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Does this mean that one may not express critical thought?

March 19, 2018

Freedom of Speech cartoon found on a blog possibly by a Russian cartoonist. The initials are AZ.

Cartoon found on this blog,
possibly by a Russian cartoonist
by the name of Azim or AZ where I have
changed the texts.

Recently in a discussion a Baha’i wrote:
“We as Baha’is I believe should look at each quote and prescribe it to ourselves. This is one I take very much to heart”.
“To accept the Cause without the administration is like to accept the teachings without acknowledging the divine station of Bahá’u’lláh. To be a Bahá’í is to accept the Cause in its entirety. To take exception to one basic principle is to deny the authority and sovereignty of Bahá’u’lláh, and therefore is to deny the Cause. The administration is the social order of Bahá’u’lláh. Without it all the principles of the Cause will remain abortive. To take exception to this, therefore, is to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, May 30, 1930: Bahá’í News, No. 43, August 1930, p. 3)

This Baha’i was using this quotation to imply that “to exception to” meant that no one is allowed to disagree with any policy of the head of the Bahai Administration, The Universal House of Justice. I then looked for the context to this letter because I think Baha’is are free to express their personal opinions on the topic of equality for the LGBTQ community or same sex marriage. This was the context for the sharing of that quotation.

It is my view that one of the most basic of the Bahá’í principles is that each individual has the right and duty to seek out the truth which means the individual’s right to free expression, but I also believe that the context for how one expresses one’s views is just as important and sometimes silence might be better than causing pain or suffering. That is how I interpret Baha’u’llah’s text: “Say: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 143)

Sometimes silence is best and sometimes speaking up is best. So are there rules for Bahais in relation to freedom of speech?

Shoghi Effendi wrote:
“At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies.” (Bahai Administration, p. 63)

The second sentence does not refer to limiting the freedom of expression of the individual. It refers to “prepublication literature review” which Abdul-Baha brought in as a temporary measure. This means that Bahais are not allowed to publish any book, paper or article without a committee approving the contents of this. However the UHJ has stated clearly that blogs or websites are free from this as long as the author makes it clear that what they write is just their own understanding.
“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. It is hoped that the friends will adopt etiquettes consistent with the principles of the Faith, including clearly indicating what materials constitute their own interpretations. 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.” (The Universal House of Justice, 1997 Apr 24, Personal Web Pages Promoting the Faith Approved)

So what does “to take exception to one basic principle” refer to in that letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi? And how might it have been perceived by the readers in 1930?

I found that “to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law” refers to rejecting the idea of a Bahai administration.

Some background
From 1914 onwards some Baha’is thought that the reference in Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas to Houses of Justice was about a form of parliament and that the Baha’i community was not to have any form of administration. In fact the number of references to the idea that the “Bahai Movement is not an organization…” suggests that it was a common idea among various Bahais of the times (See a circa 1917 publication) as it was attributed to Abdul-Baha via a pilgrim’s note. See Sen McGlinn’s blog (“You can never organize the Bahai Cause”) where he shows more context for this.

The text is not authentically Abdul-Baha. Page 4 of the booklet, Some Vital Bahai Teachings by Charles Mason Remey, published circa 1917

NOTE: The text is not authentically Abdul-Baha. Page 4 of the booklet, Some Vital Bahai Teachings by Charles Mason Remey, published circa 1917. See the booklet here


Then in March 1922, in the magazine Star of the West there was a 5 page essay called ‘Baha’i Organization: Its basis in the revealed word,’ written by Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons and Mariam Haney at the request of the National Spiritual Assembly to counter this pilgrim’s note.
To paraphrase from Sen McGlinn’s blog: This begins by pointing to a generalised distrust of all organization, as an infringement on liberty and then refers to the Bahai Writings that specify the establishment of Bahai Houses of Justice in every town, and cites briefly a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice, (Sen has translated this tablet by Abdul-Baha here).Then it switches to a discussion of the International Court, a different institution, to be organized by the Governments of the world (p 324), before switching back to citing Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions to organize spiritual assemblies. Then it states, “It is known that some misapprehension exists as to the need of organization in the Cause. This has grown out of a widely circulated statement, attributed to Abdul baha, that the Bahai Cause could never be organized. The true statement was, as corrected by Abdul Baha, that the Bahai Cause can never be rigidly organized; it can never be confined to an organization. The context of the statement tells why, namely: “It is the Spirit of the Age, the essence of all the highest ideals of the century.”
At Haifa, Syria, in 1920, the following question was asked Abdul Baha by some American pilgrims:
“It is misleading, is it not, to say that the Bahai Cause cannot be organized?”
Abdul Baha replied: “How is it possible that there should be no organization?
Even in a household if there is not organization there will be hopeless confusion. Then what about the world? What is meant is that organization is not rigid! In ancient times it was rigid. In the Torah all the political affairs were rigidly fixed, but in this Cause they were not. In this Cause there is political freedom i.e., in each time the House of Justice is free to decide in accordance with what is deemed expedient. This is a brief explanation of the matter.” (Star of the West, Volume 13, no. 12, March, 1923, p. 325)

