Critiquing the Universal House of JusticeMay 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,
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.
|“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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…”
“Be thou of the people of hell-fire, but be not a hypocrite.”
“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.”
“Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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…”
“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.”
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.