In accordance with the divine teachings in this glorious dispensation we should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: ‘You know not, but I know’. Rather, we should look upon others with respect, and when attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: ‘Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found.’ The teacher should not consider himself as learned and others ignorant. Such a thought breedeth pride, and pride is not conducive to influence. The teacher should not see in himself any superiority; he should speak with the utmost kindliness, lowliness and humility, for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 30.
Consistent with the Baha’i understanding that humility forms the best foundation for engagement in social action, our interactions with communities being served must come from a posture of learning and respect, not from the imposition of one norm, culture or value system over another.
Historic patterns of colonialism and notions of superiority of a more “advanced culture” over another disturbingly continue today in many development efforts. The view that those who are economically well-off and educated should bestow their resources and dominant ideas on those less fortunate is unacceptable in a Baha’i context, and is also now becoming widely questioned in the world of international development and foreign aid.
Instead, Baha’is believe that a humble spirit of service to others fosters the true spirit of altruism.
Baha’i-inspired social action recognizes the incredible potential of every human being and encourages the building of capacity within a community, not just handing out paternalistic advice or material resources to them:
Thus, while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world. Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another. – The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message 2010, p. 10.
This observation doesn’t imply that a group of people with means and experience should not be interested in helping or willing to help others. To be effective over the long term, though, this engagement must reflect a spirit of humility and a sincere interest in mutual understanding and support. When one engages in service, the one serving often benefits even more than the one being served. This equality of position reflects itself in the Baha’i concept of social action, a perspective that challenges common notions of superiority so often unconsciously promoted in much charitable work. Underlying this approach, the Baha’i principle of the unity of humankind guides all Baha’i social action efforts:
O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 20.
That unity, which emphasizes the common heritage and destiny of every human being, implies a much more spiritually-focused and egalitarian approach to helping others:
It is only by the breath of the Holy Spirit that spiritual development can come about. No matter how the material world may progress, no matter how splendidly it may adorn itself, it can never be anything but a lifeless body unless the soul is within, for it is the soul that animates the body; the body alone has no real significance. Deprived of the blessings of the Holy Spirit the material body would be inert.
In short, it behooves us all to be lovers of truth. Let us seek her in every season and in every country, being careful never to attach ourselves to personalities. Let us see the light wherever it shines, and may we be enabled to recognize the light of truth no matter where it may arise. Let us inhale the perfume of the rose from the midst of thorns which surround it; let us drink the running water from every pure spring…
You have in your hearts the love of humanity, and as far as you are able, you exert yourselves in the cause of charitable work and in the bringing about of unity; this is especially what Baha’u’llah desired. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 133-134.
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