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Consider these two questions — do you trust our prevailing political order? No matter what country you live in or how you’d describe your beliefs, does the current governmental system actually work for you?
When pollsters ask those questions or others like them to thousands of people in various countries all over the world, the answers usually amount to a resounding “No.” Multiple surveys have shown that overwhelming majorities of people in many parts of the world no longer trust their governments to solve pressing social issues or deal justly and fairly with people’s problems.
This global phenomenon of division and distrust has grown to epic proportions.
Even in the United States, one of the world’s most vaunted democracies, public trust in government has reached a very low ebb: in September of 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that only 20% of all Americans trust their federal government to “do the right thing” most or all of the time. Americans’ confidence in the ability of their nation’s government to effectively handle domestic and international problems has declined precipitously as well – to record low numbers, according to the Gallup Poll’s most recent survey. Infamously, the approval rating of the U.S. Congress has recently dropped lower than root canals or head lice.
This bleak-and-getting-bleaker view of the efficacy of the current system of governance comes as no surprise to the world’s Baha’is. The prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, wrote in the middle of the 19th century that “the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective:”
How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society?… The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective. I beseech God, exalted be His glory, that He may graciously awaken the peoples of the earth, may grant that the end of their conduct may be profitable unto them, and aid them to accomplish that which beseemeth their station.
What did Baha’u’llah mean when he wrote these words? In this short set of essays, we’ll consider three possible implications of this important passage from Baha’u’llah’s writings and apply them to the world’s current political reality in the hope of understanding the future of our prevailing order. Let’s begin with the “convulsions and chaos” Baha’u’llah referred to, and see if we can unpack what that might mean.
The Politics of Chaos
We’ve certainly seen the “signs of impending convulsions and chaos” in our governmental structures recently. Anyone who looks closely at the operations of most of the world’s sovereign national governments can recognize those forces of division, disunity, and disintegration at work. In fact, many astute social observers and political scientists now use those exact terms to define our current state of governance. Jonathan Rauch, writing in the Atlantic in July of 2016, echoed Baha’u’llah’s words by calling this trend a “chaos syndrome:”
“Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself. …”
Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction.
More than half a century ago, in November of 1969, the Universal House of Justice – the democratically-elected leadership body of the global Baha’i community – wrote to the Baha’is of the world about this dire situation:
Governments and peoples of both the developed and developing nations, and other human institutions, secular and religious, finding themselves helpless to reverse the trend of the catastrophic events of the day, stand bewildered and overpowered by the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing them. At this fateful hour in human history many, unfortunately, seem content to stand aside and wring their hands in despair or else join in the babel of shouting and protestation which loudly objects, but offers no solution to the woes and afflicting plaguing our age.
Does that sound familiar? Most people, observing the insanity, shenanigans, and corruption seemingly endemic to so much of politics today, do wind up wringing their hands in despair, feeling powerless to change the course of such a chaotic, headlong rush toward dysfunction and anarchy. This chaos syndrome, Baha’u’llah wrote, comes directly from the “daily increasing” “strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race.”
The Baha’i teachings do offer a remedy for responding to that strife – fostering unity. While much of the world fights over their political views and positions, Baha’is attempt to do the opposite by foregoing the partisan battlefield for a wider embrace of all humanity:
Let there be no misgivings as to the animating purpose of the world-wide Law of Baha’u’llah. Far from aiming at the subversion of the existing foundations of society, it seeks to broaden its basis, to remold its institutions in a manner consonant with the needs of an ever-changing world. It can conflict with no legitimate allegiances, nor can it undermine essential loyalties. Its purpose is neither to stifle the flame of a sane and intelligent patriotism in men’s hearts, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralization are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah.
So what can we do, as individuals, as families, as communities, to combat the rampant political confusion and chaos before it causes our governmental structures to crumble? What can we do to create that “wider loyalty” and “larger aspiration” than partisan politics allows?
In the next essay in this series, we’ll try to find answers to those critical questions in the Baha’i teachings.