might be called reform because I see no need for these. My arguments and the ideas I express on my blog here as just a Bahai aim to follow Baha’u’llah’s pleas for each of us to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93)

And so to the letter, dated 9 May 2014, penned by the secretariat for the Universal House of Justice which I will critique.

A letter, dated 18 May 2015 from the National U.S. Bahai administration has already been widely circulated in diverse online Bahai groups and e-lists. It states:
“A four-page letter from the Universal House of Justice on the subject of homosexuality has recently been receiving wide circulation via the Internet and through personal email lists, and we are increasingly being asked to comment on its authenticity.

The letter—dated May 9, 2014, to an individual believer in response to a personal inquiry—was indeed issued by the Supreme Body through its Department of the Secretariat. We enclose it here for your reference.”

I have inserted section breaks in the letter, and have placed relevant texts in the column on the right as well as any emphasis in the texts.

THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT

9 May 2014

Transmitted by email: ……U.S.A.

Dear Bahá’í Friend,
Your email letter dated 11 January 2014 has been received by the Universal House of Justice. We have been asked to convey to you the following. You express concern about the challenge Bahá’ís encounter in understanding and upholding the Teachings in the face of powerful social forces influencing public attitudes towards homosexuality.

In this connection, you observe that some Bahá’ís are susceptible to the argument that the Faith must change to keep up with what are perceived to be progressive social values, while some others, despite their firm adherence to the Teachings, are unable to resolve the incongruity between the Bahá’í perspective and attitudes prevailing in the wider society. Your thoughtful analysis of the issues you raise is warmly appreciated.

The contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality, which began in the West and is increasingly promoted in other parts of the world, generally takes the form of a false dichotomy, which compels one to choose between a position that is either affirming or rejecting.

It is understandable that Bahá’ís would be sensitive to acts of prejudice or oppression in any form and to the needs of those who suffer as a result. But to align with either side in the public debate is to accept the premises on which it is based. Moreover, this debate occurs within the context of a rising tide of materialism and consequent reorientation of society, over more than a century, which has among its outcomes a destructive emphasis on sexuality.

Various philosophies and theories have eroded precepts of right and wrong that govern personal behavior. For some, relativism reigns and individuals are to determine their own moral preferences; others dismiss the very conception of personal morality, maintaining that any standard that restrains what is considered a natural impulse is harmful to the individual and ultimately to society.

Self- indulgence, in the guise of expressing one’s true nature, becomes the norm, even the touchstone of healthy living. Consequently, sexuality has become a preoccupation, pervading commerce, media, the arts, and popular culture, influencing disciplines such as medicine, psychology, and education and reducing the human being to an object. It is no longer merely a part of life, but becomes the defining element of a person’s identity.

grey1x1pixels “The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors …. It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. Thus hath the Lord your God commanded you.”
– Baha’u’llah,
The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 29

“Be ye … vanguards of the perfections of humankind; carry forward the various branches of knowledge, be active and progressive in the field of inventions and the arts. Endeavour to rectify the conduct of men, and seek to excel the whole world in moral character.”
– Abdu’l-Baha,
Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 129

“It should also be borne in mind that the machinery of the Cause has been so fashioned, that whatever is deemed necessary to incorporate into it in order to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements, can, according to the provisions made by Bahá’u’lláh, be safely embodied therein.”
– Shoghi Effendi,
The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22-23

“The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes…”
– Baha’u’llah,
The Hidden Words

“Be thou of the people of hell-fire, but be not a hypocrite.”
– Baha’u’llah,
cited in a compilation on Trustworthiness. Also in Compilation of compilations, Volume 2, page 337

“Justice and equity are twin Guardians that watch over men. From them are revealed such blessed and perspicuous words as are the cause of the well-being of the world and the protection of the nations.”
– Baha’u’llah,
Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14

“Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
– Baha’u’llah,
Gleanings, p. 213

“The Bahá’í Faith … enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all manner of prejudice and superstition, declares the purpose of religion to be the promotion of amity and concord, proclaims its essential harmony with science, and recognizes it as the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society.”
– Shoghi Effendi,
The Promised Day is Come, p. v

“Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him.”
– Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p. 276

“So Bahá’u’lláh made the utmost efforts to educate [His people] and incite [them] to morality, the acquisition of the sciences and arts of all countries, kindly dealing with all the nations of the earth, desire for the welfare of all peoples, sociability, concord, obedience, submissiveness, instruction of [their] children, production of what is needful for the human race, and inauguration of true happiness for mankind…”
– Abdu’l-Baha,
A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 41, translation: EG Browne

“The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.”
– Baha’u’llah,
Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 168

The letter above states that “The contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality … generally takes the form of a false dichotomy, which compels one to choose between a position that is either affirming or rejecting.” and they continue: “to align with either side in the public debate is to accept the premises on which it is based.”

