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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 on 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.

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9 comments

  1. Although probably well-meaning when gay people are put in a list along with adulterers, drug addicts and alcoholics, it sends a chill down my spine. Being different from others is only infliction when powerful groups make it one. This is all so much a waste of time and energy. The April 9th quote about what constitues mariage is NOT taken from the Baha’i scriptures I assume. It is/was merely a statement of what mariage was at the time of writing. A bit like saying men wear trousers Ann women dresses. It is no longer the case…marriage is beteen 2 consenting adults whatever their gender. You don’t even have to be a gay man to marry a man these days….


    • If a word is defined one way when it is used and then it evolves to have a new meaning, that change of definition doesn’t apply to the earlier uses.


    • Please quote what word or words you are referring to as I do not understand your comment.


  2. “sexuality is also an inseparable aspect of identity”
    Are there any articles on this? Sexuality has always seemed such a irrelevant aspect of my life that I cannot see how it having much to do with my personality.
    Presumably, however, you are referring to some psychological studies, in which case I would find the references interesting, please.


    • When I made my comment “sexuality is also an inseparable aspect of identity” I was not referring to scientific research on the topic but rather because to me even if a person might think sexuality is a non-issue, or have no sense of sexual attraction towards anyone else, sexuality is still there: like one’s toenails are. They might be an important aspect of one’s identity or they might not be. The toenails might be dysfunctional or even removed but they are still an aspect of what it is be a human being.
      Bahai Scripture also does not suppress the sexual instinct. In an ideal world, characteristics of one’s identity would be non-issues, and certainly lesser issues because I think our spirit, our thinking, our acts, matter most, but none the less they would still be there. For example, being left handed is a huge part of my consciousness because each day I am reminded (especially while at the keyboard) that I live in a world dominated by right handed people. Being left handed is not a cause for distress, depression, nor insecurity for me. But every so I do encounter someone who says something stupid about being cat-handed, so the prejudice still lingers, even though to any right handed person, I would imagine, even to most left handed individuals, they would say, that they cannot see how handedness has much to do with their personality. Perhaps I am more sensitized to this because I was beaten as a child in school for using the wrong hand to write with, however ….
      In 2011 a fellow exhibitor in an international electronic arts exhibition watched one of my videos and broke down into tears. I was taken aback having no idea what this was about until he calmed down. Then he asked me, “Have you noticed that the robotic arm I developed is left handed?” I hadn’t. He said it was one thing he could never truly forgive his parents for, because today he is right handed. He is an amazing scientist and artist but what sort of works could he have invented if he had been allowed to develop into adulthood as he was born to be.
      In my case it was a no-brainer, the nuns couldn’t get me to write at all and thankfully two years later another teacher saw no need to punish me and within a year I had caught up to my age level in writing and was allowed to have my desk moved in the room to where they were sitting too. I am not saying this childhood experience was so awful, but it has made me very aware of the evils of prejudice and how insidious this can be, especially when the motive is correction.

      If you find any research that shows that sexuality is not an inseparable aspect of identity, please post the links to these, thanks.


  3. I understand your blog entry to be about what we called “loyal opposition” some 20 years ago. Here’s Juan Cole on the subject.

    “I think the key term in “loyal opposition” is not “opposition” but “loyal.” The real question is whether someone is loyal or not. For instance, there are lots of Americans who dislike the US Supreme Court’s stands on some issues. But there are very few Americans (perhaps less than 12%) that reject the *legitimacy* of the authority of the Supreme Court.”
    https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/talk.religion.bahai/qD8EuAiujXw%5B1-25%5D


  4. Z wrote: “I have had little time for the Baha’i faith in the last four or five years, and I very much doubt I will have more in the near future.
    I have been trying to put my best energies into spiritual practices that make me a freer and better person, and I have come to the conclusion that organized religion is not among them.

    When I realized that you are referring to the “new” 2014 letter from the House on homosexuality, I said to myself: go ahead, I MUST write that resignation letter, I MUST distance myself from such bigots.

    Yet.

    Yet, I must confess that I was deeply touched, once again, by Shoghi Effendi’s summing up of the “vitalizing truths of the Faith of Baha’u’llah”. Yes, that is the Spirit of the Age. And there’s no one stopping it. Not even the Administrative Order. And I was also deeply touched, once again, by your commitment to keeping the Baha’i Faith what it was meant to be. I admire your courage and your strength.

    I will not send that resignation letter, though I can’t engage with the Baha’is right now.”


  5. After 45 years as an active committed Baha’i and after so, so many years of a constant struggle with being gay and being active in the Baha’i community, I have now become completely inactive. This inactivity is not motivated by my lack of belief in Baha’u’llah or in His Faith for He is my Lord and always will be. What happened was this, I recently was called into my LSA because they had received a letter from the NSA, here in the states, directed to me. In that letter, it was stated that I was NOT to teach in the public firesides any personal ideas regarding the subject of homosexuality, especially regarding the topic of same-sex marriage. I was instructed to stick completely to the “official” teachings and not give my personal opinions.

