Saturday, 8 July 2017

Helping those who want to help themselves

The recent Grenfell Tower disaster highlighted how a community can work together to help its members in time of need. The response by local people, and those further afield, to those who were suddenly left without food, clothing or shelter, was a positive example to us all.

I asked my daughter, Helena, to do a guest blog about BASED-UK, to explain a little about the Bahá’í  view of social and economic development:

"Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another." This striking statement from the Universal House of Justice, the supreme body of the worldwide Bahá’í community, has set the direction of Bahá’í-inspired social and economic development.

Most development projects are borne out of a sincere desire to help our fellow man, to alleviate the suffering of others. Yet, whilst so much excellent work has been done, there is a recognition that we are a long way from achieving social justice. Therefore, the guiding principles of the development projects inspired by the Bahá’í teachings are that they must be created from a genuine need identified by the people themselves, and they must be for the benefit of all people of that region. Overarching principles include a firm belief in the oneness of humankind, and in the equality of men and women.

Bahá’ís and their friends living in an area who want to contribute to the material progress of their society can pursue many different lines of action, some of short duration, and there are many hundreds of these throughout the world. The ones which have developed into full programmes of activity, which can be scaled up and replicated, are often in the field of education. One such programme is the “Community Schools Programme” which is currently developing in 14 different countries across Africa. In each country a local development agency has emerged and now there is a continental effort to share learning and best practice across the region.

As these development agencies begin their work in a particular country there is a period of time for experimentation and growth. Funds raised within the country are sufficient to further the work. As the development agency grows more complex, there becomes a need for office staff, project coordinators and the increasing costs of running the programme itself. It is at this point that material resources from outside the country could be used.

Although the Bahá’í community does not adhere to divisions such as "North" and "South", "developed" and "under developed", there is a need for financial resources to flow from materially prosperous countries. To assist with this, the Bahá’í world community has a network of funding agencies who each take on the work of representing Bahá’í development agencies to potential donors in a particular country. One such example is BASED-UK (Bahá’í Agency for Social and Economic Development-UK). This is a registered charity in the UK which works with development organisations in other countries. BASED-UK represents these other organisations when it requests funding from government, grant-making charities, individuals and businesses.

To give an example of its work, BASED-UK is partnered with the Setsembiso Sebunye Foundation (SSF) in Swaziland. The SSF runs a school in the capital city of Mbabane and, having gained experience with this, is now running the Community Schools Programme. In this programme, the SSF approaches local villages to discuss with them the idea of setting up a pre-school. These are particularly popular and useful because formal schooling does not start until the children reach six or seven years old. If the idea if taken up by the village, the villagers are then responsible for setting up a committee to oversee the school operations, identifying a classroom (usually an existing space), and also identifying someone who could become trained as the class teacher.

The SSF assists with all of this process, and then provides the teacher training. Once the training is complete, the SSF also provides assistance with getting the pre-school properly established. Over the following years it follows the progress of the school, providing visits and ongoing teacher training. The basic costs of the school are met by modest fees from the parents of the children attending. The children who have been through pre-school are known for their good behaviour as well as their proficiency in reading and writing.

By the end of 2016 there were 21 such pre-schools in existence, serving 636 children. Plans for 2017 are to continue to support the existing pre-schools and to increase their number. The total budget for 2017 is £13,620. In BASED-UK's opinion this represents excellent value for money. 

Anyone moved to contribute towards this exciting process is warmly invited to do so by contacting baseduk@gmail.com or visiting www.baseduk.org

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A guest blog by Helena Hastie, trustee of BASED-UK


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Be anxiously concerned…

On 14th June, 2017, a fridge-freezer caught fire in Grenfell Tower, a block of 127 flats in Kensington, in London. The appliance was next to the window, and flames got out onto the cladding on the outside of the building, and rapidly took hold of most of the building. Sadly, it seems likely that 79 people died as a result. The course of the fire, in spreading to the whole block, has not yet been fully investigated, but it is now clear that the cladding and insulation which had been added to the outside of the block were flammable, and it seems that the building and safety regulations may have been inadequate. Much criticism has been levelled at the local government body which owns the tower, and at successive national governments, which hold responsibility for building and safety regulations.

Government and administration are weighty and complex matters. However, from a Bahá’í perspective, certain principles are clear. Firstly, Bahá’u’lláh made plain that government (at all levels) is an active, and indeed pro-active, process. He said that “Governments should fully acquaint themselves with the conditions of those they govern”, but it is reported that the complaints of the tenants to the management company about several aspects of the building seem to have been completely ignored over a number of years, and that local government did not take it upon themselves to investigate.

