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Would you like to see significant changes in our society–or do you feel generally happy with the way things are? Do you think of yourself as a person who favors reform or one who wants to preserve the status quo?
That usual dividing-line question delineates the difference between progressives and conservatives. Simply, a person who thinks progressively sees the current state of things and wants them to “progress” and change. And just as simply, a person who thinks conservatively sees the current state of things and wants to “conserve” them, so they stay that way.
This has nothing to do with party politics. Unfortunately, the political systems of many countries have co-opted and corrupted those traditional terms and used them for their own purposes–to divide and conquer. Partisan political organizations want us to identify with one of those ideological labels, and align ourselves with their agendas.
But when you think about the original intent of those perfectly fine words, and try to separate their real meanings from the baggage they’ve accumulated via partisan politics, they do map out a stark dichotomy. A conservative person, according to Webster’s, is “disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions,” while a progressive person “favors or advocates progress, change, improvement or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”
By those definitions, Baha’is definitely fit the progressive description. The Baha’i teachings urge change and reform in just about every department of human endeavor, saying that we live in:
…an age of universal reformation. Laws and statutes of governments civil and federal are in process of change and transformation. Sciences and arts are being moulded anew. Thoughts are metamorphosed. The foundations of human society are changing and strengthening. Today sciences of the past are useless. The Ptolemaic system of astronomy, numberless other systems and theories of scientific and philosophical explanation are discarded, known to be false and worthless. Ethical precedents and principles cannot be applied to the needs of the modern world. Thoughts and theories of past ages are fruitless now. Thrones and governments are crumbling and falling. All conditions and requisites of the past unfitted and inadequate for the present time, are undergoing radical reform. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, pp. 228-229.
In a world where we see constant war, the Baha’i teachings advocate peace. Where we now see vast differences of wealth and poverty, the Baha’i teachings encourage a progressive movement toward the elimination of such extremes. Where we see huge disparities between the educated and the uneducated, the Baha’i teachings call for universal compulsory education across the globe. Where we experience hatred, prejudice and bigotry, the Baha’i teachings ask all of us to work for the unification and harmony of the entire human race. Where we see enormous inequities and injustice toward women, the Baha’i teachings advance the absolute equality of women and men.
Baha’is want to reform the world. Baha’u’llah asked everyone to work toward the goal of a world without violence, injustice, oppression and hatred. He called on us all to find ways to apply the Baha’i principles to a consistent pattern of global reform, to bring about a new planetary civilization, to build upon (and conserve) the progress we’ve made in the material realm of the sciences and apply it with equal energy and diligence to the spiritual realm.
How do we get there from here?
Patience. The Baha’i writings say that all lasting change takes time:
It is certain that momentous undertakings cannot be brought to a successful conclusion in haste; that in such cases haste would only make waste.
The world of politics is like the world of man; he is seed at first, and then passes by degrees to the condition of embryo and fetus, acquiring a bone structure, being clothed with flesh, taking on his own special form, until at last he reaches the plane where he can befittingly fulfill the words: “the most excellent of Makers.” Just as this is a requirement of creation and is based on the universal Wisdom, the political world in the same way cannot instantaneously evolve from the nadir of defectiveness to the zenith of rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must strive by day and by night, using all those means which will conduce to progress, until the government and the people develop along every line from day to day and even from moment to moment. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 105-106.
However–patience, for Baha’is, does not mean waiting forever:
If, however, by delay and postponement they mean this, that in each generation only one minute section of the necessary reforms should be attended to, this is nothing but lethargy and inertia, and no results would be forthcoming from such a procedure, except the endless repetition of idle words. If haste is harmful, inertness and indolence are a thousand times worse. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 106.
Social activists, change agents and workers for progressive social evolution, take heart – the Baha’i teachings honor and encourage your devotion and your actions. They call, at the same time, for a patient and humble approach to reforming society.