    You see, whenever the topic of same-sex marriage came up from seekers, and it ALWAYS does, I would say the “official” teachings on the subject, which shocks most folks, and then add, “in my own personal opinion I have the hope that one day, maybe in a hundred years from now, this stance the Faith takes on same-sex marriage will be updated.” The NSA said I must not say that and they then included the most recent quotes from the UHJ on the subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I thought I had been current on the Houses thoughts on these subjects, but I was stunned to read certain things that made me realize that no matter how kind, loving, patient, and tolerant the general Baha’i community may try and be toward the LGBTQ community, it simply is NOT a safe, loving, nurturing spiritual community for gay folks.
    The Baha’i Faith claims to be for ALL people, but in reality, it is a wonderful place for STRAIGHT people ONLY! In some of the quotes by the House, they say that the subject of homosexuality does NOT fall under the Baha’i principle of the “harmony of science and religion”. That because it is mentioned vaguely by Baha’u’llah in the Aqdas under the “subject of boys”, and they say even though some Baha’is feel that Baha’u’llah’s teachings under this heading have nothing to do with modern day homosexuality but has more to do with Pederasty, the fact that the Guardian interpreted the “subject of boys” to include ALL homosexuality, it now becomes a part of Holy Scripture and not subject to modern scrutiny. They then give that quote by Baha’u’llah where He says something like, “Weight not the Book of God by the standards current amongst men, for the Book itself is the standard”, or something along those lines, sorry I don’t have the exact quote in front of me. Whew, that sure smacks of fanaticism to me. They go on to say that not now and not in the future will this teaching be changed by any future Universal House of Justice! They go on to say that any scientific or medical support for normalizing gay life is simply a matter of those institutions being influenced by the moral decay of the collapsing old world order!
    WOW! Strickly BLACK and WHITE, no gray areas, no room for discussion. BAM! It shook me from my long term denial. I knew I could no longer speak at firesides, deepenings, Ruhi classes, and Feasts in a supportive manner regarding the Faith and its goals. I was being a hypocrite.

    How could I, a gay man, look the seekers in the eyes and say that the Baha’i Faith is the religion for today, that it’s the most progressive and that it accepts ALL humanity equally when I knew that the wonderful, progressive principles of the Faith like, the Oneness of Humanity, the Elimination of all prejudice, the harmony of science and religion applied to everyone EXCEPT the gay and lesbian community. How could I honestly look these folks in the eye knowing that millions of people from every culture and every background will never be fully welcomed into the Faith and that they will NEVER embrace it.

    One of my many dear Baha’i friends said to me, Bill, instead of leaving the community why don’t you simply leave your private life private and carry on with the teaching work. This friend is a long time deepened Baha’i and from a Jewish background. I said to him, when you were going to firesides back in the 50’s and at one of the meetings the speaker said, “We love the Jewish people and we welcome them into the Faith with open arms, but they can never fall in love and marry the person of their choice, they can never raise children and create a family with that person and each Jewish Baha’i must strive to live a celibate, lonely life for as long as they are on this earth, would you have signed your declaration card? He said, “absolutely NOT”. I said, so there’s your answer because this is exactly what is being asked of every gay and lesbian person that wants to enroll in the community. He now truly understood.

    So dear friends, sorry this went on so long, there is much more, but I’ll save that for another time. I have become completely inactive and since doing so my life has become filled with light and love and awesome new possibilities. I no longer have to watch every word I say around the Baha’is for fear they might figure out that I’m gay, or I no longer have to keep silent about my wonderful partner of 26 years, or I no longer have to worry about what I post on Facebook for fear that some Baha’i might report me to an Auxilary Board member. I have Baha’u’llah in my heart, my prayer book, and the Baha’i Writings to sustain me spiritually. I’m so very happy. Big hugs to you all.

    Bill Garbett

    PS: I personally feel that when the terms “Freed from all error” and “Instant and exact obedience” crept into the writings it laid the groundwork for fanaticism to grow and spread among the believers. We will never have another living Guardian and that’s too bad because the Guardian was the instrument of “checks and balances”. He could say to the UHJ that they should go back and reconsider what they decided on. It just wasn’t meant to be. With that checks and balances gone, well, it just makes for lots of problems now and into the future.


  6. X wrote: “I’m not entirely decided about many aspects of this issue, but there is one thing regarding homosexuality, gay marriage and our Baha’i Faith that stands out to me, at least according to my limited understanding, but I haven’t heard other Baha’is discuss this point from the traditional & historic Islamic perspective. We know, of course, that in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah specifically laid out laws that Baha’is must follow . In this book, he also affirmed, changed or abrogated current religious laws of Islam and religious traditions both great and small that were prevalent at the time the book was penned (hair, sable and bones, etc.).
    The thing is: In Islam, there is a very clear prohibition against homosexual sex. But, interestingly, the only verse in the Aqdas which Baha’u’llah addressed this topic in any direct sense is the one regarding the practice of pederasty, which is still common in some more backward parts of the Islamic world, which he condemned in no uncertain terms. A few years ago, I was puzzled about this twisted practice. How could a devout Muslim publicly justify a traditional practice of men grooming and having sex with boys with Islamic law, I wondered. Then I read somewhere that this practice is frequently dismissed by some Muslims as not being a violation of the prohibition against homosexuality in Islam, since they claim it’s merely “entertainment” and can not be considered the same as a love relationship between two adults of the same sex.
    Given this understanding, and the fact that Baha’u’llah did not in any other way alter Islamic law prohibiting homosexual relations in His book of laws, I can’t help but think His mention of pederasty seems to be a condemnation of a “loophole” in a law of Islam, a law which he did not abrogate or change in any other way. If so, wouldn’t such an understanding put it squarely in accord with communications from the Guardian and the House of Justice that this mention of pederasty in the Aqdas, along with the prohibition of sodomy, applies to homosexual sex?
    I am no expert and may be completely offbase with this assumption, of course. But I haven’t heard any input that would steer me to think in another direction. Thanks for any thoughts you might have about this.”



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