With this year marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’i Faith, it seems timely to take stock, to reflect upon the conditions of our society, and to consider how the teachings and principles He enunciated are relevant for society today.
Humanity, Bahá’u’lláh explains, has passed through the stages of its infancy and childhood, and is now on the verge of its collective maturity. The conflict, turbulence and confusion we witness in the world today can be seen as a transitional period, similar to adolescence in an individual. In this period, thoughts, attitudes and habits from humanity’s earlier stages are being swept away as new and more mature patterns of thought and action, are gradually taking root.
A world reaching its adulthood would therefore be characterised primarily by its unity.
Bahá’u’lláh dedicated His life to proclaiming His message of the oneness of God, the oneness of religion and the oneness of humanity. He asserted that, until humanity has accepted its organic oneness, it cannot meet even its immediate challenges, let alone those that lie ahead. “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security,” He wrote, “are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” For this message, Bahá’u’lláh suffered great persecution at the hands of the religious and civil authorities of His time. While a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire, He wrote a series of remarkable letters to the kings and rulers of the world urging them to establish peace on earth, and admonishing them for the injustices that were rife within their lands. In His letter addressed to the British monarch, however, Bahá’u’lláh praised and commended Queen Victoria for having “forbidden the trading in slaves” and for having “entrusted the reins of counsel into the hands of the representatives of the people.” Bahá’u’lláh calls upon all humanity to be “anxiously concerned with the needs of the age” we live in.
In the two centuries since the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, society in the United Kingdom also appears to be transitioning through the pains and confusion of adolescence towards maturity. There has been a level of technological and scientific advancement unprecedented in the entirety of human history. What we now consider to be commonplace—such as the ability to travel to the other side of the world within a single day, or to have an instantaneous conversation with a friend or colleague anywhere on the planet—was unimaginable 200 years ago.
In conjunction with material progress, there have also been significant social developments. Education, once the preserve of a privileged few, is progressing towards being universally accessible; great strides have been made in the path towards gender equality; legislation has been passed to prevent language and practices that discriminate against any particular group; and concern about the plight of peoples around the entire planet, and indeed the planet itself, has been steadily increasing. What has emerged is a sense of global solidarity, the identification of the earth being the shared and common home of one humanity.
However, despite admirable progress, the significant ills afflicting our society remain. These include the widening gulf between the richest and the poorest citizens; a culture of individualism that has left many, especially the vulnerable, facing isolation, and has led to the steady erosion of community spirit; a narrowing of what different groups consider to be their collective identity; and a resurgence of many different forms of intolerance and prejudice, all aspects that have resulted in a regrettable weakening of the fabric of society. In recent years, light has been shed on further arbitrary divisions that have only been exacerbated by our culture of adversarial and partisan public discussion; often the purpose of discussion is not to find the truth of a situation but rather to persuade others of a particular viewpoint, ending with the triumph of one opinion over the other. This unfortunately leads to great divisions and false oppositions being created: the interests of the young are increasingly positioned against those of older citizens and metropolitan cities become ever more estranged from smaller towns and rural communities.
At the same time many communities and schools become segregated from one another along the lines of ethnicity and religion, often furthering tensions and prejudice. These divisions, however, are the symptoms of a sickness that can be treated at its root. The recognition of the oneness of humanity requires each and every individual to be given the opportunity to play his or her part in the betterment of society. In His letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh likened the collective wellbeing of humankind to that of a single organism:
"Regard the world as the human body which, though created whole and perfect, has been afflicted, through divers causes, with grave ills and maladies. That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith."
This analogy implies that society works in a similar way to the human body—each individual part plays a vital but singular role. The health of one part of the body is dependent on the wellbeing of the whole. It would thus be absurd to consider one part of the body to be in competition with another. Therefore, no section of society can truly prosper if another is inhibited from achieving its potential. Consciousness of this principle also reminds us that in order to pursue justice, the methods, approaches, and language we employ must also reflect the reality that we are all the “leaves of one tree” and “members of one family”. The wellbeing of society does not result from the struggle of competing groups within society. Rather, it depends upon all of us recognising the inextricable relationship between our collective material, social and spiritual progress.
Bahá’u’lláh advocated consultation as the most effective approach to collective decision making. Bahá 'i communities across the world, in diverse settings, are striving to practice this art of consultation. Individuals with different perspectives and opinions, are united in their pursuit of truth, seek to subordinate their own interests to the interests of the whole and above all strive for outcomes that promote unity.
The efforts made, by so many populations and groups, to pursue a common vision, is a testament to the possibility that the diverse peoples of the world, not only possess the capacity to live in harmony and peace, but are further able to carry forward an ever advancing civilization.
Today in the United Kingdom, there are, happily, many examples of a growing consciousness and concern for the wellbeing of our society. Innumerable organisations have arisen dedicated, in various ways, to justice and peace. Countless individuals centre their daily lives around the material and spiritual wellbeing of their communities.
It is in this spirit of collaboration that the Bahá 'i community seeks to stimulate conversation with friends from all backgrounds, as to how we can discover novel solutions to the challenges that face us. How can we foster public discourse that is organised around the pursuit of truth, in which a diverse array of voices can be heard, sensitive and nuanced issues addressed, and in which the ascendancy or defence of any position is not the objective? How can solidarity and concern for the wellbeing of people all over the world be fostered? How, at the same time, can we strengthen the fabric of local communities? How can we describe the effects of religion upon the social progress of our society? How can we identify those aspects associated with religion that impede social progress? How can the principle of justice find expression in the world, and illuminate our decision-making processes? Inspired by Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of a world united in the pursuit of justice and peace, the Bahá’í community of the UK embraces the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with all who strive for the wellbeing of society.