Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Penny Drops

I was just emptying my pockets when a penny hit the floor. I picked it up and looked at the unusual object. Unusual, I say, because it was a US penny, and I live in Canada. Now, I am something of a numismatist, a coin collector, except that I don't really collect them. I just appreciate them, especially the artwork that goes into making them.

But there was something about this penny that caught my eye: the design on the back.

In case you don't know, the US penny has an image of Abraham Lincoln on the front and for many years has had his memorial on the back. This was very significant, for it was a symbol of freedom from slavery for many people. From 1959 all the way through 2008. this was the symbol that adorned the back of this small, but significant, coin. Freedom from slavery.

In 2010, this symbol was changed. I remember when it changed, and it bothered me at the time, but I could not have told you why. It's not that I was particularly attached to the Lincoln Memorial, but I definitely didn't like the new symbol: a shield sporting the logo "E Pluribus Unum", or "out of many, one". And while the 13 stripes on the shield "represent the states joined in one compact union to support the Federal government, represented by the horizontal bar above", according to the US mint, I think there is a deeper, more subtle significance.

In 1959, when the civil rights movement was really getting underway, the implication of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the penny was great. By 2010, though, the whole importance of the civil rights movement had faded, and the memory of 2001 and the Twin Towers was far more in the consciousness of the US population. The "attacks on Christmas" were in the headlines. The Occupy movement was underway. Civil unrest was at a height not seen for many years. Both the government and the media were giving greater and greater importance to kindling the sense of fear in the country, having already promoted at least one war, and generating the feeling of need for another. And so a shield on the back, denoting the importance of protection while under attack, seems eerily significant now.

In 2014, the multitude of slayings of unarmed black men by white police officers has brought the entire civil rights movement back into the spotlight.

Regardless of the guilt or innocence of any one particular police officer in any of these incidents, the sheer number of them, and the subsequent dismissal of the most grievous of these from going to trial, has shown the extreme disparity inherent in the US legal system.

Racism, in other words, is still a major issue in the States and must be faced square on, and finally dealt with.

When speaking with Baha'is all across the States, I regularly hear the same tired refrain. "Sure, racism is the most challenging issue", many say, "but I'm not racist."

And that, dear Reader, is where we have failed.

Now, this is not meant in the sense of success and failure, but rather in the sense of having failed to perform a task. We have failed to continue to uphold the banner of racial equality.

Before I talk about that, though, I should mention that I also believe that we have failed to remember the words of our beloved Guardian. You see, the Guardian never said that racism was our most challenging issue. He said, and I quote, "it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Baha'i community."

Why do we leave out the word "vital"?

This is not just some issue that needs to be relegated to a committee and handled with a simple march or a picnic. This is not some principle that is to be included in an old list and rattled off with a dozen or so other principles, important as they all are.

This is an issue of life and death.

This is an issue that is so difficult to understand, so complex, so painful to recognize the depths of, so problematic to solve.

And this is the one issue, out of them all, in which we need to be the leaders.

In a recent meeting in Washington DC, President Obama called together the recognized leaders in this arena to discuss the issue of race and, for the first time I am aware of in many decades, there was no Baha'i present. We are no longer seen as leaders in this area.

In one community, a major city in the central States, the Baha'i Faith grew in numbers back in the 60s because the friends there stood out. Their stance on racial unity was light years ahead of everyone else, as it had been for many years. In the racially torn years of that time, the Baha'i community was significantly better than what was available outside of it. Remember, "Until the public sees in the Bahá'í Community a true pattern, in action," wrote the Guardian, "of something better than it already has, it will not respond to the Faith in large numbers."

From what I have seen, since the mid-80s, in regards to racial equality, the Baha'i community has not grown. But the rest of the culture has. We no longer stand out. We no longer offer something better for those facing the racial disparity of the greater community. We have become the norm. The rest of the community has caught up with us, and, in some ways, surpassed us. If you are looking for a community in which your race is not a matter of stigma, there are plenty of communities and groups offering that.

But there is another area in which we are in a state of crisis.

In that community in the central States, the members of the Assembly have taken the race issue off their agenda, in a sense, for they regard themselves as not being racist. And while that may be the case, it is not the issue.

They are a large enough community to have neighbourhood Feasts, which in and of itself is not a problem. But, when the Feast is held in a black neighbourhood, or at the home of an African-American, the number of those attending drops significantly. "The White folk", as my African American friends say, "just don`t show up."