After the death of Abdu’l-Baha in 1921, Ruth White, an American Bahai who also challenged the authenticity of Abdul-Baha’s Will appointing Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Bahai Faith, produced a pamphlet called, The “Bahai Organisation, the enemy of the Bahai Religion,” where on page 5 she wrote of a recollection from 9 years earlier, “when I visited Abdul Baha at Haifa, Palestine, in 1920. … one day when he very opportunely spoke of certain conditions existing in America among the Bahais, I mentioned to him that I had never belonged to the Bahai organization (Spiritual Assemblies). His face beamed with happiness as he replied:
Good, very good. The organization that the Bahais have among themselves has nothing to do with the teachings of Baha’ollah. The teachings of Baha’o’llah are universal and cannot be confined to a sect.
The same thought runs through all the writings of Baha’o’llah and of Abdul Baha. It is expressed in many different ways, ranging from the above, and the following unequivocal statement: “The Bahai Religion is not an organization. You can never organize the Bahai Cause,” to the less obvious way of saying the same thing. For instance, Abdul Baha says that it will be impossible to create any schism in the Bahai Religion. The Bahais have interpreted this as meaning that two Bahai organizations cannot be formed when, as a matter of fact, both Baha’o’llah and Abdul Baha show that no organization can be formed” (on h-net.org)

In February 1929, a month after Ruth White’s pamphlet was published, Shoghi Effendi wrote to the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States and Canada stating:
“It should be remembered by every follower of the Cause that the system of Bahá’í administration is not an innovation imposed arbitrarily upon the Bahá’ís of the world since the Master’s passing, but derives its authority from the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, is specifically prescribed in unnumbered Tablets, and rests in some of its essential features upon the explicit provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. It thus unifies and correlates the principles separately laid down by Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá, and is indissolubly bound with the essential verities of the Faith. To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause [emphasis added), a separation that can only result in the disintegration of its component parts, and the extinction of the Faith itself.” (World Order of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi)

So the similarity of the words in the 1930 letter by the secretary to the 1929 text above indicates that in context “one basic principle” in the 1930 letter refers to the existence of a Bahai Administration and not freedom of speech regarding policies of the day. Perhaps there is more context to this 1930 letter that one day someone else can provide.

I read the text “To take exception to this, therefore, is to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law.” in the way Shoghi Effendi wrote “To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause …” Not that this means Bahais may only express their own interpretations of the Bahai Writings if these are in agreement with the policies of the Baha’i Administration.

It would be a different story if the Universal House of Justice stated that it was a Bahai law that Bahais were not allowed to express their own views, understandings or perspectives or if the Universal House of Justice announced that Bahais were not allowed to discuss the topic of homosexuality. They have not. So individual Bahais cannot then imply it is disobedience to “His law” if Bahais do interpret the Writings for themselves or express their own views or even discuss the topic of homosexuality. It isn’t a closed case nor a taboo subject.

A lesson I learnt from looking at Ruth White was that she was both the victim of her own misunderstanding and stuck with an idea of the Bahai community as static – as she first experienced and understood it during the lifetime of Abdul-Baha. The establishment of the House of Justice is clear in the Bahai writings and the development of an international tribunal is also clear. But a footnote in the 1908 English translation of Some Answered Questions asserted that these were the same thing. If the House of Justice was just another word for the supreme tribunal, which was to be elected by the nations and solve political questions, then you can see how she might think that there was no provision in the Writings for an administration of a Bahai community by Bahai institutions. Then there was the widely circulated pilgrim’s note saying “you cannot organize the Bahai movement…” So perhaps because Shoghi Effendi was working on the establishment of the Bahai Administration, something that she saw as false, made her assume that the Will and Testament was a fake – an idea she pursued in the face of all evidence. [See Sen’s 2009 blog, “Mitchell’s mistake”]

So as I see it we always need to be open to the idea that our own interpretation of the Bahai Teachings might be wrong and we need to remain open to change if evidence shows new information or to keep the Bahai Administration “in the forefront of all progressive movements.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22)

That’s why, sometimes, I hammer on about only authentic Scripture, being what counts, not what a Bahai or even 99% of Bahais might say to me. Perhaps somewhere there is a text penned by Baha’u’llah that does restrict marriage to only be possible between a man and a woman? I will keep writing that it is my belief that there is nothing in Bahai Scripture that supports discrimination against lesbians or gays until someone shows me some evidence. Even if I should be wrong – on the topic of freedom of expression the Universal House of Justice – wrote:
“Because the Most Great Peace is the object of our longing, a primary effort of the Bahá’í community is to reduce the incidence of conflict and contention, which are categorically forbidden in the Most Holy Book. Does this mean that one may not express critical thought? Absolutely not. How can there be the candor called for in consultation if there is no critical thought? How is the individual to exercise his responsibilities to the Cause, if he is not allowed the freedom to express his views? Has Shoghi Effendi not stated that “at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views”?
(Addressed to the NSA of the USA, 29 Dec., 1988)

So while some Bahais might think that no Bahai is allowed to express any view, or write anything that is not in agreement with the policies of the Universal House of Justice, such as their current policy which does not allow gays or lesbians to marry in countries where this is legal, I think that the Universal House of Justice does allow individuals such as myself to express their views. I certainly do understand that raising this topic at a Bahai event might not be appropriate but a Bahai such as myself may express my views on my own blog where it is clear that my views are just my own.

Another Bahai wrote in that same discussion:
Abdul-Baha last will and testament: “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”

This isn’t the first time this selectively cut quotation has been presented to me. 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.

“O ye the faithful loved ones of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi, the twig that hath branched from and the fruit given forth by the two hallowed and Divine Lote-Trees, that no dust of despondency and sorrow may stain his radiant nature, that day by day he may wax greater in happiness, in joy and spirituality, and may grow to become even as a fruitful tree.
For he is, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the guardian of the Cause of God, the Afnán, the Hands (pillars) of the Cause and 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 convictions. 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)

I elaborate on this in my 2015 blog “Is Criticism Allowed” here.

So back to the beginning, the above and the first quotation assert the importance of the authority of the Universal House but when you see the context of each, this authority doesn’t infringe on the duty of each of us to express our views, hopefully with wisdom and tact.

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