Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Freedom from Prejudice and Dealing with Oppression

I've noticed some interesting things recently regarding prejudice and the freedom from it. Most of it has to do with on-line ranting against this gross injustice. Oh, and that's against prejudice, not against the freedom from it. But, to be fair, I've noticed some ranting against the freedom from prejudice, too, but that's a different story altogether.

While I have seen and read a lot over the years on this issue, in recent months I have noticed a slight shift in the discussion. As with most areas of life on the net, there seems to be less and less tolerance. People seem to be becoming more polarized on this issue, as with so many others. But in this issue, it is paramount to remain united.

As with most things, though, there are many issues at play here. One is the very concept of freedom from prejudice, and another is how we respond to oppression.

To start, I just want to point out a few things that are in the Baha'i Writings, and then I will conclude with our own response to it. I only mention this so that you can better see where I hope to be going with this. Oh, and just as a reminder, this is only my own take on it, and not authoritative in any way. I'm sure others will read it a bit differently than I am, and I hope to hear from them. My only encouragement, though, is that any responses strive towards unity and leave behind the divisiveness that is so often found in replies on the net.

My starting point on this topic is Shoghi Effendi's seminal letter, The Advent of Divine Justice. In this work, he outlines three "spiritual prerequisites of success". "Upon the extent to which these basic requirements are met..." he writes, "depend the measure of manifold blessings" we can receive. He lists these requirements as "a high sense of moral rectitude", "absolute chastity", and "complete freedom from prejudice". The first two have a number of implications, such as justice, equity, truthfulness and so forth in regards to this moral rectitude, or modesty, pure-mindedness, and moderation in relation to chastity, as he points out later in the text, but freedom from prejudice does not have any implications. It just is.

With this freedom from prejudice, he is not merely talking about eliminating racism, although that is a big part of it. And he doesn't even get into the semantics of racism, which is the belief that one's race is superior to another. You see, it doesn't matter. Racism is but a subset of prejudice, and he is talking about all forms of prejudice. He addresses racism, of course, but he carefully reminds us that racism is not the only form of prejudice.

When he does talk about racial prejudice, with includes racism but is not limited to it, he says "it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Baha'i community". And note that he doesn't just call it challenging, even though that was the title an editor added in to the first editions. He says it is the "most vital and challenging issue". By including the word "vital", he reminds us how high the stakes are here. It is a matter of life and death.

He also lets us know that he is aware of the difficulty involved in addressing this issue. He talks about the "ceaseless exertions" needed, "the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates": these are formidable obstacles we must overcome. "Ceaseless exertions", "sacrifices", "care and vigilance", "moral courage and fortitude", and, just in case we forget, "tact and sympathy". That's quite the list. And just in case anybody thinks that this is the work of one side, he points out that "neither race has the right, or can conscientiously claim, to be regarded as absolved from such an obligation". This is something we must all, no matter our race or background, must work on. And these are the guidelines that we all must follow if we wish to be effective in making a difference.

Once he gives us the caution about how difficult this path will be, he goes on to give us the tools that will help us in this. He says that if we want an example in how we are to approach this issue, we can do no better than to look towards 'Abdu'l-Baha. We can "remember His courage, His genuine love, His informal and indiscriminating fellowship, His contempt for and impatience of criticism, tempered by His tact and wisdom." We can look towards "His keen sense of justice, His spontaneous sympathy for the downtrodden, His ever-abiding sense of the oneness of the human race, His overflowing love for its members". These are guiding principles that we all can, and should, remember. If we ever want to speak to this issue, we can always ask ourselves if what we say, and the manner in which we say it, will bring greater unity to the situation, or just perpetuate this cycle of prejudice.

Today it has become commonplace, and even expected, to openly criticize others. If we do not take a hard stand against an issue, then we are, inappropriately, seen as supporting it. Shoghi Effendi addresses even this point when he says "every differentiation of class, creed, or color must automatically be obliterated, and never be allowed, under any pretext, and however great the pressure of events or of public opinion, to reassert itself." This is not to say that he doesn't recognize differences of culture, or the manner in which we express things, but that we shouldn't allow class, creed, or colour to get in the way. He even goes on to say that it is our "first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation" within the fold of our Faith, but this extends beyond the boundaries of our Faith and to society at large. In fact, if there is a difference of opinion and a tie in a vote, "priority should unhesitatingly be accorded to the party representing the minority". Quite the statement that.

