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In the news we hear about more trouble and strife, including a number of bombs in several places near New York City recently. One detonated in Manhattan, injuring more than 30 people.
“How senseless,” we may think. What level of anger and hatred could cause someone to concentrate their efforts on learning about explosives and detonators, studying how to cause maximum injury, and then actually build devices intended to maim and kill? How can anyone have such determination to cause harm to absolute strangers?
One point being reported may cause us to ponder. The alleged bomber, now under arrest, is a Muslim, a naturalized citizen of the US, originally from Afghanistan. Knowing only that much, some of us may be encouraged to think in well-worn channels of thought. Yes: of course. Bombs. Terrorism. A Muslim.
Only time will tell, but reports say that this young man comes from a family that owned a fried chicken restaurant named “First American,” one which had been successfully in business for 6 years before certain events transpired. Court documents filed by the family indicate that one day a summons was issued against the restaurant for staying open too late. Later it was shown that there was no basis for the summons, and the record implies that the particular summons and a series of further complaints may in part have been the result of efforts by one neighbor to pursue actions against the family, simply because they were Muslim. Eventually things escalated, and subsequently this now-suspect son was arrested and charged for having an altercation with police.
What resides at the center of such events, driving them forward? In this case, did prejudice catalyze radicalism? If so, the tragic irony suggests that the unsupported hatred and fear of others has once again provided fertilizer for the growth of similar feelings in response. The Baha’i teachings say that the spirit of war begets war. May it not also be that the fear of ‘the other’ is the very thing needed to create and sustain ‘the other’? Clearly, the reflexive response to being hated is to hate in return, but some among us have the strength to return good for evil. Will I be among them? Will you?
When we fear, it stops us from being welcoming, courteous, respectful. Then, when fear degrades into hate, it gives sufficient excuse for injustice, oppression, and the cruel assertion of superiority.
Of course, nothing excuses anyone who engages in senseless violence. But surely we must affirm at one and the same time that of course no excuse exists for anyone to engage in prejudice, much less racial or religious hatred.
Could it be that the cure for radicalism is a general increase in virtue?
From the Baha’i point of view, this life is given to us that we might learn about and live from the center of our true selves. We are, as has been said, not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a physical experience. That seems obvious, actually, since meaning, inference, thought, love, determination, value, and transcendence all go far beyond anything physical. We exist in the physical world, yet we can only truly live in the world of thought, emotion and spirit.
In a statement of stunning beauty, Baha’u’llah says, of God, that:
Having created the world and all that liveth and moveth therein, He, through the direct operation of His unconstrained and sovereign Will, chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him—a capacity that must needs be regarded as the generating impulse and the primary purpose underlying the whole of creation…. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 64.
One news item not only can lead us from facts of geography and physical events to considerations of the fundamentals of spirit and identity, but one news item must—as all things ultimately must—be invested by us with the meanings we continue to find in the effort we make to give our lives purpose.
As such this news event should reconfirm us in the effort to increase virtue and decrease prejudice, in ourselves and in the world.
Can any other solution address the intractable problems of mankind except to increase virtue? Can we heal the scars left by prejudice with some other means than compassion and love in action? Is there a better cure for poverty than education? Will we be able to address inequality in the world—a potent source of unrest, conflict and violence—without fervently seeking justice rather than privilege? Do we have any hope of eliminating the perils of atmospheric pollution and climate change without broad consultation and unified action? Will we be able to gain full benefit from new technologies acting in the service of mankind, and not as another tool for control and private gain, unless we have leaders who choose justice and integrity over the accumulation of power and personal enrichment? Can there ever be a solution to the scourge of war except the spread of peace, from heart to heart?
That is, my questions are not aimed at utopian visions, but rather point toward noble, challenging and ultimately very pragmatic answers which we nevertheless might be inclined to dismiss as utopian. No. Choice and change are not only possible, but absolutely inevitable. Whether we ignore or embrace the challenge of such questions, we will offer an answer in the way we live, intend, and act:
You must manifest complete love and affection toward all mankind. Do not exalt yourselves above others, but consider all as your equals, recognizing them as the servants of one God. Know that God is compassionate toward all; therefore, love all from the depths of your hearts, prefer all religionists before yourselves, be filled with love for every race, and be kind toward the people of all nationalities. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 452.