Sunday, 15 October 2017

It started two hundred years ago…


The Figure we know as Bahá’u’lláh was born in the autumn of 1817. He opened a new stage in the history of religion, by founding a Cause built on the re-affirmation of all the great religions of the past. He founded a Cause built on the idea of unity – of all human beings belonging to one great extended family. He founded a Cause to be spread through kindness and example, not through fear, violence and the exercise of power. He founded a Cause whose primary purpose is to bring the diverse populations of different parts of the planet to work together, to think of themselves as one organic whole.

Bahá’u’lláh claimed that the inspiration for His teachings was from God Himself – the “Great Being”, the “Unknowable Essence”, the creative force behind the entire universe. He claimed that He was the One promised in each of the world’s great religions. He declared that this age will be the one in which the followers of each religion will recognise the truth and wisdom in all the others:
“There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose.”

Born into a wealthy family in Persia, He became an early believer in the necessarily short-lived religion of the Báb, Who announced that He was preparing the way for the World Teacher about to come, and Who was executed by the authorities in 1850. Bahá’u’lláh was thrown into a dungeon, where He was chained in filthy conditions in the pitch dark. It was here that He had the intense spiritual experience which intimated to Him that He was to be the promised Messenger of God for the world: “I was but a man like others… when lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been.” Although many of His companions were led out to be executed, Bahá’u’lláh was instead banished first to Baghdad, later to Constantinople, and finally to Akká, the prison city in Palestine.

Despite the intense suffering - the imprisonments, the banishments and various attempts on His life – Bahá’u’lláh continued to teach and inspire those round Him and to proclaim the basic principles on which civilisation should be built in this new age. He taught that each individual has the right to seek out truth for themselves; that all kinds of prejudice should be abandoned; that all humankind should be seen as one people. He emphasised that women and men should be recognised as equal; that a fair economic system should be developed which is based on spiritual principles, and that a form of world government should be established. One language should be chosen or created which can be used as a means of communication between the different peoples of the world: “It behoveth the sovereigns of the world… or the ministers of the earth to take counsel together and to adopt one of the existing languages or a new one to be taught to children in schools throughout the world, and likewise one script. Thus the whole earth will come to be regarded as one country.”

Throughout the world, Bahá’ís are now celebrating the bicentenary of Bahá’u’lláh’s birth: in cities, towns and villages in virtually every country and every group of islands. But far from resting, and being satisfied with what has been achieved, the Bahá’ís know that their efforts need to be intensified – for example, to extend the numbers of classes for children, where they learn how to be happy and helpful to others, plus empowerment groups for teens and pre-teens which emphasise personal growth and service to the community. An increasing number of people who are not Bahá’ís are helping with this community-building work.

In two hundred years the Bahá’í Faith has grown from obscure beginnings to a vibrant community of several million people. Bahá’ís, of whatever background, are united in their efforts to put into practice Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of a happy and prosperous world for all. After two hundred years an important milestone has been reached, but there is still so much more to do, and so much more to be achieved.

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A website has been set up which is now posting messages sent to the Bahá’ís by national and local leaders, artistic endeavours which have been started because of the bicentenary, and giving more background on the life of Bahá’u’lláh Himself. It will also include details of community events as they happen. It can be accessed at https://bicentenary.bahai.org.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

A breath of life to the body of mankind

On October 1st, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a concert 32 floors below his Las Vegas hotel window. He had with him a large number of weapons, and he had rigged up cameras in the corridor so that he could see when any police officers were approaching him. He killed 58 people, and injured 520 more. He had no known political affiliation, was not known to have any mental problems, and unlike so many killers, he was not known to the police. It is, however, interesting to note that the police once regarded his father as being psychopathic.

So what were his motives? Was it sheer jealousy, that other people seemed to gain happiness from life, while he could not? Was it resentment of others, or desire for revenge for some real or imagined slight or injustice? Was it some kind of desire for recognition, as a skilled man who thought he had accomplished much, but to society was a complete unknown? As a hardened gambler, he would have belief either in luck, getting him something for nothing, or in his unrecognised skills in playing with the odds. As this man did with his final act, a gambler risks a lot, but with no guarantee of success. Was it pure nihilism: his life was going nowhere, so why should other people’s lives go anywhere?

What is missing in the lives of mass killers and serial killers? Whether they act alone, or under some spurious banner, surely they must have deficiencies in their lives or in their make-up. Perhaps what is missing is compassion, or empathy, or love for their fellow human beings. Perhaps they are lacking in self-control, or in a sense of proportion. Most people accept that at one level they are just one person among millions, and many realise that our planet is itself just one among billions. Most people, therefore, do not exalt their own importance. Perhaps the mass killer has an exaggerated sense of his/her importance.