As you can read in the quotations on the right, the premise for a Bahai should be justice and equity, and I interpret the false dichotomy as meaning that in the public debate you have people who confuse the right, responsibility and legal protection to marry and raise children with a focus on materialism.

These people then make arguments based on “wrong” ways of living, often focussed on sex or sexual acts to avoid the fact that this is an issue of justice.

It goes something like this “their sex is unnatural therefore it is wrong” “because it is wrong …” when this has nothing to do with sex or materialism. It is about two consenting adults making a commitment to take care of each other, and whether society will accord them equal recognition, as a couple, or not. Is this dichotomy ‘false’ or does it require us, as Bahais, to make a stand for justice?

As a Bahai myself, I think it is important to engage in the debate on justice and be anxiously concerned with the needs of my age. I hate it that gays and lesbians are labelled as being obsessed about sexuality. To me this is as offensive as labelling an African American as being obsessed about race, when all they are doing is being visible. No person should have to hide who they are. There is not a lot diversity if minorities are denied membership or visibility.

The following seems to be objecting to the visibility of a non-heterosexual identity:
“Consequently, sexuality has become a preoccupation, pervading commerce, media, the arts, and popular culture, influencing disciplines such as medicine, psychology, and education and reducing the human being to an object.”

Surely they are not saying that doctors, scientists, and researchers who have shown us that homosexuality is not abnormal, not curable and not a barrier for healthy married relationships, are just obsessed about sexuality? Their research does not make the individual an object, it highlights the prejudices in society.
Abdul-Baha wrote that “And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is, that religion must be in conformity with science and reason” Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 299

I do not think that the Universal House of Justice would be objecting to the science itself but rather have misunderstood it. It seems that they see the scientific findings as an agenda. Their sentence is a harsh statement against decades of scientific research and clinical experience which in my view goes against the Bahai teaching that we honour scientists and that science and religion go hand in hand. I think Baha’u’llah says this better than I can:
“Beware, O My loved ones, lest ye despise the merits of My learned servants whom God hath graciously chosen to be the exponents of His Name ‘the Fashioner’ amidst mankind. Exert your utmost endeavour that ye may develop such crafts and undertakings that everyone, whether young or old, may benefit therefrom. We are quit of those ignorant ones who fondly imagine that Wisdom is to give vent to one’s idle imaginings and to repudiate God, the Lord of all men; even as We hear some of the heedless voicing such assertions today.”
(Baha’u’llah, LAWḤ-I-HIKMAT (Tablet of Wisdom), Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 150/151)

When I see statements such as in this letter, which can be used by Bahais as ammunition to aim hatred or intolerance at others, I am reminded that I am a Bahai because of Bahaú’llah’s Teachings and not because of the Bahai administration, important as it is. Shoghi Effendi expresses the hope that unprejudiced observers of the Bahai Faith may be impressed by “the reasonableness of its claims, the comprehensiveness of its scope, the universality of its program, [and] the flexibility of its institutions…” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 54). Reading this letter, I am not clear that a observer will see the underlying comprehensiveness and universality.

Abdul-Baha’s words remind me that, whatever our orientation or sexuality, we are all united – born from the same God. “In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of The Divine Plan, p. 102)

My next blog will continue with the rest of the 9 May 2015 letter.

For me Bahau’llah’s teachings are forward thinking and positive and I am a Bahai because these teachings make sense to me, so I end with Shoghi Effendi’s summary of the purpose of Bahaú’llah’s teachings:
“`Abdu’l-Bahá expounded, with brilliant simplicity, with persuasiveness and force, and for the first time in His ministry, those basic and distinguishing principles of His Father’s Faith, which together with the laws and ordinances revealed in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas constitute the bed-rock of God’s latest Revelation to mankind. The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition; the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith; the basic unity of all religions; the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national; the harmony which must exist between religion and science; the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar; the introduction of compulsory education; the adoption of a universal auxiliary language; the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations; the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship; the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind — these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys. The exposition of these vitalizing truths of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, which He characterized as the “spirit of the age,”
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 281)

That society and the Bahai community must forever refuse to recognize married couples of the same sex as worthy members and as couples is not an essential element of the Bahai teachings, as I understand them. Even those who feel that way, must admit that it is a secondary matter, on which there is room for flexibility. My hope is for something more than mere grudging acceptance. I hope to see an open embrace that demonstrates the universality of our programme and the flexibility of our institutions.
 
