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Bestir yourselves, O people, in anticipation of the days of Divine justice, for the promised hour is now come. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 17.

For many decades, the expression “Power to the People” has given voice at different times in different places to a yearning for democracy.

But “Power to the People” isn’t satisfied merely with holding and winning elections, or having a select few represent the interests of the majority within state institutions. “Power to the People” speaks to a greater desire—that grassroots movements and organizations lead the pursuit of social justice. It signifies an organic connection between the activities of individuals and small groups at the local level with nation-wide and international organizations working in common cause.

In keeping with its broader approach to democracy, the Baha’i teachings deeply resonate with these ideas in some respects, but fundamentally departs from them in others. Both points of view seek to empower ordinary people to have a say on issues that affect their lives. But the kinds of power they seek tend to operate in very different ways. On the one hand, power can confront, resist, and oppose. On the other hand, power can enlighten, transform hearts, and apply scientific and spiritual knowledge to practical concerns.

So let’s look deeper at these differences between the Baha’i Faith and various movements calling for radical, power-to-the-people democracy. With these distinctions in mind, we’ll be on firmer ground to truly understand the similarities.

In a Baha’i context, the people does not form a separate group that leagues itself against the elite, the ruling class, or foreigners and immigrants. The oneness of humanity is absolutely essential. Even when Baha’is work for the empowerment of a particular group, it is never meant to be at the expense of someone else. For Baha’is, the people is always broad enough to include anyone—and everyone.

Beyond all this, the question of power arises. The Baha’i approach to power differs dramatically from our current understanding, as expressed in The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement by the Baha’i International Community:

Throughout history—and despite theologically or ideologically inspired assurances to the contrary—power has been largely interpreted as advantage enjoyed by persons or groups. Often, indeed, it has been expressed simply in terms of means to be used against others… In general, power has been an attribute of individuals, factions, peoples, classes, and nations. It has been an attribute especially associated with men rather than women. Its chief effect has been to confer on its beneficiaries the ability to acquire, to surpass, to dominate, to resist, to win. – p. 2.

The BIC statement contrasts this old definition of temporal power with the power of truth, the force of character, and the power of unity which Baha’u’llah says “can illuminate the whole earth.” It draws attention to the power that comes through cooperation and collaboration. It highlights the possibilities that emerge when people develop their powerful spiritual abilities to love, give generously, forgive, and make sacrifices for the common good. It strongly affirms the importance of science and religion, two complementary systems of knowledge, to the all-around advancement of a population. In short, The Prosperity of Humankind emphasizes a conception of power that centers on human capacity-building. Today, this kind of power forms the core focus of Baha’i activities around the world.

Baha’is measure this capacity by the effectiveness of any effort that individuals, communities, and institutions undertake to transform themselves and the world around them for the better. Through science, we can better take advantage of the physical, chemical, living, and social forces operating around us. Through religion, our understanding of spiritual reality enables us to transform ourselves and our relations with one another in line with principles that appeal to our higher nature. Because this concept of empowerment bases itself on knowledge, rather than displays of physical force, developing educational paths for all ages has become an essential focus for capacity-building efforts associated with the Baha’i Faith.

community-building

This approach does not provide a direct response to all the problems posed by many social and political movements advocating radical democracy. It doesn’t provide an immediate path for subduing oppressors or for eliminating state repression—but it does advance the process of social and spiritual transformation that can ultimately bring about the best possible pattern of life.

The process of social and spiritual transformation requires that a population take responsibility for the design of its own future. On this point, a Baha’i might exclaim “Power to the People!” with sincerity and truthfulness. This is reflected in the closing remarks of another paper prepared by the Baha’i International Community, Who is Writing the Future?:

Despite widely prevalent opinion to the contrary, the human race is not a blank tablet on which privileged arbiters of human affairs can freely inscribe their own wishes. The springs of the spirit rise up where they will, as they will. They will not indefinitely be suppressed by the detritus of contemporary society…

However great the turmoil, the period into which humanity is moving will open to every individual, every institution, and every community on earth unprecedented opportunities to participate in the writing of the planet’s future. “Soon,” is Baha’u’llah’s confident promise, “will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.”

By cultivating the constructive and essentially spiritual powers within us, we the people can take charge of our own development.

1 Comment

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  • stephen McLean
    Oct 07, 2016
    Thanks Greg... a quote ---- Ere long will the state of affairs within thee be changed, (Land of Ta) and the reins of power fall into the hands of the people. ESW 149. Further, "From two ranks among men power hayh been seized: kings and ecclesiastics." Further..."We had seized the reins ofauthority by thepower of God...." ESW 105