Archive for May, 2017

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The Authority of the Bahai Administration

May 7, 2017

A Bahai with his family

A Bahai with his family: “Can a Bahai express views or opinions differing from the latest statements of the Universal House of Justice?”


Sorry folks,

There’s been a long silence, but happily it is because I have been busy with many wonderful and diverse projects. When the Orlando massacre hit last June, I had a blog almost ready but then life took over …

Recently I have been given some strife by Bahais who say what I write turns against important principles of the Bahai Faith and the Bahai Administration, so it is time for a blog on what I think is allowed, and what is not allowed when we express our views. Bahais often use the term the Bahai Covenant for this. Those of you who are not Bahais might now understand why a few Bahais have called me a “Covenant Breaker” on this blog. This is because they think that individual Bahais cannot have any views or opinions differing from the latest statements of the Universal House of Justice and because they think that their view is ‘the’ view of the Universal House of Justice.

In light of the Department of the Secretariat of The Universal House of Justice’s statement: “Further, it is entirely against the spirit of the Faith to regard homosexuals with prejudice or disdain.” (12 April 2016), it seems appropriate for me as just a Bahai to write from the point of view of standing up for the rights of gays and lesbians. If another Bahai takes the opposite view, I do not think it appropriate to call names nor state that their view is against the Bahai Teachings. Instead I think it is better to go to the Bahai Writings (“Be as … an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.” Bahaú’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 346) and if possible discuss or debate our differing views since as Abdul-Baha wrote: “freedom of conscience and tranquility of heart and soul … is in all ages the cause of progress in development and ascendancy…” (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 87)

My belief is that as a world embracing religion the Bahai community should tolerate members with a wide range of life styles and beliefs. And I think that even Bahais whose ideas might not be in tune with Bahai Scripture should express their ideas so others can show them how these ideas are wrong (myself included) or by free discussion or consultation it may become clear what the issue or ideas are about. I learn most from those I initially disagree with and I consider freedom of expression to be an important Bahai Teaching. Because the topic of homosexuality is so taboo within the Bahai community, it is a topic I have never heard discussed during the consultative part of a feast in my 30 years of being a Bahai. Perhaps this explains why this blog is dominated by the topic of homosexuality to date. I have never bought up the topic of homosexuality at any Bahai event. Not out of fear, but because there seems to be no space for this. I hope other Bahai communities might be more open about discussing this topic but I can understand why Bahais prefer to avoid this topic. Having said this, I am far from being in the closet about gay rights and if a Bahai says something that is to my mind anti-gay, I would at least say I didn’t agree with their statement. Often I see from their response that they are usually surprised and so I try to be gentle as it seems to me that they didn’t think any Bahai might have a differing view. I see wisdom in taking baby steps. However, when the topic of Bahai views on homosexuality comes up in my arts-oriented communities, a lively discussion ensues. Many express that they’ve heard Bahais discriminate against gays because they believe it is forbidden. Others go as far as to tell me “Bahais hate gays.” I explain that we have unity in diversity and not all Bahais think being gay is wrong. For me, in fact, standing up for equality and justice for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is at the heart of my identity as a follower of Baha’u’llah. I would hope that the Bahai community never would come to the point where someone such as myself would be shunned by the Bahai administration. Even should that happen, it will not stop me from considering myself a Bahai. That is because I think being a Bahai is following Baha’u’llah’s Teachings and being accepted as a member of any Bahai community is second to this.

As I’ve read the 2014 statement from the Universal House of Justice on the topic of homosexuality, it seems to me that even though this letter states that identifying oneself as gay or even discussing sexuality implies “self-indulgence, in the guise of expressing one’s true nature … sexuality has become a preoccupation …” The wording here appears to me to be deliberately ambiguous because of course the Universal House of Justice would know that sexuality is also an inseparable aspect of identity. The Universal House of Justice’s concern here, I think, is with materialism and using sexuality as a guise for immoral behaviour. This is my own interpretation of the association of these words (The 2014 letter is here). I started a more thorough discussion of this letter in this blog here because taken as a whole the letter does associate homosexuality with materialism. So I can see how Bahais might continue to see that there’s something wrong with being gay and why even today many gay Bahais have to remain in the closet from their Bahai community.

The bigger issue is that any legally married same sex couple is not allowed to join the Bahai community. This policy supports the thinking that there is something wrong with being gay and so I understand why those with homophobic views feel their view is the same as the policy of the Universal House of Justice.

