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The Divine Messengers have been sent down, and their Books were revealed, for the purpose of promoting the knowledge of God, and of furthering unity and fellowship amongst men. But now behold, how they have made the Law of God a cause and pretext for perversity and hatred. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 12.
Have you ever heard the phrase “the chosen people?”
Most sects of Judaism believe that Jews were chosen by God for a specific purpose, and have a special covenant with and duty to God.
Many Christian sects believe that anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as savior becomes a part of the “people of God.” Membership in the people of God, the Catholic Catechism says, comes from belief in Christ and baptism.
Some Muslim sects also believe that they are the “chosen people of Allah.” Some versions of Sharia law maintain that the blood of even the lowliest Muslim is worth more than the blood of an “infidel.”
Initially, when these kinds of beliefs were first promulgated, the phrases “the chosen people” and the “people of God” had no implications of superiority. Those phrases simply meant that those who turned to God had a special responsibility to act on their beliefs. In fact, one 12th Century Yemeni Jewish theologian, Nethanel ibn Fayyumi, said, “God permitted to every people something he forbade to others… [and] God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language.”
Over time, though, those phrases devolved, and gradually came to indicate a privileged position, a rank that placed a person and their religion above others. The phrases turned into labels that tended to separate people of one particular faith and make them feel superior to those of other religions. Ultimately, the phrases “people of God” and “the Chosen People” alienated those of other Faiths.
You can understand how that happened when you study the language of superiority and exclusion. Even the roots of the word “Israel” has connotations of prevailing over others. The Biblical Hebrew term b’nei yisrael—which means “children of Israel”—comes from the verb yisra (to prevail over) and the ancient word el, which means God or the divine:
…regarding the word Israel, this is the title of Jacob himself and not that of his children. Then from the word of “Bani Israel” Bani (descendants)[this is a variant spelling of b’nei] was dropped and they sufficed with the word “Israel”. In encyclopedia there are many such examples. The descendants of Ham, for example, are called “Ham”, the descendants of Yáfis are called “Yáfis”. The descendants of the Turks are named “Turks”, and those of Yaarub are called “Arab”. Examples such as these are many. Afterward the word Israel was used to denote the “people of God” as it is mentioned in the Bible, i.e., the nations of God. Thus it was gradually generalized as to denote all the souls who accepted the religion of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 7, p. 57.
The Baha’i concept of the oneness of humanity asks all of us to recognize our equality with everyone else. It says that this vain imagining—“I am superior to you and will prevail over you because of my religion”—has no basis in history or fact. Those feelings of religious superiority, triumphalism and exceptionalism, the Baha’i teachings say, must be demolished:
Every human creature is the servant of God. All have been created and reared by the power and favor of God; all have been blessed with the bounties of the same Sun of divine truth; all have quaffed from the fountain of the infinite mercy of God; and all in His estimation and love are equal as servants. He is beneficent and kind to all. Therefore, no one should glorify himself over another; no one should manifest pride or superiority toward another; no one should look upon another with scorn and contempt; and no one should deprive or oppress a fellow creature. All must be considered as submerged in the ocean of God’s mercy. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 63.
Baha’is believe that all people are God’s chosen people, regardless of their religion or lack of one. The Baha’i teachings say there is only one God, and that we all worship one God, no matter which religion we profess. The entire human race, Baha’is believe, constitutes the holy people of God:
In every dispensation, there hath been the commandment of fellowship and love, but it was a commandment limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe. In this wondrous age, however, praised be God, the commandments of God are not delimited, not restricted to any one group of people, rather have all the friends been commanded to show forth fellowship and love, consideration and generosity and loving-kindness to every community on earth. Now must the lovers of God arise to carry out these instructions of His: let them be kindly fathers to the children of the human race, and compassionate brothers to the youth, and self-denying offspring to those bent with years. The meaning of this is that ye must show forth tenderness and love to every human being, even to your enemies, and welcome them all with unalloyed friendship, good cheer, and loving-kindness. When ye meet with cruelty and persecution at another’s hands, keep faith with him; when malevolence is directed your way, respond with a friendly heart. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 20-21.
Rather, the purpose of His consummate wisdom was to free the people from the chains of fanaticism which had bound them hand and foot, and to forestall those very objections which today confuse the mind and trouble the conscience… – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 28.
When religious laws no longer serve humanity’s needs, the Baha’i teachings say, we must discard them:
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. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 42.
Next: Is Religion Subject to Change?