If we wanted to, we could try to claim this is some sort of manifestation of racism, but I don't think it is. I think it is more a fear of the neighbourhoods that racism engenders. It is like the time we were teaching in a very dangerous neighbourhood in Winnipeg. We told the friends involved to get out of the neighbourhood a good 30 minutes before sunset. Was that racism? No. It was realism. We knew the neighbourhood changed after sunset, and were justifiably concerned. In fact, one woman did not heed the advice and ended up in hospital.

But here, in this one city, with its Feasts at various homes, if there is an issue of concern, they need to find a way around it. Whether it is a group who provides escorts, as I have seen in another city, or ensuring that the Feast occurs during the day when it is safer, as others have done, a way must be provided. Watching the numbers fall and allowing this sense of racial disunity to grow does nothing but engender this crisis that must eventually be faced. I have had a number of friends in this city, all African American, say that if it weren't for their love of Baha'u'llah, they would have left the Faith already. We know that we are our own worst enemy, that people will leave if it were only the community holding us together. Fortunately it is the love of Baha'u'llah that binds us into a single unit and elevates us to undreamt of heights.

You see, the problem is not freeing ourselves of any racist tendencies, as important as that is. It is not about us. The problem is upholding the standard of racial unity. It is raising that banner and keeping it in front of us, for all to see. It is about using that outward-looking orientation we love to talk about, and standing up for what is right in a culture that has forgotten about such things. It is about going to those homes, not because it is safe and easy, but because it is right and just, and it is where our friends and family are.

And it's not about forgetting the core activities in order to do this.

It is about doing what is needed, where it is needed, when it is needed.

And today, that means picking up that standard, once again, and going to the front lines where this issue is being fought. It is about changing that fight from battling racism to promoting race unity. It is about understanding the issues faced by many millions of people every day, acknowledging their daily reality, facing their complaints and criticisms with heroic fortitude, and surrounding them with an all-embracing love that is worthy of the name "Baha'i".

For those of us not living directly in these areas, it is about seeing the pattern of action that the Universal House of Justice has given us in regards to defending the rights of our brethren in Iran and applying that pattern to defend the rights of brethren in the States. In Iran they are persecuted for their beliefs, while in the States they suffer for the colour of their skin. In Iran there has been an outpouring of loving encouragement to stand up for justice through a flow of letters to those in positions of power. Perhaps we, through a similar coordinated effort, could do the same. After all, we know that the majority of police officers and officials want to see a better world for all. Perhaps a flow of loving words will help them stand up to the agents of hatred and respond to the variety of situations they encounter in a manner more worthy of the badge they wear and the position they hold.

For all of us, it is about going back to our own Writings, studying this issue one more time, at the very least, and confronting those challenges that have been laid before us. We have been told that racism has "attacked the whole structure of the American society", that the principle of the oneness of humanity "implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society", and that America's "peace, her prosperity, and even her standing in the international community depend to a great extent on the resolution of this issue".

Now is the time to rise up, put down that shield, and pick up that banner once again.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Oneness. What a strange word.

What does it mean, one with that suffix of -ness? Happiness means having the quality of being happy. So presumably oneness means having the quality of being one.

What does it mean to be one?

I'm reminded of the story of the little boy who came home from his Baha'i children's class and was asked what he learned. "I learned that God is one", he said to his parents delight, "and I am five."

Oneness. The quality of being one? Again, it's a strange word, if you think about it. A statement of something being singular. Many have used the analogy of the fingers and the "oneness of our hand", but is that an accurate analogy? We have five fingers on each hand (come on, give me a break, the thumb is a finger for all intents and purposes), and yet they are essentially part of the same hand. One. Yet, at the same time, aren't they actually five? If you break one of them, the others still work, despite the very real pain. Although the underlying structure shows that they are a part of the same unifying hand, are they not actually separate at some other level?

The answer to that, of course, as with most questions in religion, is both yes and no.

To better understand this idea, I often think about history. We speak of World War 1 and World War 2 as if they were two separate events. We learn about them as two different wars in recent history. We say that the first one began and ended sometime in the teen years of the twentieth century, and the second one somehow spontaneously began in September of 1939, if you decide to start with Hitler's attacks on neighbouring countries.

But they can also be seen as part of one continual process. World War 2 finds its immediate beginnings in the Treaty of Versailles, that unjust treaty that saw the conclusion of hostilities in World War 1. In fact, we could even argue that World War 1 was a necessary outcome of the various treaties that began in the 19th century. The case could even be made that many of the subsequent wars were and are a continuation of the colonial attitudes of the various treaties that ended World War 2.

