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On an October Saturday night, our family hosted a dinner party for a wonderfully mixed group of neighbors.
Some had been our friends for a decade and a half, while others were in our home for the first time. Of course, we were celebrating the bicentenary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah. After my love’s famous Thai soup and other delicacies, I tried to explain what the Baha’is are so excited about (and provide a wee pause for pre-dessert digestion). It went something like this:
Friends and neighbors, as you know, Diana and I are members of the Baha’i Faith. It’s a worldwide community dedicated to a few gigantic ideas: that the human race is one family, that we have to start ACTING like it, that there are principles and mechanisms that really can make it all work, and that it WILL work.
Peace and justice, arts and wonders and a harmonious global civilization? Baha’is believe they will blossom, on this lovely but stressed-out planet. Right here. In fact, these sweet things are growing right now, if we look for them, and they have been growing for more than a century. But at the same time, stubborn old ideas and creaky institutions have been crashing down around our ears.
All the necessities for human happiness–realizing the oneness of the human race, the equality of women and men, the elimination of racial and other prejudices, the end of the gross extremes of wealth and poverty that plague the world, and tons more–were laid out in the teachings of Baha’u’llah during the 19th century. We’re remembering the Bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth tonight.
So who was he? He was born Mirza Husayn Ali, to a noble family in the former Persian empire, in 1817. On October 22, Baha’is all over the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth. All kinds of festivities and tributes were offered, here in Ottawa and all over the world.
“Baha’u’llah” is an Arabic title which means “Glory (or Splendour) of God.” Baha’u’llah gave up inherited wealth and high-ranking positions in the King’s court to dedicate his youth to caring for the poor and needy. He spent the next 40 years in prison and exile–it’s the old story, as Jesus Christ said, that “a prophet hath not honour in his own country.” Why did Baha’u’llah walk away from such privilege? He sacrificed for the vision of a new world order, and a fresh new era of human civilization, which he predicted, prescribed and gave humanity the tools to build.
What’s a Baha’i, then? It’s just somebody who sees the need for a new way of doing business at this desperately important stage in humanity’s history. A Baha’i is someone who recognizes, in the words and the life of Baha’u’llah, the very divine message that the peoples of the world are dying to hear.
Take a look at the last 200 years. On one hand, human capacity and skill have skyrocketed, while during the same period, we’ve seen the worst depths of destruction. Shoghi Effendi was Baha’u’llah’s great-grandson, and the Guardian of the Baha’i community. He wrote what follows during the 1930s, and it rings all the more true today:
Who, contemplating the helplessness, the fears and miseries of humanity in this day, can any longer question the necessity for a fresh revelation of the quickening power of God’s redemptive love and guidance? Who, witnessing on one hand the stupendous advance achieved in the realm of human knowledge, of power, of skill and inventiveness, and viewing on the other the unprecedented character of the sufferings that afflict, and the dangers that beset, present-day society, can be so blind as to doubt that the hour has at last struck for the advent of a new Revelation … and for the consequent revival of those spiritual forces that have, at fixed intervals, rehabilitated the fortunes of human society? – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, pp. 60-61.
Here in the 21st century, the human race takes great pride in our inventions and abilities, yet we’re facing industrial-strength threats to human survival, let alone happiness. If there is a God, doesn’t it seems it would be a good time for that Creator Spirit, that Higher Power to intervene (again!) in human affairs?
We are Baha’is simply because we believe that, in the person of Baha’u’llah, this is exactly what has happened. The world is being renovated. We play our tiny part. We try to hang tough against the destructive aspects of society’s “business as usual;” we grieve for the terrible burdens of the poor, “the wretched of the earth”, as anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon called them. But we also are excited by the many signs of progress, especially the growing consciousness of the oneness of humanity and the ever-clearer concept that diversity makes us stronger and better.
So thank you for helping us honor the life of Baha’u’llah today. We’re overjoyed that so many of you were willing and able to come and celebrate this 200th anniversary with us. Now, we hope you can stay with us awhile, and have some room for cake and ice cream!