 
A copy of the 9 May 2014 letter is on Sen McGlinn’s blog.

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My Turn To Come Out

January 7, 2015

Originally posted on My Migraine Family:

The news of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide has, of course, hit my family hard. And while I wrote a post, erm, a year and a half ago, about being a person of deep faith – in which I only mentioned the name of my religious persuasion in the tags – , this is not something I discuss publicly.

In large part, I do not discuss this publicly because I have had an internal struggle in which I was not sure my transgender child had a place in my faith. And if she did not have a place, that meant it no longer had a place for me. And that was an intensely painful struggle for me.

I am a Bahá’í. And while you may go ahead and google it, you will find little information of value on the internet concerning transgender folk. And frankly, this post is directed at those…

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Leserbrief eines schwulen Bahá’ís an die Zeit Online

December 5, 2014

Originally posted on "Ich würde es genauso wieder machen" (Sophie Scholl):

Kürzlich erschien in der Rubrik “Wer’s glaubt” der Zeit Online ein Leserartikel unter dem Titel “Wie eine Perversion menschlicher Natur“, geschrieben von einem schwulen Bahá’í unter dem Pseudonym Lukas Jung. Da ich aus eigener Erfahrung weiß, dass solche Leserbriefe häufig stark nachbearbeitet und sozusagen medienkonformer gemacht werden um mehr Aufmerksamkeit anzuziehen, fragte ich nach dem Original und möchte dieses zur Ergänzung und Richtigstellung des bereits erschienenen und veränderten Artikels veröffentlichen.

Lukas Jung schrieb das Folgende:

Einheit in Vielfalt. Wissenschaft und Religion stehen in Harmonie zueinander. Vorurteile müssen überwunden werden. Selbstständige Suche nach Wahrheit. All das sind Aussagen, die die grundlegenden Prinzipien der Bahá’í-Religion beschreiben. Und es sind Schlagwörter, mit denen Bahá’í gerne ihre Religion erklären. Es waren jene Schlagwörter, die mich dazu gebracht haben, diese Weltanschauung näher zu unter-suchen. Doch wie steht das in Verhältnis zu meinem Schwulsein?

Ich war noch sehr jung und hatte einen…

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Bahais are not united in being against same sex marriage!

November 26, 2014
Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us? It is because of the gays, isn't it?

Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us? It is because of the gays, isn’t it?
Cartoon by Crowden Satz | Larger view

A friend wrote:
“Yesterday during the celebration of the Day of the Covenant, the issue of homosexuality popped up during a talk citing how America is legalizing marriage for gays, state by state. The person giving the talk said this is wrong and that what keeps the Baha’is united from these negative forces is the power of the Covenant.

It was so hurtful to actually be there and hear someone saying that your very existence is not natural and wrong.

No one knows that I am gay. It wouldn’t be easy to come out to the community. I have seen homophobia in many instances. While he was talking, I just sat there holding up my tears…

So dear reader, if you are a Baha’i and hear any Baha’i speak of homosexuality in any negative manner whatsoever, please heed the words of Baha’u’llah below and speak up, not just for the silent gays in your own community but for the health of your Bahai community because any form of discrimination is just as bad for those engaged in promoting it.

The Universal House of Justice in their 27 Oct 2010 letter (link to this) urges the Bahai community not to take sides on the topic of same sex marriage although individuals are free to express their views as the speaker above did. However, when a Baha’i expresses such views in an authoritative manner, as if they are part of Bahai teachings, then it is a problem when no one speaks up in defense of equality or justice, or even the possibility for a Bahai to have a differing point of view on the topic of marriage. I am speaking up here and hope that Bahais, whether they think homosexuality is good or bad, start to stand up for the rights of others because it is essential that we all work toward eliminating discrimination from the Bahai community.

Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility.
Bahaú’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 346

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. “
Desmond Tutu, clergyman (b. 1931)
 

Note on the Bahai Holy Day, 26 November
Bahai Holy days commemorate events centred on the lives of The Bab, Baha’u’llah (both are considered messangers or prophets by Bahais) and Abdul-Baha. Baha’is wanted to add Abdul-Baha’s birthday as well, and instead Abdul-Baha announced that The Day of the Covenant to commemorate Baha’u’llah’s appointment of His eldest son, Abdu’l-Baha, as the protector of the Covenant of Baha’u’llah. The holiday was originally known as the Jashn-i-A’zam in Persian (The Greatest Festival), because ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was known as the Greatest Branch; in the West, the holy day became known as the Day of the Covenant.

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