Bahá’u’lláh also advises us to, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” The type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower would simply have been illegal in many countries, which suggests that all governments should have been actively investigating whether such a ban should have been applied in their own territories. Other conditions which should have been subject to legislation would include the number of staircases in a building. Grenfell Tower, like many others, had just one staircase. Only one exit, for around 600 people, seems unwise when not just fire but terrorist attack or other awful incidents can be imagined.

Much has been made of the inordinate disparity between the very wealthy and the remarkably poor social groups living side by side in this part of London. Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, predicted change: "The time will come in the near future when humanity will become so much more sensitive than at present that the man of great wealth will not enjoy his luxury, in comparison with the deplorable poverty about him. He will be forced, for his own happiness, to expend his wealth to procure better conditions for the community in which he lives." Across the world, we have seen some early glimpses of this starting to happen.

Bahá’u’lláh suggested laws limiting the extremes of wealth and poverty, (see my April 2016 blog, “There is a better way”) and stressed that we are all essentially one. After all, it seems clear that all human beings have shared the same evolutionary past, over several million years: “O Thou kind Lord! Thou hast created all humanity from the same stock. Thou hast decreed that all shall belong to the same household…”. However, at the time when Bahá’u’lláh was writing, in the 1860s, those in power often felt themselves to be superior to the bulk of the population, leading Him to point out to them: “Your people are your treasures... By them ye rule, by their means ye subsist, by their aid ye conquer. Yet, how disdainfully ye look upon them! How strange, how very strange!” Although great progress has been made in leaving such attitudes behind, the modern world still has a long way to go before all mankind feels as if it belongs to one household. Those in a position of government, whether national or local, must “be anxiously concerned” about improving conditions for everyone.

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The final quotation was from one of a series of letters which Bahá’u’lláh wrote to the rulers of the time. In January, 2017, I wrote a blog post about His letter to Queen Victoria, and gave the post the title "Representatives of all that dwell on earth".


In February, 2016, a tower block fell sideways in Taiwan following an earthquake, and it was found that illegal materials had been deliberately used in the construction of the building. My post at that time was called "You might cheat people, but you cannot cheat nature"

Saturday, 18 March 2017

It can’t come soon enough

The United Nations is trying to galvanise the world into rapid action on four separate areas of famine, each of which is progressively getting worse at present. Film is shown on television, of malnourished and even starving children, their mothers having had to endure months of watching their offspring suffer. There are inadequate supplies of both medicine and food and the UN is appealing to the countries of the world for help. As mankind is one extended family, these people are our relations, and our common humanity makes it essential that we do what we can to help. People need feeding now – help can’t come soon enough.

The four countries most at risk are four separate cases. Somalia has had no significant rain for three years. This is fundamentally due to geophysical causes. The spinning of the earth produces different wind patterns at different latitudes. Countries just north of the Equator, such as Somalia, have predominately north-easterly winds. These winds tend to come from desert areas, and have not always had chance to pick up much water. The rainfall from these winds is therefore rather unpredictable. Somalis have historically had to make do with this pattern of uncertain rainfall, and still find ways to survive. However, in recent times, things have been made worse by years of fighting – first between different clans, and now between “religious” militants and those wishing to re-establish order. This fighting forces people off the land.

The other three cases are almost entirely man-made problems. In Nigeria the problem is largely “religious” militants again. An amoral self-obsessed group seeks to impose its will on the population of north-eastern Nigeria and on neighbouring countries through death and destruction, kidnap and terror. In this part of the world, the governments are now collaborating in combatting the extremists, but the damage to the towns and villages has already been done, and many people are dispossessed and starving.

In the case of South Sudan, we are endlessly being told that the world’s “newest country” is already divided, as if this is a new problem. In reality, the two biggest tribes there have been in conflict for years. During the decades of fighting against the Khartoum government of northern Sudan, these tribes were often also fighting one another. The loyalty to the tribe and to its political leader needs to be replaced by a loyalty to this new nation and its flag. It cannot come soon enough. Bahá’u’lláh’s statement, "The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established," applies at the national level, just as much as it does at the world level.

Yemen is the only one of the four in which external power politics play an important role. But again, the fundamental cause is the lack of unity within the country. First there are the “rebels”, who are from a religious minority which has felt marginalised and poorly treated. However, fighting alongside them are other factions who still support the president who was deposed in 2012. Ranged against them are those parts of the population which support the new president. The other countries in the region support either one side in the war or the other, and there is an effective blockade to stop all economic activity, normal food imports and even the food aid and medicinal supplies. The result is that there are a huge number of people starving. Those with a political agenda do not care enough about the population to bring about a cessation of hostilities.

The answers to these conflicts are varied and complex in political terms, but the underlying change in the way we all view one another is simple in essence. When visiting London, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who was Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, stated clearly: “The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion. War shall cease between nations, and by the will of God the Most Great Peace shall come; the world will be seen as a new world, and all men will live as brothers.”

It can’t come soon enough.

