On 1 March of this year, the Universal House of Justice released a letter to the Baha'is of the world drawing our attention to the moral dimension of economic activity. As you can imagine, it is quite thought-provoking.
If you haven't read it yet, please click on the link and do so, otherwise my comments and personal thoughts may seem a bit out of context.
It's not that long of a letter, only nine paragraphs. The first four are something of an introduction, while the next four are the bulk of it. The last paragraph is a bit of a summary. Here, I'm going to share a few thoughts from the beginning of it, their introduction.
Now, dear Reader, as you know, I have my own particular quirkiness when reading the Writings. I look for trends, themes, references, and try to get a contextual view of what is happening. I also love to look at nuances, such as why Baha'u'llah may reference a particular flower in a passage, or why 'Abdu'l-Baha places His analogies in a particular order. I find that for myself, doing this opens up a whole new layer of the Writings to me that I never really expected to see when I first began doing this.
In this letter, one of the first things I noticed was right there in the first paragraph. When quoting Baha'u'llah, the Universal House of Justice actually cites their source, the Lawh-i-Dunya. They don't usually do this. They usually just cite the Author. And so I decided to actually go to the Lawh-i-Dunya and re-read that incredible Tablet, found in Tablets of Baha'u'llah. I was already familiar with it, and I'm sure you are, too. It's the one that begins "Light and glory, greeting and praise be upon the Hands of His Cause..." In it, we find such passages as "Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression." "How strange", Baha'u'llah comments, "that the people of Persia, who were unrivalled in sciences and arts, should have sunk to the lowest level of degradation among the kindreds of the earth." "Do not busy yourselves", He cautions us, "in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men." "It is incumbent upon every man," He advises us, "in this Day, to hold fast unto whatsoever will promote the interests, and exalt the station, of all nations and governments."
Throughout this whole letter, the Lawh-i-Dunya, Baha'u'llah gives us sound advice about the organization of global affairs, the setting of our priorities, both as individuals and as governing bodies, as well as setting before us a vision of the high standard to which we should aspire.
I do not think it coincidental that the Universal House of Justice calls our attention to it here, for we are, as they say, "increasingly interconnected", and "there is much that should weigh heavy on the conscience of the human race."
In light of all the weighty statements in this Tablet, I also find it intriguing which lines they chose to quote: “The world is in great turmoil, and the minds of its people are in a state of utter confusion. We entreat the Almighty that He may graciously illuminate them with the glory of His Justice, and enable them to discover that which will be profitable unto them at all times and under all conditions.”
No question about it. We only need to read the headlines to see the great turmoil of the world. We only need to talk to people on the street to see their utter confusion. We can see the great throngs that are obviously, as attested by their own actions, not being illumined by the glory of His Justice. But my wife and I were both struck by the phrase, "enable them to discover that which shall profit them at all time and under all conditions."
Under all conditions?
What, we wondered, have we discovered that does this? As we talked about this, one thing that came to mind, as we are getting ready to begin our garden for the coming summer, was the idea of permaculture, that method of gardening in which you allow the plants to really grow where they want. You can do a bit of pruning and weeding, but for the most part, that's it. When we were getting ready to start a new bed under a pine tree, I tossed a whole whack of different herb seeds there to see what really wanted to grow there. Now, all I need to do is go out occasionally and harvest a bit of them. I barely need to water them, and never need to add fertilizer. They are so healthy, I don't even need to really worry all that much about weeds. And this is just one example of something that profits us "at all times and under all conditions".
This was our frame of mind as we began to read paragraph two, thinking about gardening and food. Of course, you may notice from the date of this letter that we were studying it during the Fast, so really, this isn't all that surprising.
I don't need to mention the importance they stress on thinking about the whole of mankind, and not just some singular part of it, for it is so evident. I'm not even going to write much about the implied criticism of various political and business decisions that are occurring all over the planet when they talk about one group acting in isolation, or without regard for the environment. We know this is happening. And we know that it is happening with a greater degree of frequency today than it has been in the past. I will, however, point out the "stubborn obstruction" to "meaningful social progress": "avarice and self-interest". Now, please note that these two are one obstruction, not two. Nor is it greed, but avarice. Avarice refers to hoarding, whereas greed refers more to over-consumption. And self-interest in itself is not a problem, for I have to look after my own interests in order to feed my family. But when they are combined, and "at the expense of the common good", then we have a problem. And boy, do we have a problem today.
One of the main problems arises from the various laws that are in place, giving us greater tax benefits, for example, by hoarding our money and investing it in Wall Street, instead of contributing to charities. This, and many other similar laws, encourage and perpetuate the greater divide between the rich and the poor. But, as they say, "there is no justification for continuing to perpetuate" such systems and laws. The laws must serve all people, not just a few. And perhaps that should be one of the criterion for any law: does it serve all, or just a few. We have embraced economic globalization, but now we have to embrace humanitarian globalization.
"There is", as they say, "an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources."
But how does this impact me, as an individual? Well, for one, where do I buy my food? (It's the Fast. I'm thinking about food again.) Do I get my bananas from a mega-store that sells them for as cheaply as possible, paying the workers in South America a poverty-inducing wage? Do I get my clothes from a source that is using the slave labour of the US private prison system, which in turn further perpetuates the racial divide in that country? Or do I spend a bit more of my paycheck on these same items to ensure that those in other parts of the planet are also able to share in the wealth of this planet of ours? Do I drive a bit out of my way to go to a local farm and ensure that they get more for their produce than if they were to sell it to a big distributor?
Every time I spend a dollar, I am casting a moral vote, and this letter is reminding me of that dimension of my reality.
Overall, I am being reminded that "Wealth must serve humanity", as they say so pointedly. The use of my own wealth should, no "must accord with spiritual principles". This letter gets me to, once again, consider "questions of economics" in light of the Baha'i teachings. And as I consider my own business, and the path of my business, I must do so with due consideration as to "how, in practical terms, collective prosperity can be advanced through justice and generosity, collaboration and mutual assistance."
For now, though, I have to take my son, who is now on his spring break, and who will be joining my wife and I on Pilgrimage in just a couple of weeks, up to the farms I mentioned above so that we can get more veggies to break our fast this evening. Hopefully I'll find the time to look at the rest of this letter over the next couple of days.