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We have lived in the modern era of nations with secular governments for so long that some might conclude nations have always existed—and will exist forever. Not so!
Actually, the concept of a nation was born a little over a thousand years ago, matured and became a reality in the 18th and 19th centuries, and began dominating political life in the 20th century.
Going way back in time, the family, consisting of a mother and father and children, provided the basic building block for society during our ancestors’ existence in caves. Then, at various times and in various places, the breadth of unity expanded as families united into tribes, tribes into villages, then cities, eventually becoming part of empires, and finally expanding and consolidating into nations. This gradual process of ever-larger unities took several thousand years.
All of which raises an interesting question: Were those changes just the result of a bunch of random events haphazardly occurring at different times in different places, or did an evolving, progressive, macrocosmic process down through the eons get us to the point where we are today?
Certainly we have a great deal of proof that human beings themselves developed biologically along a progressive continuum over time. Along with our evolving social order, man also has evolved into the noble creature that now inhabits all the livable continents here on planet Earth. Archaeologists and scientists have found overwhelming evidence that about three million years ago in northern Africa, our ancestors stood up and habitually started to walk around on two hind legs. Those scientists gave the name “Lucy” to the bones that remain from that earliest identified hominid. Amazingly, Lucy was only about 4 feet tall, which raises the question: What were her ancestors like before she decided to stand up?
The Baha’i teachings say that these two subjects—human evolution and the evolution of our systems of governance—follow the same basic pattern of development and maturation:
The aim of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet of this new and great age which humanity has entered upon … is not to destroy but to fulfill the Revelations of the past, to reconcile rather than accentuate the divergences of the conflicting creeds which disrupt present-day society.
His purpose … is to restate the basic truths which these teachings enshrine in a manner that would conform to the needs, and be in consonance with the capacity, and be applicable to the problems, the ills and perplexities, of the age in which we live. His mission is to proclaim that the ages of the infancy and of the childhood of the human race are past, that the convulsions associated with the present stage of its adolescence are slowly and painfully preparing it to attain the stage of manhood, and are heralding the approach of that Age of Ages when swords will be beaten into plowshares, when the Kingdom promised by Jesus Christ will have been established, and the peace of the planet definitely and permanently ensured. – Shoghi Effendi, Summary Statement to the Special UN Committee on Palestine, 1947.
In that light, let’s begin with a few definitions:
- The word nation refers to an autonomous region, sovereign within its recognized boundary, inhabited with people who generally have a common culture, language, history, and willingly agree to abide by the laws of the land.
- The word nationalism refers to the emotion and sense of loyalty that citizens feel toward their country, which is quite often accompanied by the belief that it is better and more important than other nations.
- The word civilization means an organized society with a relatively high level of cultural and technological development, with an appreciation of art, science, writing, reading, and keeping written records.
In 1816, Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., one of the founding fathers of the American Navy, after a resounding and victorious battle off the Barbary Coast, coined the following phrase to express his loyalty to the United States: “Our country! In her intercourse with other nations, may she always be in the right: but our country, right or wrong.”
Since then, many have shortened it to “My country, right or wrong.” This kind of ardent nationalism offers a two-edged sword; on one hand it can bind us together with a sense of commonality, but on the other, it can separate us from people in other nations and become a source of dispute and war between nations—as we’ve witnessed in the last two world wars. The Baha’i teachings speak out against this form of “excessive and narrow nationalism.” Instead, Baha’is work toward:
… a world community in which the fury of a capricious and militant nationalism will have been transmuted into an abiding consciousness of world citizenship. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 40.
In the same way, the Baha’i teachings advocate the unity of the world’s religions, and the recognition of their common purpose. Up until 1844, it was generally recognized that while, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had many similarities, essentially they were separate, stand-alone religions. However, the Baha’i Faith brought a new teaching called progressive revelation, which recognizes the fact that religion, like human or societal evolution, has a history.
Previously no astute religious scholar or historian had ever analyzed all the information readily available in history books, connected the dots, and identified the similarities and the essential connectivity of God’s revealed religions.
With this new perspective, long-familiar historical events reveal their connections and causes. With this new perspective, the year 1844—the year when the Baha’i era dawned—becomes more important as a pivotal time for humankind. Please follow along in this series of essays as we look at prior events to discern a little-known, but important worldwide pattern that led us to 1844; examine a wide range of events from 1844 to the present; and then, with this new perspective, develop a better understanding of the momentous changes that have occurred in the last 175 years and that enable us to optimistically look to the future.