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(In the UK, donations to the appeal can be made via www.dec.org.uk.)


Sunday, 26 February 2017

Publish and be blessed!

In a number of countries in the world, press freedoms have been curtailed. The regime in charge shuts down hostile newspapers, TV and radio stations and controls internet access. In many countries, the president is sure of a docile and subservient press. Many regimes over the years have relied on propaganda to keep control and some continue to do so. Now, in this age, “fake news” is being circulated by a variety of people with a variety of motives.

Freedom of speech is central to the Bahá’í approach to the world. In the Bahá’í Writings it states: “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.” Bahá’u’lláh, about Whom a lot of false information appeared in the newspapers of the day, stated: “The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world, endowed with hearing, sight and speech. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires... They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” In other words, it is the duty of journalists to report only the truth, as far as they are able.

One of the distinctions between dictatorships (whether of the Left or the Right) and the “free world” is the freedom to say what you like. Dictators live in their own reality bubble, only hearing what they want to hear. Democracy runs on a different principle, where people have different approaches to the problems of the day. The principle of free speech ensures that some measure of reality creeps into every politician’s diet of news. But the freedom of speech we are familiar with in “free” countries can be improved, and taken to greater heights. Not only should it be channelled down the path of truth, but what is published should be free from prejudice. Furthermore, in Bahá’í eyes, it should not cause actual offence: “Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart! Beware! Beware! lest ye hurt any soul! Beware! Beware! lest ye deal unkindly toward any person!”

People should be ashamed of publishing things which they know not to be true. As mentioned above, there has been much talk recently of “fake news”, and plenty of examples. A lot of these have been on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. We have the odd situation of a world in which information instantly appears in an abundance of channels, but in which those who publish and circulate falsehoods have created a situation in which it is not immediately obvious which things can be proven as facts, and which are simply “alternative facts” (!) made up by somebody on a whim.

Bahá’u’lláh saw the potential of newspapers as promoters of justice and as champions of the oppressed: “O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world! Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears… investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.” But not every newspaper or magazine has such a pure intention. In recent years, a magazine called on cartoonists to lampoon the Prophet Muhammad, recognised by a fifth of mankind as a Messenger of God. This clearly overstepped the boundaries of moderation, tolerance, compassion and respect. The result was widespread offence and a number of horrific revenge attacks, including the one on the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine.

What is printed, broadcast or typed should reflect the right of the individual to free speech, which should be the freedom to speak one’s mind according to one’s conscience, and should be based on respect for others. If you can do that, then publish and be blessed!


Monday, 23 January 2017

Representatives of all that dwell on earth

In 1869, Queen Victoria received a letter from a religious prisoner in a Turkish jail. The prisoner was Bahá’u’lláh, who told her, “O queen in London… We have been informed that thou hast forbidden the trading in slaves, both men and women… God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee, because of this.” The British parliament had passed legislation to put an end to the practice of people being captured from villages in West Africa and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean. Not only was this inhumane treatment of the slaves themselves, but their forced movement to other countries still presents problems for their descendants today.

Bahá’u’lláh also commended the queen on the extension of representative democracy: “We have also heard that thou hast entrusted the reins of counsel into the hands of the representatives of the people. Thou, indeed, hast done well, for thereby the foundations of… thine affairs will be strengthened.” He then commented on the way that those in Parliament should regard their task: “It behoveth them… to be trustworthy… and to regard themselves as the representatives of all that dwell on earth.” Many people in the world today are hoping that the present generation of rulers will adopt this approach, and not try to seek what they perceive as advantages for their own country, at the expense of humanity as a whole. Across the world there seems to be a rising trend towards strident nationalism, often referred to as “patriotism” to make it sound more acceptable. Love of one’s country is important, of course, but love of humanity should take precedence.

In this same letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh advised her to: “Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies.” Talking about the world, He said, “We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers, so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage.” Obviously, Bahá’u’lláh was speaking of the rulers of the late nineteenth century, and it is to be hoped that mankind has learned much since then. The queen sent the Author of the letter a polite reply.

Although Bahá’u’lláh chose to make these particular points in His letter to Queen Victoria, He made many other points in His letters to the other rulers of the time. He explained that all religions are in essence one. Each one teaches principles to guide human behaviour and to build up bonds within society. The points of difference between the religions are partly because they were given to man at different times, when society was in differing stages of development. Other differences have developed over time, as people add things according to their understanding. But the underlying essence of each one is based on spiritual truths, and each religious community should recognise the divine origin of the others. Bahá’u’lláh taught that all mankind is one, and that all peoples are part of the one human race. He stressed that the world should be one: “This handful of dust, this earth, let it be in unity.” He explained that “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Let us hope that the elected rulers of the twenty-first century adopt Bahá’u’lláh’s approach, and regard themselves as the representatives of all that dwell on earth.