History, as I have learned, is not a series of randomly occurring separate events. It is the unfolding of the continual process of human development over a vast span of time.

Total aside, and a bit of a rant: I used to own a copy of a book, "The Timetables of History", which I am glad to have long since sold enabling my precious limited bookshelf space to accommodate far more relevant volumes. When I first picked it up, way back in the mid-80s, I loved it for the way that it showed what happened when in the long history of humanity, neatly dividing the various events into simplistic categories, such as "science", "politics", "arts", "religion", "entertainment", "sports" and so on. But even then I wondered why sports and entertainment were in two categories, for wasn't sports, as they defined it, just another form of entertainment? This book was quite good in terms of history further back than 200 years, but as it got more recent, it became more and more ridiculous. It put into context major European events like the signing of the Magna Carta in relation to, say, Da Vinci, which was quite interesting, but ignored most events outside of Europe and post-colonial North America. When it came to more recent events, it, for some absurd reason that I never quite understood, included such "world shaking" events as the Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. While it was really wonderful to have something that helped me see when different events occurred in relation to each other, this book had the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like history revolved around the European perspective, and that all these events were somehow disconnected from each other. Worse, though, from my own opinion, it made it seem like more and more astonishing things were happening today, inappropriately elevating the inconsequential to be somehow more significant, a trend we see all too often in the hyper-inflated, sensationalist news of today.

Anyways, back to the idea of "oneness".

I can speak of my childhood, adolescence and adult life as if they are separate from each other, but I am still only one person. While I continue to grow and develop, I am still me. But, of course, things change. Those priorities I had when I was a child are quite different from my priorities today. What I considered important then is often considered by me as trivial today. Those things that I value today were often completely beyond my vision earlier. Although I have changed, and continue to change, I am still me, one, singular, and indivisible. And although I appear to be separate from all those around me, like the fingers of a hand, am I? Really?

Before I look at that important question (which would have been beyond my vision when I was a child), I want to take a look at something else we often talk about when speaking about oneness: religion. We very flippantly speak of the "oneness of religion", as if all religions are somehow identical, except for those pesky social laws which some would seem to imply only confuse the issue, of course. We even cite that great statement from "One Common Faith" in which it says in so quotable a manner, "...there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science." That's a direct quote. You can check it if you want. Page 33. (You're welcome.)

But what is the context of this quote? Great question. And interesting, too, for here is more of that quote: While it is true to speak of the unity of all religions, understanding of the context is vital. At the deepest level, as Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science. The one discerns and articulates the values unfolding progressively through Divine revelation; the other is the instrumentality through which the human mind explores and is able to exert its influence ever more precisely over the phenomenal world. The one defines goals that serve the evolutionary process; the other assists in their attainment. Together, they constitute the dual knowledge system impelling the advance of civilization. Each is hailed by the Master as an “effulgence of the Sun of Truth”.

Got that? "Context is vital". While the oneness and unity of religion is true at the deepest level, on the surface there are some very significant differences. Different fingers; one hand. The pinkie is not the same as the thumb. And if you flip someone your index finger, the connotation is quite different from showing them another finger in its singularity.

So back to my original question: What is oneness? Well, to start, I think it is like unity, in that it doesn't necessarily mean a synonymy. I believe that when Baha'u'llah says "all men shall be regarded as one soul" He isn't saying that we are literally one soul in billions of bodies, but rather that we shall see each other as if we are one soul. We shall truly regard one another as ourselves.

In terms of religion, it means that we need to be careful when talking about it. To flippantly say that religions are one is to ignore the implications of this statement being true only at "the deepest levels". Instead, we can think it about it in terms of what Baha'u'llah says about people: regard them as one soul. We can respect all faiths, all religions, because others do. We can see them as one, in spite of, or perhaps despite of, their differences. I often say that respecting other people's faith doesn't mean that I believe it. It means that I respect your belief not because I believe it is sacred, but because you do.

Of course, this is also within a higher context. Any religion that preaches hatred goes against the very basis of religion.

What is oneness? Well, as a child recently said to me, "It is like being on the same team." The individual members each have their roles and positions, but only when they work in total harmony can the collective become a team.

So when I speak of oneness, I don't necessarily speak of everything being identical. Instead, I think of it all as serving the same purpose. And that, to me, is why I can think of all religions as being one, and God, too, as being singular.