Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Power of a Baha'i

Baha'is may over-estimate the influence and power of their appointed officials -- Counsellors, Auxiliary Board Members, etc, when, in fact, these appointees cannot do much more than talk and facilitate communications. In contrast, any Baha'i, with a little initiative, can exert practically unlimited influence for good, deriving enormous executive authority from elected Baha'i institutions. Two keys -- the example of 'Abdu'l-Baha and the need for executives -- will be discussed.

Example of the Master
Let us review the all-important function of 'Abdu'l-Baha as an "exemplar" of the Baha'i teachings:
('Abdu'l-Baha) is, and should for all time be regarded, first and foremost, as the Center and Pivot of Baha'u'llah's peerless and all-enfolding Covenant, His most exalted handiwork, the stainless Mirror of His light, the perfect Exemplar of His teachings, the unerring Interpreter of His Word, the embodiment of every Baha'i ideal, the incarnation of every Baha'i virtue, the Most Might Branch sprung from the Ancient Root; the Limb of the law of God... (Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha'u'llah, 134)
Thus, in situations that arise, one can always ask, "What would the Master do?" Reading about what the Master did do provides very useful, practical knowledge.

Proclamation 1,2,3 Reloaded
The Chosen Highway, by Lady Blomfield, described what the Master did, in the following highlighted passages (pp. 99-101) [emphasis mine]:
The Master occupied Himself with the affairs and interests of the people of the place ('Akka), all outside news being brought to Him by the Governor and the Mufti...

The Master would tell Baha'u'llah how Christians came to ask explanations of difficult sayings in the Bible. Or again, how Muslims came with questions of Qur'an perplexities. He would tell how people in trouble would come for advice and help. Baha'u'llah always wished to know what answers were given by the Master. "Khayli Khub, very good, Aqa," He would say.

The Master would also tell news from different countries far and near, related in the newspapers, which the Governor used to bring for discussion and explanation.
'Abdu'l-Baha and his father (Baha'u'llah), too, were some kind of news-aholics. Ever hear, "Oh, we don't need to bother ourselves with news of the 'old world order'"? Well, if so, you didn't hear that in the Master's house.

This makes sense. How can one teach students or seekers if one does not know about their world, their circumstances, the issues they face? So each Baha'i and Baha'i community might well consider a news review daily. Maybe even a brief news round-up at each Baha'i feast -- major headlines of the last several weeks. The Baha'i news pages might well include local, national and international news from outside the Baha'i community, each item paired, per Proclamation 1,2,3, with a nugget from the Baha'i Writings. This way, individual Baha'is could go to their local, national and international official Baha'i web sites to learn the headlines and related Baha'i quotes.

Please notice also that both local, national and international ("from different countries") news were of great interest to the Master and his father. If there was cable TV in that time (before 1892 in Baha'u'llah's life-time), probably a cable news channel would be on for a good part of the day.

So we have Step 1 of Proclamation 1,2,3 -- the news. We have Step 2: the Baha'i writings. In a way, we now have more than 'Abdu'l-Baha had before 1892. He had Baha'u'llah, which, as Baha'is believe, is quite a lot. Today, we have Baha'u'llah's writings and those of 'Abdu'l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, the Universal House of Justice and if one can't find quotes directly related to a news item, dozens of secondary sources by many fine writers.

Step 3, the distribution, may use the internet, of course, but even better, for local distribution, might be to observe where groups gather (a strike, a mine cave-in, a rally, a protest, a concert, etc), go home, compose a one-page flyer, motor to the copy shop to get a few hundred copies and return right back to the assembled crowd, to catch them when the topic of the day is hot, hot, hot.

Part of Step 3 is getting a "rep", developing a reputation in the community for fair-minded, balanced, wise counsel. Notice that the Governor, religious leaders, Christians, Muslims and many others sought out the Master. That did not happen over-night. No doubt, the Master, the original Proclamation 1,2,3 practitioner, cultivated the good reputation he earned over time as the "go-to" person for all seeking insight and solutions.

Social Activism: Just Do It
Lady Bloomfield continues:
The life of the Master in 'Akka was full of work for others' good. He would rise very early, take tea, then go forth to His self-imposed labours of love... He would go first to the Biruni, a large reception room, which had been hired, on the opposite side of the street to our house. We often used to watch from our windows, the people crowding there to ask for help from the Master.

...Again, it would be a poor woman whose husband had been falsely accused... 'Abbas Effendi would send a competent person with these poor people to state the case to the judge at the Court house, so that they might have justice...

The Mufti, the Governor, Shaykhs, and officials of the Court came singly or in groups to call on the Master at the Biruni. Here they would ... talk over all the news, appealing for explanations, advice, or comment, to the Master, Whom they grew to look upon as learned, wise, full of compassion, practical help, and counsel for all.

When the court rose the judge invariably came to the Biruni, where he would speak of any complicated case, sure that 'Abbas Effendi would solve the problem, however difficult. In this way He was often able to steer the course of law, preventing the triumph of the tyrant, and bring comfort to the oppressed.

...To this day, if anybody is hospitable he is praised thus: "His house is like the Biruni, the home of 'Abbas Effendi".
"Self-imposed" goes straight to the need for executives and leaders among Baha'is. Generally, leaders emerge by a sort of self-selection, not because some authority appoints them to lead.