Monday, 9 January 2017

Only when we live in the spirit

The year 2016 saw a lot of famous people, including actors and musicians, pass from this life. There may be many reasons why, but one of them surely is that many of them have had their lives blighted or cut short by misuse of drugs and alcohol.

 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, talking about the true nature of a human being, said: “Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy.” If people are missing this spiritual dimension in their lives, it is easier to understand why they might find false happiness in drugs or alcohol.

Life in this world is temporary, but Bahá’ís believe the life of the spirit lasts forever. When we pass to the next world, it is like a bird being freed from its cage, it soars onward and upward. So while we are here on earth we need to prepare ourselves by strengthening our spiritual wings. Bahá’ís see this life on earth as a matrix, in which we learn lessons and qualities which we will need in the next world. It seems likely that surrendering our faculties to alcohol or to a habit-forming drug may delay or prevent us from learning such lessons, or acquiring such faculties. The natural nobility of the human mind is often brought low by these substances. Bahá’ís think that alcohol and drugs are best avoided altogether.

So how do we prepare ourselves? Living in the spirit is not just thinking spiritual thoughts, action is required as well! One big help is the faculty of meditation which leads us to look for ideas inside ourselves. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.”
Prayer, another useful practice for anyone wishing to live in the spirit, is “conversation with God”. To work properly, however, conversation needs to be two-way. We pray to God, then remain quietly, to see what we are inspired to do in response.

If we understand the importance of the spiritual life, it will help us to deal with the problems we encounter: “Today, humanity is bowed down with trouble, sorrow and grief, no one escapes; the world is wet with tears; but, thank God, the remedy is at our doors. Let us turn our hearts away from the world of matter and live in the spiritual world! It alone can give us freedom!” Then there will be no need for drugs or alcohol to deaden the pain.

If we live in the spirit then we have a purpose in life, and something to work towards. In the Bahá’í view, it is our innermost essence – our spirit, our soul, which survives after death. It is our spirit which needs to be connected with God, or at least to spiritual ideas. If we are at peace with ourselves, and living in the spirit, we will be happy and make progress both in this world and the next.

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When David Bowie died, last January, I wrote a blog post about him, and about life after death:
http://paddyvickers.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/a-messenger-of-joy.html

Thursday, 29 December 2016

We are all the flowers of one garden

Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, spoke on radio before Christmas about religious persecution. In many countries, religious minorities face multiple challenges, and the situation reminded him, he said, of the “dark days of the 1930s”. In his opinion, it is "beyond all belief" that it still continues even after the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed.

For members of the Bahá’í Faith, religious persecution has been an issue from its beginning. The Bahá’ís in a number of countries are still facing persecution, with several examples recently appearing in the news media. However, Bahá’u’lláh taught that, “It is better for you to be killed than to kill,” and Bahá’ís never resist violence with violence.

Currently, persecution of various religious minorities takes place in India, Pakistan, Burma and other countries, as well as in the Middle East. The people who kill someone of a different religion deny, by their actions, the very nature and purpose of religion. In the Bahá’í Writings it says: “The advent of the prophets and the revelation of the Holy Books is intended to create love between souls and friendship between the inhabitants of the earth.” Unfortunately, many people no longer read these books…

In this country there have recently been many individual acts of hatred or abuse, such as burning down mosques, rudeness to women wearing hijab and verbal attacks on Jews. However, this sort of behaviour is not only aimed at religious minorities, because there is now rudeness to, and even attacks on, people from other European countries. All of these examples show that the persecution actually stems from a sense of “otherness”: “You are not one of us!” It is also a manifestation of self-centredness and a lack of empathy, as is the persecution of people who have limited mental capacity, or are sleeping on the streets, or who simply look different. It is the same phenomenon as some forms of bullying: “You are inferior (or just different) to me, therefore I will trample on your rights and your feelings.”

A completely different perspective is called for, to eliminate this kind of behaviour. Bahá’u’lláh said, “O people of the world, ye are all the fruit of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” His Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, used the analogy of the flowers of one garden: “though differing in kind, colour, form and shape, yet … this diversity increases their charm, and adds to their beauty.” This is a poetic way of expressing the scientific fact that, despite certain superficial differences, all human beings are inter-related – one human family. On another occasion he used a musical analogy: “The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”

Prince Charles suggested that regardless of one's religion, people should seek to value and respect other people, “accepting their right to live out their peaceful response to the love of God.” This fits perfectly with Bahá’u’lláh’s call to: “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.” One of the reasons why religion is so necessary is that religion, in its pure form, gives people a positive code of behaviour – lifting people to a more ethical way of life. Far from persecuting others, we should treat them as God would wish us to treat them, and as we would wish to be treated ourselves. We should respect them, love them and help them. Bahá’u’lláh said: “O friend! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love...”