Perhaps what is missing is a personal link to God. Bahá’u’lláh said: “The vitality of men's belief in God is dying out in every land… The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society.” A religion, in its true and uncorrupted form, gives a fixed point for morals. “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not covet…” seem to have been forgotten. Religion gives a respect for the law. In the United States, it is illegal to buy or sell automatic weapons. By upgrading his weapons to convert them to automatics, the killer in Las Vegas was defying the law. Murder, by its very definition, is against the law. True religion also gives what we used to call “fear of God”, but would be better expressed as respect for divine authority. The mass killer has no fear of man. Perhaps a realisation that he will have to answer to the Ultimate is part of what is missing. Religion should also give each person a positive and constructive belief system, and it should give the individual a personal link to God. It is worth noting that the lost and bewildered youngsters who join ISIS or Al-Qaeda perform their murderous acts on behalf of some twisted leader, and not through a strong, personal relationship with God. Perhaps what is missing in their lives is any form of spiritual awareness, and particularly personal prayer – conversation with God.

Large portions of mankind have turned their backs on the whole idea of believing in God and taking guidance from religion. But Bahá’u’lláh taught that the governments of the world would come to realise that true religion is a force for stability in the world. Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, stated that “among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is that religion is a mighty bulwark…. the religion of God prevents both the manifest and the concealed crime, trains man [and] educates morals.”

One individual, in charge of a firearm, a car, a truck, explosives, acid, even a knife, can cause so much misery, and clearly needs to have a noble set of goals to aspire to rather than the hostile negativity so many seem to turn to. Here is what Bahá’u’lláh offered as a set of personal goals:

"Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbour, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer to the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility.”

As individuals, we need to turn outwards, to others, to ensure that we have a positive effect on society. We need to be “a breath of life to the body of mankind.”


                

Friday, 22 September 2017

A sign of hope

This month, the first local House of Worship of the Bahá’í world has opened in Battambang, Cambodia. If anyone had tried to guess which country would be the first, they probably wouldn’t have guessed Cambodia, but the country which has experienced such nightmarish suffering is now leading the way. Battambang was chosen because its thriving Bahá’í community is united and dynamic, and actively shows how worship can involve service to others: “Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship,” as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá put it. This new building will be actively used!
Before this there was just one Bahá’í House of Worship for each continent. There are two national ones and four other local ones in the design stage, so this first one to be built will soon be followed by others. Although there are many ordinary buildings being used by local Bahá’í communities, this first local House of Worship represents a huge step forward for the Bahá’í world. Many towns and villages have Bahá’í centres, where the Bahá’ís can meet, and these are often used for the children’s classes and junior youth groups and devotional meetings to which everyone is invited. However, a House of Worship is perceived differently from a functional centre, or from administrative buildings, as its prime function is that of worship – of providing a space where the individual soul, whether or not in conjunction with others, can more quickly connect to God, the Unknowable Essence. To that end, it has to be a building of beauty and meaningful form. In addition, it should lead to the establishment of various charitable institutions in its neighbourhood.
Every Bahá’í House of Worship has nine sides, which symbolise the way that different paths lead us to one common goal, and is open to everyone, whether follower of a faith or not. The architect of this particular building is himself a Cambodian, and he has used innovative construction techniques within a style of building that reflects the traditional architecture of the country. The underlying message here is the preservation and encouragement of valuable local cultural traditions and forms, as an important part of the united global society which is evolving.
The Bahá’í message is essentially one of unity. Bahá’u’lláh said: “The Divine Messengers have been sent down, and their Books were revealed, for the purpose of promoting the knowledge of God, and of furthering unity and fellowship amongst men.” All conflicts, warfare and persecution spring from a state of disunity, and Cambodia has unfortunately had much experience of this. The Universal House of Justice, which is the elected body which leads the Bahá’í community world-wide, points out that, “The pure-hearted people of Cambodia, who have themselves suffered much, are responding with such enthusiasm to the call” of unity. “They are making strenuous efforts to uplift souls through spiritual and material education and are enabling populations to develop their capacity for service.”
The House of Worship was opened to the public in early September 2017, following a two-day conference at which the Deputy Governor of Battambang was present. He said: “Once a barren and very quiet place, which not many people would want to pass through, it has now turned into a beautiful garden, attracting people from all walks of life, day and night. I would like to emphasize that this local House of Worship will be assuming a very important role in unifying all people of different religions."

In a world in which nations, tribes, religions and classes compete for advantage, the need – Bahá’ís believe – is for spirituality and unity. As Bahá’u’lláh stated: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established." It may be very significant that a people which has suffered so much, and been trodden down by so many different nations in the past, is now showing the way forward. This is surely a very positive sign of hope.