So … is it against the Bahai Teachings to stand up for the rights and responsibilities of our gay and lesbian Bahais while the policy of the Universal House of Justice states that same sex marriage is not accepted and those who are already married are not allowed to be enrolled into the Bahai community? (To a footnote to U.H.J. policies on same-sex relationships).

The Authority of the Universal House of Justice

The authority of the Universal House of Justice is that it is both the head of the Bahai community and it makes Bahai Law on topics not already covered in the Bahai Writings, such as same sex marriage. So the Universal House of Justice has the authority to rule that same sex marriage is not accepted and according to the Will and Testament of Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations in The World Order of Baha’u’llah it has the authority to make its ruling without any restrictions whatsoever.

At the same time any policy made by the Universal House of Justice may be changed by a later Universal House of Justice. When I write this, Bahais have been upset at me, thinking that it means I am saying that the Universal House of Justice will change its current policy.

Baha’u’llah was very strong on protecting his religion from splitting off into sects and so the issue today when it comes to being a Covenant Breaker would be whether that person claims that the Universal House of Justice does not have the authority to make rules and policy as set down by Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi.

It is not a Bahai Teaching that the Universal House of Justice may tell Bahais how we must think, interpret the Bahai Writings, discuss or debate. Shoghi Effendi makes this very clear, going even so far to suggest that the Universal House of Justice might pass enactments that “conflict with the meaning and … depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150) and that these would still be valid rulings.

This gives me a great freedom because as a Bahai I can express any idea, even disagree strongly with someone else’s idea of a Bahai Teaching or a policy of the Universal House of Justice, and yet I would not be undermining the authority of the Universal House of Justice. This is because the Universal House of Justice does not have the authority to interpret Bahai Scripture. It cannot absolutely define what the Bahai Teachings are because the Bahai Teachings are determined by what is in Bahai Scripture. Shoghi Effendi made this very clear in The World Order of Baha’u’llah. This gives the Universal House of Justice a great freedom as well, otherwise it would be obliged to control the thinking of all Bahais for orthodox views and we would have a religion where the elected and appointed Bahai administration acts like a class of priests.

The Universal House of Justice is also not limited in changing their policies by a need to appear as if they are not changing anything. In fact, they have full freedom in making or breaking their own policy and can use any argumentation or none as they wish. However, they cannot add to what is Bahai Scripture. If something is in Bahai Scripture, the Universal House of Justice often points us to the actual text. If the Universal House of Justice does not do this then their understanding of the meaning of something in Bahai Scripture falls into the sphere of policy. Because the Universal House of Justice’s understandings of the Bahai Teachings for its own policy-making fall outside its sphere of authority, we have a religion where interpretation of the Bahai Scripture remains in the hands of each one of us and the Universal House of Justice has the flexibility to adapt its understandings and rulings to a changing world.

Bahais often mix up the Universal House of Justice’s policy as being the same as authoritative interpretations of Bahai Scripture, but I think this is because other religions have had an authoritative head whose every ruling is also a doctrine, and where a priest class is necessary to enforce this orthodoxy.

Freedom of Expression as just a Bahai

Back to my question, can a Bahai share their views of the Bahai Teachings if these are not in line with the current policy of the Universal House of Justice?

The Universal House of Justice has already made policy on this topic specifically in relation to electronic media (blogs, etc)
“In general, at this stage in the development of the World Wide Web, the House of Justice feels that those friends desiring to establish personal homepages on the Internet as a means of promoting the Faith should not be discouraged from doing so.
… While it is inevitable that some attempts will be found wanting, the House of Justice has not formulated guidelines or policies specifically addressed to Internet sites.

With regard to the projects referred to in your email, particularly in the case of a Web site for a local Bahá’í community, the Local Spiritual Assembly may wish to approach the National Spiritual Assembly to see if it has any particular guidance to share. Individual projects, if they contain Bahá’í content, should also be referred to one’s National Spiritual Assembly for possible advice or guidance.” (The Universal House of Justice, 1997 April 24)

and
“In general, the House of Justice has no objection to Bahá’ís’ participating in public, unmoderated discussions about the Faith, whether those discussions take place in person or through some form of electronic communication. … While the institutions of the Faith may, on occasion, find it necessary to offer the friends guidance related to their participation in particular discussions, generally this, too, is a matter left to the individual.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1997 Oct 27,)