He also recognizes that there are different roles for different people. Obviously, the people in the majority have a different role to play than those who have been oppressed. For example, in talking about the Black-White issue in the United States, he offers the following:

Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. Let the Negroes, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds. Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved... Let neither think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country. Let them rather believe, and be firmly convinced, that on their mutual understanding, their amity, and sustained cooperation, must depend, more than on any other force or organization operating outside the circle of their Faith, the deflection of that dangerous course so greatly feared by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, and the materialization of the hopes He cherished for their joint contribution to the fulfillment of that country’s glorious destiny.

"Mutual understanding", "amity", "sustained cooperation": those are some of the things we must see if we hope for "the deflection of that dangerous course so greatly feared by 'Abdu'l-Baha".

That's quite a lot, and I could easily leave it here, but there really is more. After all, how are we to respond to oppression and injustice? Is it all just sweet talk and roses? Well, no. As we have just read, there is a lot to it. We must stand up with assertiveness against the oppressor, but not in a manner that leads to more prejudice. It is too easy to hate the oppressor, and thereby perpetuate prejudice. Here the Universal House of Justice holds up the Baha'i community of Iran as an example for us to see.

The following quotes are all from letters addressed to the Baha'is of Iran, and they offer us insights into how we, too, can respond to perpetual injustice.

In one letter they point out that "the proper response to oppression is neither to succumb in resignation nor to take on the characteristics of the oppressor. The victim of oppression can transcend it through an inner strength that shields the soul from bitterness and hatred and which sustains consistent, principled action." I find this one of the most important of all the quotes here. When I am looking at prejudice within myself, and my own efforts to help rid this planet of prejudice, I ask myself if I am taking"on the characteristics of the oppressor". To ask this, though, I must be aware of what those characteristics look like. And, unfortunately, when I read a lot of the comments on-line, often by those very same people who are trying to overcome prejudice in our society, I see them demonstrating those very characteristics of divisiveness and antagonism in the name of trying to help others. While it is true that "the light of knowledge will inevitably dispel the clouds of ignorance", we have to be certain that the light we shine brings people together and doesn't further divide them.

In addressing the Baha'is of Iran, the Universal House of Justice gives great praise to "the parents who, filled with sadness, must explain to (their children) such inhumane treatment while preventing the seeds of resentment and hatred from taking root in their innocent hearts". And that, to me, is the greatest test of all. How do we explain such actions while being careful to avoid creating resentment and hatred? I think the first is to understand the history of the issues involved, and see where the oppressor is coming from, to understand their motive. From there, we can understand their mistake, we can sympathize without agreeing with them. My favorite example of this is the Nazi party in Germany back before World War 2, and please remember that I come from a Jewish background. I fully understand that Germany was unjustly oppressed after the First World War, due to the unjust Treaty of Versailles. I can totally see that this oppression led to anger. I am aware that Hitler, despite his later actions and the unjust use of force against his own people, not to mention others, rebuilt the German economy by renovating the garment industry and the auto sector. He successfully raised them out of poverty and gave them a pride in their cultural identity again. I get that. The problem was in having a scapegoat for all their difficulties. I can easily explain the motives for the early Nazi movement, what they got right, and where they went wrong. This is something I regularly discuss with my son, pointing to similar examples in my own culture. We easily talk about the injustices we see, where people are rightfully trying to correct them, and where they are missing the mark. Because of these conversations, difficult as they are, my son is growing up with a clearer understanding of prejudice in our culture, while avoiding the resentment and hatred that is prevalent today.

Finally, I feel I can do no better than to end with the following beautiful paragraph describing the Baha'is of Iran:

You pursue your path with patience and calm and hold before your eyes these words of the beloved Master: “For ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, captivity is like unto freedom and the prison-cell a heavenly mansion. The bondage of chains and fetters is as pleasant as a stroll among flowers in a luminous garden. The lowly mat is as a lofty throne, and the depths of the pit even as the heights of the celestial realm.” Moreover, you know well that establishing the Kingdom of God in this turbulent world is no easy task. It requires unshakeable faith, complete reliance on God, high endeavour, an indomitable spirit, constant striving, and infinite patience and long-suffering. You are aware of God’s method and look upon your efforts as seeds sown by the divine Husbandman in His field. Cultivating and gathering the crop require hard work, time, patience, and sacrifice, but through the bounties of God, an abundant harvest is assured. You remain confident that just as the seed, which through the outpourings of the rain and the exertions of the gardener gradually grows into a mighty and fruitful tree, so too your selfless efforts and the labours of other Bahá’ís around the globe—vividly apparent at the Convention—will, at the appointed time, through the blessings of the Abhá Beauty, yield wondrous fruits; hearts will be enlightened, this darksome earth illumined, and the oneness of humanity ultimately realized.

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