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There is a three-minute video showing highlights of the opening: http://news.bahai.org/story/1191/
In October, 2016, I posted about the opening of the Bahá’í House of Worship in Chile (“And then there were eight”), which was the last continental House of Worship:
http://paddyvickers.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/and-then-there-were-eight.html


                

Saturday, 16 September 2017

No-one has the right…


Recently, in England, another case has come to light of what is being termed “modern slavery”. A family of eleven individuals were all convicted of having used homeless and vulnerable people as slave labour. The family business, ostensibly respectable, involved removing old driveways and replacing them with new block paving and similar surfaces, using hard labour rather than industrial equipment. Those “employed” were housed in terrible conditions in old caravans. They were kept in place through a system of punishment beatings. They had no sanitation, no running water and received no money. A customer who served as a witness at the trial said that the men had no lunch break, and indeed had no lunch, just the tea and biscuits that he and his wife took out to them, for which they were very grateful. One man had worked for the company for twenty-five years, his family having given him up as dead. Meanwhile the family members themselves lived in expensive houses and took luxury holidays abroad. They have just been sentenced to between 6 and 15 years in prison.

In Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Queen Victoria, He referred to the way in which the British government had abolished slavery: “We have been informed that thou hast forbidden trading in slaves, both men and women. This, verily, is what God hath enjoined in this wondrous Revelation. God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee because of this.” Yet, although slavery has been abolished in every country in the world, it has come to light in new forms: now there is illegal control of others rather than the property arrangements which used to exist. The police are gradually uncovering slave labour of this type in firms doing hard manual work, in domestic service and on farms. The same type of arrangement exists for those left to cultivate plants such as cannabis, used for the production of illegal drugs. These cannabis farms are often hidden inside what look like normal private homes. Another dreadful kind of slavery is forced prostitution. Women are kidnapped, “bought” or tricked in West Africa or in Eastern Europe, brought to the United Kingdom and forced, through physical cruelty, to work as prostitutes.

The British government has declared eradication of modern slavery as its aim, but locating these hidden and demoralised victims is difficult, and getting conviction of the perpetrators even more so. As individuals, we need to be alert for such flagrant abuse of others. No-one has the right to control the lives of others: “O children of men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other.” Every religion teaches that you should treat other people as you would wish to be treated. In the Hindu Scriptures it says: “Treat others as thou wouldst thyself be treated.” Jesus expressed it as, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also unto them.” In Islám we find: “None of you is a believer until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.” Because this same teaching is found in every single one of the world religions, it is often referred to as “The Golden Rule”. Bahá’u’lláh expressed it like this: “Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for any one the things ye would not desire for yourselves”.

Bahá’u’lláh observed that “the vitality of men's belief in God is dying out in every land”. As the power of religion has waned, people’s concern for one another is not always as strong as it was. Unfortunately it seems that a small number of people have completely lost any sense of empathy for others, and think they have the right to control others, in order to make themselves rich. No-one has that right.

We all need to bring up our children to care for and respect others. To help with this, Bahá’ís run classes for children to teach virtues such as kindness, honesty and generosity, and also junior youth groups where young people learn how they can contribute to society. Together we need to ensure that slavery of all kinds disappears for ever.

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If you want to help in the fight against the evil of slavery, you might wish to visit the website of Anti-Slavery International: www.antislavery.org.



Saturday, 12 August 2017

The answer is simple…

The world seems to be going through another phase of global political instability. We are having to be deeply concerned again about nuclear proliferation, and clearly the United Nations does not have enough power or authority to actually apply a solution to the problem. Unfortunately, it only takes one country which does not respect the others sufficiently, or one country which gambles unsuccessfully, to push things over the edge.

At the present time, some countries are building up their nuclear capacity. Other countries are claiming sovereignty over groups of tiny, uninhabited islands, way out at sea. There have been countries annexing territory from their neighbours; countries building up naval forces in the trouble zones; and countries installing new missile and anti-missile systems. Most worrying of all these problems is that once again we have a country which does not see the need to respect the decisions of the United Nations, and in which paranoia about its perceived enemies is the sole yardstick for its actions. Against this are other countries which see their power and hegemony as under threat. Long-range missiles are tested, and loaded bombers are patrolling the skies. Is this simply the recipe for another world war?

But there is a solution. This year is the Bicentenary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, who proposed to the rulers of His time a universal peace conference: “The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally realised. The rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend it, and, participating in its deliberations, must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world's Great Peace amongst men.” Bahá’u’lláh said that the goals of this conference should include: the settling of all the remaining boundary disputes; the creation of a permanent world peace treaty; and agreeing acceptable levels of armaments for keeping order inside each country. Part of this agreement would be the essential goal of setting up a mechanism for removing any rogue government which later breaks the treaty. For instance, if the government of any country starts to exceeds the level of armaments agreed by the entire world, then the world should arise to remove that government before it causes disaster. Likewise, if one country invades another: in Bahá’u’lláh’s words: “Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him.”

Would the countries of the world participate in such a conference? Yes, of course they would. Every one of the countries involved in one of the trouble spots sees its enemies as the threat, and as the cause of the trouble. They would not dare be left out, and deprive themselves of the chance to put their case, and argue their corner. Since Bahá’u’lláh first suggested it, this idea of a world peace conference has been repeatedly put forward to the leaders of the world, particularly to the United Nations Organisation, and in the current crisis it seems that it should be implemented as a matter of urgency…

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"