The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
Thanks to unfolding inventions ranging from the telephone to the internet, we are now more aware than ever of the social conditions of our global community.
Some developments give hope, but many weigh heavily. My parents were Kiwi teenagers back in the time of the Great Depression, even before mass communications gave us the word “teenager.” My father left school to find that despite his academic achievements, employment opportunities were rare. In the end he counted himself lucky to find work on a government-initiated unemployment relief scheme, planting fir and pine trees in New Zealand’s Kaingaroa forest, which consequently became the largest plantation in the southern hemisphere, and today is as much valued for its role in mitigating effects of carbon in the atmosphere as it is criticized for being yet another non-indigenous species .
My mother had more secure work as a typist in a government department, providing me, as the only girl in the family, with a good example of female capacity. I remember our disgust as children of a later generation when, from time to time, we would find our father eating bread scraped with congealed fat dripped from roasting meat, a habit which he had been raised with because, in a country now famous for exporting butter around the world, in those days it was too expensive. He would never countenance our eating rice, in reaction to his 5 years spent in a prisoner-of-war camp where rice was the staple diet.
But our circumstances slowly improved. During my childhood we adored our grandmother for her willingness to buy the very occasional bottle of fizzy (pop) drink for extra-special events. Back then, most school kids routinely wore borrowed hand-me-downs bearing tell-all lowered hemline fade marks, courtesy of sisters, cousins or neighbors. I will never forget the thrill of my very first shop-bought dress. The movies (we called them the Flicks) were now available in our town, and we would collect empty glass bottles from around the neighborhood in exchange for 2 pennies per bottle from the shop owners, and that would go towards our 9-pence entrance fee.
Once at the movies, a few privileged children purchased food from the snack shop, but we would stealthily draw out brown paper bags of sultanas and peanuts to snack on. With some frequency, my class teacher would call upon all of us to look into our home-packed school lunches to see how much we could offer to some child who had none. Fast-forward to today, and my rest home is in the community with the most expensive housing in the country, from where I routinely watch the same poorly-dressed man shuffling through the waste bins of the street, pulling out random food scraps.
Today our many social problems include such opposing extremes as obesity, rampant food wastage, extreme domestic hoarding and unfed schoolchildren. The extremes of wealth and poverty are everywhere apparent.
Today, the Baha’i teachings say that inequity, discrimination, and exploitation blight the life of all humanity, highlighting the limitations of political schemes, and underscoring the deep-seated, structural defects in our global society:
The world is in great turmoil, and the minds of its people are in a state of utter confusion. We entreat the Almighty that He may graciously illuminate them with the glory of His Justice, and enable them to discover that which will be profitable unto them at all times and under all conditions. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 94.
No man is an island; we are all parts of a whole. The Baha’i community strives to contribute in both thought and action to the betterment of the world, as the adverse conditions experienced by many demand more and more attention. We know that our entire collective life suffers when one group thinks only of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbors, or when we pursue economic gain without regard for how it affects the natural environment which sustains us all.
In today’s world, self interest often prevails at the expense of the common good. Huge wealth is amassed, whilst increasing gaps of income and opportunity create tensions within nations and communities. But it need not be so, the Baha’i teachings say. These conditions do not have to define the future.
The economic approaches that satisfied humanity’s earlier stage of childhood and adolescence are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for perpetuating structures, rules, and systems that clearly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. Spiritual teachings highlight the inherently moral dimension that defines the generation, the distribution and utilization of wealth and resources.
Our gradual transition from a divided world to a unified one brings stresses felt within international relations as much as in societies large and small. Prevailing modes of thought are seen to be badly wanting. The world desperately needs a shared ethic, an agreed framework with which to address the crises that gather like storm clouds. The vision of Baha’u’llah challenges many popular assumptions—for instance, that self-interest drives prosperity, and that progress depends upon relentless competition.
The predominantly European-derived assumptions and values that drive modern Western life could benefit hugely from reflecting on the traditional values of our ethnic populations: Maori, Pacifica and so on. Here we find enlightened examples of unified collective life, of shared ethics, of respect for the natural world, of maintaining moderation towards the use of resources and preserving a balance between taking and giving.
Assessing the worth of an individual in terms of how much one accumulates or how much one consumes, relative to others, is alien to Baha’i thought. But these teachings don’t view wealth as inherently distasteful or immoral, and neither do they prescribe asceticism. Wealth is praiseworthy indeed if it serves humanity. Its use must accord with spiritual principle. New systems must be created that reflect those values. In Baha’u’llah’s words: