JUSTICE FOR THE RICH AND POOR
Great extremes of wealth and poverty, expressed in such arrangements as slavery, feudalism, aristocracies, caste and monopoly on capital, have characterized societies throughout history and are detrimental, according to Baha'u'llah, to both the rich and the poor. He describes one aspect of the liability of excessive wealth:
O Ye That Pride Yourselves on Mortal Riches! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. (HW,41)On the other hand, poverty robs the human being of sufficient food, clothes, shelter and whatever surplus material resources which may be necessary to provide a basis on which he can begin to build a sense of human dignity and to cultivate his potential. In sum,
...the honor and exaltation of man must be something more than material riches, material comforts are only a branch, but the root of the exaltation of man is the good attributes and virtues which are the adornments of his reality. (SAQ, 90-1)
When a rich man believes and follows the Manifestation of God it is a proof that his wealth is not an obstacle and does not prevent him from attaining the pathway of salvation... (FWU,36)
...the laws of the present civilization...lead to a small number of individuals accumulating incomparable fortunes, beyond their needs, whilst the greater number remains destitute, stripped and in the greatest misery. This is contrary to justice, to humanity, to equity; it is the height of iniquity, the opposite of what causes divine satisfaction. (SAQ,313)In delineating the essential features of the solution to this ingrained pattern of great extremes of wealth and poverty, Baha'u'llah directs His specific instructions primarily to the well-to-do:
O Ye Rich Ones of the Earth! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. (HW,41)The Baha'i teachings are specific as to how His trust should be guarded:
Know ye that the poor are the trust of God in your midst. Watch that ye betray not His trust, that ye deal not unjustly with them and that ye walk not in the ways of treacherous. (PDC,22)
O Son of Spirit! Vaunt not thyself over the poor. (HW,10)
...in the Religion of God, it is proscribed and established that wealthy men each year give over a certain part of their fortune for the maintenance of the poor and unfortunate. (SAQ,317)But how are the wealthy to know to whom to give what part of their fortunes? To fulfil their responsibility the rich must know the specific needs of the poor. Thus Baha'u'llah exhorts us: "O Children of Dust! Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor" (HW,39) and calls upon the rich themselves:
And among the teachings of Baha'u'llah is voluntary sharing of one's property with others among mankind. This voluntary sharing is greater than equality, and consists in this, that man should not prefer himself to others, but rather should sacrifice his life and property for others. But this should not be introduced by coercion so that it becomes a law and man is compelled to follow it. Nay, rather, man should voluntarily and of his own choice sacrifice his property and life for others, and spend willingly for the poor, just as is done in Iran among the Baha'is. (BWF,288)
O Son of Man! Bestow My wealth upon My poor, that in heaven thou mayest draw from stores of unfading splendor and treasures of imperishable glory. But by My life! To offer up they soul is a more glorious thing couldst thou but see with Mine eye. (BWF,163)
To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine. (HW,39)
O ye rich ones of the earth! Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God's inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted. (G,314-5)These measures provide practical means by which the blemish of extreme wealth and poverty can be removed and which are in accord with the requirement of maintaining human dignity for all parties involved. Once a wealthy man knows that a poor neighbor needs, say, plumbing work done in his bathroom, heat in this home, resources to educate his children, or whatever might be necessary, and that this poor neighbor is God's trust, he can voluntarily and personally make an equitable adjustment to the situation. This approach would bring the rich with an attitude of humility, generosity and comradeship into the homes of the poor, rather than forcing the poor to crawl in humiliation for subsistence from an impersonal and suspicious welfare bureaucracy which derives its charity from the non-voluntary tax of the rich, and which tends to perpetuate the habits of poverty by precluding by its mediation personal contact of the poor with other economic strata of the society.
In addition to this voluntary and personal contact of the rich with the poor, and in place of the humiliating and degrading welfare state, the Baha'i teachings do call for some formalization of economic justice:
Organize in an effort to help them and prevent increase of poverty. The greatest means for prevention is that whereby the laws of the community will be so framed and enacted that it will not be possible for a few to be millionaires and many destitute... Under this adjustment there can be no extremes in human conditions as regards wealth and sustenance. (FWU,36)We might point out at this point that it is important to grasp each element of the Baha'i teachings on economic justice for what it is and in the context of the total Baha'i society, rather than to try to fit them into some man-made system such as capitalism, socialism or communism which is humanly incomplete.
Therefore taxation will be proportionate to capacity and production and there will be no poor in the community (FWU,37)
Then rules and laws should be established to regulate the excessive fortunes of certain private individuals, and limit the misery of millions of poor masses; thus a certain moderation would be obtained. However, absolute equality is just as impossible... The main point is, by means of laws and regulations to hinder the constitution of excessive fortunes of certain individuals, and to protect the essential needs of the masses. ...the body of workmen and the manufacturers should share equitably the profits and advantages... It is, then, clear and evident that the repartition of excessive fortunes amongst a small number of individuals, while the masses are in misery is an iniquity and an injustice. In the same way, absolute equality would be an obstacle to life, to welfare, to order and to the peace of humanity. In such a question a just medium is preferable. It lies in the capitalists being moderate in the acquisition of their profits, and in their having a consideration for the welfare of the poor and needy... (SAQ,314-6)
In short, Baha'u'llah's prescription to achieve justice for the rich and poor requires the rich to initiate voluntary, generous and personal contact with the poor so that the necessary reallocation of economic substance is made in the context of meaningful and dignified human relationships. Baha'u'llah provides the rich with this specific alternative to their current unjust attitudes and policies.
Baha'u'llah also promises specific consequences for acceptance or rejection of His standard regarding rich and poor:
Ye will most certainly be called upon to answer for His trust on the day when the Balance of Justice shall be set, the day when unto every one shall be rendered his due, when the doings of all men, be they rich or poor, shall be weighed. (PDC,22)If the rich reject Baha'u'llah's instructions and persist in their heedlessness of economic injustice, how will they "be called upon to answer for His trust" and "unto every one be rendered his due"? Baha'u'llah states that this heedlessness will "lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth" (HW,39). Baha'u'llah foreshadows the improved condition of the poor which must eventually follow the deprivation of the rich who persist in maintaining their unjust economic ascendancy: "...for I lead him on his way and behold thee in thy evil plight and confound thee for evermore" (HW,10). Baha'u'llah further emphasizes the despair which must befall those who pride themselves upon, and cling to, their mortal riches: "The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation" (HW,41).
However, if the rich be not intent only on their own ease and implement Baha'u'llah's remedy, they will reap the positive consequences specified by Baha'u'llah.
First, He describes the spiritual fortification which the rich will receive if they arise to befriend the poor and "suffer them to recount the tale" of their woes so their specific needs might be personally known:
By the righteousness of God! Whilst ye consort with me, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action. (G,315)Second, Baha'u'llah promises a God-given well-being to those who are generous: "Well is it with him that adorneth himself with my Virtues" (HW,39). In addition, consideration of the following statement of 'Abdu'l-Baha will reveal that only through obedience to Baha'u'llah's standard will the well-to-do be able to enjoy with security what material blessings that they have:
Good God! is it possible that, seeing one of his fellow creatures starving, destitute of everything, a man can rest and live comfortably in his luxurious mansion? He who meets another in the greatest misery, can he enjoy his fortune? (SAQ,317)Once the "rich ones of the earth" are informed of God's requirements for economic justice and the specific consequences of acceptance or rejection, there will no longer be any excuse for their continued negligence; for unlike the games men play with the policies of other men, none can resist the consequences of God's decree.
References (page numbers from pre-1970 editions)
BWF, Baha'i World Faith (quotes from Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha)
FWU, Foundations of World Unity, by 'Abdu'l-Baha
G, Gleanings from the writings of Baha'u'llah
HW, Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah
PDC, Promised Day is Come, by Shoghi Effendi
SAQ, Some Answered Questions, by 'Abdu'l-Baha
© 2010 James J Keene