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The world’s Baha’is have an overwhelmingly vast objective—unifying all human civilization in peace and brotherhood. So how do you create a framework that can truly unify the world?
The concept of unity, it turns out, needs practical applications in deeds and not just words. Unity requires bringing people together in a common cause. That’s what the Baha’is work towards every day.
As of 2018, more than five million people identify as Baha’is, but that number does not include the millions who actively participate in Baha’i activities. There’s so much diversity, and so much to do—from metropolitan cities to remote villages, from war-torn countries to high-end neighborhoods.
With a global community so diverse, with such incredibly different realities and cultures, a unified mentality almost seems unrealistic. In the past, ambitious attempts to tackle large-scale problems that manifest in very different ways across the globe have often failed completely, and caused many religions to splinter into sects to find a way to apply their beliefs to that reality. To believe in the Baha’i teachings is one thing—fighting prejudice, being truthful, and praying are universal—but what about their application? Can any Faith respond to everyone’s needs?
Baha’is believe that their Faith has the tools we need for the complexities of that task. The sacred writings provided by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, and the guidance from the Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected supreme body of the Faith, give the global Baha’i community a powerful spiritual framework for implementing progressive change—for building an ever-advancing civilization that has the power to unite all humanity:
The essential principles of [Baha’u’llah’s] healing remedies are the knowledge and love of God, severance from all else save God, turning our faces in sincerity toward the Kingdom of God, implicit faith, firmness and fidelity, loving-kindness toward all creatures and the acquisition of the divine virtues indicated for the human world. These are the fundamental principles of progress, civilization, international peace and the unity of mankind. These are the essentials of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, the secret of everlasting health, the remedy and healing for man. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 205.
All around the world, the Baha’i community strives to learn and improve their approach through a series of steps: action, consultation and study.
On a global scale, unified action takes shape as a series of worldwide plans prepared by the Universal House of Justice. These plans, based on the gathered experience of many communities in the world, respond to global needs and are applicable on some level in any community of the world. Sometimes the goals are numerical, intended to encourage Baha’is and their friends to invite more and more people to the process of social transformation; sometimes, the goals are qualitative—to learn how to have meaningful conversations, deal with racial prejudice, or bridge cultural gaps that have divided people for centuries.
Every local community’s reality will be different. But while in some places in South America, bridging a gap might mean inviting indigenous populations into a conversation in a society in which they are systematically excluded, in some places in Europe bridging a gap might mean reaching out to those in a neighborhood where people are not accustomed to speaking to each other. Every reality is different, but the need to connect with others is the same, and will have equally revolutionary power in every society.
At the local level, the Baha’i commitment to stay unified means that we work as a team, welcoming anyone who wants to help, accompanying each other, and encouraging each other. Friends help where they can: whether it’s dedicating hours from their day to teaching children, to assisting with supplies, or even praying for the neighborhood’s efforts. That way, our action remains unified—and we stay connected both locally and on a global scale, connected by our shared goals.
The approach of working in teams allows the friends to serve together, offer mutual support, and build confidence—but even when carrying out actions individually, they are coordinating their efforts to greater effect. … This spirit of high resolve serves to multiply the community’s powers, and in each cycle the friends learn to depend more and more on the potent confirmations from the divine realm that their actions attract. – The Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015.
A posture of learning is crucial in any effort, but even more so when trying to respond to the needs of society. Misunderstandings and divisions which could have easily been avoided have put many efforts to an end, and a lack of profound thinking when making decisions can take away from the effectiveness of any effort, no matter now good the intentions behind it.
Baha’is reflect in many spaces. We reflect individually as we try to improve our thoughts and behaviors on a daily basis. We reflect with small groups of friends as we make choices on how to help our neighborhoods. We reflect as representatives of different communities, cities or even countries—sharing our stories, our challenges, and even our failures, and actively learning from each other.
With this emphasis on thoughtful reflection across local, national and global communities, the Baha’is and their friends can gather a wealth of knowledge about the world around them. They learn what helps and what doesn’t, what the issues are and what some solutions might be. That knowledge then gets passed on to the next generation, which means that no one acts blindly, and that everyone’s actions are subject to constant refinement:
When efforts are carried out in a learning mode … visions and strategies are re-examined time and again. As tasks are accomplished, obstacles removed, resources multiplied, and lessons learned, modifications are made in goals and methods. The learning process, which is given direction through appropriate institutional arrangements, unfolds in a way that resembles the growth and differentiation of a living organism. Haphazard change is avoided, and continuity of action maintained. – The Office of Social and Economic Development at the Baha’i World Centre, Social Action.
As with any effort involving millions of people from different backgrounds, open communication ensures that steps taken are effective, and that the unity of the group remains strong.
The Baha’i writings offer unique guidance about the nature of communication between people when trying to come to decisions. The term used is “consultation,” a form of conversation in which everyone is on the same footing, and ideas are shared openly and selflessly. The purpose is to find truth, sharing our own points of view while not clinging to them—in the end, whatever decision the majority comes to should be considered the decision of the entire group, and all should support it wholeheartedly. In this way, consultation harnesses both the diversity of ideas of all the members of the group, and the group’s commitment to unity:
The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 168.
Study of the Baha’i Writings
The revelation of Baha’u’llah includes many writings that have been translated into English, and large collections of writings by Baha’u’llah, the Bab and Abdu’l-Baha in every language spoken in the world. But there is no use in such a wealth of divine knowledge if it is not studied—and not just by the institutions of the Faith, but by everyone who participates in any Baha’i activity.
Though building unity in a community can often seem like a very practical series of steps, its core is profoundly spiritual. Anything less than that runs the risk of making efforts turn businesslike or cold-hearted, and can cause us to slide into mentalities based on the materialistic rules our world has created: paternalism, mistrust, and ambition. Many efforts to change the world rely on these obsolete, sometimes harmful patterns of thought. To retain and expand the spiritual basis of all true transformation, the Baha’i writings say, community builders should immerse themselves in “the creative word”—the divine message of the prophets:
As a person cultivates the habit of study and deep reflection upon the Creative Word, this process of transformation reveals itself in an ability to express one’s understanding of profound concepts and to explore spiritual reality in conversations of significance. These capacities are visible not only in the elevated discussions that increasingly characterize interactions within the community, but in the ongoing conversations that reach well beyond. … Through exchanges of this kind, consciousness of spiritual forces is raised, apparent dichotomies yield to unexpected insights, a sense of unity and common calling is fortified, confidence that a better world can be created is strengthened, and a commitment to action becomes manifest. – The Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015.
Through these steps, the Baha’i Faith constantly improves in its approach to world problems. Even in communities separated by oceans, with vastly different physical and social realities, we can share a common understanding of what it will take to change the world—and apply each other’s learnings to the search for unity.