Notice the Master did not need a pre-prepared speech. Instead, the agenda was determined by what people asked. This method, central to Proclamation 1,2,3, guarantees a hearing -- that people will listen; that is the least they can do if they asked the question. All major news is like such a question -- very likely to have an interested audience. In sum, the Master's "explanations, advice, or comment" was directed to a listener-determined topic. Maybe it would involve accompanying a person going to civil authorities. Notice the theme of promoting justice appears several times above.

Another theme is avoid the easy stuff and go for the most difficult, complex, confusing issues. The Baha'is might strive to be counted and known in their communities for a certain kind of courage to tackle the most "complicated", perplexing issues. Would this targeting not build a spirit of kinship between Baha'is and their non-Baha'i communities -- we all are concerned with the same issues, whether we can solve them immediately or not.

People want plain talk, the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, concrete stuff. Leave the sociology jargon at home -- no "framework", no "capacity building", no "clusters", no "core activities", and other terminology that almost nobody understands. The last time I heard that sort of mumbo-jumbo was from the village psychotic who spent much of his day giving speeches to himself in the town square. Again, what would 'Abdu'l-Baha do? Use simple, clear language. And people listened.

One thing is clear. Though his immediate family was in some peril as prisoners in the city of 'Akka, the Master did interact with the highest authorities and did try to "steer" the course of local affairs in the direction of justice. This is very gutsy. There is no hint here of fear. No hint of "If we do X or Y, there may be negative consequences for us" and the like.

Wanted: Creative Executives
While Baha'i appointed officials have their functions regarding teaching and protection, local and national spiritual assemblies are the back-bone of executive power in the Baha'i community. A Baha'i assembly may deliberate on a project, but its implementation requires an executive authority, sort of like a "chief executive officer" (CEO) although that term may sound a little pompous. "Director" is a simpler word.

One might consider how successful any project or activity might be without a "responsible person" or "director", who can act as the immediate authority to address problems, emergencies and unanticipated events, coordinate activities of a number of persons, resolve disputes, etc, whatever it takes to get the job done. An assembly may meet only once a week or once a month. Project progress requires an on-site executive to respond to events and direct activities, perhaps on a 24/7 basis for the duration of a project. Thus, assemblies need executives.

Any individual Baha'i can be an executive of almost anything reasonable -- make the objectives, the plan, the schedule, the budget, etc -- you know the routine, present it, get appointed as the director and off you go. This is an effective route for individuals to acquire approval and authority to carry out projects for proclamation and service -- perhaps the most powerful model for successful individual initiative that the Baha'i Administration offers.

[Many of our most energetic and best executives will be students, who may have "I'm too busy studying to get all A's" pressure. So an upcoming essay here will present a proven method -- are you listening? -- to spend less time studying than your peers while getting all A's.]
© 2010 James J Keene


  1. LoL - I guess you haven't been in LSA meetings where a red-faced ABM who is covered in sweat from a screaming tirade, finishes by threatening to dissolve said LSA.

    Yup... no power whatsoever. None. Zip. Zilch.


    As for exerting influence... I've written to my NSA with a detailed, actionable suggestion that would be extremely beneficial (if I humbly may say so myself). I've followed up several times but have yet to receive even an acknowledgment. It has been about 3 years and counting now - if I remember correctly. At this point I'd dance a jig if they wrote me a one line response telling me to go ____ myself. (That's a Ruhi fill in the blank by the way - and yes, there is only *one* correct answer).

    James, theory and practice are two different animals. Even in Baha'i administration.

  2. Baquia, you are one of my heros. I think those of us who really want to try something innovative, are going to have to toughen up, flex some muscle. Your blog and much other web content is doing that. I sense that it is getting a hearing, having an effect, if only as more and more Baha'is get on the internet. The Baha'i community we know is filled with tolerant, loving, kind, gentle people. Surely the meek will inherit the earth down the road.

    For the "red-faced ABM", did the LSA report this objectionable, inacceptable behavior, or ... were they wimps?

    Re your ignored proposal to the NSA, your comment above just gave that situation some publicity and that will "win" in the end, I hope. Every topic I've searched thus far has lead to at least one post on BahaiRants. It is sort of like your blog is the standard, you've covered the ground. Hope your proposal to the NSA is posted there or will be. We want to see what the NSA is ignoring.

    If my initial finding of a possible decrease in "fundamentalism" (the composite variable) since 2000 is correct, this "collapse" result and your comment imply a mop-up operation (to clean up remaining "insurgents") is probably needed to complete the process.

    ABMs, BMs and Counselors can be (politely) ignored also, like your proposal was ignored. It's a two-way street. Indeed, chosing not to respond can be a powerful and telling act. E.g., did the LSA rule that this "red-faced ABM" would never again be received as a guest by that LSA, unless a formal, written apology was received from the ABM's superior, consistent with the dignity of the LSA as a Baha'i institution? If yes, maybe that is one way to mop-up remaining insurgents, hopefully by winning them over. Shame can be a useful emotion. "ABM, you are excused and don't ever come back here unless you learn to behave yourself."