In case it isn’t obvious already, I think it should be said that Baha’is want other people to become Baha’is, yourself included.
This isn’t something Baha’is should be shy about—in fact, it’s essentially a very noble thing to share what inspires and guides you with others. That’s why it’s important we look at it openly and directly and understand the spiritual ideals that inspire it, careful not to confuse it with undignified and abusive ways of promoting or proselytizing religion:
prosˑeˑlytˑize vi., vt. 1. Bringing undue pressure on others to change their faith.
You may have heard or read that proselytization is forbidden in the Baha’i Faith. This is absolutely true. Baha’is don’t proselytize. Baha’is don’t pressure others, make threats or offer inducements to people to join their Faith. Instead, the sacred writings of the Faith call upon Baha’is to promote their Faith through their actions:
Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones. Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds … – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 48-49.
If we claim to be followers of light we must diffuse the light through our actions. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 41.
Let’s compare joining a religion to starting a relationship with your future spouse. If you meet someone on the street, you would obviously be apprehensive about getting to know that person if the first thing they say to you is a lewd pick-up line, or if they ask you how much money you have. It’s within reason to suspect that that person just wants to take advantage of you, and that the prospects for a happy, healthy long-term relationship are very low.
A religious community is like that too. How they treat you when they first meet you is a good indication of how they will treat you after you become a member. If all they do is talk at you rather than with you, they probably won’t be good listeners once you’re on the inside. If they exploit your courtesy in order to pry certain words out of your mouth, that might mean they’ll try to manipulate your emotions later on. If they threaten you with hellfire if you don’t do what they’re telling you, they might try to intimidate you in other ways too.
Today many of us share the common idea that religious belief is a private matter that other people should not try to influence. While I might agree in many ways with people who believe that, I can’t embrace the idea completely. As a Baha’i and as a human being, I have the conviction that life should be spent in search of the truth—and we can never assume that we already have the truth and understand all of its implications. Truth is something that we must pursue, and we may need the interaction with, the prompting and the guidance of other people to find it.
This is how we should come to religion, and this is also what is supposed to happen inside religion once we’ve arrived.
The methods used to promote or teach a religion are not separate from that religion—they are an integral expression of its essential character. Earlier I mentioned that instead of proselytizing the Baha’i Faith calls for teaching its principles through deeds and action. Let’s examine what that means and explore how this expresses the essential character of the Baha’i Faith.
A Baha’i once asked Abdu’l-Baha “Which is the best way to spread the teaching?” He answered:
By deeds. This way is open to all, and deeds are understood by all. Join yourselves to those who work for the poor, the weak and the unfortunate; this is greatly to be commended … He does not offer help to those who do not want treatment. Do not press help on those who do not need your help. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 98.
Deeds attract hearts to the reality of the Baha’i teachings, but of course words of explanation are eventually necessary, too. So teaching the principles of the Baha’i Faith is a two-way interaction. Each person speaks what’s on their mind and listens attentively to what the other is saying. This implies that the individuals connect with each other at some kind of spiritual level, infused first and foremost with a spirit of love and respect. The purpose is to explore reality and investigate the truth, not argue or contend with anyone. On this topic, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Set forth that which ye possess. If it be favorably received, your end is attained; if not, to protest is vain. Leave that soul to himself and turn unto the Lord, the Protector, the Self-Subsisting. Be not the cause of grief, much less of discord and strife. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 27.
These words of Baha’u’llah shed light on one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the Baha’i concept of teaching the Faith to others. It goes without saying that Baha’u’llah thinks that knowledge of the truth is extremely important. However, even if at some level you deeply feel you are aware of a truth, trying to forcibly compel or elicit agreement from someone else is, in some way, a violation of that knowledge. It’s important for everyone that they arrive at the truth from the promptings of their own heart, rather than from any sort of external pressure.
In the next essay, let’s explore more ways that teaching its truths through action expresses the essential character of the Baha’i Faith.