So now you might understand why sometimes my blogs have quite a lot of “in my view” and “my personal opinion,” although it would be obvious from my text that it is just my point of view. I do this also because Baha’u’llah was very clear about not developing any form of priest class so that individuals learn to look at Bahai Scripture for themselves and to act by using Bahai principles. Again, the above is just my interpretation 🙂

I hope you can see now that any Bahai may have a differing view on the topic of same sex marriage and on the current policy of the Universal House of Justice as long as their thinking or views are expressed as an individual interpretation. In fact, I think I am obliged to state here that my view – that there is nothing in Bahai Scripture to support treating gays or lesbians differently – is a minority point of view. I would be challenging the authority of the Universal House of Justice only if I stated that their policy had no authority. As an individual I am free to advocate justice for all on equal terms, as my own interpretation of the teachings of Baha’u’llah. But I am not free to imply that the Universal House of Justice does not have the authority to rule as it wishes. That I have never done nor do I ever intend to. Having said that, critiquing policy, any policy, does not undermine that policy. As I see it, freedom of speech ties closely with the Bahai principles as outlined by Shoghi Effendi here: https://justabahai.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/the-individual/#se.

Freedom of speech does not mean that one should be free to demean or belittle or use one’s words to harm another. The intent of my critique is to understand an institution’s or an individual’s thinking. I do not understand any policy that discriminates against gays or lesbians but I certainly accept the authority of the Universal House of Justice, and so I have no interest in petitioning them either. For me, it would be wrong to write a letter to the Universal House of Justice because I don’t want to waste their time when I am sure that they are aware of all the issues I might raise. However, my main objection to writing a letter is that I think Baha’u’llah intended his religion to be one where Bahai’s turn to Scripture and work out their own interpretations in line with current conditions and society. The Universal House of Justice can then focus on policy and acting as the head of the Bahai community, and not on answering letters penned by individuals. If I was stuck with a question where I thought the answer might lie in some text I didn’t have any access to, then that might be a reason for writing a letter to the research department. However, I am very blessed. Almost on a weekly basis Bahais send me material, many asking if I would share this on my blog. This is the main aim for my blog: To share information and my own thinking about various topics, so that people can read and make up their own minds about what is or is not a Bahai Teaching.

Footnote
Universal House of Justice policy on accepting enrollments
The doors are open for all humanity to enter the Cause of God, irrespective of their present circumstances; this invitation applies to homosexuals as well as to any others who are engaged in practices contrary to the Bahá’í teachings. … If a homosexual cannot overcome his or her condition to the extent of being able to have a heterosexual marriage, he or she must remain single, and abstain from sexual relations. These are the same requirements as for a heterosexual person who does not marry.” From a letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, 11 September 1995, cited in Udo Schaefer, Baha’i Ethics in Light of Scripture, Vol. 2, by Udo Schaefer, p. 214)

“… if persons involved in homosexual relationships express an interest in the Faith, they should not be instructed by Baha’i institutions to separate so that they may enrol in the Baha’i community, for this action by any institution may conflict with civil law. The Baha’i position should be patiently explained to such persons, who should also be given to understand that although in their hearts they may accept Baha’u’llah, they cannot join the Baha’i community in the current condition of their relationship. They will then be free to draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Within this context, the question you pose about the possibility of the removal of administrative rights should, therefore, not arise.”
(From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual 5 March 1999)

Legal same-sex marriage was only possible from 2001 onwards and as far as I know there are no later letters from the Universal House of Justice that clearly state that same-sex couples are allowed to enroll. And this 1999 letter makes it clear that the exclusion would be extended to marriage: “Your understanding is correct that should a polygamist become a Baha’i, he would not be required to divorce or separate from any of his spouses; however, he would not be able to enter into a new marriage while still being married to another spouse.
With regard to the second case, in general, when a person who wishes to join the Faith is known to have a problem such as drinking, homosexuality, drug abuse, adultery, etc., he or she should be told in a patient and loving way of the Baha’i teachings on these matters. In particular, if persons involved in homosexual relationships express an interest in the faith, … they cannot join the Baha’i community in the current condition of their relationship.” (Department of the Secretariat, 13 April 1999, on gaybahai.net), and statements such as “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and sexual relations are only permissible between husband and wife.” (9 April 2014) imply that same-sex couples are not welcome. If anyone has any other policy from the Universal House of Justice on the topic of same-sex marriage please share this with me. I can copy and paste material so you can remain completely anonymous.