In the Baha’i view of social change, we don’t need to focus our energies on tearing down the old order, based as it is on domination, competition, alienation, and exploitation.
That old system is busy destroying itself, and only persists through lack of a robust living alternative:
Instead, the Baha’i teachings say, we need to carry forward the development of a new order—based upon the oneness of humanity—that will unleash the latent capacity within each person to contribute to human flourishing:
It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness. It behoveth them to cleave to whatsoever will, in this Day, be conducive to the exaltation of their stations, and to the promotion of their best interests. … Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 6-7.
This unique Baha’i approach to social change can often come off to some people as innocence, ignorance or indifference regarding the depth and scale of injustice and oppression in the world today. Such positivity may even seem naïve, given the powerful forces standing in the way of the Baha’i social and spiritual goals. I’m willing to concede that perhaps as individuals many Baha’is are naïve. But if any are, it is despite not because of the decades-long efforts of Baha’i institutions to educate the community about the large-scale historical processes generated by Baha’u’llah’s spiritual mission.
Actually, I’ve often found Baha’is to be some of the most frank and non-illusory people about the obsolescence of present-day institutions in dealing with deep-seated problems like climate change, systemic racism, or the exploitation of the poor. Having so little confidence in achieving a quick turn-around using the current social order, Baha’is instead tend to focus their energies on developing global lines of action that can crystalize new models of social organization. The patterns of life accomplished at the Baha’i community level can then serve as a basis for higher levels of systemic change in regions, nations and around the world. That’s the vision animating Baha’i activities at the grassroots.
This strategy is rooted in the conviction that humanity as a whole is transitioning from collective childhood into the early stages of maturity—which will eventually witness the emergence of an all-inclusive, unified world civilization. The Baha’i teachings define this period of collective adolescence by two distinct but interrelated processes: one, the disintegration of old institutions, customs, attitudes, and habits that developed in the social context of centuries past; and two, the construction of a new world order in all its social and spiritual aspects.
Baha’is are encouraged to see in the revolutionary changes taking place in every sphere of life the interaction of two fundamental processes. One is destructive in nature, while the other is integrative; both serve to carry humanity, each in its own way, along the path leading towards its full maturity. …
Though devastating in their effects, the forces of disintegration tend to sweep away barriers that block humanity’s progress, opening space for the process of integration to draw diverse groups together and disclosing new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. -The Universal House of Justice, to the Baha’is of Iran, 2 March 2013.
Modern civilization has radically and irreversibly altered the face of world society. Solutions that worked for generations have lost their effectiveness. Methods of coercion and domination—essential to the maintenance of the old hierarchies of race, gender, class, etc—are deemed intolerable under contemporary ideas of human dignity. War, ethnocentrism, slavery, patriarchy, and unbridled accumulation of wealth are no longer just “the way things are and always will be.” Unrealistic utopianism is not to believe they can be abolished, but to assume they can be carried on like before. As the old ways fail to adapt to modern conditions, the process of disintegration accelerates. A century and a half ago Baha’u’llah wrote:
Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, pp. 90-91.
With that said, what’s old isn’t necessarily obsolete, and what’s new doesn’t always belong to the Baha’i vision of the future. From a Baha’i perspective, the standard by which all things are measured is the principle of the oneness of humanity. That which draws people together in cooperation and mutual respect is generally something to be nurtured, and anything that sets people against each other needs to be “relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines,” as Shoghi Effendi wrote:
The call of Baha’u’llah is primarily directed against all forms of provincialism, all insularities and prejudices. If long-cherished ideals and time-honored institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution? For legal standards, political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine. – The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 42.
Basically, Baha’is want to make the oneness of humanity a living social reality—more than just a concept or an ideal to be contemplated apart from everyday life. That oneness, something Baha’is practice and try to get better at, defines the future. As humanity’s collective capabilities for unity and oneness improve, the closer we can come to a social order well-suited to our emerging adulthood. The Baha’i teachings call on everyone to focus their energies on the advancement of that process—because breaking down the old ways will inevitably take place. Their disintegration has a course of its own and plenty of momentum already.
That, in short, describes the vision behind the unabashed positivity of Baha’is and their activities. It’s not that Baha’is think that all is well with the world so long as we put on a happy face. It’s quite the opposite. Instead, all is well with the oneness of humanity, the guiding thread that can lead us through the darkness of present times toward the brilliant light of humanity’s coming of age.